fbpx

Combat Design: A Comprehensive Overview to Creating Satisfying Game Combat

Image26
Picture of Isaiah Everin

Isaiah Everin

Isaiah Everin is currently a Senior Combat Designer focused on enemies and AI working at Crystal Dynamics on the reboot of Perfect Dark. Through out his career, he also worked on titles such as Star Wars: Knights of The Old Republic Remake and various Survios VR games. In his spare time, Isaiah shares his game, narrative, and combat design insights on his YouTube channel and Substack. You can check out his latest enemy combat design series for real-time action games here.

In any game that has it, combat takes up much of the player’s time and attention.

Combat design—and all the drama it creates—is often a game’s main attraction, so the battle systems should be as smooth, precise, and engaging as possible. Almost no one mashes the A button through an intense fight just so that they can skip to the cutscene.

But with fast-paced action, overlapping animations, and complex interwoven systems, it’s easy to run into problems.

The camera might have trouble framing the gameplay scene; enemies can move too fast, hit too hard, or have confusing animations; or an ability that a designer spent painstaking weeks designing and implementing might need to be completely redesigned when playtesting reveals major issues for players.

As an enemy and AI designer on the Perfect Dark reboot, the work involved how and when enemies attack players, the ways they can move inside and outside of combat, how they perceive and react to the player’s various actions and mechanics, how they coordinate effectively with their allies, and so much more!

When it comes to this highly complex and detail-oriented aspect of game design, there’s a staggering array of approaches to solve any problem as well as a great deal of subjectivity in “finding the fun,” but underlying every approach are various fundamental ideas to keep in mind.

So, let’s dive in!

Disclaimer: This is a comprehensive deep drive into this field of design, so feel free to use the table of contents to skip to any section that interests you.

Table of Contents

What is Game Combat Design?

Combat Design is the subfield of gameplay design and systems design wherein designers define a game’s combat mechanics starting with the game’s active elements, including character abilities and attacks, player tools and weapons, enemy archetypes, and AI behavior.

The abstract systems overlaid on the active mechanics follow, such as resource management, progression, and balancing systems.

The breadth and depth of an individual combat designer’s work depends on the project’s scope and the team’s size.

A designer on a smaller team will handle the game’s balance and mechanics across the entire combat space, but a designer on a larger team will likely find their work isolated to just player mechanics design, enemy design, or systems balancing.

So, What Exactly are Combat Mechanics?

In game design, combat mechanics are game mechanics that are part of the playable character’s skills, actions, and weapons the player can control and use to fight enemies and affect objects and environment. Here are some common combat mechanics:

  • Strike causes damage & poise
  • Dodge/evade causes immunity window
  • Block causes damage reduction
  • Parry causes interrupt/counter
  • Enchantment causes damage amplification
  • Apply health potion/ration/medicine causes healing

(Combat action causes combat mechanics)

And, What is a Combat System?

Combat Systems come in many forms, generally encapsulating most gameplay elements that could affect the moment-to-moment experience of the core combat loop.

image4 3
(If you’re unfamiliar, here are examples of 4 types of gameplay loops Alex put together.)

For example, as a designer currently focused on AI and enemy design, I’m responsible for designing…

  • Enemy behavior during combat, including attacks and special abilities
  • Enemy behavior before and after combat (AKA the stealth and awareness loop, which isn’t combat design but flows into and out of it)
  • How to define enemies by their archetypes and inventory

In addition, I’m responsible for collaborating with other core gameplay designers on how the enemies serve as foils to the player mechanics, such as how…

  • Player weapons and abilities can affect the enemies, including hit reactions or unique states
  • Special enemy tools can mitigate the player’s damage or abilities
  • Enemy attacks or abilities can be countered or avoided by the player
  • Specific player actions can be incentivized using telegraphed enemy behaviors

Here’s a more detailed breakdown I made of the various forms enemy attacks can take:

When designing new Combat Systems, a designer aims to answer questions like…

1. What are the core gameplay verbs and structures that the player uses to interact with combat?

Offensive verbs Shooting a gunSwinging a swordCasting a spell
Defensive verbs BlockingDodgingTaking cover

High mobility

Healing

Game combat structure Real-timeTurn-based
Game camera design First-personThird-personTop-down

Side-view

2. What resources or systems constrain the player’s core combat verbs?

Health attrition between the player and their opponent High-damage periodic attacksLow-damage constant attacks…or a mix of the two
Resources that limit player verbs ManaStaminaAmmunition

Cooldowns

Unique resources

Items or tools to modify these resources ConsumablesPotionsBuffs and abilities

3. What forms of punishment or consequences result from suboptimal play?

Hit response systems Hit reactionsHit stunsNon-interrupting damage
Death and revival mechanics Checkpoints and respawningLosing resources on deathLimited lives

Restarting a run

Losing a party member

4. What are the allies and threats that the player faces in combat?

Opponents Player number and structures…        Single-player or co-op        Player-versus-player (PvP)

        Player-versus-enemy (PvE)

Party structures…

        Party-based combat

        AI-controlled party members

Enemy AI behavior Simple behavior with simple attacks        (i.e. Vampire Survivors, Diablo)Simple behavior with complex attacks

        (i.e. Dark Souls, God of War)

Complex behavior with simple attacks

        (i.e. F.E.A.R, Halo)

Complex behavior with complex attacks

        (i.e. XCOM 2, Baldur’s Gate 3)

Enemy power tiers GruntStandardElite

Mini-boss

Boss

Enemy archetypes SwarmerFighter / WarriorHeavy / Tank / Defender

Archer / Sniper

Mage / Caster

Healer / Buff Totem

What Makes Combat Engaging and Intuitive?

The barometer for effective design in game combat is highly dependent on the genre, but some core principles carry over across different types of games.

All of these principles tie to the fundamental role of the game designer on a team: advocate for the player while contributing to healthy collaboration in multidisciplinary development.

How can you make the controls and camera feel smooth and responsive?

