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Intelligent Brawling

February 19, 2009 Article Start Page 1 of 6 Next

[How do you make a great third-person brawler? THQ's Smith cross-examines titles from God Of War to Ninja Gaiden and beyond to analyze the hot genre, in an article originally published in Game Developer magazine late last year.]

Often the hardest part of game development is taking the time to pause, reflect, and determine what is and isn't working. One of the best tools for this analysis is looking at what other similar games are doing.

Too many games are developed with blinders on, and the developers only look briefly and casually at previous titles in the genre. There are countless lessons sitting out there, waiting to be learned.

I'm a creative manager at THQ, so it's my job to help external developers make their games more fun. CMs work with project managers who make sure things get done on time and manage everything else-we creative managers are pure quality control. I recently worked on the next-gen third-person swords-and-sorcery Conan game with the talented folks at Nihilistic.

Let me take you back to about a year before launch. Development has been going well: The controls are fun and easy to pick up, there are plans for lots of unique content, there's a first playable that people enjoy, and everyone's excited about the promise of this title.

But around the time of the first playable (aka vertical slice, aka razor edge), I'm becoming more and more aware that our AI is not really there yet. This is no big surprise, since it's early, AI is hard, and these things take time, but I wanted to give Nihilistic some clear, detailed feedback on what they could be doing to make it better.

I wanted to be very certain that the changes I suggested would be actual practical needs, not just theoretically good things. For example, I'd been asking for good gating - different ways to keep the player from running past enemies without fighting them.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that many games do fine without good gating. I flew through the last half of Halo 2 without firing more than a few shots. I wanted to find out which things really matter. And luckily, I had a little bit of free time, so I went to the source to do a little research.


I picked out some of the top games in our genre, and loaded them up. Title selection was somewhat erratic, based on what I had lying around, but I made sure to include a few well-reviewed commercial failures like Mark of Kri. Those games often have the best ideas to steal. Most - but not all - were games I'd played previously.

A few games that I tried were too far out of my genre to apply. For example, the fights in Spartan: Total Warrior were just too big, with dozens on each side. Heavenly Sword came out after the analysis for Conan, but was added after the fact.

In each case, I would get to the first significant combat encounter that had at least three enemies active at once. I would play this encounter repeatedly, spending most of my time doing nothing but holding down block so I could just watch the enemies and how they acted.

For a few of the specific questions, I needed to move around or attack or otherwise break from block. And with some games, I would go a few more encounters in, especially if I knew major new combat concepts were added fairly soon.

Yes, this is not how most players play. But I wanted to distill the AI down to its simplest, most repeatable state. To balance the block-focused bias, I made sure to also spend some time using normal blocking and attack strategies to see if the AI changed radically.

In a game without block, I'd suggest finding another repeatable strategy that lets the AI (or whatever is the subject of testing) do its thing without the interference of constantly being damaged or killed.

I came into the tests with a list of questions based on my previous experience and my concerns on my current title. As I played, I developed a few new questions and had to go back to previously played games to see how they handled those situations. All process is iterative.

Attack Groups

Questions: How many enemies fight the player at once? How do they organize themselves around the player?

God of War (PS2): Enemies fall into clearly two separate groupings-a close group within a weapon's reach of the player character, and a far group a few meters away. All attacks come from the close group. With zombies and harpies, the close group is limited to three enemies at a time. I sometimes can get four near, but it corrects itself quickly in that case. The far group contains 12-15 enemies.

Enemies cycle from close to far fairly regularly, possibly on a timer, possibly just as a side effect of natural movement-hard to tell. Enemies in the far group pretty much just stand there, only switching to the close group if a gap appears.

Mark of Kri (PS2): Two groups, a near group and a far group similar to God of War, but the near group is only one enemy at a time. The far group contains about three enemies in these early encounters.

The near enemy stays near for a while (up to a minute) and makes multiple attacks with time gaps between. Then he goes back to the far group and someone else takes his place. This change of guard normally feels organic, because players tend to move and thus approach enemies in the far rank, giving that enemy an opportunity to switch. But even without movement, the change still happens, just in a less organic manner.

Occasionally, one enemy from the far group makes a charging attack even while someone else is in the near group-this is just a single attack, after which he returns to the far group. This charge can also be used as a way to enter the near group when the near group is empty, settling into the normal pattern after the charge ends.

Genji (PS2): There's just one far mass of enemies, relatively far from the player. Not too many enemies in this group (3-5), at least at the start of the game. One enemy chooses to approach from that group, and then he walks slowly towards the player character. Once he is near the player, he makes one attack (multiple attacks for special enemies), then walks back to the far group.

Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones (Xbox): There is just one group of enemies fairly near the player. One enemy chooses to attack, makes a single attack or a combo, and then goes back to the group. Enemies usually come in fairly small groups; about three enemies at a time.

