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God of War III Combat Enhancements and Additions

Tuesday, March 30th, 2010

Posted by Tony Huynh.

While I was not the Main Hero designer for God of War III, that honor belongs to Jason McDonald, I do have some insight into the new enhancements to the combat system in God of War III that I’d like to let you guys in on.

QTEs (Quick-Time Events)

Here is a little explanation on how we attempted to improve our QTEs, or as we refer to them internally, Context Sensitive Moments. For God of War III we attempted to remove the clutter away from the center of the screen to give the player an unobstructed view of the action. To do this we made two improvements to the QTEs. The first thing we did was move the button prompts for the QTEs to the edges of the screen to correspond with the button placement on the PlayStation controller’s layout.

• Triangle appears at the top of the screen
• Square appears on the left side of the screen
• X appears at the bottom of the screen
• Circle appears at the right side of the screen

PlayStation 3 Controller

The second key improvement from previous God of War titles and even God of War III’s demo that you should notice is that along the edges of the screen there are a series of white flashes that accompany the button prompts. This was specifically designed to take advantage of the way the human eye works to make QTEs more intuitive. A little scientific explanation to follow, you’ve been warned.

The human eye is made up of rods and cones. The rods are more sensitive than the cones, but are unable to discern color. The rods are also concentrated on the edge of the retina. The flashes on the periphery of the screen are designed to be picked up by the rods and help the player to quickly determine the appropriate button prompt while not having to shift focus away from the center of the screen.

Article on rods and cones.
http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/hbase/vision/rodcone.html

With these improvements to the QTEs, we found that players could focus on the center of the unobstructed screen (where the action is) and intuitively pick up which button input was necessary to succeed in the QTE.

New Weapons That Players Want to Use
We used a multi-prong assault to address the fact that most players in our previous games have doggedly refused to use any weapon besides the default blades. The following is the list of changes designed to promote the use of other weapons by the player.

1. Increased orbs to make weapons easier to upgrade
We purposely gave players more red orbs (experience) than in the past in an effort to encourage players to be less reluctant to experiment and upgrade other weapons in their arsenal.

2. Tied magic to weapons
We tied the magic to the weapons so that there would be greater incentive to switch weapons to use different magic. In addition, this helped us streamline the controls and remove the redundancy of the separate weapon and magic system that was in previous God of War titles.

3. Made on-the-fly weapon switching accessible
This was the most important change in my opinion. We put the weapon selection on the directional pad where the player could easily switch their weapon on the fly. The other addition is L1 + X also cycles weapons and produces a new attack. These two mechanics made weapon switching much less cumbersome.

4. Nemean Cestus
We purposely made the Nemean Cestus overpowered to ensure that players used something besides the default blades.

5. Hades’ Hooks
Reasons to use the Hade’s Hooks.

Summons
o The single most powerful magic is the Centaur Soul summon.
o Gorgon Soul summon is useful as well.

6. Nemesis Whip
Reasons to use the Nemesis Whip

• Builds combo meter fast
• Titan mode (Blade of Olympus) meter builds up fast
• Enemies drop orbs on occasion when hit by the Nemesis Whip
• Easy air juggles

Regarding the Hades’ Hooks and Nemesis Whip, I think a byproduct of having weapons that look similar to the traditional blades is that it entices people to put them to use more often.

7. Made enemies that require a specific weapon to defeat
Siren’s require the Helios’ Head to make vulnerable. The shield carrying grunts require the Nemean Cestus to defeat. These design choices were made all in the hope that we could entice players to mix up their weapon usage routines.

New Items and Item Meter
We added a self-recharging item meter and tied it to the following weapons, Apollo’s Bow, Hermes’ Boots and Helios’s Head.

We found that players in previous God of War titles were largely ignoring items like the bow because it was tied to the Magic meter. Players tended to horde their magic for really difficult fights and bosses. To combat this we added a self-recharching item meter. This opened up the combat system, as players were no longer limited by their magic while also giving the combat designers a way to limit and balance the use of these weapons.

In my opinion, the Hermes’ Boots and the ability to Air Evade is the single greatest new addition to the game. I personally rely on this mechanic constantly and don’t know how I ever got along without it.

Combat Grapple
The combat grapple is an important new addition to Kratos’ repertoire. The combat grapple makes the combat in God of War III a bit more accessible to players as it allows the player to more easily string together combos and worry less about player positioning to maintain combos.

Pro tip: Using the combat grapple against Wraiths that are underground pulls them out.

Ridable Creatures
This is another new combat feature that puts a different twist on encounters. The areas we struggled were to make the creature feel responsive while selling that the player is indirectly controlling the creature through attacks. This was a tough balancing act, but I think the final product succeeded.

More Enemies
Our switch from the PS2 to the PS3 has allowed us to greatly increase the number of enemies that the player faces at any given time. Now we are able to have the player fight up to 50 enemies at once.

Target Selection
We wanted the player to be actively engaged and making decisions during combat. One way we did that was to encourage the player to decide which enemy to deliberately target during a combat engagement. For instance, if the player is fighting a group of enemies and one of them happens to be a Gorgon, he can decide to focus on the Gorgon and kill her first and unleash an area effect stone blast to dispatch the other enemies. The Siren works off of a similar concept.