It goes without saying that controlling the characters in a game is the foundation of gameplay.

Player combat designers spend an enormous amount of time iterating on inputs and camera systems in many ways more subtle than just “which button activates an attack.”

This includes things like input canceling, defining how different actions blend into each other, refining camera systems, and the way controls connect to more complex interfaces.

Make sure each gameplay tool has a clear purpose

Some games are about lock-and-key gameplay mechanics, and some allow players to express themselves with different gameplay style choices. Whatever a game’s combat approach, the purpose of a mechanic should be crystal clear.

Obviously, dealing damage is nice, but why would a player pick one damage option over another?

Most RPGs build their combat systems around these decisions, and Super Mario RPG even uses color-coded buttons to emphasize the importance of trying out all the available options:

image7 1

Is it because of its stylish animations? Does it allow for different engagement with the enemy? Answering these questions when proposing mechanics in a game design document is critical.

Always communicate the gameplay state to the player

Communicating this “state” is at the heart of all game design.

The essential contract with a player is that the game will give them the information needed to understand it, both as individual actions occur and over the entire duration of their play session. As players and NPCs take actions, everything that happens due to these actions is a form of gameplay state.

These can be short-term states, like…

  • Weapon firing animations
  • Glowing VFX indicating an unblockable attack
  • A hit reaction animation when a character is struck and knocked to the ground

Or they can be long-term states, such as…

  • A health or mana meter
  • A purple cloud of gas indicating a poisoned status effect
  • A menu that identifies and explains the player’s gear and attributes

There’s a lot of room for creativity here—just remember that whatever is happening in the game, it has to be clearly communicated to the player.

Your game’s visual and audio design make it more than the sum of its parts

Past the input and purpose of an action is its presentation.

In a real-time action game, the weight of a claymore establishes its purpose with every heavy swing; a card game can use the clear iconography of a shield to show which card will add to the player’s defenses.

There are decades of lessons to learn from the design languages of animation and interface design.

The most successful games often elevate themselves through animations and interfaces that are both readable AND heavily enhanced with a clear style and memorable game feel.

If you aren’t 100% sure what “game feel” means, you can checkout this game feel guide or watch this GDC talk where Nicolae Berbece thoroughly explores this concept:

Beyond having a great idea, a designer’s true strength lies in their ability to work alongside so many different departments. Everyone’s perspectives all come together to determine how to make the game look and sound great while also providing a coherent and engaging experience.

Can players actually read and learn enemy gameplay patterns?

Lastly, combat doesn’t exist if there isn’t an opponent to fight!

Whether it’s other players or the enemy AI, engaging with opponents is a form of interaction.

For instance, in your average FPS…

  • Animations communicate timing
  • Sound effects and the UI communicate the direction of gunfire
  • Level design paths clarify how enemies move through the space

Enemy design is critically different in PvE games, though. Combat is like a dance between player actions and enemy actions, and the two come into balance by making all considerations of enemy behavior a proper response to the player’s gameplay mechanics and vice versa.

The first step to this is making it clear what an enemy’s actions are, usually with…

  • Easily readable animations
  • Telegraphed gameplay states
  • Consistent patterns of behavior, allowing the player to discover cause and effect and learn how to improve their skills in response

Now, let’s break down how combat design works across some of the most well-known titles in different action game genres.

Your Handy Guide to Action Game Genres

So, there are a TON of possibilities for what a combat designer might work on!

The rest of this article breaks down these concepts into how game designers approach them in different contexts, digging into some of the not-so-obvious details of how game systems are layered to lead to the outcome of the player’s moment-to-moment combat experience.

Classifying combat designs by genre can be daunting, particularly as many games defy traditional genre boundaries or blend genres. To simplify this complex task, we can examine action games and their combat systems based on their overarching combat strategies.

Toward the top of this list are games driven by real-time inputs and animations, usually intended to feel visceral and immediate in some way.

Toward the bottom of the list are more abstract games that let players express themselves through layers of interconnected systems or turn-based interfaces.

Animation-Driven Action Games Dark SoulsDevil May CryHollow Knight

Street Fighter

Super Smash Brothers

First-Person and Third-Person Shooters FortniteCall of DutyDishonored

Helldivers 2

Gears of War

Systems-Driven Action Games DiabloPath of ExileWorld of Warcraft

Final Fantasy XIV

League of Legends

Strategy and Tactics Games Baldur’s Gate 3StarCraftFire Emblem

XCOM 2

Slay the Spire

Hearthstone

Most PvE and PvP action games fit snugly into one of the above categories, even if they borrow some elements from another category. Here are 3 examples of combinations…

  • Hades is fundamentally an animation-driven game, but it borrows elements from systems-driven games and layers them on top of its core combat mechanics.
  • Genshin Impact is actually a systems-driven game, but it uses key aspects of animation-driven games to provide a more visceral game feel and gain broader appeal.
  • Remnant 2 is a third-person shooter in terms of player controls, but it is animation-driven in terms of enemy and boss design.
image18
(Hades uses its upgrade systems to complement and expand on its fast-paced animated combat; they’re the icing on the cake.)

Some types of game combat fall outside of this paradigm, such as Worms, a strategy game that uses game physics, or Hitman, a stealth shooter with immersive assassination mechanics. This paradigm doesn’t define all games, but it does make them easier to discuss in a limited scope.

Also, talking about animation systems in a game like Dark Souls versus a game like Street Fighter is radically different!

While there might be some core shared principles like input responsiveness, the need for hit reactions, or the use of melee damage systems, there are just as many, if not more, fundamental differences in how these concepts are applied.

Therefore, this article will focus on the high-level breakdown of combat systems that can be applied across games, providing examples where needed but not delving into their application in every possible genre or subgenre.

So, How Will Players Control the Game?

Controls and camera are part of the “Three Cs” of player gameplay design and are essential to the entire combat experience.

Due to their importance to the game’s overall feel, player designers who oversee these concepts are usually the more senior members of the team.

