How to Make Your Shooter Combat Better « LimitlessUnits.com

How to Make Your Shooter Combat Better

By: Tony Huynh


I was asked the question, “how could Bioshock’s combat be improved?” I thought about it for a while and I am going to propose some possible fixes for the shortcomings of Bioshock in this area. While this is geared towards Bioshock, it can just as easily apply to other games featuring first or third person combat. Some of these solutions may be drastic and change the tone of the game, but I wanted to put them out on the table to promote discussion. The root of the problem with Bioshock’s combat is the lack of necessary tactical decisions for the player. The aim of this article is to see why this is the case in the areas of weapon, AI, level and system design and present some possible solutions to add a greater variety of necessary tactical decision-making for the player as well as offer other improvements to Bioshock’s combat.

1) Balance weapons and plasmids around a Paper / Rock / Scissor system

A weapon in a Paper / Rock / Scissor system is balanced around the idea that weapons have strengths and weakness and that each weapon plays a defined role during combat. For instance a sniper rifle is strong at long range, but weak at medium and short-range, while a shotgun should be strong at short-range and weak at medium and long-range. If a player enters into a long-range engagement armed with a shotgun, they will be at a gross disadvantage against an opponent with a sniper rifle. The player must then choose whether to close the distance to take away the opponent’s advantage or switch to a different weapon. The weapon’s strengths and weaknesses can be affected by any number of circumstances and not just range. An example is in Halo, ballistic weapons do more damage against flesh targets and energy weapons do more damage against shielded opponents on top of their PRS range-based system. Obviously a balanced PRS system precludes any one weapon that is the best in all situations.

The current state of Bioshock:
In Bioshock, the Paper / Rock / Scissor system is not clearly defined. 99% of the engagements in Bioshock occur at short and medium-range and most of the weapons and plasmids are good at both ranges. Despite Bioshock’s shotgun being only usable at short-range, it does little damage at short-range and the rate of fire is extremely poor making it a non-viable weapon later in the game. While Bioshock presents a lot of options to the player, the player is never enticed to use these other tactics because every encounter can be handled with the Electrobolt stun to gun combo. This combo is one of the safest and most effective ways to dispatch every type of enemy in any situation in the game. There are no weaknesses to this combo as none of the AI are resistant to it and it can hit at both medium-range and short-range.

Another key component of the PRS system is that there are tradeoffs to which weapon the player chooses to carry with them. Even if Bioshock’s weapons followed a PRS design, the player in Bioshock always has access to all the weapons introduced up to that point in the game. This removes an additional layer of tactical decision-making because the player is always carrying the perfect weapon for the situation in their inventory.

Proposed solutions:
1. Define the roles of the weapons and plasmids in Bioshock to fit into a clearly communicated three category closed-loop (PRS) system, whether it is ranges or some other system.

2. If the solution is ranges (short, medium and long) it will be necessary to change level databases to intersperse long range engagements.
a. This is extremely risky because it will affect the atmosphere and feel of the game. The benefit would be that it will add some variety to the combat.

3. Limit the player’s weapon choice down to fewer weapons and plasmids. My suggestion is two of each. By giving the player only two weapons and two plasmids the player will always be weak in at least one of these three categories and they will have to make a choice on which weapons and plasmids to carry.
a. This will have the side-effect of alleviating some of the problems with the clumsy weapon and plasmid selection I mentioned in my last article as the player can now comfortably alternate between two instead of eight selections.

4. There are Gene Banks to swap out genes; how about Weapon Banks to swap out weapons? Create Weapon Banks and place both Gene Banks and Weapon Banks liberally through the levels to allow the player to swap out weapons and plasmids frequently.

2) More Enemy AI Variety
Introducing new enemy AI that have different personalities, behaviors, strengths and weaknesses changes the dynamic of combat and greatly benefits a game’s pacing. When faced with a new AI players must experiment and discover the strengths and weaknesses of the new enemy. The player must then adjust their tactics to deal with the new threat. The new enemy AI offers scenario designers the opportunity to mix in the new enemy type with the already introduced AI thereby creating new variations on old encounters.

