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The Skill Divisions Of Combat-Heavy Game Players
by Ben Ruiz on 10/23/12 12:24:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


(When I refer to "combat-heavy games" in this article, I am referring to any game in which its melee combat mechanics are core to the experience: fighting games like Street Fighter or King Of Fighters, beat 'em ups like Devil Mary Cry or Bayonetta, action-adventures like Darksiders or God Of War, and etc.)

Division 1: "The Scrappers"

The scrappers are the the lowest level player in terms of skill, but this is not a condemnation! They are playing a combat-heavy game for what is arguably the purest reason; just to have fun being violent. They simply enjoy pushing buttons and experiencing a sense of power and impact when they do. Their zone is the quick feedback loop of aggressive burst > defend > move > aggressive burst > defend > move > etc. Essentially, they are the button mashers.

Why should we please them and how do we do it?

It's very very important to please the scrappers because truthfully, most gamers playing combat-heavy games are scrappers. And while they are not taking it very seriously, they are still having a very genuinely good time and they are the division most likely to get excited and tell a bunch of people about it. In order to please them, the mechanics need to look and feel really good so that they are instantly hooked aesthetically. While this is an obvious and universal rule of all action games, it's especially important in more complex combat-heavy games. At best, scrappers don't care about the complexity but at worst it will intimidate them. Hooking them in this manner will help them continue to play the game in spite of its threatening intricacy. But it's also very important that the second tier of mechanics (anything that involves more than just mashing on one of the primarily-used buttons) need to be easy to do AND feel powerful. Ideally, the scrappers get to feel awesome without having to move into the higher levels of play.

Division 2: "The Warriors"

The warriors are the mid level players. They are the ones who will develop enough of an understanding of the combat mechanics to express themselves in interesting ways. They can withstand arduous series of fights because they have the ability to find the key rhythm and stay in it. They play combat-heavy games because they enjoy the nuance and expressiveness of combat systems, and require a certain level of complexity because of it. A very reliable metric of a combat-heavy game's depth is if it holds the warrior's interest.

Why should we please them and how do we do it?

You want the warrior to be excited about the game because their word is meaningful to members of all three skill divisions. In order to please them, the requirements for the scrappers need to met. Additionally, there needs to be enough complexity and nuance that they don't get bored. Warriors play a lot of combat-heavy games so they're very comfortable in the stress of combat, and without a remarkable spectrum of tools to utilize, they will very quickly map out the range of mechanics and become under-stimulated. Warriors are particularly fond of games that have a lot of weapons (mechanic sets) because of the inherent variety, but will be content with games that have a few weapons that are very rich. The caveat here is that while warriors require a certain breadth and depth of mechanics, most of them want to be introduced to them slowly and methodically so they can meticulously construct their vocabulary.

Division 3: "The Masters"

The masters are the highest level player. They're incredibly rare, but they are unbelievable beasts. While the masters also need the scrapper's requirements met, they want what the warriors want as well, but at a much higher level. Their pleasure comes from the rigorous exploitation of the combat systems in order to achieve an otherworldly level of success and expression.

Why should we please them and how do we do it?

In all honesty, it is not important to the short-term success of a combat-heavy game that the Masters are happy. They're so few and far in between that even if the scrappers and warriors cared about their word, it wouldn't make a huge difference in "moving units". However, the master's approval indicates that a combat-heavy game is immensely deep and meaningful. Masters won't even play most action games because most of them simply don't have enough to offer them. Shallow systems negate the value of their commitment levels, so in order to please them a combat-heavy game must be very, very rich. Additionally, the combat mechanics needs to be somewhat balanced against themselves. It contradicts their highly expressive nature to participate in a combat system that is imbalanced by an overpowered mechanic or two. Making sure these players are happy is obviously very daunting, but when done it means a combat-heavy game qualifies for timelessness, which very few of them have done. But it happens; to this day people are still making combo videos for Devil May Cry 3, and it's incredible to watch what masters do within the game's profoundly nuanced and expertly engineered combat system.

On principle, we combat designers should be shooting for this! ;)

Read more articles on action game combat design at:!  

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Jean Auguste
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Hi Ben,

So basically, you aim at being a japanese developer ? Are there any known western developers (Blizzard excepted ---> Diablo 3) trying to reach this level of "not fun" depth ?


Ben Ruiz
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Well I believe that you can have a combat system that is very enjoyable but not very deep. The Zelda games are a good example of this. I think if you're aiming for this then that's totally legitimate but at that point a lot of this doesn't apply.

EDIT - My initial description of a "combat-heavy game" was a little vague and so I changed it.

Andrew Traviss
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Even if "masters" are rare, isn't it always better for longevity to give a game a layer of depth that's beyond what the average player regularly explores? It creates exceptional moments where, as a mid-level player, you might have a flash of insight and use it to your advantage. When that happens it's quite memorable and being memorable is the hardest part of keeping players from losing interest. Even if they will never put in the effort required to become a master, catching occasional glimpses of mastery can be alluring.

I spent a lot of time on Tekken 3, but remained firmly in the "warrior" camp. I played enough that I had built up a limited sense of deeper strategy, though. Sometimes an opponent would make several decisions that played into what I knew really well and for that brief period the game transformed and I was predicting instead of reacting. It's a large part of why I played it for so long.

Ben Ruiz
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It's certainly better for longevity! But longevity is a very distinct property of a game experience that is not necessary for its success. To its value over time, and to its potential brand? Of course! But it's something I believe a designer should aim or not aim for and to be conscious of the ramifications of this.

Personally, I would never design a combat experience and not intend to please the masters. But for those who don't (Sony Santa Monica) I still believe that's completely legitimate.

Andrew Traviss
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I think appealing to masters might be generally more important to indies. Indies usually have to rely on a relatively long tail of sales, and in that case longevity pays off. Each player needs to be an ambassador for your game for as long as possible so that you don't fall below the critical mass that keeps sales rolling through word of mouth.

Ben Ruiz
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@Michael - I totally agree with you. I do believe that if someone wanted to make a super fun but shallow fighter that a lot of of people bought but didn't continue to care about, that would be legit. But since it's not at all sensible to go that route with something as complex as a fighting game we'll probably never see that. Which is probably best. Haha!

@Andres - Very good point! The only time I would find that course of action inappropriate is if making your action game very deep is going to dangerously prolong the development time. But yeah, this is very true about indie games and is something to keep in mind.

Ramon Carroll
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Why not design a combat system that is essentially for the masters, but intuitive and accessible enough for scrappers and warriors to still have a good time? Accessibility with depth.

Ben Ruiz
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That is exactly what I am personally trying to do! I'm trying to consciously design a system that will allow you to be successful with satisfying mashing, but lacing it with systems that encourage exploration and expression. No idea how it's going to work out, but that's definitely the plan! ;)

Simone Tanzi
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This article is about what I think is the golden rule of game design.
Your game should be easy to learn, but hard to master.
Give solid gameplay for every level... make it fun for the beginner, but also make sure that the moment they want to transition from scrapper to warrior and from warrior to master they find a lot of mechanics that you can ignore and still have fun, but if you embrace them they add a lot of depth to the game.
Just make sure that in a player vs player scenario the master gets the cake.
Nothing is worst to an experienced player to discover that hours and hours of perfecting techniques have an hard to time against random button mashing.
A scrapper who meets a master and looses usually gets the drive to become at least a warrior, and get even more hooked to the game.