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The Secrets of Brutality: God of War's Combat Design

To discuss the core of what's important to the series -- not just violence, but accessibility and readability -- and how it has evolved since its inception, Gamasutra speaks to Jason McDonald, lead combat designer.

The combat in God of War is, quite obviously, its most central element. It's not just the focus of the gameplay; it's also where the series has traditionally differentiated itself from competitors, with an emphasis on brutality, lethality, and also entirely different feel and pacing than, say, Devil May Cry, which defined the genre prior to its entrance late in the PlayStation 2's lifespan.

For the series' 2013 PlayStation 3 release, God of War: Ascension, the team is adding multiplayer -- adding several more layers of complexity to the combat design, as players now have to be able to read moves other players use and customize characters with an array of weapons with their own unique move sets. The team is also amping up the series' trademark brutality.

To discuss the core of what's important to the combat -- not just violence, but accessibility and readability -- and how it has evolved since the series' inception, Gamasutra speaks to Jason McDonald, lead combat designer at Sony Santa Monica.

There are things you prioritize when you're making certain decisions about combat, right? What is it that you want the player to do; what you want to communicate. I was wondering if you could talk about it in a high-level way, how you do that.

Jason McDonald: For Kratos, it's always very simple. We want to make the guy feel powerful. We want to make you feel good, as a player, using him. We want him to feel responsive. The moves should be flashy, yet not too flashy. We don't want him doing backflips and doing crazy like ninja-like moves, but things that fit his character, things that fit his power, and make you feel connected to the guy.

So, for the multiplayer, it's pretty much the same rulebook. We want to make sure that they also feel powerful, they feel responsive, they feel it just as good as Kratos. The difference here being is that now they also have to read well to other players, so they can tell what you're doing, so they can counter effectively.

Yeah, that's exactly what I wanted to talk about. You already had to design for readability so the players know what they're accomplishing, but now you have to design for readability so the other players know what's about to be done to them.

JM: Yes, yes.

Is there a balance there?

JM: There's definitely a balance. Kratos is obviously a very overpowered guy. He's got blades that are on fire and are attached to chains. He swings them around like they're nothing. So, it's like that is very intimidating for any character to go against. But it's not something that we ignore in general, because the AI has to have that as well. When the AIs do moves, or the boss does a move, you have to be able to read that, so you can actually avoid it and get the upper hand.

So, a lot of those tropes, or logic, kind of applies to the players as well -- the difference being, of course, that the player will attack much quicker than the AI will, or may be a lot more aggressive. We can't control it. So we have to make sure that even the aggressive player can do moves that feel powerful and have just enough recovery, just enough visual tell, that you can read it, avoid it, and counter it.

How do you feel about things like invincibility frames and recovery? Fighting games are very big on recovery frames, so people have a chance to respond.

JM: Yes, indeed. It's the basic rules, I guess Street Fighter introduced, a long time ago. Where it's like, yeah, you've got quick moves that do a little damage but lower recovery, but you have slow moves that do lots of damage and have high recovery. How can you position yourself so you can actually land the slower attacks? You want to do that. It does more damage.

So, a lot of logic applies here as well, where it's like, "if the player looks like he should be vulnerable, he should be vulnerable" so you can hit, and all that stuff. At the same time, if he is invulnerable for whatever reason -- doing magic or doing something -- we've got to make that tell as well, by either putting some colors on you: make something that's universal, that you can tell where the guy actually isn't going to take any reaction, and he's done.

In Street Fighter, it was when they land. When they land on the ground, you pretty much couldn't hit them anymore. You've got to wait for them to get up, and they have a little get up game. So we kind of think of things very similar, in that line of thought.

What God of War brought was going away from that very speedy, Devil May Cry-ish kind of combat into... I don't know what the word is, even. Like, "thicker".

JM: I understand what you're saying, yeah. Well, a lot of action-adventure games that aren't God of War are very snappy and ninja-like, like you're saying. DMC swings a sword like lightning speed. Bayonetta is the same way. A lot of Japanese games, especially, go with that. Then we have the other style of American games. There aren't that many of them, but some, like Prince of Persia, which doesn't focus on combat. It's a lot slower. But it's also less responsive, because they make other choices.