The current state of Bioshock:
The wholly inadequate number of enemy variations in Bioshock are all frontloaded into the beginning of the game. By the middle of the title the player’s have been introduced to every enemy type and as a result the rest of the game’s combat pacing suffers.

Proposed solutions:
1. One way to add more variety to the enemies is to arm more Splicers with different Plasmids. Imagine an Electrobolt plasmid using Splicer that was also resistant to Electrobolt attacks, but weak against the Insect Swarm plasmid. Giving specific varieties of Splicers resistances to specific plasmids and weapons would have added depth to the tactics employed by players. This would at the very least force the player to change up the aforementioned Electrobolt to gun combo technique on occasion.

2. Design and create new AI with different personalities, behaviors, strengths and weaknesses and space out their introductions throughout the course of the game.

3) Differentiate AI silhouettes to aid player planning
One of the most effective ways to convey what type of enemy the player is facing is through having drastically different silhouettes between enemies. Silhouettes assist players in being able to tell enemies apart quickly, and in turn formulate a plan on how to tackle a situation more accurately.

The current state of Bioshock:
This is an area that Bioshock does not do well. The Houdini, melee and gun wielding Splicers are all difficult to tell apart at a glance because their silhouettes are so similar. Having unique silhouettes for AI is even more important because of how dark the levels are in Bioshock.

Proposed solutions:
Now that we have a greater variety of enemies that require different tactics to defeat, we need to communicate the variety of enemies to the player quickly and effectively. Gears of War 2 does an excellent job of having easily recognizable enemy silhouettes. Scroll through their enemy list to see what I mean.

A key difference with Bioshock and Gears of War 2 is that the enemies are more human in Bioshock. While this makes the solution a bit more difficult, it is not impossible. An example of widely divergent human silhouettes can be seen Valve’s Team Fortress 2.
Team Fortress 2 Character silhouettes

4) Have pre-fight AI scripting throughout
How a player perceives an AI’s intelligence is determined by what an AI is doing before a battle as much as what they do during the fight. While this does not directly affect giving the player additional tactical choice, pre-fight AI scripting helps make the AI look smarter and this will always assist in making combat more enjoyable.

The current state of Bioshock:
This is an area that Bioshock excels at especially at the beginning of the game. AIs in Bioshock have lives outside of waiting for the player to show up. The Splicers whistle, have conversations with themselves, take their imaginary babies on strolls and even dance with each other. This is one of the best examples of a game with the illusion of a living world. This is not easy to do and requires tremendous development resources, which is why it is not often seen in games. The problem in Bioshock is that pre-fight scripting falls off dramatically in the middle through the end of the game.

Proposed solutions:
More pre-fight AI scripting is needed during the middle and late stages of the game. If this is not feasible I would suggest spacing out the densely scripted pre-fight AI in the first half and spreading these through the course of the game so that there is not such a lull in the middle to end of the game.

5) Leaders with underling breaking behavior
This is a technique that was pioneered by Total War and brought over to the first person shooter genre by Halo. Whenever a much more difficult to kill Elite in Halo was defeated, the grunts in Elite’s squad would break and scatter. This added depth and tactical choice to target selection in combat.

The current state of Bioshock:
There are no leaders in Bioshock. In fact, the AIs seem to act completely independently from each other.

Proposed solutions:
1. This could be simulated in Bioshock by having the aforementioned plasmid infused Splicers serve in the role of leaders and if they are killed, the other Splicers will break and flee or simply cower and beg for their life.

2. “Wherever possible, we try to make the vocalizations a dialogue between two or more characters, rather than an announcement by one character.” J. Orkin – States & a Plan: The AI of F.E.A.R.
a. By including communication between AI whenever possible, it will make the AI at least have the illusion of working together.

6) Raise the hit points and damage dealt by your AI
This is taken from the 2002 GDC talk The Illusion of Intelligence by Jaime Griesemer and Chris Butcher. Through playtests and surveys conducted by Bungie Studios, they discovered that tougher AI (higher hit points and higher damage dealt) created the illusion that the AI was smarter.