Ninja Gaiden (Xbox): There is one group of enemies, usually three or fewer at a time. One enemy chooses to attack, makes a single attack or a combo, and then goes back to the group.

Heavenly Sword (PS3): There are more enemies than most games-up to 20 at a time-but still grouped in a near set and a far set like many of the other games. The near group is at most four enemies, and enemies in the far groups can still attack.

The positioning, especially in the far group, is widely varied, with enemies appearing more like a jumbled mass than a clean circle. This variety feels good and makes the grouping less obvious without confusing the player, since the near group is usually clearly defined.

A screenshot is taken from the old build of Conan, showing the inner and outer rings where the AI position themselves. In later builds, enemy position on each ring was more varied.

Conclusions: The solutions used here are more varied than I expected. All the games group their enemies into one or two groups around the player character, but how the enemies attack from their groups varies a lot from game to game.

Prince of Persia and Ninja Gaiden both keep enemies in a single group, with one enemy breaking from the group to make a single attack. This works well with smaller groups, but for our game, we want over a dozen enemies at once, so we need to spread them out more if we're going to fit everyone.

Mark of Kri and Genji felt a bit artificial, because one enemy from the group would call the player character out for multiple attacks while the others watched. Genji could at least argue that the pattern fit the dueling style of the game. I did like the surprise attacks that Mark of Kri added from the far group-it made those distant enemies much more meaningful. The player has to keep half an eye on the outer ring at all times.

But overall, God of War and Heavenly Sword had the best feel. Having multiple enemies near you keeps things on edge and makes it harder for the player to tell what to expect next-which was reassuring, since that was the basic direction we were already considering.

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Ninja Gaiden is the best third person action game in my opinion. The taking a lot of hits thing was in a way wrong for NG though because most enemies can be killed rather quickly (humanoids) in as little as one hit if you just know how to pull it off. Of course some of the larger enemies take a ton of hits on master difficulty though. Also many of the enemies are able to do complex jumping to get past platforming obstacles and continue to follow you. As far as gating is concerned I think it should be very limited because it turns the game into a one trick pony of just action whereas if you leave it up to the player they can do what they feel is right for any given situation.

Meredith Katz
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I loved this article. Amazing work with comparative analysis -- I'd love to see more that break gameplay trends down like this.

Eddie Vertigo
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Terrific article! These are the kinds of things that improve gameplay for future games. Breaking things down, inserting thoughtful opinions, and an overall sense of curiousity are more of what we all need to improve video games.

Michael Eilers
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One brawler that is always overlooked is Bungie North's title Oni, which (IMO) featured some of the most realistic and involving group fights I've ever experienced. I encourage everyone to dig up a copy of the game and try it out; I spent some time at Bungie North HQ during the development of the game and saw the design process in action, and there were some very smart decisions made in AI behavior that are quite subtle and fun.

David Moreau
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Having just picked up Conan, I have to say that I enjoyed it a lot more than Devil May Cry 3 and God Of War, which this game is clearly derivative of. Conan was more focused. There was no tedious backtracking like DMC, and the game didn't suddenly switch genres midstream like GOW did.

The combat felt a lot better in Conan. You can tell a lot of work went into it. I liked that as you progressed the newer enemies would mix their strategy up, and they would seem difficult to overcome until you learned what their specific combat weakness was.

The puzzles were great because they were designed to just give you some gameplay variety, instead of stumping you for 20 minutes.

However, the boss fights were too long and tedious. You get sick of them by the end of their second part, and there is 5 more parts to go! Boss fights should not be 20-30 minutes long.

I think this game failed at retail because

1) It was obviously a GOW clone. To claim otherwise is simply silly, as it had cloned almost all the gameplay mechanics down to the point where it feels like GOW with an IP change.

2) It was initially priced too high. Now that it's in the 9.99 bargain bins, there is more activity around the game's sub-forums on various gaming sites. People are realizing it's a great game, and saying it's a shame that it was such a money loser.

But who would buy this at launch price? It's a game with less than a dozen hours of content with 0 replay value, and it's priced the same with other games that offer much more value. So it's going to get passed up over and over again.

This is the type of game you play over a weekend, and then never touch again. It should have been priced accordingly.

Jeremy Jordan
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Conan is great reference for anyone making a good action brawler. It did borrow some things from GOW but there were several great AI/combat mechanics I've noticed they did really well, definately stuff everyone should check out if they haven't already.

Most of the AI didn't interrupt in the middle of the player's attacks making each hit feel great. This can make most games feel easy but Conan still provided a great challenge. There was this great "back and fourth" style combat I like to call it I haven't seen from other great brawlers. You can tell the windows to attack for the player and AI were really tight and kept the player engaged through each enemy you'd face.