Framerate
Lastly, I wanted to talk about the framerate. Framerate directly applies to combat because it affects how a responsive a game feels. The game runs at 45+ frame rate for the most part and in my experience anything 45+ is hard to distinguish from 60. In other words, what we noticed is that the difference from 30 to 45 fps is tremendous, but the difference from 45 to 60 is not as discernible. So, wherever we could we tried to keep the frame rate close to 45. The God of War III’s framerate on the PS3 is at least on par with God of War II’s on the PS2. God of War III shouldn’t have any screen tearing (which is an improvement over GoW2) and the new motion blur we are using masks the variable framerate very well.


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How to Make Your Shooter Level Successful

Thursday, June 4th, 2009



Posted by Tony Huynh.
What makes a first-person shooter level successful. While I can easily fill a few books with the answer to that question, I will instead narrow the focus to two aspects that I feel are important in the creation of a good level. The first is building and maintaining an interesting world and the second is to construct good pacing and varied player experiences. I will begin by defining these concepts and then use a walkthrough of Bioshock’s brilliant opening level Welcome to Rapture as an example of how to do both of these aspects well.

Build and maintain interest in your world
Story

The first thing that builds interest in your world is story. Bioshock constructs a mystery story by asking questions and providing answers slowly. Mysteries not only build interest in your game, but also serve as an impetus to pull players forward through the game. A good mystery needs to strike a balance between asking questions and giving answers. Ken Levine stated, “We think of the mystery balloon, you have to tap it up to keep the audience interested, but if you tap it too high you’ll lose your audience… and if it gets too low. I underestimated the impact of resolving the ‘who is Andrew Ryan?’ question too early. We learned a big lesson there.” When the player is unraveling a mystery, interest is generated and maintained through making the player ask questions and slowly answering these questions as the player progresses. While questions are more interesting than answers, answers need to be doled out regularly to prevent the player from becoming frustrated and giving up. Giving too many answers solves the mystery which causes the story to lose its pull.

Mise-en-scene and Set Dress
Story can also be built through the use of mise-en-scene. Mise-en-scene literally means “putting on stage,” but in the case that I am using it now it is the placement and arrangement of set dress objects (signage, props, ragdolls, etc.) to tell a story. These little touches help flesh out the story and draw the audience into the world. Set dress and interesting things for the player to look at also serve to slow down the player and the pacing as the player will have to stop in order to look at them. Set dress objects are best served in areas that have low tension that do not provoke urgency for the player to move. I will be calling these instances out in the walkthrough of the level.

Immersion
Immersion is when players lose themselves and forget that they are playing a game. To do this successfully the level, AI and mechanics of the game have to look, behave and react as realistically as possible so that the player is not reminded that they are playing a game. Realistic water, particle and physics as well as AI that interact with each other and are doing things outside of waiting for the player to show up go a long way in selling a living world and creates an immersive experience. Bioshock also maintains its immersion by never breaking the first-person perspective. While this is a system and not a level mechanic, it is vitally important to how successfully Bioshock sustains the game’s immersion.

One often overlooked way of supporting immersion are player objectives. When objectives make sense and are rational to what the player would do if placed in the same situation it helps greatly in maintaining immersion for the player. When objectives fail to make sense to the player, immersion is broken. While Bioshock generally does a good job with objectives, one example where it seemingly failed was the objective of stabbing yourself with a syringe and injecting yourself with an unknown substance (plasmid) in the level Welcome to Rapture. Although this action is explained later in the game, at the time I thought to myself why would any rational person do that? It tore away my immersion with the game, but was effective for the later story plot and was memorable because of how out of place it was.

Varied Player Experiences
The level Welcome to Rapture largely owes its success to how many different well-constructed player experiences it provides. Pacing, atmosphere and mood tie into player experiences directly. When players speak about pace, atmosphere and mood they are generally describing how they feel while they are playing. I will start by listing a few ways that a level can dictate the player’s experience and then go on to show how Bioshock’s opening level uses these elements to vary the experience for the player.

Objectives
Objectives can push the pacing of the level. An objective that is clearly defined and is rational for a person under the circumstances like Welcome to Rapture’s “get to higher ground” helps drive the player forward eagerly and with a purpose.

Objectives not only impact immersion and pacing, but also the tone of a level. Compare the tone of “Escape from Rapture” and “Kill Andrew Ryan” and you can see how the tone has been changed. When the objective is to “escape,” it places the player in the role of the prey, while “killing” has the player in the role of the predator. In this instance the objective of “get to higher ground” and escape from Rapture helps support the type of frantic tone and mood that the developers intended for the beginning of the game.

Setting
Changing to different settings will help with both pacing and maintaining interest in your world. A new setting prevents visual fatigue and helps the player feel like they are making progress through the game. The more dramatic the shift in scenery the better. The shift in surroundings should make logical sense otherwise immersion will be broken. Note the frequency in which settings are changed in the first level of Bioshock.

Tension Level
Tension is the player’s perceived level of threat. There are a number of ways to manipulate tension levels as I will illustrate in the following sections. Keeping the tension level high is interesting and exciting for the player. However, keeping the tension high for an extremely long period of time without a periodic release causes the player to become numb and the tension will start to lose its power. Occasional releases in tension will actually ease a level designer’s ability to create tension.

Physical Space and Lighting to Increase and Limit Options
One of the most important tools in directing pace is the use of physical space and lighting. Tight linear corridors focus the player and create a faster pace by reducing the player’s options. On the other hand, larger spaces or spaces with multiple routes slow down the pace and promote decision-making and exploration. A proper mix of different sized spaces helps keep the experience varied.