Halo: Combat Evolved AI Test

Combat almost always benefits from the illusion of smarter AI. If the combat is too challenging however, accessibility will suffer. So making the AI tougher can only be pushed up to a point.

The current state of Bioshock:
Through the course of Bioshock the player becomes stronger by accumulating and upgrading health, eve, weapons and plasmids. The result is the enemy AI is tough at the beginning of the game, but gradually became weaker through the course of the game. Bioshock in turn occasionally scaled up the same exact AI in difficulty to accommodate the growth in power of the player. This made for uneven difficulty in the game and by scaling the difficulty of the same AI, Bioshock nullified some of the player’s sense of advancement. Nonetheless, by the end of the game the combination of player familiarity with game mechanics and avatar upgrades made the AI too weak and in turn caused the player to be left with a lowered opinion of the AI and consequently of Bioshock’s combat.

Proposed solution:
1. Create easily recognizable skins for upgraded enemies to communicate to the player that they have been upgraded.
2. Introduce new AI later in the game that is already scaled to the appropriate difficulty level of where they are introduced.
3. Maintain the frequency of player upgrades, but lower their potency.

7) Call in the reinforcements!
The way AIs are introduced can make them appear smart. AI that call for reinforcements when they see the player or if an AI is seemingly the last enemy in a scenario and calls for back up and they arrive make the AI feel intelligent.

“For example, when an A.I. realizes that he is the last surviving member of a squad, he says some variation of ‘I need reinforcements.’ We did not really implement any mechanism for the A.I. to bring in reinforcements, but as the player progresses through the level, he is sure to see more enemy A.I. soon enough.” – J. Orkin – States & a Plan: The AI of F.E.A.R.

F.E.A.R. relies on the player’s assumptions to create the illusion of intelligence, but this could just as easily be scripted in the game.

The current state of Bioshock:
I do not recall any AIs in Bioshock ever calling for back up.

Proposed solution:
Create occasional scripted moments where the player happens on a lone Splicer and she calls for help and additional Splicers come through a door or run downstairs to assist her.

8 ) Make the AI predictable
AIs need to have predictable behaviors so that players can recognize and use their patterns to outsmart them and thereby feel good about themselves.

The current state of Bioshock:
This experience came from my playthrough of the game. I had entered combat with a pistol armed Splicer, but moved away to where he could not see me, but I could observe him. He would move to the last place that he saw me to investigate, once there he would stay in his alerted state and begin a patrol. During his patrol he would stay at a constant speed (good), but would seemingly at random (bad) turn 180 degrees and start walking the opposite direction.

My goal was to sneak up behind him to use my wrench. Because he would randomly turn around 180 degrees my attempts were not always successful. Even if I manage to get to him the Splicer becomes aware of you at around 3 meters and immediately turns around to react disallowing the player the advantage of the first hit with the wrench. Let me outsmart the AI!

Bioshock AI Investigation Behavior
Proposed solution:
Bioshock AI Proposed Investigation Behavior
When an AI loses sight of the player they should move at a constant speed and never turn around 180 degrees. The AI should also not have the ability to see the player behind him (extrasensory perception) when at close range. Keeping AI actions predictable is the goal. Having predictable AI allows the player to recognize behaviors through observation and outsmart the AI.

9) The use of gameplay space and cover to create tactics
I have saved the discussion regarding cover usage and placement until now because it so fundamentally changes the way Bioshock plays and it carries the most risk. This should not be a direction that is taken lightly and without serious consideration and playtesting.

Make cover matter
Cover in shooters can be used to direct the flow of combat as well as promote tactical space analysis and decision-making by the player.

The current state of Bioshock:
Cover in Bioshock is used very little to direct battles and create fronts against enemies, the most effective way to deal with enemies I found was by standing out in the open and strafing left and right while firing.

There is very little half-cover in Bioshock, so crouching behind cover is not an option most of the time.

Proposed solution:
One of the easiest ways to promote the usage of cover for players is to have consequences for them for not doing so.