So, God of War, as you said, to me, has always been a good mix of it's a lot more fluid, it's not ninja-like, and everything feels real brutal and powerful even though it still feels responsive.

I've been with the franchise since God of War and seen that progression from all the God of Wars. So for this one, it's definitely the goal to still achieve that, make sure that the guys don't... Kratos is a brute. He's a warrior. He's not a ninja. He's not an anime character. He's not going to be doing all these crazy moves all over the place. So in order to accomplish that, we have to make sure the moves and everything he does bring that point home.


When you are designing combat for the series, it means you have a balance between making technical, deep gameplay that people play and uncover and strategize, and gameplay for people who just want to wail on something with a big fucking chain.

JM: It's always a tough point that we think about every game, because God of War is very popular. I'm not going to lie; we do get knocked occasionally for being a little too accessible, a little too easy and straightforward. We want to make sure that most of the fans get the experience, no matter what. Our game is not designed to be one that is going to make you cry, beat you over the head, and be like "You die. Back to the start."

It's like we want it to feel good throughout. So we've got to make sure that things aren't too painful or too hard, but there's enough there with your different abilities, different items, different things that you can use for yourself, different moves, and different specials.

With Kratos in particular, in the past, a lot of his moves got the job done even if you didn't explore the depth of his move set. The multiplayer is going to be a little bit different than that, because multiplayer, you're going to have to pretty much know your character a little bit better in order to know how to counter, when to counter, and what to counter with.

Do you give thought into doing alternate weapon sets? Obviously with God of War, you're typically constrained to one weapon.

JM: I know what you're saying, yeah, yeah. It's always that line, where it's like, you want to make things advanced -- and with the Cestus last game, we did experiment [prior to release] with a few things that are a little bit more technical, and stuff like that. But once we simplified it back down, suddenly everyone was raving within the studio. We were like, "Okay." People just want to get it done, sometimes.

And when we released the game, it seemed like people agreed where it was like, "Ah, Cestus feels strong. Cestus feels good." So, the single player component of the game is always one where it's a mix of wanting to learn as much as you can about your character, and stuff like that, but not forcing you to do that. Because most of the fan base is not going to learn everything. You've got to make it work for, I guess, all players.

And then the multiplayer, we're also trying to attempt the same thing in that, even though I mentioned earlier that there's more importance here, in knowing your move set -- because obviously you need to know how to counter and know what to counter with. But there's also things in the level that help balance it out for the guy who isn't going to learn that.

So like in this demo we showed today, we showed a guy pick up a club, which is very strong, and can boot the guys like miles away, out of the arena. We showed traps that they can use to impale guys, and things like that, where it's like if you're not a master of learning the combat system, you can pretty much wrap your head around a giant club that knocks everybody out of the arena.

When it comes to something like environmental traps, or something like that, is that something where you interface with the level designers?

JM: Yes, yes.

It's kind of a cross point between combat and level design, right?

JM: It is a cross. I mean, a lot of our traps that are in there right now were constructed by level design, because they really liked the idea of it. Obviously, they love the mechanic. But we like it too, because it does, again, provide that element where you don't have to know much about your own character to know how to use a trap. You could literally have no moves, no attacks at all, and still be able to operate this trap and get people to tall into it.

So yeah, it's something that is a link between combat and level design, but in all honesty, in multiplayer, almost everything is a link, because depending on their placement, height differences, navigation, climb points, and stuff like that, there's a lot of things that we have to make sure work. Not to mention the camera and everything else involved.

You're talking about accessibility, and sort of being on that line of accessible and deep. Do you have a rule of thumb about how many moves, how differentiated you want the moves, that kind of thing? Some of those other games that we've talked about can have really crazy long move sets.