First things first…

Let’s talk about input mapping

Identifying which inputs trigger which actions is the first step in input design (though not the last).

The more actions that a game makes available, the more designers must consider the best ways to map them and how to approach mixed button mappings for ancillary actions. Entire articles can be written on just that topic alone.

Still, it often boils down to…

Core actions…
move, attack, dodge
…are mapped to accessible inputs.face buttons, triggers, joysticks
Support actions…heal, switch equipment, select ability …are mapped to other inputs.d-pad, joystick click, button hold
Modified actions…sprint attack, aim and fire …are mapped to mixed inputs.left trigger + right trigger

image3 2
(Kratos from God of War looks like he’s about to map this axe onto somebody’s face.)

The ideal outcome in these games is for the inputs of all of the major and minor actions to become as frictionless and intuitive as possible, with the player not having to stop and think about which button to press mid-combat.

Of course, difficulty and accessibility in real-time action games can be an enormous topic of debate and discussion. Seen through another lens, how deep a game goes with simple and layered inputs can affect a game’s audience appeal to different types of players.

Some recent games (like Final Fantasy XVI) have increased accessibility by making optional modes where the game can automatically handle specific inputs to reduce the controls’ complexity.

Other control options to consider

Controls go beyond input mapping, though. Just pressing a button and having a result is often too simple when the player character could already be in the middle of an attack or hit reaction.

Expanding on these topics would take an entire article, but here are some important considerations for combat inputs.

A significant choice in animation-based action games is whether the player can input cancel.

If the player presses a button for an action while another action is active, will the second action interrupt the first?

The answer to this is rarely felt across all mechanics, with input canceling being the most important when weaving between dramatically different actions. The most common approaches allow players to cancel between attacks, abilities, dodges, and/or guarding actions.

Here’s a frame-by-frame breakdown of each input-cancellable part of just one animation in Worldless:

image30

Overlapping inputs doesn’t just mean canceling, though—we can also modify inputs.

In 3D games, directional inputs can influence how the attack resolves, allowing the player to rotate. In this example, designers must also tune which animation frames the character can rotate and how fast they rotate.

In 2D games, directional inputs often determine the type of action and/or the direction in which the action will resolve. This is what happens when you use an aerial attack while aiming downward in Hollow Knight:

image8 1

Another critical question to answer is how the game will approach input buffering.

This is how the game processes inputs that cannot be executed yet (because the character is already busy) but may be executed at some point in the future.

Some form of buffering is usually critical to make real-time games feel responsive. For instance, when the player mashes the attack button faster than the character can attack, there is usually a combination of buffered and lost inputs, depending on how buffering is implemented.

One of the more extreme examples is in Dark Souls, where attack inputs are buffered for so long that if the player hits the attack button just as their character gets hit by an enemy, they can end up activating an attack after the hit reaction ends.

The long buffers in games like the Souls series and Monster Hunter are essential to their deliberate and slower-paced combat style.

Now, how should you design the interface?

Controls design takes on a different meaning in strategy and tactics games.

Any time the player is controlling multiple units simultaneously or taking complex actions that are broken across one or more turns, the design of the controls becomes part of a larger combined effort between user experience (UX) and user interface (UI) design.

Encapsulating all valid approaches to interface design in more complex games is nearly impossible, as many strategy games have shown in the last decade that there are infinite approaches and permutations when designing gameplay menus or interfaces for combat.

The same fundamental principles as above apply, though.

The most important actions should be front and center, easily accessed, and easily understood. More complex or infrequent actions are more likely to be nested in sub-menus divided by categories or concepts (such as the consumable item menu in a turn-based RPG).

For instance, Abilities, Spells, and Items are unsurprisingly very important in most of Final Fantasy VII: Rebirth’s battles:

image16

Of course, animation-driven action games also have many considerations for how the UI will communicate player combat mechanics—for example, some real-time action games have ability selection wheels or item selection widgets.

A player combat designer in ANY type of game will have to work closely with the UI team to figure out the best way to present information and access game mechanics through a combination of input and interface design.

Here’s How to Design the Player Camera

The camera is technically tied to input design (just as much as every other aspect of combat), but it also requires its own layer of expertise and consideration.

How the player sees the game space is often taken for granted. Of course, the character has to be on screen, and in certain camera styles, the player needs to control the camera’s movement, but making sure that the camera properly supports and frames combat can get quite complex.

Let’s start with some simple game camera examples

Making complex game cameras is a huge endeavor that requires experience and resources.

Most games on smaller budgets stick with standard approaches (or even just make changes to out-of-the-box solutions from existing engine plugins) that might provide fewer subtle elements but get the job done.

First-person cameras are one of the safer modes, given that they put complete control into the player’s hands and don’t require much programming to get right.

Some of the more nuanced questions to answer with first-person cameras are…

  • Will the camera shake?
  • What are the hit response effects (more below)?
  • How will the field of view (FOV) adjust between different attack modes, like ADS (“aiming down sights”)?
image28
(First-person shooters like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 are so closely tied to this type of camera that the whole genre is named after it.)

Third-person cameras come in a handful of more straightforward options, using some basic rules for the player to control the rotation within limits.

The simpler path for these types of cameras won’t involve frequent changes in camera distance, but may lead to more outcomes where the camera intersects with gameplay or level design in ways that aren’t ideal. Players are pretty used to this, though, and can usually adjust on the fly without issues.

However, simple third-person cameras become riskier when combat becomes more frenetic and complex.

If the player regularly has to switch between many targets arranged all around them within the proximity of the camera’s rotation, it becomes more likely that moving characters and actions will start putting the camera in unideal locations. (More issues with this are covered below during Target Prioritization.)

Here’s how locking onto an enemy looks through the third-person camera in Lies of P:

image14

Top-down and side-view cameras don’t leave a lot to explain. Designers generally just have to answer how much of the screen they want the player to be able to see and whether or not any special actions might change that FOV to add emphasis.