I took a look at a few other games that are praised for their combat to see what they did. I performed some tests to figure out how long it took three different games to kill the player. Each test was performed by standing the player perfectly still out in the open at medium range (my best guess at 8 meters).

Bioshock
In Bioshock, at the end of Smuggler’s Hideout, it took an average of 15 seconds to die from 3 pistol armed Splicers and 1 Spider Splicer on normal difficulty from a full health bar.

Halo 3
It took an average of 7 seconds to die from the very first engagement in Halo 3 on Heroic difficulty (the recommended difficulty).

Call of Duty 4
In Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare it took an average of 4 seconds for two AI to kill the player when he is standing out in the open on Normal difficulty in the second engagement of Blackout (the first mission in Act 1).

This means that in Halo 3 the player dies more than twice as fast in the very first engagement of the game and in Call of Duty 4 the player dies over three times faster when compared to Bioshock at about the one quarter mark of the game where the player is up against an unusually large number of enemies. Without the immediate threat of death the player is not as willing to seek cover in Bioshock.

Encounter space design
Spaces should be designed to accommodate as many different types of playstyles used by players as possible.

What type of playstyle do you use? Do you like to sit back in cover with your medium and long range weapons and slowly whittle down the enemies? Do you sneak around the side and flank your opponent with close range weapons? Are you Rambo and want to run out in the center with guns blazing? Maybe you just want to use cover to sneak past the enemies and avoid the encounter entirely.

“Building a successful course then becomes a matter of understanding these different demographics and designing with each of them in mind.” – What SimGolf Can Teach You about Designing the Perfect Level by Alex J. Champandard

The current state of Bioshock:
While I am not saying that all the encounters in Bioshock did not allow for different playstyles, in fact some of them did this quite well, but there were far too many coverless corridors populated with enemies where the player’s options were limited to simply strafe and fire.

Proposed solutions:
The key to accommodating a wide range of playstyles is making sure that there is “interconnectivity” in the combat spaces.

“It’s very important to make spaces that highlight the strengths of your AI. A battle in a corridor doesn’t involve much strategy so there are no intelligent things for the AI to do. An interconnected space allows the AI to flank the Player, making them seem more intelligent. It also allows the Player to flank the AI, giving him a chance to watch them react to his tactics. One weakness of an interconnected space, however, is that it tends to be chaotic. So we also needed to establish a Killing Zone, an open area between two positions with good cover. Flanking is still possible in an environment with a killing zone, but the battle is much more directed. The killing zone also allows multiple enemies to fight at once without it degenerating into chaos.” – The Illusion of Intelligence by Jaime Griesemer and Chris Butcher

This is a combat space in Fracture that I worked on.
Fracture Tony Huynh Encounter Design

I attempted to design the space to accommodate different playstyles.
• Note the cover placement to create battle lines and the killing zone to keep the battle orderly.
• The sniping spot is for those that want to sit back with a long ranged weapon like the sniper rifle.
• Battle line 1 is to allow the option of medium ranged weapons.
• Note the flanking routes to allow for the player to flank the enemies and the AI to flank the player.
• I did not accommodate a way to avoid the encounter entirely, but in hindsight maybe I should have or at least have given it some more thought.

Cover placement is very important in providing opportunities for players to tackle encounters the way that they want to. Having a mix of battles take place in open areas as well as tight confined spaces and corridors will add variety to the gameplay to keep the player from becoming bored.

10) Use large-scale cinematic scripted events in combat
Large-scale cinematic scripted events like explosions, buildings toppling and helicopters crashing add excitement and help to break up the monotony of combat. Few games do large scale scripted events in combat as well as Call of Duty 4. The real trick is to make sure that players see these events.

The current state of Bioshock:
While there are certain big moments that happen in Bioshock, the Airliner cabin crashing through the walkway tube comes to mind, there are not any that happen mid-combat.

Proposed solutions:
1. Place enemies defending the hallway where the airline cabin comes crashing through. Have them get killed by the airline cabin collision.
2. Come up with and implement additional cinematic scripted moments that occur in combat.