Compared with GOW, I noticed most enemies attacked when they wanted no matter what combo I used. Felt a bit tacky, like the AI was on a timer and when it dinged its going to do what its going to do regardless of the player's actions.

That's just one example but definately lots of great stuff in Conan.

Nestor Forjan
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Re: Prince of Persia and interruption. This is said: "his dynamic tends to encourage the player to use an attack-attack-attack-block pattern to prevent this counterattack from hitting. I find it odd that a game that supposedly is more acrobatics-focused would encourage such a specific pattern".

PoP does a very clever thing which is to encourage contact-based gameplay. You can jump over an enemy to put him between you and the secondary enemy attacker coming in from the outer circle, which presumably is the intended player behaviour to counter this instead of blocking.

Other games mentioned in this article rely solely on weapon hits and independent player movement, but Prince of Persia included lots of options to interact with enemies other than hitting them or blocking (grabs, throws, dodges, parries, etc).

Other than that, great analysis. Comparative reviews on the early stages should be as much of an industry standard as post mortems.

Gil Jaysmith
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I worked on Spartan so this comment is undoubtedly partisan - *shrug*

It's very frustrating to read right off the bat that you explicitly discounted Spartan in terms of learnable lessons. Spartan shipped two years before Conan, and the team looked hard at most of the games on that list, learning from them and applying what they learned to Spartan's combat engine. Avoiding juggling, giving the player important tells, driving the combat through animations, making attacks abortable, gating the player, keeping the enemies active in the background, all this stuff - done, done, and done, y'know?

Spartan's combat looked massive - that was the point. But if you watch, each individual fight runs on the same rules that are applied to the player, with a combat manager which handles one vs one, one vs some, and one vs many, and still makes sense of it if it's a 50 vs 50 fight. Watching the 'neverending' battle scenes in Spartan is fun as hell.

In my opinion Clive Gratton and Andy Bray and the whole team did groundbreaking phenomenal work on that game. (And it runs at 60fps.)

So in short, I'm more than a little surprised that you were able to decide so quickly that Spartan's combat had nothing to offer. We took lessons from many games, including GTA and Ico, during our development; you can't just limit research to "games in our precise genre".

Gil Jaysmith (formerly of Creative Assembly)

Bob McIntyre
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I'm pretty sure the author didn't play through these games. Especially Ninja Gaiden. It might be good to play games all the way through, maybe even try out the harder difficulty settings. I can tell you that enemies in Ninja Gaiden really do not have a problem with ganging up on you and attacking you from all angles while ranged enemies shoot at you and someone else winds up for an unblockable throw. It's an intelligent article and it's an interesting topic, but it sort of undermines the point of the article when you misrepresent what the AI actually does in the game.

Bob McIntyre
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Just to be clear, I see that he only fought the first battle with three or more guys (or whatever he said), but I don't see how "I played part of the tutorial level" is useful at all for figuring out how a game's AI really works, and that's my point. The tutorial level usually has a bunch of gameplay mechanics that don't get used. To continue with Ninja Gaiden, you don't even have counterattacks or a second weapon or any upgrades by that point in the game. You don't have enemies with guard-breaking stun moves. Looking at such an incomplete picture is senseless because you cannot possibly get a good feel for how the game actually plays, and you're seeing the slowest, dumbest, weakest enemies possible.

Tom Smith
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Hi. Author here.

Gil: As I tried to make clear in the text, skipping over Spartan was mostly due to my time limits. From a quick look, it seemed that having the big combat around you and all the helper AI led to a very different pace than our game was planning on. It's not to say that I wouldn't have learned from it, or that other people wouldn't for their games, but just saying that given my limited time for research, I chose to focus on the ones that seemed most applicable at a glance. I did play a bit more of Spartan than I used for the research, because it was quite fun. And some of that informed what we were doing, but it was outside my bounds for this particular research project, given my stated limits.

Anony: I absolutely admit that I missed lots of things about each of the games here, especially Ninja Gaiden because it has a lot of things to add. I would have loved to play through each game with detailed notes about each step. But I didn't have time, and my expectation is that most people doing analysis like this won't have time. So I chose a method that I felt would get me the most information in the least time.

In both of these cases, I was making judgment calls on what would be the best use of my time for this project, and I'm sure my choices weren't perfect. I would love to hear other people's thoughts on the best time management for real-world research like this.

Dedan Anderson
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I have to agree with Bob McIntyre... You can't possibly talk about a game if you haven't experienced the whole thing... ANd i was kinda suprised that GEnki is on the list but neither Devil May Cry or Onimusha was on there... Genki 1 was really pretty mediocre, while 2 was underrated and actually quite good, but both pale to Onimusha... and not having DMC on that list... that dumbfounds me...

Dedan Anderson
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double posted by mistake and can't delete the post