There are plenty of tips out there for how to make these camera types feel good in the context of particular games, such as interpolating the camera to follow the character without keeping them perfectly centered, or using camera shakes or other movement to accentuate specific gameplay actions or states.

Top-down cameras also give players a constant bird’s-eye view, which can be helpful in

make it easier for them to keep track of multiple fast-moving enemies, especially in confined spaces.

For instance, this boss in The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past would be considerably harder to manage from a first-person point perspective:

image19

If your game requires more complex camera movement…

The most complex game cameras are almost entirely constrained to third-person games, and much of their complexity lies outside of combat.

For example, a game like Uncharted has a variety of camera styles that support different moments in the game. Sometimes, the camera is fixed to certain angles while interacting with a puzzle or moved along a track as the player navigates a climbing challenge.

Here’s how the team at Sony Santa Monica updated the camera in God of War: Ragnarok to mesh better with the game’s new “deliberate, unflinching” combat style:

The camera in God of War: Ragnarok combines many features with various elements of combat gameplay. For instance, the FoV changes when aiming and attacking, using a special ability, or performing special synced actions like a takedown on an enemy.

The transitions between various states must also be tuned to reduce jarring camera changes. Per the GDC talk above, many other features of player and AI combat also had to be modified to accommodate the specific camera framing the team wanted to use.

Another example is Marvel’s Spider-Man 2, a game in which the player can seamlessly blend complex mobility mechanics and enemy combat with a camera system that complements both. This is the perfect example of how to design the camera to best frame the action while constantly allowing the player to adjust to their preferred angle.

What’s the difference between hard-lock and soft-lock target prioritization?

This topic is most relevant to third-person games. Locking the camera to a target reduces the burden of controlling the camera while performing more complex combat actions.

There are subtle differences in how a lock-on is handled, though, and more refined methods have to integrate with the complex camera methods described above.

The type of lock-on also connects to input and animation design, as it forces the player character into a strafing locomotion set and causes the rotation of their attack animations to align with the target automatically.

But what’s the difference between hard-lock and soft-lock systems?

First, the classic approacha hard-lock camera system does the following:

  1. It puts an indicator on the selected target, which allows the player to switch targets with an input press.
    • It may also automatically switch when a target dies.
  1. It makes the character use strafing locomotion to face the target.
  2. It rotates the player’s attacks to the target.
    • A player can still override this rotation when giving a contradictory input.

image20
(Ocarina of Time created one of the first versions of a hard-lock camera system to help players avoid getting disoriented in the early days of 3D video games.)

While some of the underlying programming approaches are similar (which is too complex to get into here), a soft-lock targeting system does the following:

  1. It sorts nearby combat targets using priority-driven rules.
    • Priorities can change dynamically as the player performs attacks.
  1. It allows the character to move in standard non-strafing locomotion.
  2. It rotates the player’s attacks to the highest-priority target – A player can still override this rotation when giving a contradictory input.

Another point of contrast is that soft-lock-focused games are more likely to have gap-closing attacks that give the player more opportunity to stick to targets—it can almost feel like the player is magnetized to the closest target as the player mashes the attack button.

This is how the soft-lock camera system works in Spider-Man 2:

What about aim assist?

Aim assist is relevant to every camera type, as long as the player has any form of ranged attack where they have to aim. These systems create methods to make hitting enemies with ranged attacks easier, relative to the game’s input system and camera design.

The Heart-Seeking Bow in Hades uses a sticky aim ability to help make sense of its frenzied combat gameplay:

image29

All forms of aim assist (independent of camera style) fall in a spectrum between greatly and minimally assistive.

Some are incredibly “sticky,” almost becoming as powerful as a hard-lock system while effectively functioning the same as a soft-lock one. For example, in Hades, the ranged attack aiming system snaps to the most viable target along the axis of the player’s current aim.

At the opposite extreme is aim-assist in shooters that slightly biases the player’s reticle to a target when using a joystick, which is usually necessary for these games to feel playable with controllers but often disabled when playing with a mouse and keyboard.

This means that aim assist isn’t only a concern for the camera but also for the input systems.

How to Approach Character Archetype and Character Design

The first question to ask when making a game is, “Who and what is the player character?” However, the answer to this can have multiple layers depending on the game’s genre.

First, determine your approach to archetype design

The broader concept of character archetype design lies between character and class design. An archetype defines the higher-level categories in which characters and classes can fit.

(By the way, to clarify character archetypes is not the same as player archetypes (aka different types of gamers), although they’re directly connected.)

The broadest types of archetypes are relatively universal across games, but individual games can redefine an archetype in a specific framework to meet the needs of the game’s design.

For example, a “tank” isn’t a class, and it doesn’t require any one specific ability. The tank archetype captures the concept of “a character who can receive a lot of damage without dying.” From it follow sub-archetypes of tanks, defined on a game-by-game basis.

Tanks in RPGs are often designed to “pull the aggro” of enemies with abilities like taunts. Tanks in PvP games are often given crowd-control abilities to disrupt enemies while being hard to kill.

Here’s a handy breakdown of some particularly common archetypes you’ve likely encountered before, as they appear in Ashes of Creation:

image12

Archetypes have a HUGE influence in co-op and PvP games, as they assist with accessibility and engagement.

Having character designs fall within recognizable patterns helps players identify something they may enjoy in a new game that they also enjoyed in previous games. In PvP, archetypes also help a player understand what to expect from any unfamiliar characters they’re fighting.

Archetypes are a force that both influences a game from the outside and must be influenced by a game from within. The long history of games has given players various expectations for how to control a character or what a character’s abilities will do based on prior experiences.

However, there’s no need to feel trapped by them!

They’re a tool that can make games easier to design when relying on lessons from the past, but tons of successful and fun games also subvert archetype expectations or define entirely new archetypes within their play style.

Next, decide on your character and class design

Some games have a single well-defined character with an epic story, others have a party of characters that are more or less clearly delineated, and some games have abstract characters defined by their mixture of abilities, stats, and player choices.

