How Dark Souls Changed Combat

Most games with 3rd person combat have enemies with slow reactable attacks, and player characters with very quick unreactable attacks, such as Ocarina of Time, Devil May Cry, God of War, Batman Arkham, Witcher, and so on. The Soulsborne series made a bold decision with regards to this. The standard attack speed of most weapons is roughly the same speed as enemy attacks. This means that attacking after an enemy does generally means they’ll hit you first, interrupting you, unlike other series where your attack will come out first. This means you can no longer react to an enemy’s windup with an attack of your own.

By slowing down your attacks, the souls games put you on the same timescale as enemies. Enemies need to be slow so you can react to their attacks and defend against them, and slowing down your attacks to match theirs means there’s more of a risk that they’ll interrupt you before you interrupt them. This means that enemies can afford to rely on hitstun less to be threatening. Overall, it creates more of a neutral game between you and your opponents, where you jockey for position and try to use attacks strategically. Because you’re less sure to hit first, whiff punishing becomes more important to safely hitting enemies.

Slowing down attacks also means that attacks could be more diverse in the time at which they hit, and thereby exhibit a wider range of tradeoffs between damage, range, and speed, which Dark Souls leveraged to create a diverse assortment of weapons. Nioh then leveraged this further by attaching a bunch of moves to the same weapon, and finding ways to distinguish them all using the stance system.

There isn’t a lot to say about this. Slowing down attacks while keeping your defensive options fast is a simple effective trick for emphasizing more of the neutral game in any game with 3rd person combat. It makes individual enemies more threatening, and multiple enemy fights more dynamic too. Obviously not every game should work this way, but it’s cool in the games that use it.

What the fuck is Paired Animation?

You’ve seen paired animation before, even if you didn’t know what it was called. Many people have frequently called these “canned animations” or some such. I first discovered the technical name for it is Paired Animation when I saw a production video on Assassin’s Creed Origins, that happens to define what it means.

“We’ve drastically changed the paradigm of what is fight. In previous [Assassin’s Creed games], we used what we call technically a paired animation system. Which means when you swing your weapon, the hero and enemy align, they play an animation together, you wait for it to finish, and then you continue fighting. We went to a hitbox system, which means that anytime you swing your weapon, no matter the distance or if anyone is around you, you’re gonna swing. That means that distance matters. The speed of your weapon, your position relevant to other enemies, [it all] matters. If you have a big spear and are swinging it around you can hit multiple enemies at the same time. It’s not just about the damage anymore, [but about] speed, length, position and the number of enemies you’re fighting.”

In short, it’s when both a player and enemy are involved in the same animation, one of the player attacking, and one of the enemy being hit, neither being allowed to move independently while this is going on. This approach allows animators to have the player manipulate the enemy’s body and limbs in the animation directly. This is necessary for things like catching an opponent’s punch.

So where have you seen Paired animation before? Assassin’s Creed is the obvious one, every game before Origins had paired animations for all combat. The Batman Arkham series uses paired animations for all punches, counters, and takedowns, plus jumping on top of an enemy’s head. Dark souls uses paired animations for backstabs and ripostes, plus opening doors and operating devices. Doom 2016 and Eternal use paired animations for glory kills and chainsawing. Every fighting game in existence uses paired animations for throws/grabs.

So what’s bad about paired animations? Many reasons were listed in the Asscreed developer’s quote. Paired animations don’t let you hit multiple enemies with large weapon, because they’d need to make a specific animation that hit multiple enemies and a coded way to transition into it smoothly (Deus Ex HR did this, but it cut to black so it could set the enemies up, otherwise the transition would be jarring). They don’t factor in the length of your weapons, because most weapons have distance-closing animations, letting you snap to a target. And the speed of the move doesn’t matter, because you can’t be interrupted by the opponent you’re attacking, since they’re caught in the damage receiving animation from you.