Lighting plays a large role in how large a space feels. Absence of light dissuades players from going to and exploring areas. A level designer or artist can actually shrink levels and spaces gameplay-wise by taking out lights on the periphery, thus creating a tighter and more directed path. Conversely, brightly lit rooms inherently feel safer and encourage players to linger for longer.

Large elevation changes can inspire awe by enhancing drama and scale. Bioshock’s first level uses this technique to great effect in both the bathysphere ride down into Rapture as well as the elevator ride up to higher ground.

Lighting and Color to Set Atmosphere and Mood
As I have already mentioned brightly lit rooms tend to feel safer, conversely darker rooms promote a feeling of tension because the surroundings are unknown to the player. In general, levels in Bioshock are dark with contrastingly lit areas to enhance a feeling of paranoia and tension. Bioshock varies the level of tension by sprinkling in brightly lit rooms as a release and the occasional scripted event where the lights turn off altogether to dramatically ratchet up the tension.

Mood can also be created with the color of the lighting and environments. People generally connect colors like red with danger, green with sickness and blue with security.

Landmarks, Lighting and Audio to Direct Player Movement
Landmarks, lights and audio can provide navigational reference points for the player and draw attention to specific areas of a space. The player will move towards a light, landmark or sound and then pause to take note of their surroundings before moving to the next navigational point. These guideposts can be used to encourage or discourage player movement and exploration; therefore they can greatly affect a scenario’s pace.

Music and Audio
Music and audio can be used to enhance the experience that the level designer intends for the player to have. Whether the mood you are trying to create is creepiness, action or awe, music and audio are very useful ways to help in achieving it.

Item Collection
Having an item collecting and scavenging mechanic like the one present in Bioshock will slow the player down and promote exploration. Limiting your player’s available ammo and health and constantly keeping them on the brink of running out raises tension.

Wow Moments
Large scale scripted events a.k.a. wow moments can raise a player’s excitement level and inspire a sense of awe. They are generally expensive from a production standpoint, but add a real punch to varying the player’s experience. The Call of Duty series is well known for exploiting the power of wow moments. Wow moments tend to slow players down as they watch the event unfold, but this is not necessarily always the case as I will point out in the level walkthrough.

Combat
Combat provides an easy way to raise the pace of a level. The player experience during combat needs to be mixed up to prevent boredom. There are many techniques to mix up combat, but for this article I will only touch on the introduction of new weapons and enemies. For more information on improving combat through variation please see my article “How to Improve Your Shooter Combat.”

New Weapons
New weapons extend the capabilities of players and offer a new experience for a period of time as the player experiments with the weapon to discover its strengths and limitations.

New Enemies
Together with new weapons, new enemies are some of the most important ways of changing the dynamic of combat. 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.

Welcome to Rapture Walkthrough
Airplane Cabin
Narrative questions: Who am I? Where am I?
Narrative answers: I am Jack. It is 1960. I’m on an airplane above the Atlantic.

The first setting that the player is in is aboard an airplane. The scene begins with a shot of a smoke filled cabin of an airplane. The strangeness of this fact creates a moment of unease in the player. The player’s unease is lifted immediately when Jack raises a lit cigarette up and explains away the smoke. The sight of a person smoking inside of an airplane immediately roots the player firmly in the 1960 setting. Jack’s monologue and back story subdues the pace.

Atlantic Ocean
Narrative questions: What is a lighthouse doing in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean?
Narrative answers: None

The setting changes from the plane’s cabin to underwater for a few tense moments as the player watches in first-person as propeller blades and various other objects float through the scene and the player struggles to the surface of the water for air. The player associates the green water underneath the surface with a feeling of sickness. The setting transitions again to the surface of the ocean. The playable space here is small being hemmed in by fire and the path out is clearly marked. The opening in the surrounding fire beckons the player to keep moving. Fire races across the screen directing the player to look right to see the lighthouse landmark. The blinking light is another navigational cue to keep the player directed.
Bioshock Underwater Green

Lighthouse Interior
Narrative questions: Who is Andrew Ryan? What is this place?
Narrative answers: None

Another big setting change occurs here as the player transitions from the water into the dark interior of the lighthouse. The door closes behind the player and the player is in near complete darkness. When the lights turn off the player will generally pause and stop. This creates a moment of tension and builds fear through the unknown. After the lights turn back on the pacing slows down. The space offers the player a lot of things to see like the Andrew Ryan bust and art deco wall decorations and consequently slows down the player. The brightly lit bathysphere draws the player to it.
Bioshock Andrew Ryan Banner

Bathysphere Ride
Narrative questions: Why is there a city built underwater?
Narrative answers: The lighthouse is an entrance to the city of Rapture. Rapture is a utopian city based off of objectivism founded by Andrew Ryan.

Lots of exposition by Andrew Ryan answers questions regarding the founding of Rapture. The bathysphere ride is designed to inspire awe and wonderment for the city of Rapture. As I mentioned before, changes in altitude can aid in selling drama and scale. The blue surroundings of the ocean and city promote a mood of security. The ride accomplishes the mood and atmosphere of awe through the use of music, changes in altitude and a synched to music beautiful reveal shot.

The first clue that something might be amiss is when the sign “All good things of this Earth flow into this city” blinks and shorts out.

Bioshock Bathysphere Ride Blue

First Encounter
Narrative questions: What happened here? How did Rapture meet its downfall? Why did that mutated freak kill that Johnny? Who is Atlas? Why is Atlas helping me?
Narrative answers: None

The tension and pace here is ratcheted up incredibly high in a hurry. There are a number of reasons for this that I will call out specifically.

