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The Design of Combos and Chains

An examination of why combos and chains are so interesting to gamers and game design.

I originally started investigating combos and chains because I wanted to understand why many gamers love combos so much. It's not enough to say that combos are cool. After all, what good is having a critical language if I don't use it to explain things I don't understand? After writing recently on decay and entropy, we now have everything we need to understand the design of chains and combos.

"If you just continue to press the same button like... X X X and Y Y Y and X X and Y Y Y ... you will be sucked" Tak Fuji

First, some clear definitions. I've looked into how the terms "combo" and "chains" are used within the gaming industry, and the examples I found weren't helpful. It seems that both terms are used somewhat interchangeably. The essence of the word "combo" comes from the idea of creating a combination or fusing independent actions into one. The essence of the word "chain" comes from linking together a series of actions in a specific way. Can you see how these terms are different yet can be applied to the same scenario? 

See Street Fighter IV combo video here. 

Street Fighter and many other fighting games feature combos where once started, the opponent cannot do anything to defend or escape until the combo is over. Some of these combos are very short (2 hits) and some are infinitely long. The point is, multiple attacks are functionally combined into one attack because the target cannot do anything to influence the situation at all. But when you think about it, fighter combos like this can also be called a chains because the player is not unleashing all of the attacks simultaneously, rather one after another.


See Tetris Attack chain video here.


Is the biggest difference in how combos and chains are currently used a matter of how much control the player exerts over the game? I say no. The truth is the exact difference is quite arbitrary. Take Tetris Attack or Planet Puzzle League for example. If you manage to simultaneously match 3 or more blocks, you earn a combo (see example here). But if you manage to form matches out of the blocks as they fall you will string together what the game calls a chain (see video above). How is this chaining any different from the combos in Street Fighter? In both games the player has multiple options that are possible within the combo/chain; options that typically decay as moves are linked. And in the multiplayer of both games, the opponent cannot do anything to interrupt the combo/chaining.

We typically don't think of games having combos or chains that are not real-time. In a turn-based game, everything you do on your turn is like a combo or a chain because the opponent can't do anything until your turn is over. But if you think the main difference between a combo and a chain is the amount of time the player has to combine or link their actions, it's easy enough to point out cases like dizzy in Street Fighter. In this fighter, when you attack your opponent rapidly enough with the right series of attacks, they can become dizzy. After the opponent falls over and stands back up in a dazed state there's a small period of time where the attacking player can reposition and initiate a new attack string. The opponent can shorten the time they spend dazed by wiggling the control stick, but all the while they're highly susceptible to any attack. For these cases, the combo count continues to tick upward as long as the attacker continues attacking before the opponent fully wakes up from the dizzy. So in this case the attacker has much more time than usual and the opponent has some control, and yet we all still count this scenario as a combo. 



For our purposes, it would do us good to define what combos and chains are by looking at the amount of player control a player has through gameplay mechanics over the target's ability to counter. Keeping the definitions focused on mechanics keeps the analysis focused on gameplay and interplay rather than worrying about trickier concepts like the intersection of game-time and real-time.  

  • Combo: A group or series of player actions that once the first one is successful, the rest of the actions in the combo are guaranteed or nearly guaranteed, to be successful barring player execution errors and the influence of factors outside of the comboer and the target. Also includes successfully executing multiple actions simultaneously.
  • Chain: A series of player actions that are all successful. Success must be defined explicitly in game terms. For example, hit targets without missing a shot. Also called streaks

 Note: If a game defines combos, chains, or other terms, use their terms. 


The Appeal of Power

In my experience combos are more attractive to gamers than chains, and explaining why gets a bit complicated. A key part of what makes a combo a combo, as defined above, is a dominating amount of control over the target; so much control that the game can cease to have any interplay at all. The target may lost all control and possible interactivity while the combo continues. For those who are familiar with various fighting games, we know that at some point towards the end of a round, once a combo starts it's practically game over for the target as long as the attacker doesn't mess up.

Essentially, combos can turn a very complex and deep gameplay challenge into an extremely one sided event. This very idea is fun to many gamers because it appeals to our intrinsic desire to exert control or power. In general, it's fun when the mechanics in a game help us reach the goal despite the obstacles and contrary elements that are set in our way. By studying combos we know that games are still fun when mechanics practically eliminate those obstacles from consideration; at least in the short term. 


Balance and Player Spotlights

According to Chen's "Flow in Games" article, the sweet spot between too difficult and too easy is a wonderful place to be for a gamer. Through variable, player-controlled gameplay options designed in a risk-reward balance, players are better able to find and maintain their flow zone. But in actuality, there is no sweet "spot" but rather a zone with some wiggle room on both the hard and easy ends. As long as the combo design of a game is balanced with resets and other decay features that prevent severe slippery slopes from emerging, the dominating power shift that players exert when they combo isn't enough to significantly push players out of their flow zone in terms of gameplay difficulty.