The key problem with paired animations is the way that they snap onto enemies. Snapping in general can be problematic, because it erases specific circumstances, normalizing them into the same outcomes every time. Paired animations don’t care what was going on before they started, your spacing, velocity, movement, they take whatever happened and deliver a uniform result. Many paired animations are also invincible, because it’s difficult to resolve what would happen if they were interrupted. This leads to the awkward circumstance of trying to initiate a paired animation on purpose to go through other attacks, or coming out of a paired animation with an attack directly on top of you. One clever move for Nioh from Dark Souls, was removing backstabs and instead giving bonus damage to hits from behind. Parries in Nioh are still frequently paired animations.

When is okay to use paired animations? Paired animations are good for actions that specifically require them, obviously, such as grapples, and operating objects. In most fighting games, throws make both participants immune to damage. In the Smash Bros series, people can still be hit during a grab, but there is hyper armor applied during the throw part of the animation, to guarantee it finishes successfully. Paired animations are acceptable in circumstances where 1 tap will eliminate an enemy completely, since it would already always have the same result, and already doesn’t depend on circumstance. Examples would be takedowns in Deus Ex Human Revolution, or Glory Kills in Doom 2016.

Why FEAR 1 Is The Most Important Hitscan Shooter – ft. Durandal

This is another guest post by Durandal. If you’d like to submit a guest post, contact me on discord.

In the 00’s, developers forgot how to make singleplayer shooters with deep combat anymore. For the sake of realism most weapons were made hitscan to resemble how guns work IRL. Enemy variety suffered, since hitscan tracers don’t have as many mutable properties as projectiles do. Weapon variety suffered, since identical enemies don’t warrant a varied weapon arsenal as much. Finally level design suffered, because there isn’t a whole lot you can do with identical weapons and enemies.

So what do you do if the core gameplay lacks variety? The common approach taken by most developers was switching to another style of gameplay to avoid wearing out the core shooting. Instead of running, you’re now driving a tank. Instead of gunning, you’re now forced to be stealthy. Instead of depth, you’re shooting for breadth. Shooters became theme park rides where every half hour they introduced a new mechanic or mode of gameplay and then threw it away for good. Remember all the vehicle sections? The turret sections? The sniper sections, forced stealth sections and escort missions? They weren’t mechanically deep, but they were at least something different.

Soldier of Fortune, No One Lives Forever, the Medal of Honor games, the Call of Duty games, TimeSplitters, Black, Return to Castle Wolfenstein, XIII, the new Wolfenstein games, the Gears of War games, the Killzone games, the Resistance games, even exceptions with standout combat like the Halo games and Vanquish all fell prey to this need to completely change the mode of gameplay for the sake of variety. That’s what happens when you don’t believe your core gameplay can carry the game — when you don’t know how to iterate on hitscan combat.

Stealthily sniping spotlights on a slowly moving monorail really plays to the strengths of Vanquish’ rocket-boosting combat

And then there’s FEAR. On the surface it’s identical to other shooters at the time, save for a slo-mo power and a three-weapon limit instead of the usual two. Here you’ll be fighting the same grunts over and over using a shotgun and some assault rifle variant. Yet despite this generic premise, FEAR managed to stand out in an oversaturated market. Not because of gimmicks or unique mechanics, but somehow good hitscan combat and “good” AI. So what did FEAR do right?

First, FEAR’s combat arenas are circular — meaning each path you can take is surrounded by one or two covered flanking routes. These allow you to circle around the main path and get the drop on enemies, which beats taking guaranteed hitscan damage in a direct firefight. Without these you’re left with a hallway (similar to the left layout in the above diagram) that only allows you to move back and forth, where all you can do is sit in place and play peekaboo; only moving up when most of the enemies are dead. Circular map design (like the right layout in the above diagram) then discourages simple and repetitive strategies like these by giving you the opportunity to move around enemies.

Second, the Replica AI can also make use of these flanking routes. Since no position is safe, both you and the Replicas are always trying to outmaneuver each other for a better angle. This new dynamic gives level designers more options to play around with: arena layout, height variation, player/enemy points of entry, cover density, and other opportunities for creating varied encounters can be used without resorting to gimmicks. More importantly, the levels provide the AI with options too. Without them the Replicas would be stuck playing peekaboo, just like you. “Good” AI is pointless if it has no meaningful options to use.