The Spider Splicer is revealed. A blinking light gives the player brief glimpses of a Spider Splicer killing a man with hooked weapons. Following that the Splicer leaps atop the bathysphere and attempts to penetrate the hull of the vessel to attack the player before giving up and leaping into the darkness. The bathysphere’s door opens and the unarmed player is told by Atlas to keep moving and to “get to higher ground”.

Getting to higher ground is a reasonable objective considering that the player just witnessed the Spider Splicer gruesomely murder a man and the player has no weapons. This makes the pacing and tension high, which is a good change from the awe inducing bathysphere ride into Rapture.

Outside the door of the bathysphere the tight linear corridors reinforce the fast pace implied by the objective. It does this by focusing the player and reducing their options. The space is shrunk further by being darkly lit with the exception of the intended path. The absence of light on the edges of the space makes it feel tighter than it actually is and the darkness dissuades players from going to and exploring areas.

The mood is even tenser because of the disappearance of the Spider Splicer. Audio is used to great effect here in creating a sense of tension. The player is able to hear the Spider Splicer singing and taunting the player, but the Splicer is nowhere in sight. A blinking television screen serving as a navigation marker draws the player to it. Here the player pauses to assess the situation, but not for too long because of the implied danger. A light turns on showing the Spider Splicer. He is chased off by a security bot relieving the tension. With the Spider Splicer gone, the pace lowers and the new light draws the player to the next area. The player is given a safe environment to go through the Jump, Pick Up and Melee tutorials, which is a release and slows the pacing down further.

The arranged protest signs placed outside of the bathysphere serving as clues of dissention against Andrew Ryan are lost on the vast majority of users because the perceived danger from the Spider Splicer above, the tight corridors and blinking light from the TV cause tension to be high and the player to be directed. The player is encouraged to move fast out of this space. To really get the point across I would have placed more signs closer to the flashing television screen. Players tend to stop moving to take in their surroundings once they reach a destination.

Bioshock Protest Signs

Desk on Fire
Narrative questions: None
Narrative answers: None

The flaming desk pushed down the stairs scripted event raises the tension and pace. Combat with the Splicer keeps the pace high. After he is defeated the pace drops back down.

Gatherer’s Garden Room
Narrative questions: What is wrong with everybody here? Who is that little girl and big guy with the drill?
Narrative answers: Plasmids give the player powers.

The physical space of this room is wider than the previous room. The size of the space coupled with the scavenging mechanic promotes exploration and slows down the pace. The sparking electricity on the door draws the player’s attention to it, but the player quickly realizes that the door is not yet an exit. The use of audio calls from behind the player helps them pinpoint the location of the Gatherer’s Garden vending machine. The giant arrowed plasmid sign does not hurt either. As I previously mentioned the objective of stabbing and injecting yourself with an unknown substance breaks the immersion. The first-person cinema creates tension because the player is helpless to defend themselves and his life is threatened twice during the sequence. The Little Sister and Big Daddy are introduced. The Electrobolt Plasmid is introduced.

Tube Flooding Wow Moment
Narrative questions: None
Narrative answers: None

While most wow moments slow the pacing of the game down as players stop to observe these events, the plane crashing into the tube actually raises the sense of urgency by giving the player the feeling that they are in danger.

The linear corridor presents few options and keeps the player moving. The tension is amped up by the cracks appearing on the glass wall and vault door buckling followed by water pouring through the cracks. All of these events imply danger and encourage constant movement by the player. The realistic water effects preserve the immersion. This wow moment does the job of creating a memorable and exciting scene that varies the player’s experience.

Bioshock Tube Flooding Wow Moment

One-Two Punch Tutorial
Narrative questions: None
Narrative answers: None

Entering into this room the player will see that the room is bathed in red light, which warns the player of danger. Combat ensues and the pace is raised for its duration. The arrangement of the corpse underneath pouring water with the protest sign, briefcase and liquor beside him tells a story and keeps player interested in the world.

Bioshock Mise-en-scene

Elevator Crash
Narrative questions: None
Narrative answers: None

Once inside this room the player will see an elevator crashing. This wow moment slows down the pacing. A brief combat encounter with a man on fire ups the tempo for a short time. The space opens up into a well-lit larger room. Larger spaces have more area to explore and slow down the pacing and well-lit rooms promote players lingering in a place for longer.

Elevator Ride Up
Narrative questions: None
Narrative answers: Atlas is helping the player because his family is trapped and he needs the player’s help to free them.

The elevator ride provides an opportunity to update the objectives as well as remind the player of the scale of Rapture. The altitude change emphasizes scale and drama. Music is incorporated to sell this awe factor. The player’s objective is updated from a plea by Atlas to go to Neptune’s Bounty to rescue his wife and daughter. This objective will set the stage for animosity between the player and Andrew Ryan when Ryan kills Atlas’ family, thereby easing the player into accepting (as not to break immersion) their next objective and the tone change that accompanies “kill Andrew Ryan.” The overall objective of escape from Rapture still stands.

Bioshock Elevator Ride Up

Baby Carriage
Narrative questions: None
Narrative answer: The inhabitants of Rapture were driven insane by the use of plasmids.

Here the player finds a brief scripted moment where a woman is hovering over a baby carriage and singing a lullaby. The shadow of the female Splicer and baby carriage are splashed along the wall and can be seen well before the actual Splicer and carriage. The shadow forewarns the player and allows them to stop and become a voyeur. By listening to the lullaby and woman speaking to the baby carriage the player witnesses the extent in which plasmids have deranged the populace. Eventually the player must engage in combat with the Splicer. This scripted event hints that there is a living breathing city here and maintains the immersion.

