Combat system 101

The combat system designed for this game is definitely very innovative, and could really become a major influence in future strategy heavy games. Even though the player only directly controls one character in Wendigo, the system is also suited for party-based combat, with few modifications required.

Just as I did with the camera and control schemes, I will look at both ends of the spectrum and see what kind of combat mechanics would fit my vision best.

On the one side, maybe the most tactical-oriented side, we have full-fledged turn based systems, and on the other side, maybe the most twitch-oriented side, if you will, we have full-fledged real time systems. Compromises have been made and “hybrid” systems have been created to get the best of both worlds in one single arrangement, but, for the most part, what really happens is that those systems actually end up getting the worst of each side.

The similarities with the two extreme control schemes I talked about before [not here in the blog, though] are obvious, but I should remember you that any combat system can theoretically work with any control scheme: they just have to be designed for them. However, my objectives for Wendigo remain the same, so my choice may seem predictable. Even so, I will explain in detail my stance on the matter, and show you the reasons that led me to create the kind of combat system I’m about to describe.

Once again, I will deliberately ignore any trends we see in today’s gaming industry. It is more than obvious that real time combat is most people’s favorite, but there are reasons for that, and despite what one could think, they are not as obvious as they might seem, and hold a “greater truth” in them. Lets see the advantages and disadvantage of each kind of combat, then.

Real time combat
Advantages:

  • allows for a more graphically spectacular experience;
  • rewards the player primarily for his physical dexterity and hand-eye coordination;
  • generally behaves as one would expect it to, being more intuitive for most people;
  • is arguably more stress-relieving due to the usual simplicity of gameplay and the quick rewards it provides, and can even produce a rush of adrenaline.

Disadvantages:

  • requires the player’s full constant attention;
  • usually doesn’t work well with complicated features or tactics due to limitations of the interface;
  • is very unfriendly for inexperienced or handicapped players and can lead them to can lead to frustrating situations;
  • can be very chaotic in bigger scale fights and not provide the amount of information a real person would get on a similar situation, once again, due to limitations of the interface;
  • impairs the relevance of the character’s skills as, depending on the player’s skills, a skillful character can be very clumsy, and an resourceful character can be very effective, usually in action sequences.

Turn based combat
Advantages:

  • rewards the player solely for his strategy and forethought;
  • leaves a greater amount of computer resources for each character’s artificial intelligence;
  • permits the implementation of complicated and advanced features that the player can think about at his own pace;
  • allows for full relevance of character’s skills for most actions, increasing the game world’s consistency, in most cases.

Disadvantages:

  • seems odd and unintuitive for most people;
  • is, in most cases, graphically less spectacular, and very still;
  • battles usually take a lot of time and it can be boring to wait for our turn;
  • doesn’t take into account speed of thought of either the player or his character(s);
  • due to a bigger strategical challenge commonly presented, it may require the player to think a lot.

Just as before, I make no point out of the number of points in each field. I do, however, take into account one single aspect above everything else: the relevance of player skill on the game.

Each system has a very distinct design of its own, and they suit themselves for completely different styles of gameplay, so I have to figure out what I want, and then choose what parts I want and do not want in Wendigo’s combat mechanics. One of the things I know for sure, however, is that I do not want the player to be able to artificially change the physical ability of his character. If the character he created isn’t a good sharpshooter, then I don’t want the player to go and make him a good one out of his own physical skill. I want the player to actually experience being a bad shooter, because the game will treat the PC as such, and will develop accordingly. It’s more than a matter of failure and success. It’s also about how any kind of character plays in the game’s setting.

So, here are the things I want to see in the game’s mechanics:

  • a graphically pleasing experience that’s able to entertain players with different attention spans;
  • an easy to understand gameplay that doesn’t look weird or too abstracted from reality;
  • a system that takes into account the character’s skill rather than the player’s, when it comes to simple actions, but, of course,
  • a system that leaves room for strategic thought and planning;
  • mechanics that support, without the need of a learning process, stealth action;
  • a system that plays well in both easy and hard, short and long battles, without frustrating or boring the player.