That last type is especially common in competitive multiplayer games, like Overwatch 2, which is really built upon its selection of memorable heroes:

overwatch 2 hero select screen

A character’s design defines all aspects of a character from top to bottom, generally including their identity and story.

All the attacks and abilities are accounted for, even if there are progression tree choices, multiple weapons, or minor customization. A character’s design can vary between…

  • Single-player action games like Marvel’s Spider-Man
  • Multiplayer character-based games like Overwatch
  • Hero-based parties in games like Marvel’s Midnight Suns
  • Fighting games like Mortal Kombat

Character designs often deeply involve game writers, narrative designers, character designers & artists, and cinematics animators, as the team has to collaborate on EVERY element of the character (including visuals, voice, and performance), both in the gameplay and in the larger context of the game.

Take an iconic hero like Lara Croft.

Each iteration of Tomb Raider makes minor and major adjustments to her appearance, her personality, and the gameplay mechanics she wields in and out of combat. Combat designers working on these characters give and receive feedback across departments constantly.

A class design defines the core principles of a character without locking those mechanics to a specific character.

For instance, every class can use the same core melee attack in Diablo II, but players’ mileage will vary considerably between a Sorceress waving their staff and a Barbarian swinging an axe:

image31

The mechanics of a class may be bestowed upon any playable character in the game, independent of their specific narrative identity.

Additionally, in some games, classes are more loosely defined, either mixed together or created from modular pieces.

Examples of class-driven games include…

  • Souls-likes such as Elden Ring
  • Party-based games like Final Fantasy Tactics
  • MMORPGs like Destiny
  • ARPGs like Diablo IV

Classes are often designed in isolation from the game’s narrative design, but that doesn’t make them irrelevant to the story. Some games force certain characters to be in certain classes and make that part of their identity (like the Dragon Age series).

Classes also often require a larger, holistic view of many interconnecting combat mechanics and systems and how those support each other in terms of an individual character and their synergy with other characters.

Lastly, in a game where the player has only one character, class design requires balancing a much larger variety of player options in every combat context.

This is certainly the case in Dead Cells, as you can see from tab 1 of 4 here:

image23

Not all games have conventional character or class designs, though. A huge exception, for example, is the rogue-lite genre, wherein the main character typically gains an enormous conglomeration of unique weapons, special abilities, and passive modifiers.

Another exception is real-time strategy and tactics games, where the better descriptor is unit design when defining the squadrons or armies of characters that the player controls.

How to Approach Attack, Ability, and Equipment Design

Designing player attacks, abilities, and equipment is one of the most exciting aspects of combat design. Like many of these topics, this type of work is usually owned by the more senior designers on a larger team.

It involves a massive amount of iteration and is the third of the 3 Cs (character, tied to both controls and camera), with every ability having to feel good and work in conjunction with the controls that invoke them and the game’s camera.

Core attacks and abilities are the bread and butter, generally defining the game’s core gameplay loop and core mechanics.

In immersive sims like Prey, some core gameplay abilities provide different functions in combat than outside of itlike the GLOO Cannon, which allows players to slow enemies or create glue platforms on walls, among other things:

image32

In some games, core combat actions can be used for other aspects of the game, requiring combat designers to think more laterally across interconnected game loops. The most obvious examples are basic locomotion mechanics like jumping or sprinting, which can impact the flow and design of traversal.

RPGs like Divinity: Original Sin 2 take similar cues, with special movement abilities like flight that can be used to explore and gain a movement advantage in turn-based combat.

Supplementary abilities may be no less critical to the game, but are mechanics that the player is usually less likely to describe when talking about their experience of the game.

For instance, healing is essential to most games with combat, but healing abilities are rarely the flashy or exciting part that attracts a player to the game. Generally, less time and energy goes into developing these mechanics, but a game would fall apart without them.

image9 1(Refillable healing items like Dark Souls III’s Estus Flask are an essential part of most Souls games.)

Often, core abilities and supplementary abilities are also equipment-dependent actions, meaning that specific items or tools are tied to the action.

Sometimes, equipment is modular, and the player chooses what to use, such as the rapier or mace in Lies of P providing different options for melee attacks. In other cases, the equipment is fixed, like the flashlight in Alan Wake, an essential tool for weakening enemies before shooting them.

Horizon Zero Dawn has exceptionally well-integrated modular equipment, as it manages to completely smooth out the experience of switching between bow and melee combat while trying to outmaneuver a fast enemy:

image6

When abilities are tied to specific equipment, designers have to work with a combination of game artists and game animators to contextualize the action. The complexity of this depends on the usage of a tool.

For instance, when designing a bow for a game like Horizon Zero Dawn, there are considerations for (among others)…

  • Input (firing)
  • Camera (aiming)
  • Locomotion (how the character moves while aiming)
  • Prop design (how the bow and arrows interact in the character’s hands or are stowed on their body)

Lastly, this is all linked to the systemization of mechanics in itemization design, progression design, and balance design.

Combat designers may be more or less involved in these factors, depending on the game genre and team size.

To take on this work, other systems designers might be responsible for extending and managing the more passive properties of abilities and equipment, meaning there can be a fuzzy line in the job title here.

These properties can include…

  • The gear rating
  • Special effects
  • Attribute values
  • Skill trees
  • Leveling systems
  • Item shops

(Check out this article on systems design for more context on how detailed those ideas can get on their own.)

Diablo IV’s progression tree is a visually intuitive example of how character progression in many RPGs is closely tied to itemization (when items have specific stat/class/skill requirements) and balance (as some paths tend to yield stronger characters):

image15

Either way, it’s worth acknowledging that the core skills for developing abilities and actions don’t necessarily carry over to those for thinking through a game’s more mathematical or categorical systemization.

For instance, sometimes, with card games, one designer might work on the initial design of what the cards do mechanically while another designer is responsible for ensuring that all the cards are balanced and play well together.