The pistol is introduced.

Bioshock Baby Carriage Splicer Shadow

Kashmir Restaurant
Narrative questions: What happened here?
Narrative answers: There was an attack by Fontaine’s men on New Year’s Eve.

When the player enters into the Kashmir restaurant they find a male Splicer banging on a door and in an argument with a female Splicer. This is another very simple scripted event that goes a long way in building the player’s interest in Rapture. It gives the illusion of a living world by giving AI lives outside of waiting for the player to show up.

The Kashmir restaurant is a wide space that has many items for the player to collect and a lot of things to look at, which slows down the pace.

There are not many outward signs that anything bad has happened here until you go downstairs. The music is playing and the place is decorated festively. Bright colors, party hats and balloons that pop and leave behind a shower of confetti are scattered about the room. This room’s festive décor is in stark contrast to the previous environments and is a nice setting change.

After the Splicer and his wife are dealt with the pace slows. The ghost in the bathroom keeps the player vested in the story. The Splicer in the bathroom stall punches the pace up with combat for a short while. The signs of battle are much more prevalent down stairs. Signs here are askew, the lack of lights in the kitchen make it really foreboding. Within the kitchen is a man slumped over with a cash register. The player can start to invent their own stories about him. The Electrobolt plasmid with water tutorial takes place. Violin music adds to the sense of foreboding.

Bioshock Kashmir Restaurant

Footlight Theater
Narrative questions: None
Narrative answers: Questions about the relationship between the Big Daddy and Little Sister and their purpose are answered.

When the player enters into this area they will see a Little Sister and notice that the room is a bright crimson red because of the carpeting. This helps the player to make the connection that the Little Sister is dangerous. Exposition regarding the relationship of the Little Sister to the Big Daddy and how they fit into Rapture’s ecology is explained. Combat with two Splicers again raises the tempo. There is another pre-fight scripted event of two Splicers looting the Big Daddy’s corpse and more combat. There is a drop down here which prevents the player from backtracking, thereby keeping the player more directed.

Bioshock Little Sister

Rapture Metro
Narrative questions: Why is Andrew Ryan against me?
Narrative answers: None

There is sustained combat here. Access to Neptune’s Bounty is shut off by Andrew Ryan. A frantically voiced Atlas tells you to get to Neptune’s Bounty by way of Medical. The objective to get to medical happens because Andrew Ryan has prevented you from getting to your destination. This builds animosity with Andrew Ryan and sets the player up against the antagonist and prepares the player for the next overarching objective of killing Andrew Ryan. If the objective from the start is to kill Andrew Ryan who has not opposed the player in at least a few turns then you will lose the buy-in of your player and immersion will be broken.

Andrew Ryan’s Trap
Narrative questions: None
Narrative answers: Andrew Ryan is trying to kill the player because he believes he is from the KGB or FBI.

When the player enters into this room Andrew Ryan closes and locks the door on the player. The lights turn off and the player is in darkness for a short time for an immediate rise in tension. Following this Andrew Ryan speaks to the player accusing them of being from the KGB or CIA. There is implied danger to create additional tension when the Splicers try to break through the windows. The level ends when the door is opened by Atlas and the tension is relieved with the player being given an exit.

Conclusion
Welcome to Rapture is a successful level because it builds an interesting and immersive world and pays attention to constructing a variety of complete player experiences. By going through the walkthrough of the level, one can see just how many techniques are being used to direct the player experience. Although from a production standpoint it is expensive to pack so many setting changes, scripted events, wow moments, new enemies and weapons into a single level, there are many ways to direct the player experience less expensively. The important takeaway is that a big part of a level’s success depends on the player’s experience and to occasionally change the current experience to keep the level fresh and enjoyable.

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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How to Make Your Shooter Combat Better

Sunday, April 5th, 2009

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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What’s Bad About Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare Multiplayer?

Sunday, February 22nd, 2009

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare Xbox Cover Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare PS3 Cover Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare PC Cover


Sorry for the delay in posting this article. It ballooned into a much more in depth game design critique than I had originally planned. I hope you enjoy it.

Despite the fact that Call of Duty 4 has been out for well over a year and has a clear sequel in Call of Duty: World at War, over one hundred thousand players continue to log in every evening on Xbox Live. If you think Infinity Ward must be doing something right, you would be correct. Read my other article about what they are doing right also if you are interested I wrote up my campaign playthrough notes in a previous post. However this article is not about what Call of Duty 4 has done right, it is about what Call of Duty 4 does wrong.

The Bad
At the start the player’s options are very limited and new players are thrown right into the fray against rank 55 opponents to be endlessly slaughtered. Which brings me to what I consider to be the biggest flaw to the multiplayer design.

Call of Duty 4 Does Not Do Enough to Protect New Users
The first few sessions of multiplayer gaming for a new player are the most important and a game should go out of its way to ease these new players in and provide them with the best experience possible. By allowing new players to acclimate slowly, the game does not alienate new players and can keep its player base higher for longer. New players in Call of Duty 4 are punished. As mentioned earlier, brand new players are matched against experienced players from the start. In Call of Duty 4, experienced players not only have better map knowledge and mechanic knowledge (handicaps common to new players in other shooter games), but they also have better weapons and perk options. The results are ugly.

