Hello, my name is Benson Russell, and I'm an addi-- wait... wrong meeting! I'm a designer here at Naughty Dog in beautiful Santa Monica, and I was the primary combat designer for Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. I helped to implement the majority of the combat encounters across the game, as well as work with other designers and our programmers in developing our AI and weapons systems.
That being so, I wanted to write an article regarding how we approached combat encounter design for Uncharted 2. It turns out there was a lot of information to share, so I was given the opportunity to create a short series of articles on the subject. This is the first in that series, and I hope you find the information... informative.
After completing Uncharted: Drake's Fortune (U1), we wanted to take a step back, look at what we accomplished, and then decide how we wanted to evolve it for our next game.
To set the scene, the combat in U1 didn't get a chance to fully come to light until the last year of its development cycle; hence we weren't able to make it as deep as we had wished. There were several key reasons as to why this had happened.
Firstly, U1 was our first foray onto the PlayStation 3 hardware. We decided to write a new engine from scratch rather than adapt our previous technology. This resulted in a lot of our efforts being aimed at just trying to make a solid-playing game and finish it on time.
Secondly, the style of combat wasn't determined until the last year of the project. We were still figuring out the direction we wanted to go (for example, we had a lock-on auto aiming style system up to this point). Lastly, our AI systems didn't fully come online until there were only about eight or nine months left on the project.
So given the time constraints, we really had to focus in on our combat to make sure the game would hit Naughty Dog's standards of polish by the time we shipped! We experimented with weapon tunings and AI strategies to see what was the most fun, as well as what was going to be doable in the remaining time. We came away with three core precepts to making fun encounters:
Using these principles we were able to create a solid, polished and fun combat experience, but as the player progressed through the game, the combat started to feel repetitive and shallow. Here are some of the key lessons and issues we took away from making U1 and wanted to try to address.
We crafted a lot of the encounter spaces first while we were waiting for various systems to come on-line. Hence we ended up having to shoehorn combat encounters into these spaces because of how far along they were.
As we started to iterate on these encounters, we were very limited in the kinds of changes we could make to the space, which in turn limited how well we could use our gameplay mechanics (such as shooting while traversing). We addressed this by having designers create a simplified blockmesh layout of an area to get the gameplay right. Then we would hand it off to our talented artists to make it look fantastic.
We had several complaints about our enemies with regards to the number of waves players would have to fight. This came about due to technical limitations with our engine at the time. We were generally restrained to only having six to eight enemies active at any given time, so we decided to go with more intimate combat encounters with fewer enemies. When we needed to extend an encounter, we had to spawn additional reinforcement waves -- sometimes to the point of nausea.
Another side effect of our limitation on enemy numbers was that we had to let them take more hits so they would last longer in combat. Normally this wouldn't be an issue, but due to a combination of several choices we made, it ended up causing frustration for some players.
First, the majority of our enemies weren't particularly well armored, wearing just shorts and T-shirts. This created an expectation that they should only take one or two shots to go down. Second, we didn't offer enough feedback with the hit reactions of the enemies, so it was unclear when a bullet actually scored a hit.
Last, our weapon feedback was very minimal due to development time constraints. We weren't able to put tracers on the player's weapons, our impact effects weren't as pronounced as they could have been, and weapon accuracy wasn't communicated well. This lead to players not realizing the true accuracy of the weapon they were using, and not realizing they were missing with a lot of their shots.
As an interesting side note to how critical these points were, we corrected these issues for Uncharted 2 and the average player thought the enemies took less damage than they did in U1 -- when in fact they actually took a little more.
The last key lesson we learned was that we needed to do a much better job of training the player on our mechanics, as well as crafting scenarios that can allow the player to creatively use those mechanics.