As another example, in an animation-driven RPG, some designers will focus on the weapon attacks, spells, and core combat mechanics, while others focus on the attribute design, level-up mechanics, and stat scaling for weapons and armor.

How to Create Refined Player Combat Animation

The design of combat animations can vary greatly depending on the game and team.

Sometimes, designers consult primarily through high-level design and feedback for animators; sometimes, they’re bigger stakeholders in defining details and metrics for combat animations. This all comes down to the individuals involved and the team’s culture.

The creation of combat animations can take many forms, depending on the game’s visual style.

Games with humanoid enemies often rely on motion capture to define core combat actions (varying in fidelity depending on the capture method). This mocap data usually must be cleaned up and modified after the fact to polish it, inject more style, and allow for heroic movements that real humans aren’t capable of.

Here is an example of mocap from God of War: Ragnarok:

The other approach is hand-keyed animations, usually required for monsters and quadrupeds, though sometimes used for humanoids in highly stylized games. (Though, there are some funny videos of Capcom animators using mocap suits for the creatures in Monster Hunter.)

The critical thing for a designer to understand about this collaboration is that it’s executed in phases.

Block-Out Animation

In this phase, the animation should be as rough as possible, often just stepped keyframes or several rough takes of mocap to choose from.

The idea is for the designer to have something to experiment with to demonstrate the attack within all the other gameplay and input systems that make it possible. Ideally, this leads to a back-and-forth between the designer and animator to align everyone on how this action should generally play out and feel to control.

This blocking tutorial starts out with some simple block-out animation:

The amount of time spent here depends on whether the game is in the early production phases (prototypes) or further along (alpha), with more time likely to be spent earlier as the team figures out the game’s identity and style.

This is the period to feel free throwing an animation away that just isn’t working—a team might well throw out more player attack animation ideas than any other type of animation in the game!

First-Pass Animation

This is the phase in which the animation should fully represent the game’s style. The designers refine the feel of the action in the gameplay’s context, and the animators refine and flesh out the full extent of the animation.

Here’s an example of first-pass animation from Mathias Takacs:

Video from: https://www.squashandstretch.org/projects/OywZAe?album_id=1673637

Vimeo embed code: <iframe title=”vimeo-player” src=”https://player.vimeo.com/video/319916016?h=7677622a13″ width=”640″ height=”360″ frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen></iframe>

Block-outs are replaced with fully interpolated animations, or rough mocap might be replaced with a final higher fidelity capture. Designers improve input timings and flows, using other team members or external resources to playtest the game and identify what’s working.

This is also the step at which designers collaborate with VFX and SFX artists to make the animations shine.

While the audio-visual experience of attacks is multidisciplinary, it’s not uncommon for senior designers to be the glue that brings the team together under a shared vision.

Design, animation, and VFX leads will guide the holistic vision, but individual combat designers still have to contribute feedback, identify and reinforce key standards, and communicate technical workflows for making all the pieces of the animation come together.

It’s still possible for actions to be cut from the game at this phase if they aren’t working with the overall design, especially when some animations must be brought up to this quality during late prototyping into early vertical slice before the game has found its full identity.

Polished Animation

That already sounded like a lot, but there are still the finishing touches! And because these are player gameplay actions, these animations will likely require the most polish.

Polished animation looks more like Avery Adams‘s work on Spider-Man 2:

https://x.com/Adams_Animator/status/1776205056548929743

It is important to realize that the game’s style should come through in the PREVIOUS step, not just in this final step (though an explanation of how to pull this off has more to do with animation and VFX principles than game design).

The point of this step isn’t to make the animation something worth showing; it’s to push the animation to the limit of what the team’s talent offers. Some animations will be determined to be less important and see less attention at this phase.

What “animation polish” means can be vague and sometimes outside the combat designer’s influence. Depending on their level of expertise, the designer could play a key role in giving granular feedback to animators and work closely with them to polish things.

Most of this feedback will come from lead animators in more animation-driven studios. However, sometimes, a team doesn’t have the experience, resources, or even interest to push as far in fidelity as the most expensive games out there.

Whether the animation is “finished” is thus defined on a team-by-team basis, but wherever that bar is, the designer should help communicate and reinforce a clear standard and see the animation through to completion.

How Do You Balance a Combat System?

Past the core player verbs and the systems that make those verbs possible, there are all the supplementary systems layered on top of combat. Even if a combat designer doesn’t always work directly on these concepts, they will always have to collaborate with other designers who do.

Consider how the game manages health and resources

There are many layers to health and resource design in action games.

Core health and damage systems include how health works, how damage can be applied, and necessary intermediary systems (like a health pipeline that accounts for other gameplay attributes or modifiers when processing damage).

Secondary health systems include shields, armor, active healing, or passive health regeneration.

Parry, guard, or stagger systems interact with other health and hit reaction systems.

Gameplay resources include stamina, mana, ammunition, and more.

And all of these resources, in turn, tie to gameplay attributes and balance…

Decide how attributes and stats affect gameplay

Whether they’re exposed to the player or not, most games have some form of character attributes that define things like health, damage values, and more.

A stripped-down game might have flat values throughout the experience, but most games with combat scale these up—even with something as simple as getting the heart containers in The Legend of Zelda:

image25

Exposing those values to the player can happen through a handful of paths.

Per the sections above on player abilities and equipment, itemization can be a way to allow players to determine their stats to some degree.

In the simplest form, different weapons can determine things like attack speeds or projectile properties. At the most complex level, itemization may have randomization, complex layers of progressive stats, or significant customization through crafting.

Next, progression design is the core to evolving attributes over time.

Whether it’s a skill tree, an attribute upgrade menu, a crafting system for improving weapons, or a higher-level evolution of a unit, progression is the key to giving the player a sense of forward momentum and reward for their investment.

Finding the perfect gameplay balance

Everything listed above must also be balanced, whether for PvE or PvP experiences.