My experience with first-person-shooters is extensive and I consider myself much better than the average shooter player. The first few matches I entered I was killed endlessly by the much more experienced and better equipped players and had horrific kill to death ratios. I would be running along and instantly die from airstrikes and helicopters and have no clue how to prevent them or what was happening. It was a very frustrating experience. It is a good thing that I had the perseverance to continue to keep playing and took the necessary lumps to finally have success and fun with the game. Not everybody is as willing to continue playing despite constantly dying and having a frustrating experience. Call of Duty: World at War partially solves this problem by having game playlists that are only open to players of rank 1 through 10. This keeps the rank 11 – 55 players from destroying new players over and over and ruining their experience.

M16 is not for n00bs
New players are given the choice of five distinct weapon choices at the start. At the top of the menu of choices is the M16. The problem with this is that since the M16 is at the top of the menu and is highlighted by the cursor when the selection screen appears on the console versions, it is the gun that most beginners will select and use first. The M16 is not a beginner friendly weapon. The M16 has a three-round burst shot that has a low rate of fire that requires successive trigger pulls to fire. This all adds up to a weapon that has an unfamiliar mechanic and requires precision to use effectively. This makes the M16 a terrible weapon for a new player to begin with and one that very few will find success without extensive practice. Fortunately there is an easy fix for this problem. The MP5 is a fully-automatic weapon that shoots out 800 rounds per minute. The MP5 is better suited towards new players as they can hold down the trigger to fire and the massive number of rounds fired mitigates the need for pinpoint accuracy. The fix is to replace the positioning on the menus of the M16 and the MP5 respectively.

Some of the Maps are Not Beginner Friendly
To be beginner friendly a map should have easily recognizable landmarks to orient players so that they do not become lost. One of my favorite maps of all time is Zanzibar in Halo 2. That map has a giant windmill in the center that makes it very easy for players to use as a landmark. Another benefit to having easily distinguishable landmarks is that it aids in effective teamwork and communication. A level designer can facilitate this by creating distinctive environment geometry that will allow players to communicate their opponent’s locations to each other effectively. Using Halo 2’s Zanzibar map as an example: “There’s a guy on top of the Windmill!” Everybody on the team will instantly know where that is because the environment geometry is so distinctive. Most of the maps in Call of Duty 4 do this very effectively. Crash is another example of map with the downed helicopter serving as an effective landmark. The maps in Call of Duty 4 that do not do a great job are Backlot, Crossfire and District. While these maps do have subtle recognizable differences to orient you, these subtleties are lost on new players. The first few times I played on these maps I could not tell where I was and become lost on a number of occasions. The labyrinthine streets all look very similar and there is nothing obvious to orient new players.

Call of Duty 4’s Slippery Slope
Once a team starts losing in Call of Duty 4 it is extremely difficult to come back to win. There are fewer comebacks and more lopsided victories in Call of Duty 4 than in any other first-person-shooter that I have ever played. The reason for this is the respawning system, rewards for kill streaks and territorial control.

The Respawning System
The respawn system in Call of Duty 4 is one of the most complained about systems by the Call of Duty community because players are often killed immediately upon respawning. So how does this system work and why is it failing?

C_Stick of the Gamespot forums theorizes that the respawn system “waits for an enemy airstrike, or puts you in an open area under an enemy chopper, or in the middle of two enemy run-and-gunners, or right where you get sniped if you take three steps in any direction.” That may not be far from the truth.

From studying respawning patterns in the game, my best guess at how the respawn system works in Call of Duty 4 is that it respawns players near a teammate furthest from the enemy. This seems like a logical system in theory, but in practice it does not work. As players die and are respawned next to each other they have a tendency to get increasingly clumped together. The situation gets worse when the teams that are dying are surrounded by the enemy and are forced back and contained by the other team into small pieces of territory. This can be seen on any of Call of Duty 4’s maps, but it tends to happen most often around the airplane hangars in Countdown and various corners of the Backlot map.

Containment generally happens in areas that have islands of cover (a space with lots of cover, but surrounded with open no-man’s land) or corners of maps because teams can be pinned down in these areas and it is difficult to leave without exposing yourself to enemy fire.

This is disastrous to contained teams because when clumped together their firing lanes are limited and they become much more susceptible to area of effect attacks like grenades and airstrikes. This leads to waves of people dying over and over just as they spawn in and games that become lopsided and out of reach quickly. The only way to end this negative feedback loop is to have a player escape from the enclosed enemy lines to start the team respawning elsewhere. So how do we fix this? There are two problems here, the first problem is map design and the second is the respawn algorithm itself. I will address map design first.

Map Design
Map designers need to pay attention to map flow. Map flow is what paths players generally take through a map defined by firing lanes, available paths through the level and cover placement. Maps should always have multiple (at least 2, but more is preferable) protected routes from any place on the map. Careful attention needs to always be paid to map corner boundaries because these areas are restricted by the edges of the map. There should be no islands of cover that are hard to leave without dying. These islands typically force players to linger in these places because they cannot leave without exposing themselves and the longer players stay in these islands the more likely teammates will begin to spawn next to them and be trapped in the same situation.

[Countdown Example]

Call of Duty 4 - Countdown Map topdown overhead

The above image shows the locations on Call of Duty 4’s Countdown map where teams are often isolated and become bunched up.

Call of Duty 4: Countdown Map No Man's Land

Notice that there are no viable exits from the hangar that do not expose the players to enemy fire. Also note, the amount of space that the no man’s land takes up in front of the hangars.