It's important to note that staying in one's flow zone isn't all about interplay and interactivity. For games with dominating combos, though the interplay may cease giving all the control over to one player, thechallenge and the engagement doesn't necessarily drop. In fact, they may go up!

For many well balanced games, combos are hard to execute and they only get harder the longer the combo is maintained. This type of balance is the basic risk-reward type. For many fighters, there are variations to combos that require more exact timing, specific knowledge, and refined dexterity to pull off successfully. Sometimes messing up or dropping a combo doesn't just end the one sided run of the offensive player, but it puts that player in a situation where they can be comboed right back. This is why for many real-time multiplayer games that feature combos, it's very important to remain alert even though you may not be able to interact with the game. You have to be ready to take control back if there is even a frame sized gap in your opponent's execution. So despite the dominating control of combos, as the combo is executed gameplay can still maintain a high level of engagement for both the target and the offensive player. 

Competing in most games is a very stressful experience. Staying alert and reacting to every move your opponent makes takes lots of focus. So, earning small one-sided opportunities by using combos is a one way to vary the type of player engagement in a gameplay experience. Combos can provided a breath of fresh air like spectator sport moments in games. When you have control over a target with your combo, the entire game is all about you. How much will you risk? How much can you pull off? You not only look inward to answer these questions, but you also show your opponent and any onlookers just what you're capable of. For these reasons, combos can be like a functional spotlight highlighting a player in center stage. These moments of such clear individual control, execution, and expression are hard to come by in real-time games that don't feature combos. 


Feedback and Counting

Another reason why combos and chains are so loved by gamers is that they appeal to our basic ability to count, recognize patterns, and compress or chunk information into more comprehensible forms. As I've explained in my series The Coefficient of Clean and The Zero-Sum Funomaly, feedback is very important to video games because it's very important to interactivity and learning. Clear and timely feedback for player actions is important. Our minds are limited and our short-term memories quickly fade. So unless we get some good feedback before our minds are flushed, we probably won't remember enough of what we did to recognize critical action-reaction pairs of gameplay. Just think how hard it would be to learn to play a game if you submitted a bunch of inputs with the controller and got the feedback a week later (a.k.a. high school).

When we play many real-time video games, we're locked into a fairly continuous interactive experience. For many games we constantly manipulate the buttons, mouse, analog sticks, or other input devices even when the inputs aren't necessarily registered by the game system (read more on controller design here). Often our inputs result in different gameplay actions which in turn result in many gameplay interactions. Emergent gameplay of this sort is so overwhelming that no one can keep track of it all. Fortunately we don't need to. To play more effectively we focus on what we're doing, what we need to win, and what's trying to stop us. 

The simple act of counting is a part of how we recognize values, patterns, and symmetry. Likewise counting is a fundamental part of making evaluations especially in the quantified-goal-oriented systems that are video games. The learning loop of action-expectation-reaction-confirmation is so fundamental and engaging that we should never underestimate its effectiveness in design. Both combos and chains help players organize and recognize their actions from the ocean of engagement and interactivity that real-time video games can create. Knowing how many hits you've delivered or how much progress you've made keeping a chain going is crucial feedback. We use this feedback to quickly make sense of what happened in the game. Such feedback helps us develop skills and simplify gameplay so that we can understand it more easily. Because, let's face it, unless we gave it serious effort we would probably be completely lost without this feedback. Just try understanding the flow of the battle in this no-HUD Street Fighter 4 match. And knowing that video games are complicated, we could use all the help we can get.  


Final Thoughts

In many ways combos and chains are very similar. They are also possible in gameplay whether the game acknowledges it with clear feedback or not. The dominating control of combos really does make a big difference. Perhaps the biggest reason why gamers love combos is because they're simple. With so much control and comparably few variables to consider, combos give players an opportunity to play very effectively in a simple way. For many games, players can simply go into a training mode and practice combos by commiting the sequences to muscle memory.

Naturally, eliminating interplay (or the target's ability to influence or stop you) from one's strategy makes playing a game much easier. Some love how combos do this, but I prefer games that don't have a strong combo design. When designing a game everything is a balancing act, but combos get special attention because they easily have the power to take the game (interplay) out of the gameplay. Give the offensive player too much control for too long and the negative effects are apparent. Crazy combos can change a deep game (interplay filled/back and forth counters) into a very linear, repetitive, half-interactive experience.

Take note of the list below of fighting games arranged in order of absolute control to no control. With these fighting games, the combo-ability and control is mainly a product of attack hit-stun and move cancel-ability. My preference in the balance between combo-control and interplay falls somewhere between Smash Brothers Melee and Brawl. Anything below this line I tend to like more than games above it. 

  • Street Fighter series. Marvel Vs Capcom series
  • Super Smash Brothers. Soul Calibur 3.
  • Guilty Gear XX. Blaz Blue series. Naruto: Clash of Ninja series. Mortal Kombat (2011).
  • Super Smash Brothers Melee
  • Super Smash Brothers Brawl
  • Wii Sports Boxing
  • Super Monkey Ball 2: Monkey Fight 2.

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