Balancing accounts for making the game feel fair, making the player feel a sense of power progression over the course of play, and making a variety of play styles feel viable within the overall game design.

How Will The Game Handle Hit Response and Hit Reaction?

If losing health is the long-term attrition that can cause a player character the ultimate punishment of being killed or knocked out, then hit responses are the moment-to-moment punishment that can disrupt the player by giving impactful feedback.

Think about how animation-driven hit reactions will work

Explaining the use cases and nuances of all the various approaches to animated hit reactions would fill an article as long as this one! It’s hard to give any kind of brief overview for such a shockingly deep topic.

Luckily, for most individual games, a designer only has to think through a handful of key principles and can easily find references out there for the best versions in a given sub-genre.

The important thing to know is that hit reactions serve multiple potential goals, and they don’t always just boil down to “giving clear hit feedback.” These include…

  • Determining the pacing of combos, including both the windows of opportunity for the attacker to continue a combo and the ways in which a defender can break out of combos
  • Things that can limit or change hit reactions, including things like super armor, stagger meters, poise, i-frames, and guarding
  • How hits can interrupt various gameplay states, and which states are impacted
  • How hits can cause movement through the world, such as knocking characters into the air or off the ledges
  • And more…

image13 1

(An example of a hit response animation in Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!)

But don’t forget about the other forms of hit response feedback

Other aspects of hit responses are not quite as varied as the styles of reaction animations, but they are much more critical in action games that aren’t animation-driven. These include things like…

  • Health UI and interface design
  • Directional hit indicators that inform where ranged or melee attacks came from when off-screen
  • Full-screen visual effects for player hits, including flashes, overlays, or screenshakes related to different kinds of incoming damage
  • Melee and projectile hit impact VFX determined by the hit material, including unique effects like when an attack is blocked or shielded

Artists in other departments usually own the final product of these concepts, but combat designers are often deeply involved in defining the initial principles that drive these concepts.

What About Your Enemy Archetypes?

Enemy design is a more focused combat design role, with larger teams frequently having at least one dedicated enemy or AI designer.

Like the player character design defined above, enemies are often defined by the roles or archetypes they bring to the table in larger encounter groups. The exception is boss design, which can leverage known archetypes but usually becomes radically more complex and specific (and sometimes, this is an entire job on its own).

Here are some common enemy archetypes

This is just a simple list of archetypes across action games, but the specifics would require a deeper dive and be informed by game genre.

Grunt Archetypes Melee GruntRanged GruntSwarmer

Suicide Bomber

Melee Archetypes WarriorBruiserShielder

Assassin

Duelist

Ranged Archetypes GunnerSniperMage

Grenadier

Flamethrower

Turret

Support Archetypes Buff TotemHealerSpawner

How Will Enemies Behave and Attack?

The archetype of the enemy only sets the outline for its behavior and attacks. More definition comes through the specific type of game.

This section will only touch on the highest level of behavior and attack design. Future articles may dig into more detail.

To start, I made this breakdown of melee and ranged attacks in action games:

Here’s how to lay out simple real-time combat behaviors

Animation-driven action games (other than fighting games) and systems-driven action games usually have pretty simplistic combat behaviors.

They generally boil down to…

  • Target the player
  • Stay within your character’s attack range
  • Attack as frequently as cooldowns and the combat manager (if present) allows

There can be more subtleties, such as dodging, blocking, or performing incredibly specific sequences of grandiose attacks, but even these are typically easy to define in terms of AI behavior.

On the other hand, attacks in these games vary from the simplest to the most complex possible in gaming.

Getting into the depths of the whole spectrum here would take an article of its own, but compare a grunt enemy to something like Elden Ring’s infamous Malenia boss battle, and the possible depths become obvious:

Next, you can layer on complex real-time combat behaviors

First-person and third-person shooters often have much more complex enemy AI behaviors, like taking cover, flanking a target, and (especially in stealth games) flowing between combat and search behaviors.

Attacks in these games, however, are usually pretty simple!

Given that these games often have more enemies attacking at a time, usually with projectiles or hit-scan weapons, it becomes difficult for players to track most individual enemies. Attacks vary enormously in presentation and mechanical impact, but they’re often quick and readable.

Like everything, these contrasting approaches lie on a spectrum with many exceptions (such as Doom Eternal being a shooter with simpler AI behavior but more complex attacks).

Games with simple tactical combat behaviors are a different story

Some tactics and strategy games have incredibly simple individual unit behavior, requiring the player to piece together combat more like a puzzle or a string of refined but basic interactions.

Usually, these type of game’s depth and complexity arise from highly elegant interlocking mechanics that reduce chaotic possibility spaces but increase the player agency and intellectual requirement of thinking through moment-to-moment decisions.

Examples of this include Into the Breach, Slay the Spire, and Marvel’s Midnight Suns. Most units in games like this have a very small and predictable list of behaviors and attack options, operating more like pieces on a chess board than units in an army.

As for complex tactical combat behaviors…

Incredibly deep tactics and strategy games, on the other hand, can require very complex AI design.

As the number of mechanics available to the enemy AI increases, so do the requirements for defining the rules of using those mechanics optimally to give the player a suitable challenge. These often also have to be tied to difficulty systems that can increase the number of “mistakes” an AI unit might make over time, giving the player more or fewer openings.

The first main example is real-time strategy games like StarCraft 2 or Total War. These can have simple units, but the AI opponent is meant to perform like a player controlling an entire army in more complex ways, which abstracts the nature of an AI opponent to a larger scale.

The second main example is turn-based strategy games like Divinity Original Sin 2 or XCOM 2—just look at all these options the latter offers you with each encounter:

image22

In these games, there is an enormous possibility space for individual unit actions, including movement, defensive mechanics, reactive mechanics, and environmental interactions. Individual AI units must be given lists of logical rules prioritizing actions in certain contexts.

And it’s still hard to design these games to be difficult for the highest tiers of players because making AI that can respond as creatively as a human player is impractical, if not impossible.