Call of Duty 4: Countdown Map cut door

For this particular example, I would recommend cutting entry holes through the hangars at both ends and placing additional cover at these entrances to allow for better map flow.

Respawn Algorithm
A suggestion for the respawn algorithm could be to have a player occasionally respawn furthest away from the enemy regardless of whether an ally is close or not. This suggestion is not without its own tradeoffs in that players may complain that they are spawned way off from the action and alone. Another possible solution could be a player chosen respawn system similar to Battlefield: Bad Company. Whatever the ultimate solution, this should be at the top of the priority list of must fix items for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.

Kills Streaks
In Call of Duty 4 players are rewarded for kill streaks. The player is given a UAV reconnaissance that reveals the location of all enemies on the mini-map for their entire team at three kills, three large area of effect bombs dropped from an airstrike at five kills and a support helicopter that comes equipped with a very damaging machine gun at seven kills. While the positive feedback given from the UAV, airstrike and helicopter rewards the player that achieves a kill streak, it makes it very difficult for the opposing team to come back. The kill streak mechanic rewards players and teams that are already winning and gives them an even greater advantage. This is like giving a team that scores in basketball possession of the ball again so they can score again. The argument can be made that a member of the losing team can have a five and seven kill streak and bring a helicopter in to help their team make a come back, but the losing team is less likely to be able to do this considering the winning team’s control over any non-covered territory with their previous airstrike and helicopter and the aforementioned respawn killing issue. I am not saying that the losing team cannot achieve the same, only that it is harder for them and that this mechanic can make teams that are already winning by a slight margin completely out of reach.

What is the best way to fix this problem? I have a few suggestions that involve slightly lowering the advantage given by the kill streak rewards and making the rewards harder to achieve. Here is a rundown of the rewards and suggested modifications.

UAV Reconnaissance
This is powerful, but it is mostly ok in its current form. It might be useful for the development team to explore with a smaller localized reconnaissance effect for it, centered on the person who triggered it. I say explore because there are a number of risks involved with this change that would be impossible to foretell without rigorous play testing. Foremost would be how to communicate (UI elements) what the size of the reconnaissance effect is to players.

Airstrike
The airstrike itself is bad. It is very frustrating to be killed via airstrike. You are given little to no warning and then you are dead. Not to mention the huge framerate hits (on the Xbox 360 version) when it occurs. The current implementation of the airstrike does not enhance gameplay. Thinking about gameplay as a “series of interesting choices” what are your choices as a player being airstriked? There are no choices, because you instantly die without warning. The only gameplay choices happen before the airstrike. The player has is to prevent the opposing team from ever achieving a five kill streak (not like you are not trying already) or fight entirely from under covered buildings on the off-chance that an airstrike might happen.

As the player who calls in the airstrike, there is a risk element in that you must bring up a map that covers the entire screen in order to call it in leaving the player unaware of their surroundings. This gives the airstrike a slight risk versus reward to its use and this risk element should be preserved in any change that is made.

My suggestion is to change the airstrike to a laser designated airstrike that must be equipped, aimed and fired. This would be a similar mechanic to the airstrikes during the Heat level in the single-player campaign of Call of Duty 4. This would also limit airstrikes to within line of sight of the player and prevent airstrikes from ignoring battlelines and gut enemy positions. To address the framerate issues, limit the airstrike to a single bomb so that the framerate hit is not as prolonged. Lastly, there should be a voice over warning for the airstrike and a slight delay before the airstrike occurs. With the warning the player would at least get a chance to run to cover to avoid the airstrike instead of just randomly dying.

Helicopter Support
The Helicopter is pretty close to where it should be. My suggestions are for just a few minor changes. Raise the kill streak necessary for the helicopter support up to eight from seven. With airstrike kills counting towards achieving the seven kill streak necessary for the helicopter, the helicopter is very easy to get. My second suggestion is to have the helicopter give 10 experience points for killing it. This small reward will prompt more people to shoot at it instead of ignoring the helicopter and allowing it to roam around picking them off and eventually flying away. My third suggestion is to make the RPG a HARD counter for the helicopter. Currently the RPG does not kill the helicopter outright. It requires a RPG attack and a little more. I would propose that the RPG should kill the helicopter in one hit. Let’s look at the RPG as a weapon.

Call of Duty 4 - RPG silhouette

This is why they should do an extra hundred damage on a direct hit and kill the helicopter outright.

While I am on the topic of what to have in the sequel to Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, I had a few more quick suggestions.

As a caveat, my suggestions may change as I put in more time with the game and discover more of Call of Duty 4’s intricacies. This is only a snapshot in time.

Conclusion
The bottom line is if you can get past Call of Duty 4 multiplayer’s initial frustrations, it becomes very addictive and fun. If, like me, you are one of those willing to pay the steep price of entry, there is a lot about Call of Duty 4’s multiplayer that will keep you coming back for more.

See my other related articles:
What’s Good About Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare Multiplayer Mode?
Call of Duty: World at War Through the Eyes of a Game Designer
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare Campaign Playthrough Notes
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
Dead Space Through the Eyes of a Game Designer
8 of the Most Underrated or Overlooked Video Games of All Time


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What’s Good About Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare Multiplayer?

Friday, February 20th, 2009

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Cover Picutre



I have been spending what little free time I have with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare’s multiplayer. I recently reached level 55 out of a possible 55 and decided to gather my notes together into a post.


The Good
The combat in Call of Duty 4 is a cross between run-and-gun and tactical with stronger leanings toward the tactical. CoD4 is a polished, mostly-balanced and skill-based FPS experience.

