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Anatomy of a Combat Zone
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Anatomy of a Combat Zone

July 15, 2009 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

[In this detailed design article, Blue Castle (Dead Rising 2) level design director Josh Bridge examines how you design memorable, tactical combat areas for first/third-person shooter games.] 


The following is an attempt to identify, name and describe the key ingredients to necessary for typical cover-based video game shooter. Usually in a shooter, the core gameplay revolves around living long enough to kill what is threatening you or impeding your progress.

The challenge is to present this small amount of gameplay in new and exciting ways so that the player is compelled to sit through and play all the way to the end... and hopefully want to play the sequel.

It should also be noted that the following is focused solely on the areas of combat within a level, and should not to be misinterpreted as the sole ingredient needed for an entire level's design.

The Combat Zone

The Combat Zone is a reference to the area of gameplay within a level designated for battle. This is a broad term and doesn't necessarily imply explicit, physical boundaries... though in some cases it can. In either case, the LD creates areas of expected battle with various gameplay support; enemies, cover objects, destructibles, impassable points, flanking positions, etc. The layout and placement carries the expectation that the player will have to battle through the area -- in essence, the presentation of the core gameplay.

The Kill Zone

Defined as the area in which the player and/or AI is without cover and can be fired directly upon, and potentially killed. This area can be visible (landmines on the ground) or virtual (tracer fire). The effectiveness of the design here determines the difficulty of the firefight. Without an effective Kill Zone, the player doesn't need cover, and eliminates one of the key ingredients intended for gameplay.

Defensive Cover

The required companion to a Kill Zone. There should be areas in which the player and/or AI is protected from direct fire. Without this, the experience boils down to shoot or be shot. Cover has a huge impact on play styles and difficulty, which I will go into a bit further on.

Player Paths

Play Your Way

Players should be able to play the way THEY want to. Why? It allows for a more creative experience, something that players will likely want to come back to again. Limiting the player to one path and play style over and over again gets tiresome; variety is key to keeping the player engaged.

Everyone has a preferred play style in shooters:

  • Run and Gun - guns blazing, shooting everything on sight as they usually stick to the most obvious play path.
  • Ninja - climbing up and jumping across everything or sneaking around through small passages that are discovered; they usually avoid the most obvious play path.
  • Camper - loves to hang back in safe spot and snipe from as far away as possible before moving in.

In the above level mock-up are examples of multiple play paths that accommodate these styles:

  • The Run and Gunner will likely shoot their way across the trench, taking cover only when necessary.
  • The Ninja will likely climb up and jump across all the cover objects, making their way across the playfield.
  • The Camper will likely look for a safe spot atop the catwalk to snipe the enemies from afar.

Focusing on accommodating each one of these play styles in each Combat Zone isn't easy and based on experience really should be planned from the beginning. However, this element is critical to getting out of the linear/scripted old school way of designing levels.

When you think you are about done with your napkin sketch, ask yourself:

  • Is there way to circle the enemy undetected?
  • Can the player climb under and over enemies?
  • Can the player have a variety of cover options?
  • Does the player have to crouch?
  • Can the player navigate the space by jumping from object to object?

Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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