Third, FEAR grants you the initiative. Before the fight begins, the Replicas will spread out across the arena, unaware of you. This allows you to scan the arena layout, set up traps, and choose how to start the fight. This not only gives you more engagement options, but gives you more courage to start in the middle of the action.

Compare this to entering a new room only to find several Replicas inside already firing at you. Here your only options are to rush in for a better position, or retreat behind the doorway and take potshots. The former will kill you; the latter is boring, because it leaves you with no other viable movement options. There the Replicas can only flush you out with grenades, or waltz into your choke point one-by-one. Even if the room ahead is a well-designed circular arena, it’s wasted if you’re already pushed out of it when the fight begins.

But there’s another aspect to FEAR that sets it apart, and that’s information warfare. Here you have to deal with a fog of war. Enemies are spread out in such a way where you can’t see them all at once, and you’re rarely given a full overview of an arena. So without perfect information, you have to improvise through prediction and info gathering.

One such layer of information is sound, like how the sound of footsteps can give one’s position away. The Replicas are very vocal not just to appear smart, but also to give you more information. This way you can hear what their status is, or what they’re about to do next. Other sources of information may include lighting. Shadows reveal enemies around corners, and Replicas get alerted to your flashlight. And by knowing that Replicas prefer to flank, you can predict the path they’re more likely to take.

Compared to shooters with a similar focus on positioning like Quake 3 or Rainbow Six: Siege, FEAR’s info warfare is very basic. The former pit do pit you against actual human opponents, after all. But FEAR proves there’s untapped potential for singleplayer hitscan shooters where the AI can outmaneuver you. FEAR only doesn’t take the idea that far. To that end, there could be secondary objectives. Vying for resources or having to capture/defend a target would expand the mindgames; force both parties to consider more than killing each other. Diverse enemy behaviours (sneaky, distant, aggressive) could expand what you can predict/exploit. More movement options (destructible surfaces, teleporting, grappling hooks) could expand how you approach each other. Tools such as radars and drones could expand how to gather information. Both parties could spread misinformation using holograms, cloaking devices, traps, and smoke grenades. Most of the Siege operators would make for interesting enemy types, actually.

The flanking game is what makes FEAR great, but the slo-mo power and being able to carry up to 10 instant-heal medkits conflicts with that. Both allow you to tank damage that would have killed you otherwise. And because slo-mo energy refills fast and medkits are handed out like candy, you have a lot of resources to tank through enemy fire; playing down the flanking game in favor of a shallower yet more effective playstyle.

Mechanics that mitigate damage (regenerating health/shields, portable medkits, slo-mo) do allow more aggressive playstyles in the face of hitscan. But these tend to have the opposite effect of encouraging thoughtless brute-force playstyles. Why think about movement if I can tank most damage anyways? To compensate, games could offer you tools to gain the positional advantage. In Crysis and Vanquish you can spend your energy for a positional advantage (Maximum Cloak/Speed, knee thrusters) or an offensive advantage (Maximum Power/Armor, slo-mo). So could FEAR’s slo-mo energy also be used for a speed boost.

FEAR managed to remain engaging despite its limited enemy/weapon variety and it being all hitscan by adopting a new design paradigm. One where positioning and constant movement are emphasized rather than tanking damage or trench warfare, proving that interesting combat can be had with only hitscan. Sadly, no singleplayer game tried to follow in FEAR’s footsteps since, despite the massive unexplored potential of this new paradigm that Rainbow Six: Siege also hints at.

What’s the point of combos in fighting games?

Many beginners get into fighting games and see these COMBOS and feel like, “bullshit, it’s not fair that they can deal a billion damage. I hit them twice as much and they win off one hit.” While that can be frustrating, combos add a lot to the game that you can’t get any other way.

The deal with combos is they make certain hits under certain circumstances more damaging than just any random hit. Games with longer combos allow players to find different combo routes that lead to different types of advantages, like more damage, better screen positioning, knockdown, meter gain, easier confirms, and safety on block. Continue reading

Cool Airdashes (unlike Hollow Knight’s)

You mentioned that Hollow Knight’s airdash on its own was sort of boring, just moving you in a straight line. Whats an interesting airdash?