Persistent character
While Call of Duty 4 is not the first shooter game to have persistent characters, Rainbow Six comes to mind; it executes it better than any shooter game that has come before it. The persistent character can rank up through experience gained through kills and meeting any of dozens of challenges. The challenges encompass everything from getting a certain number of kills with a weapon to humiliation tactics like killing an opponent and then picking up and using their weapon to kill the same opponent again. Constant level based rewards are a proven mechanic and it is used to great effect here. The system is simple and the choices are important, yet limited. The choices include which primary and secondary gun to equip, one attachment for the primary gun and lastly there are three slots of perks to choose from. New options are opened up as you level. The player is given 5 slots to create custom classes with and during a game you can choose between any of them to play with. The persistent character keeps players coming back and playing to unlock the next perk or gun. These unlocks also keep the game fresh as new options are dolled out at regular interval for players to experiment with.

Perks
By gaining levels players unlock new weapons and perks, which offer additional options to customize their character. Perks range from extra damage on weapons to having a final opportunity to pull out a pistol in a last ditch effort to kill your enemy before dying. Perks are a great way to customize your character and since only three can be equipped, players must weigh their choices carefully. Each perk is designed to only fit in one of three slots. A perk like Juggernaut (greater health) is a tier 2 perk and will only fit in perk slot #2. Stopping Power (greater weapon damage) is also a tier 2 perk and will only fit in slot #2. This was intentional and designed so that the player cannot have both Stopping Power and Juggernaut perks on the same class. The player must decide which they would prefer and only take one.


Here are some balancing suggestions for CoD4’s perks.
Frag Grenade x3
I really hate no skill random grenade spam kills. Lowering the primary grenade number down to 2 from 3 would go a long way in resolving this issue.

Add Call of Duty: World at War’s Toss back perk
Tossing back grenades maybe new and important COD4’s single-player campaign, but it is almost always suicide in multiplayer. The Toss Back perk in CoD: World at War resets the fuse timer on grenades and would be a great addition to CoD4.

Bomb Squad
Remove this perk entirely and add its functionality in with the Sonic Boom Perk.


Weapons
In a first-person-shooter the gun is effectively your character and modern guns with all their moving parts and high tech nature simply feel and sound more powerful than their World War II equivalents. This is a big reason to why I like CoD4 over CoD:WaW. WaW’s weapon’s feel weak in comparison and it is just weird to see red dot sights and silencers on WWII weapons. The weapons of Call of Duty 4 are incredibly lethal and are surprisingly well balanced. There are a few anomalies in their balance, but in general the team at Infinity Ward have done a fantastic job. The weapons can be customized through the choice of one attachment selected from such selections as a silencer, a red dot sight or an ACOG scope. These are unlocked through achieving a certain number of kills with the specific weapons. Further, players can choose the paint scheme on their weapons (new paint schemes are unlocked after a certain number of headshot kills on opponents are reached). There are just enough options and slots to customize that the player feels unique, but not so many that it becomes inaccessible and clumsy.

These are the weapons that I currently like using.
Skorpion
I really like the Skorpion machine pistol. It has drawbacks like a small 20 round clip that will often have you reloading and having to switch out to the secondary to finish off multiple opponents, but the lack of recoil and its 50 damage per round up close is insane. I also like it because so few people use the Skopion so that makes me feel special.

P90
I like using the P90 with the silencer. The iron sights on the gun do not block your vision very much so the gains from the red dot sight are minimal. The gun has a 50 round clip with low recoil and I have found that it is ideal for ninjaing around levels.

MP5 / AK – 74
Both of these guns have good damage at the short to medium range distances. The two are so similar in stats that the two guns are nearly redundant. The AK – 74 has slightly greater consistent upwards recoil, but this can be compensated for. The MP5 has less recoil, but the recoil is more erratic.

M16
The M16 in the hands of a good player is really out of control. I almost never equip my class with this because it is such a popular gun that I can generally find this weapon laying around the map and when I do I always pick it up to replace my secondary weapon.

M40
I generally equip this sniper rifle with the ACOG. For some strange reason the damage is increased with this attachment from 70 to 75 damage. Use stopping power for very reliable one shot kills.

On a side note, the grenade launcher (n00b tube) is really annoyingly effective. Since I do not use it, I might be biased in saying the damage needs to be toned down on it.

Modes
I will not go into too many specifics in each of the modes, but if you want to wrack up kills to complete your gun challenges use free-for-all mode.
Mercenary Team Deathmatch is probably my favorite mode and the one I play the most often. While it is team oriented there are no set teams allowed to play together. This means that all the players are playing solo and teams are shuffled around after each round. This lets me get in a few team-based games without running into organized clans. There should really be more modes other than team death match that use mercenary rules. I understand that this may shard the user base, but for a person like me who just wants to hop on for a few games it would be a great option to have.


Come back tomorrow for a much more interesting article on what I think is bad about Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare multiplayer. I will cover such topics as:
1. Call of Duty 4 does not do enough to protect new users.
2. M16 is not for n00bs
3. Call of Duty 4’s Slippery Slope balance
4. The flawed respawn system
5. Kill Streaks

Update
What’s Bad About Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare Multiplayer Mode? has been posted up. Click here to go to it.

See my other related articles:
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
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare Campaign Playthrough Notes
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
Dead Space Through the Eyes of a Game Designer
8 of the Most Underrated or Overlooked Video Games of All Time


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Posted in Video Games | No Comments »

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