JM: I guess what we find is that we don't want you to have to memorize. That's a fine line, because, like I said, you do have to remember some things. What I mean by memorize is remembering things like, "Okay, to do this combo, I gotta go Square Square Square Triangle Square Triangle Square" or something like that, where it's like, how are you going to remember this? Who is going to remember this? The only people that are going to remember this are people that are staring at that book, or people who are really hardcore and into it.

So we try to lean against kind of the design that follows that mold. With Kratos, for example, whenever you use Triangle, whenever you do those things, you kind of can anticipate what he's going to do before he does it, even if it's not exactly the same as what you expect. You kind of can anticipate it, just based upon the rulebook that we provide on each of the buttons. So, I think we do a pretty good job of that right now.

Some of the more hardcore things -- which is funny, it may not seem hardcore to a gamer -- but just launching someone is hardcore in God of War, because it's kind of a hidden mechanic. It's like, hold Triangle. Most people don't hold Triangle, so most people don't launch. But the person that's actually looking for a few things like that may find them. We always try to intersperse a little bit of that in the game.


You talked a second ago about trying to set up the control in a certain way so that it's logical what's going to happen based on what the button does, right?

JM: Yes, yes.

Is there a way to lead people into learning deeper combat through design, essentially, rather than giving them a tutorial, or sending them a move list like you talked about? Is there a way to lead people into learning ways to become more proficient as they play?

JM: Yeah, yeah. Most games these days, no one reads the manual anymore. Hardly anybody reads the in-game manual if there is one.

Vita games don't even come with manuals.

JM: Yeah. They just decided not to even ship them, because it's like, no one reads them. These days, a lot of people want to learn by doing. They don't want to have to access a menu to learn everything they can do. They want it to be a little more straightforward, a little more intuitive.

For us, Kratos has always had a certain style of attack per button. L1 and Square has always been slightly radial, and L1 with Triangle has been power -- Triangle itself has been power. So just that link right there, where it's like, "L1 and Triangle, very powerful. Triangle, a little less powerful but still more powerful than Square." Those are the kind of things that you intuitively get, and you don't need to access a manual to remember this. If you want to do that giant plume, you know what button usually leads to that. You'll press it, even though you don't know what exactly he may do in this sequence.

So it's not so much about the intermediate steps as it is giving people some way to understand -- to equate an attack with a button, essentially.

JM: Yeah, yeah. To be honest, games like Street Fighter have been doing this for a long time... I mean, they just have a lot of buttons, which kind of reduces the accessibility, but they have things where it's like a jab or short. It's going to be very similar across the board.

Where they get really different is when it comes to linking based on frames, specials, how to get those off, how to get your super. That's what you're really interested in, at the end of the day.

The various details between the buttons -- I don't want to say they're not important, because they are, in Street Fighter -- but I think the layman can still get the job done just by those tropes and knowing, "Oh, okay. This is a roundhouse. Usually I sweep guys, or trip guys, when I press down and roundhouse. I'll press that. Oh, guess what, I swept them."

Do you have to really concentrate on balance now in a way that you didn't have to before because of the multiplayer?

JM: Definitely. For Kratos, we always try to give him moves where you can link in your combos and things like that, but at the end of the day, we don't care if it's fair for the AI. They're going to get hit like 20 times by this one Square move; so be it. We don't care. But in the multiplayer, it's not so good. One of the first things we did this game was just put two Kratoses in the arena against each other just to see how it works. And yeah, it's like getting hit by a move that does a 20-hit combo on one little press, that's not exactly where it's at in multiplayer.

So we have to find a different way to still give you some satisfying moves that can give you some links and longer combos but present a little more skill to actually get those.

And you have to have an eagle-eye on whether or not things are exploitable.

JM: What's interesting about that, there's games like Street Fighter, very technical, deep game that people still play to this day because of its depth. Then you have games like Marvel vs Capcom which is still really deep, but it's very broken as well. There are a lot of characters in there that are just like vastly better than other characters.

Or, God, there's Street Fighter X Tekken, which has infinites that involve forward, punch.

