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How do you make hitting something fun?

A panel of experts answered this burning question at Devcom, and gave advice on the skills you need to become a combat designer

The satisfaction of a well-timed attack is second to none in games. That split second when you know you hit the parry button at just the right time, allowing you to breach and potentially batter your opponent, is a feeling that many gamers thrive on. It's the very reason why Souls-like games are so popular.

A well-choreographed set of moves, a pose that inspires fear or admiration, an enemy with a specific combat style and personality -- all these elements participate in making combat a satisfying element in any game, and they're all the task of the combat designer.

Combat designers from some of the most popular melee combat action games out there gathered for a panel at Devcom earlier this week. They discussed what their role entails, how they work hand-in-hand with many other roles at a studio, and what set of skills you should have to become a combat designer.

Entitled "Killer Combat Design," the panel aimed at giving pro tips from experts, and featured SEI Santa Monica Studios' combat design lead Mihir Sheth, Respawn Entertainment's design director Jason de Heras, and SuperAlloy Interactive's Eric Jacobus, also a stuntman and actor who most recently played Kratos in God of War. The session was hosted by design consultant at Recurver Joe Quadara.

Understanding the combat design puzzle

Before giving advice on the set of skills needed to become a combat designer, the panel discussed the subtleties of their roles, including how combat design is as much about poses as it is about motion.

"You need to have a solid understanding of why something is feeling satisfying, and why something isn't," Mihir Sheth said. "Before we have someone like Eric [Jacobus] go into a [motion capture] suit, it starts with understanding poses.

"You need to have a solid understanding of why something is feeling satisfying, and why something isn't"Mihir Sheth, Sony Santa Monica

"When you think of an animation, it's just a series of poses being played back. But within that, there are key poses, key things that you need to read. And the moment you see it, you understand. So we talk about anticipation a lot in design. And what that means is that, before I attack you, I'm going to look a certain way that lets you understand: 'oh I'm about to attack you.' Then there's the actual moment of attack. And then you have the recovery. Some of those poses just look really iconic.

"So before we even talk about motion, let's talk about poses. If you have strong poses for every one of those moments and you link between them, you sell motion, and that is a lot more compelling."

The panel also addressed how you can look at combat as a puzzle. And the combat designer is not the only member of the studio adding pieces to this puzzle, with the role working hand-in-hand with the encounters team.

"When we say the term 'combat puzzle', this is a very player-centric way of thinking about combat," Sheth continued. "You can break combat down, which is like individual moves, but that's not how players think about combat.

Combat design is as much about poses as it is about motion

"If you see a movie and you see a [combat] scene, it's like: what are you going to do to get out of this? You walk into a room, there's six different people around, two guys have a crow bar, one has a gun. In your head, you're thinking: what do I need to do to handle all of this? What test is each different opponent presenting to me?

"And in game design it works pretty much the exact same way. We have encounters, so oftentimes the combat teams create the individual chess pieces, but it's the encounters team that creates the chessboard. And they're like: hey, we're gonna put this specific enemy here."

The combat designers often create archetypes that are then placed by the encounters team -- enemies that players are used to: the ranged enemies, which are usually at the back, or the melee enemies that are going to run up to you.

"And then there's always going to be that one tanky guy who walks into the room," Sheth added. "That's all there for the purpose of providing a puzzle to you. We're asking you, as the player: what are your combat tools? And how are you gonna use them to solve this puzzle, the way that you would solve any other puzzle in the environment?

"The combat teams create the individual chess pieces, but it's the encounters team that creates the chessboard"Mihir Sheth, Sony Santa Monica

"I think combat really shines when it comes together and the cohesive puzzle experience is satisfying. If you're going to do something fun for hours and hours on play, you need to be engaged and that's where encounters really shine."

Advice to become a combat designer

  • Core competencies

The panel also shared invaluable advice to aspiring designers who are tempted to specialise in combat. We previously published a GamesIndustry.biz Academy guide about how to become a game designer, and there's one piece of advice that's common to all design roles.

"[People looking to get in] just need to be passionate about making games," said Jason de Heras. "And they [need] to have a designer's mind -- not necessarily a combat designer's mind. They just like to put the pieces of the puzzle together, they like to solve a wide range of problems -- small and big.

"And then specifically for a combat designer: do you like character action games? Do you like those little pieces? Are you satisfied when you play like DMC and you land very frame intensive moves? Do you like a certain anime, and is there something fun about that that you could recognise and analyse? Are you good at extracting personality out of certain concepts?"

According to de Heras, one of the core questions a combat designer should ask themselves is: what makes getting hit fun?

Being a combat designer is all about understanding what the engaging aspect of hitting something is

"Some people don't think about that one: how do you make hitting something fun? What's the engaging aspect of that? Generally we look for combat designers that just understand the interactions between two things, like a character and the hero. And have imagination about how certain things work in terms of combat.

"But technically it's: do you like playing with animations? Do you like? scripting behaviors of AI? Do you like working with character art? It's all this collaboration that affects combat. It's not just technical timing or effects -- it's everything. But the concept from the start is: does it look like it could hit and be flexible and strike the right pose and all that stuff? So from the very beginning, is that something you want to be involved in? From that, all the way to implementing an animation or tuning numbers -- you could be tuning variables [of a character] for a week."

  • Taking a character through the pipeline

Combat designers need to be detail-oriented and have a deep understanding of how things work. But, getting into a junior combat designer role, you should also know what to expect, as it may not align with what you had in mind.

"You have to be a bit realistic on what you are likely to be doing if you're getting into it," Sheth said. "And I'm going to speak about what I'm familiar with, which is modern AAA melee combat action games.

"You're probably not going to come on board and redesign the entire combat system"Mihir Sheth, Sony Santa Monica

"And you're probably not going to come on board and redesign the entire combat system. More often than not, when you have someone starting in combat design, they are likely going to be on enemy design and implementation. You're gonna focus on these chess pieces that we talked about earlier. And you're gonna go through the entire pipeline."

So your role will be to take a character through the entire development process, from working with narrative on what that character is, to working with concept art on what it should look like, to then character art, how it's built out, getting animations, putting it in a game.

"That process of just taking somebody from start to finish, I think is the number one advice that I give to people looking to get in," Sheth continued. "Implementation is extremely highly valued. Implementation is going to be your biggest strong suit early on. Any familiarity you can have with state machines, AI systems or behavior trees [is great]. It's not going to be necessarily: 'I have this brilliant idea for an entire combat system.' Starting off, when we interview, the thing we're looking at is: can you work with all of these disciplines?

"Know that they're relying on you to make their stuff sing. I think that's one thing as a game designer, and especially as a combat designer, is that you're really a character owner. And looking at it from that perspective I think changes it a little bit."

Jason de Heras concurred on implementation being very important, as getting an idea from paper to implementation can help you find out what doesn't work.

"You're going to find that instantly, when you start implementing an attack or this whole suite of moves, that you have to go back to the drawing board," he said. "But you are the owner, you're the one that controls it. People are gonna rely on you to find that fun, and fail as fast as possible, because you're the one actually doing the nuts and bolts."

GamesIndustry.biz is a media partner of Devcom Digital

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Marie Dealessandri

Deputy Editor

Marie Dealessandri joined GamesIndustry.biz in 2019 to head its Academy section. A journalist since 2012, she started in games in 2016 at B2B magazine MCV. She can be found (rarely) tweeting @mariedeal, usually on a loop about Baldur’s Gate and the Dead Cells soundtrack. GI resident Moomins expert.