Something with an arc of some kind, acceleration, deceleration, a hop, a glide.

In Guilty Gear, you have an airdash whose momentum carries you forward as you attack, allowing attacks to chain in ways they cannot off just a jump.

In Melty Blood and UNIEL you have an airdash that’s more like a hop forwards. Mario Odyssey’s dive could be considered an airdash too in this way, it even lifts you up slightly to let you just barely clear platforms.

The dash could start with momentum forwards that falls off as it progresses, and a resistance to gravity that also decreases as it progresses, so it travels straighter as it starts, then begins to fall like normal as it goes.

It could transition into a glide, or have glide-like physics should the player move it manually.

Ori and the Blind Forest’s bash is a really unique airdash-type move.

Morrigan’s airdash in Darkstalkers lets her tilt it up or down as she goes.

Celeste has an 8-way airdash that can transfer its momentum into the ground for a big boost, much like a wavedash, which is interesting.

There’s a lot of ways to toy with momentum and gravity. Hollow Knight’s movement options are all kind of simple and straightforward, only really becoming interesting when you have a bunch of them to combine. Hollow Knight’s double jump is out of the ordinary, being a bit like the jump of the DJC characters from Smash Bros (Yoshi, Peach, Mewtwo, Ness, etc), but this doesn’t increase its utility, it more exists to nerf its functionality versus airdashing and wall jumping, so it occupies a distinct niche relative to them (doesn’t have as fast startup, so it’s slower for climbing and moving laterally), which is fair, and helps make the sum of all of these moves more interesting to use, even if none of them are particularly interesting individually.

At least Hollow Knight doesn’t have the teleport from Axiom Verge. That teleport somehow manages to be even less interesting than HK’s airdash.

Running Away is Deep!

Can having the option of fighting an enemy or running away be a form of depth?

Yes! Absolutely!

But more appropriately, the question generally tends to be, is having the option of fighting an enemy or running past them a form of depth?

NES games are the masters of this. Especially Castlevania 3 and Contra. Enemies in old games tend to have contact damage, they hurt you if you touch them. Then they’re set up in places where they block your way. This means that to get past them, you need to brush up against them, potentially hurting yourself. Continue reading

Balancing Parries for Single Player

How are parries treated in fighting games? Specifically in comparison to single player games where once you get the timings down, it can trivialize enemies.

It depends on the fighting game, but I largely covered this in my last article on parries. Parries in fighting games can be beaten, unlike parries in single player games. In 3rd strike, you have to parry high or low, and the two zones are more separated and exclusive from one another than blocking (so moves that you normally could block crouch blocking might have different parry zones). In other games parries usually have a recovery time. In practically all fighting games, parries can be thrown.

This means parries have weaknesses, they can be mixed up, either with timing, or by choosing options that beat parry. In a single player game, this isn’t really feasible. Everything needs to be reactable in order to be fair, which means if everything is parryable, then every problem can be solved with parries. Some measures you can throw in to prevent this are having unparryable attacks, force the player to respond differently to those. You could have different parry zones too, so they need to parry differently depending on the incoming attack, but this amounts to basically just giving the player shit instead of solving the core problem, which is that parries hand players a difficult but simple solution to any problem where they are applicable. It’s not a question of, “would it be better to attack or defend now?” It’s just “If I can do it, parrying is best.” And you might have different types of parries or unparryable attacks, so players have a bit more trouble reacting, but the fundamental problem is still there in a way that it isn’t for parries in multiplayer games. Parrying isn’t the best solution to scenarios in 3rd strike all the time, since it’s not always rewarding (parry into throw) and requires commitment for the number of parries you’re gonna attempt and the followup. It is in Guilty Gear, but it also costs meter in Guilty Gear, which is a limited and precious shared resource.

Oh yeah, maybe that’s the answer. Bloodborne limits parrying by tying it to bullets, but that just restricts the amount of times you can parry, bullets aren’t really used for much else of consequence. Imagine if parrying in dark souls cost you literally your entire stamina bar, requiring the bar to be full first, and you don’t get it back after a successful riposte. Hell, make stamina a bit negative even afterwards. Perhaps you could balance parrying by limiting the conditions for it, and having it cost you significantly otherwise, so you can only use it occasionally, and by sacrificing something else important.