JM: Exactly. Where it's like, these guys are really broken. But then you just choose guys that are also broken, and everybody just fights broken. So there's a little bit of balance there where it's like, yeah, there's going to be some moves and some abilities, especially the ones you're going to earn in the arena, because those are like the grand equalizers, like I was talking about, where it's like, "Go and pick this up. Anybody can do this." "I know how this works. I don't have to memorize a combo to use it." So, there's going to be a few things in there that are just going to be like -- boom! Knock everybody out.

Kind of Smash Bros-y.

JM: Yeah, it's going to be a little of that. But at the same time, not so random. We don't want everybody complaining about the Blue Shell like in Mario Kart, where it's like, "Ah, damn it. I like racing, and this Blue Shell keeps stopping me." So definitely tuning balance is something that we're really aware of. Everybody in our team, especially the combat team, loves fighting games, loves action/adventure. So a good barometer is us ourselves. If we think it's good, then it's like, "Okay. Does everybody else think it's good?" And we'll just retune.


Do you do external playtests? Because the one danger you can have is that everybody on the team is very fighting game-literate, they may not represent your core constituency.

JM: Agreed. I mean, God of War, one of the staples we always had is we always do lots of external playtests. So it's like, even if we think something is up to par, we still have other people play it. And depending on the response, we may just change things drastically to get the job done.

We're definitely doing the same thing here. Our team is growing, so our team has a lot of potential playtesters in it. But once it gets to a certain level, we're like, "Yeah. Bring everybody else in here, and let's make sure." Because multiplayer games, even Street Fighter, all of them, they get tuned after the fact. Version 1.011.6. Things that we'll re-tune after the masses get hold of it.

It's funny -- it's like one of those jobs that are just never done essentially. You're always trying to make sure everything is balanced and works right.

Now we've been talking mostly about core combat design, but do you also design combat encounters?

JM: I do assist in that. You're talking about single-player, I assume? Like the AI encounters, and stuff like that? The combat team does try to assist with that, but there's other designers that focus on that element.

I was thinking about that thing they showed at the beginning, disemboweling the cyclops. Those kind of pauses for effect, how they affect the nature of combat? Is that something you have to account for when you're designing?

JM: Oh, you're just talking about the length of time that it took for his guts to fall out? (laughs)

Yeah, exactly. Stuff like that. To keep things cinematic, is that another wrinkle in combat design?

JM: Well, it's another balance. I think when you look back on the other God of Wars, a lot of things that make the game separate itself from other games is the focus on those kills, the brutality. In fact, it was always a good sign, or a positive sign for us, when we saw other games that were action games that came out before God of War start incorporating more little grabs and things that they can do inside the combat -- to kind of stick 'em.

So people like that, there's no doubt. And it's always a balance where it's like, "Okay, this is too long. I've got to shorten this." Or, you know, "People are just not going to get tired of seeing this. We want it to be lengthy and be good."

That's interesting. How do you identify what is too long and what is the thing that people never get tired of?

JM: A lot of it is based on feel, ourselves. Like me, as kind of a more hardcore guy myself, I enjoy the quick ones, the ones that are like, grab him, slam him, rip him apart, done. I like those things. But I also like the brutality.

I like showcasing the things where it's like, you ripped off Helios' head in God of War III, it took some time to get the head off, but that extra time made it more gruesome. It made it more brutal, and made you feel it a little more. So, it was worth it to spend that extra time there, because it really showcased what we were trying to show. So, I guess there's no definite rule on what time it would be. It's more based on the scenario, based on how often this happens.

For example, take a cyclops, which might take a long time to take down. Well, based on the length of time it takes to take him down, and the amount of encounters you see this cyclops, maybe you can have a longer finishing kill, because you don't see him that much. But a little grunt guy, or skeleton you see all the time, you can't be killing him for 10 minutes every time.

Striking a balance, that's gotta be the biggest thing.

JM: To be honest, it's part of what makes the job entertaining. You never just take a formula and just abuse it to the ground. Although we start with some rules, we change them as needed for a scenario. And I've been here since God of War 1, and I've seen all the variants so far. It's still entertaining to do my job.

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