11) Death for a player should not be meaningless
Combat does not work without the fear of consequences. When death is meaningless, the need for the player to use tactics is diminished. Conversely if death is too harsh, players will never want to experiment with anything but tried and true methods. A balance needs to be struck.

The current state of Bioshock:
The current implementation of Vita-chambers removes any need for tactics as dying is meaningless. Each time you die, you instantly respawn nearby with half health and the enemies do not recover any health. A tactic I abused a few times is to pull a Big Daddy close to a Vita-chamber and rush him with my wrench. When I died I simply respawned and repeated my tactics with the wrench until he was dead. I have heard a lot of people complain about the Vita-chambers, but there is a trade off here. The experience may have felt cheapened for the player, but this makes it so every player can see the end of Bioshock which is very valuable.

Proposed solutions:
I know I suggested a compromise to have injured enemies regain a modest amount of health if a vita-chamber is used in my last article, but if the goal is to promote tactical combat I would go so far as to recommend removing Vita-chambers entirely and rely on a system of checkpoints. There are certainly tradeoffs here and this negatively affects accessibility of the game so this needs careful consideration before implementation.

12) Healing
The question of how the player is healed becomes much more important with the removal of Vita-Chambers from the game. Here are the pros and cons of the very common Recharging health and Bioshock’s Persistent health systems as I see it.

Recharging health
Pros
• Promotes the use of cover (as it is the only place to regain health during combat.)
• It is easier for designers to tune difficulty for individual engagements because they will always know the player will have a certain amount of health before each encounter.
• It is easier to create a consistent difficulty curve for the game because each encounter can be tuned to be more difficult in relation to the last without worrying about how much health the player currently has.

Cons
• If there are permanent health upgrades they are exponentially more powerful.
• Players do not have to search for health packs.

Persistent health (Bioshock’s health system)
Pros
• The player must worry about every hit, because all damage is permanent.
• Players must search for health packs.

Cons
• Careful attention needs to be paid to a player that gets stuck in a low health situation right before a tough encounter.
• Cover can sometimes be ignored because players can stand in the open and regain health with a press of a button.

Neutral
• Designers can ensure a proper amount of health for the player by placing health pickups preceding an encounter.

Proposed solutions:
Having listed out the pros and cons of the two systems as I see it, I do not know which system I prefer. The main issues of contention are the exponential power increase of health upgrades for the recharging health system and the difficulty of balancing each encounter for the player in the persistent health model. If I had to choose between the two, I would go with the persistent health system because it promotes the player searching for powerups.

The system I propose is a hybrid bucketed health system where the player has a number of buckets of health. Each bucket replenishes itself as long as it is not completely depleted. The bucketed health system maintains the need to have the player search for health and simultaneously encourages cover usage during combat to replenish health. Permanent health upgrades could come in the form of additional buckets of health.

Conclusion
This article is meant to offer suggestions to enhance the tactical decision-making of the player in Bioshock’s combat. Many of proposed solutions have large tradeoffs and affect the game negatively outside of combat. Since the goal was to improve combat and spawn discussion points, I largely ignored these problems. To read a less combat-oriented and more balanced list of suggestions at improving Bioshock read my last article, Bioshock: The Most Important Game of the Generation.

See my other related articles:
Become a Video Game Designer: Everything You Need to Know Part 1
Roger Ebert is Right: Games are Not High Art…Yet
Top 5 Greatest Moments in Competitive Gaming (eSports)
What Video Games Taught Me About Life
Low Skill Cap and Luck (RNG) in World of Warcraft PVP
Best Games of All Time by Genre Part 1
10 Greatest Video Game Designers Part 1
What’s Bad About Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare Multiplayer Mode?
Call of Duty: World at War Through the Eyes of a Game Designer
Dead Space Through the Eyes of a Game Designer
Gears of War 2 Through the Eyes of a Game Designer
8 of the Most Underrated or Overlooked Video Games of All Time
Best MMA Fights & Genki Sudo: Real Life Video Game Character

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