Emo Kid Special Moves (Self Harm)

What do you think of special moves in fighting games that damage the player when they use them?

I’m not a fan of mechanics that push both players closer to losing simultaneously, negative feedback. Mechanics like this could also be called Collateral Damage or Mutually Assured Destruction. The idea is, you’re taking damage, but hopefully you deal more than you take, and even though you’re wrecking yourself, you will push the game closer to ending faster and be on top when it does end.

You can think of moves like this dealing effectively less damage, since they’re damaging you at the same time, so you’re not gaining as big a lead over your opponent by using them. So if I deal 4 points of damage to you, and 1 to myself, I only really dealt 3 points of damage to you, but moved the game 1 point closer to overall conclusion. This can tend to make games more swingy, because it functions a bit like negative feedback. It also makes characters with this trait effectively weaker than characters without it, unless their damage is compensated for the damage they deal to themselves.

In a game like Smash where the amount of damage you can take isn’t capped, and isn’t directly tied to losing, this can work out slightly better, because you can continue to use the self-destructive moves ad infinitum, just taking on additional damage, instead of outright killing yourself. I take this tactic with Snake a lot. He can pull out grenades and go suicide bomber with them, and you blow yourself up a lot, but hopefully you blow the enemy up more often. Also when coming down, you can pull out a grenade and if the opponent hits you, it will cause you to drop the grenade. If they hit the grenade too, then it will explode, damaging both of you, and overriding the knockback of their move, usually for a lower knockback, which can help you survive a lot of hits. In this way you can evade death at great personal cost, while dealing damage to the opponent as well. Since there isn’t a fixed percentage that you die at in smash, you can abuse this a fair amount, and use it to turn the tables on your opponent (though of course, you come out a lot worse in that trade than they do).

Overall though, I think adjusting payoffs in this way doesn’t contribute significantly to the depth of a game. It doesn’t strongly differentiate the game states in my opinion the same way changing the physical characteristics of moves does. I don’t think Pichu is significantly more interesting for damaging himself, I think it’s largely pointless. Even if it is a cool touch for characters like Tien in DBFZ (and it works mildly better in DBFZ, because killing a character is a much bigger benefit than just getting a health advantage, so it can be a tradeoff of orthogonal assets, rather than strictly victory points).

Open World Travel Time

How much of a problem is extended travel time in games? For example: lack of fast travel in the beginning of Dark Souls, or traveling to a location in an open world? Is it just filler?

I think this is a false premise.

Travel time can be a pain, but I think the better metric is, time spent without a challenge of some kind, or even more accurately, time spent without an interesting decision, because obviously things like configuring equipment, leveling up, and other such clerical tasks aren’t challenging, but they involve interesting decisions.

I have stated many times that I really like that there’s no fast travel at the start of dark souls. I like that you need to pathfind your way around a complex series of areas that have new connections opening up as you go, so trying to find the optimal route is an interesting decision in-of itself, and you need to do things like fight enemies on the way there which is an interesting series of decisions, and given you’re pathfinding, you end up generally going through the areas in an order you didn’t go through it the first time, so it’s slightly different each time, rather than just repeated content.

I think open world games suffer a little more in this respect because the world is not dense enough with challenges. Traveling from place to place takes a lot of time, and you don’t do much along the way, which can be boring. This is where lessons from platformers or racing games could probably factor in more.

What genre, if any, do you think benefits most from an open world?

The open world genre.

I mean, open world is kind of its own genre at this point, right? Among the big entrants we have RPGs, like Skyrim and the Witcher 3, “Stealth” like Asscreed and MGSV, and a ton of 3rd person shooters, like Just Cause, Watchdogs, GTA, Far Cry, MGSV, Red Dead Redemption, plus a lot of others, and we have sandbox games like Minecraft and No Man’s Sky.

I don’t think any genre benefits particularly more than any other genre from being combined with open world. It’s just a content presentation style really. Probably games that are more sandboxy like minecraft or breath of the wild benefit a bit more, but I mean, being sandboxy comes with being an open world game to a degree.