Funnily enough, though, every type of game described in this section on enemies primarily increases difficulty through scaling up enemy damage and health values rather than by radically changing the AI behavior or attacks.

If You Made It This Far, You Should Have a Good Understanding of Combat Design

Whew! That is a LOT of types of gameplay systems.

It’s wild that, on some smaller teams and earlier in the industry’s history, a designer might have to consider every single thing listed on this page! And all in far more depth than can fit here. No wonder the more complex action and strategy games are made by bigger teams.

Combat design, like any core gameplay design role, is a role of wearing many hats and collecting numerous forms of expertise.

Above all, though, what’s most important is knowing how to collaborate closely with a huge number of individual contributors and help inform a cohesive vision for any combat gameplay system!

You might have many awesome ideas and creative solutions, but most of them are probably not possible without relying on many other interwoven features of art, animation, and programming.

To wrap up…

Here are Some Resources to Help You Learn More…

That’s it.

And I would love to hear from you!

So don’t hesitate to comment below, if you have any questions about combat design or feedback for this guide. 👇

Join the Funsmith Tavern to get exclusive game dev tips that I don’t share anywhere else

Each Friday, get a shot of 2-min TL:DR update in your inbox on the latest
Actionable tips, templates, or in-depth guides by game dev experts
— Entry-level Game design job listings(+ playtesting and internships)
— Private community workshops, events, and discussions

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The Funsmith Tavern

Weekly Game Design Newsletter

Level-up your game design knowledge, skills, career, and network

Each Friday, get a shot of 2-min TL:DR update in your inbox on the latest

All tactics. No fluff. Pro advice only. Unsubscribe any time

Get Exclusive Game Design Tips that I Share Only with Funsmith Tavern Subscribers

Weekly Game Design Newsletter

Level-up your game design knowledge, skills, career, and network

Each Friday, get a shot of 2-min TL:DR update in your inbox on the latest

All tactics. No fluff . Pro advice only. Unsubscribe any time

EXPERIENCE & BACKGROUND:

[STUDIO] Blizzard Entertainment: Content, mechanics, and systems designer

(Creator of Apex Legends & former Creative Director at Respawn)

[GAME] World of Warcraft: MMORPG with 8.5 million average monthly players, won Gamer’s Choice Award – Fan Favorite MMORPG, VGX Award for Best PC Game, Best RPG, and Most Addictive Video Game.

  • Classic:
    • Designed Cosmos UI
    • Designed part of Raid Team for Naxxramas
  • Burning Crusade:
    • Designed the raid bosses Karazhan, Black Temple, Zul’Aman
    • Designed the Outlands content
    • Designed The Underbog including bosses:
      • Hungarfen, Ghaz’an, Swamplord Musel’ik, and The Black Stalker
    • Designed the Hellfire Ramparts final bosses Nazan & Vazruden
    • Designed the Return to Karazhan bosses: Attumen the Huntsman, Big Bad Wolf, Shades of Aran, Netherspite, Nightbane
  • Wrath of the Lich King:
    • Designed quest content, events and PvP areas of Wintergrasp
    • Designed Vehicle system
    • Designed the Death Knight talent trees
    • Designed the Lord Marrowgar raid
  • Cataclysm:
    • Designed quest content
    • Designed Deathwing Overworld encounters
    • Designed Morchok and Rhyolith raid fights
  • Mists of Pandaria: 
    • Overhauled the entire Warlock class – Best player rated version through all expansion packs
    • Designed pet battle combat engine and scripted client scene

[GAME] StarCraft 2: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[GAME] Diablo 3: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[GAME] Overwatch: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[GAME] Hearthstone: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[STUDIO] Riot Games: Systems designer, in-studio game design instructor

(Former Global Communications Lead for League of Legends)
(Former Technical Game Designer at Riot Games)

[GAME] League of Legends: Team-based strategy MOBA with 152 million average active monthly players, won The Game Award for Best Esports Game and BAFTA Best Persistent Game Award.

  • Redesigned Xerath Champion by interfacing with community
  • Reworked the support income system for season 4
  • Redesigned the Ward system
  • Assisted in development of new trinket system
  • Heavily expanded internal tools and features for design team
  • Improved UI indicators to improve clarity of allied behaviour

[OTHER GAMES] Under NDA: Developed multiple unreleased projects in R&D

Game Design Instructor: Coached and mentored associate designers on gameplay and mechanics

[STUDIO] Moon Studios: Senior game designer

(Former Lead Game Designer at Moon Studios)

[GAME] Ori & The Will of The Wisps: 2m total players (423k people finished it) with average 92.8/100 ratings by 23 top game rating sites (including Steam and Nintendo Switch).

  • Designed the weapon and Shard systems
  • Worked on combat balance
  • Designed most of the User Interface

[GAME] Unreleased RPG project

  • Designed core combat
  • High-level design content planning
  • Game systems design
  • Game design documentation
  • Gameplay systems engineering
  • Tools design
  • Photon Quantum implementation of gameplay

[VC FUNDED STARTUP] SnackPass: Social food ordering platform with 500k active users $400m+ valuation

[PROJECT] Tochi: Creative director (hybrid of game design, production and leading the product team)

  • Lead artists, engineers, and animators on the release the gamification system to incentivize long-term customers with social bonds and a shared experience through the app

[CONSULTING] Atomech: Founder / Game Design Consultant

[STUDIOS] Studio Pixanoh + 13 other indie game studios (under NDA):

  • Helped build, train and establish the design teams
  • Established unique combat niche and overall design philosophy
  • Tracked quality, consistency and feedback methods
  • Established company meeting structure and culture

Game Design Keynotes:

(Former Global Head of HR for Wargaming and Riot Games)
  • Tencent Studio
  • Wargaming
  • USC (University of Southern California)
  • RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology)
  • US AFCEA (Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association)
  • UFIEA (University of Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy)
  • West Gaming Foundation
  • Kyoto Computer Gakuin – Kyoto, Japan