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Combat Game Designer: What Do Combat Designers Do? What Unique Skills Are Required for Combat Design?
Do you have aspirations to become a game designer on a game like God of War, Mortal Combat, or Devil May Cry? Well then you’re really looking at becoming what is called a combat designer in most studios these days. Combat designers should know the inner workings of great fighting games like Street Fighter, Marvel vs. Capcom, and Mortal Kombat. The combat systems in these games are very complex and have stood the test of time for good reason. Although games like God of War are not straight up "fighting" games, they borrow from these systems to make the player controls feel tight and fun. Having passion for fighting games is a big plus. If you've been involved with the popular EVO tournaments then combat design is probably your type of gig.
The combat designer's main job or any designer’s job is to keep the design true to the pillars of the game. You will work heavily with animation, programming, and art to create player character and artificial intelligence abilities that stick to these pillars. In combat games the player's character usually has a vast selection of attack combos from which to choose. Knowing how many frames a light attack should be to feel “right” compared to a heavy attack, and when you can trigger them from another action like jumping, crouching, and standing, are things you need to know.
Let’s take, for example, that you are tasked with creating a giant elephant mini-boss. It has two attacks, a light trunk swing attack and a heavy foot stomp. What are the main ingredients in making each attack feel right? Let’s go through a few of these in detail:
The heavy attack should do more damage than the light attack, enough that any player could instantly tell a difference between attacks. Most games will show the player's health bar, which is the most obvious visual cue to how much damage the player is taking. If the light attack took 20% of the player's health and the heavy attack took 30% I would doubt most players could tell the difference. Having the heavy attack take at least double what the light attack does should be enough for the player to take notice.
All attacks should have a tip off period to give the player time to react. This is very important since it wouldn't be a game if the player took instant damage every time the elephant decided to attack. That's like asking someone a question and giving them zero seconds to answer.
The heavy attack should have a noticeably longer tip off than the light attack for a few reasons. First, the player should get more of a head start to avoid the higher damage attack. The heavy attack should feel like the elephant is putting more effort into the attack like you would expect in real life. Second, the player needs to see a big windup of the elephant raising its front legs followed by the legs crashing down for damage. Also, the heavy attack can also be made uninterruptible to emphasize its power. Uninterruptible means if the player attacks and hits the elephant during the windup, the elephant will not hit react and continue the attack until it's completed.
The player hit react animations are another noticeable piece to making combat feel right. Players should react harder to the heavy attack which could mean the player gets knocked on his butt compared to just twisting while standing in place from a light attack.
Effects help make the size and power of the attack more readable to the player so he/she can defend accordingly. For the light attacks let’s assume a yellow blade trail and for the heavy a red one.
The light attack is yellow because it's obviously lighter when compared to red making it clear to the player it does less damage. The effect will trail the swing attack and stay on for a few seconds so the player can gauge its size. If the player has dodge ability he/she should be able to learn that he/she can dodge away from this attack based on the blade trail's length.
The heavy attack is red because it's darker than yellow and it's a pretty universal color for taking damage. You would probably avoid using colors like green or blue in this case as those colors usually hint to being healed. The heavy foot stomp will make a splash effect on the ground in a radius around the elephant. With the effect appearing on the ground the player should easily learn that he/she could trigger a well timed jump to avoid this attack.
Sound effects add a good bit of personality to any attack and can make the tip off more noticeable. If the heavy stomp attack triggered a loud elephant roar as the elephant reared back on its hind legs the player would have that extra bit of cue to make a better decision on a counter move.
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