I understand that these objectives may be nearly impossible to achieve in their entirety. Compromises could be most obvious route to take, but, in the light of all failed or subpar so called hybrid systems created to date, I chose not to give up until I finally found the solution. After all, I had nothing to loose in the first place, and should I come up with something really ingenuous, it’d possibly be a great break for me.

So I finally came up with a basic idea, a kind of “dynamic turn-based” system that blends into what the player wants to do, and lets the whole world play on its own terms. After all, the great benefits of a turn-based system are primarily felt by the player himself, not the artificial intelligence.

For the sake of honesty, I must say I developed this idea out of a misunderstanding of what Bethesda was doing with Fallout 3. Back in late March 2008, nobody really knew how its combat would play, so I came up with my very own interpretation of the little info they had released at that time. And I said to myself: “man! They may have a really incredible system here!”

Unfortunately, as often happens, it turned out their supposedly innovative “turn based” combat was nothing but a full fledged real time system with pause for targeting body parts… Well, too bad for them, but not for me, because my idea was still vivid in my mind, and now I write it down in paper: a truly innovative combat system, possibly the first actual hybridization of the two ends of the scope. Describing it will be a challenge on its own, but I hope understanding my words will be a tad easier.

Ok, so, instead of making it play in a discontinuous abstracted timeline, I made my system out of the usual linear and progressive passing of time, so I guess you could classify it as real time. In its essence, it is real time, but it is definitely not continuous. I explain.

If I went for actual turn based mechanics, it would be very hard to achieve my second objective, that of making a gameplay that isn’t too weird or abstract. At least it would be harder than what I proposed myself to do: a real time engine that rewards the player only for his strategy and not for his reflexes. So I looked at what we have today, which is basically real time with pause, and I saw that many weaknesses of both ends of the bridge were still present, and it created weaknesses of its own. Firstly, there’s the general lack of control over our character(s). In most RTwP systems we mostly see the game play itself, but I wanted the player to fully control what his character does. Secondly, there’s also a lot of chaos in those systems, where we basically start pausing and unpausing waiting for the right moment to do something, and that’s not fun (at all). Also, in most games that employ that kind of combat, there’s little space for complex tactics, in that most decisions are made in a second-by-second basis, and you end up defining a general combat stance for your character(s), and then issuing orders as your enemies change their tactics, if they ever do.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ll take a real time with pause system over a fully real time point and click one any day, and it’s funny to see that such a seemingly tiny feature (active pause) is able to change so much. Because it does.

And I came up with a way to eliminate all these three major weaknesses (and then some). Here’s how.

The root of the system is real time for all means and purposes. Players will find it natural and will know what to expect. The world will work like a real world would, but there are a few features that definitely separate Wendigo‘s combat from everything else.

Because it is real time, all characters act simultaneously. But because there is a latent need to replace the tactical superiority turn based provides, both in terms of having time to think and having a way to “act outside our adversaries’ actions”, two basic functions are implemented. […]

In the end, Wendigo‘s combat translates into gameplay as a really interactive and deep tactical one-man job. Some fights will be easy, if you have the right skills and/or equipment, some will be hard no matter what, and others will be just plain impossible unless you really know what you’re doing. This way, it’s not about how many enemies your character can take on at once, as happens so many times, over and over again, but about how well he can fight, increasing the meaning and tension of each combat.

Besides, combat against many humans may be rare in many playthroughs, and only really experienced and well trained characters can expect to stand a change against some of the most difficult enemies in the game. But worry not: it doesn’t matter if you’re an office geek fighting against a wild dog or if your a ex-commando breaking into a top secret facility, Wendigo will provide all the functions you need to employ even the wildest of your strategies, with an exciting and realistic presentation.


Taken from Wendigo design document ver. 0.2b, October 18, 2009, chapter 8, point 1.

Disclaimer: this excerpt isn’t meant to explain every detail about Wendigo‘s combat system. I did not publish anymore for intellectual property reasons. The image at the top is from Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, not from Wendigo.

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