22 June 2017

Enemy Variety | What Is The Value of Combat Variety?

If there’s one element while designing a product that restricts creativity - it is time. Time influences what content is cut, what is left in and thus decides which pieces of the puzzle the designers have to play with to keep the game interesting. Each and every director uses time in different ways; some use the time allotted to them to add as many features as possible while others focus on removing bugs or bad gameplay elements.

Most commonly cut content include levels, music tracks, certain set-pieces or gameplay mechanics - but data-mining finished games mostly finds cut enemies. Why is this? Well, enemies influence a lot of aspects of the game. For instance they need to be designed to work in numerous combat scenarios but also need to be able to deal and be dealt with all weapons available to the player - all while being different enough from others to warrant its existence. Due to this designing a single enemy can take up as much work as a whole new mechanic for all the pieces it brings with it.

While enemies being cut doesn’t stand out in more exploration based games like Horizon: Zero Dawn or platformers like Super Mario 3d World - it can turn into a glaring issue for action titles as the majority of the gameplay is spent facing off against these foes. The less there are, the faster players might get bored or be left unchallenged. And the worse their design or A.I., the less the combat can shine for a good combatant needs strong enemies.

Yet there are still games that despite cut content offer ample enemy-variety such as Ninja Gaiden Black, Dark Souls, Bloodborne and The Witcher 3: all bursting with more enemies than most series have across all their entries. But isn’t the old saying, “It’s not what you got, it’s how you use it”? While this comment is mostly used to refer to our third sword-arm, let’s get that little in-joke out of the way and focus on the meat of things here. Namely, the topic of this piece:

Enemy variety versus enemy usage, how to make the best possible combat experience under pressure?

Let’s start by looking at how Bloodborne and Dark Souls handle enemies and the combat scenarios surrounding them. Both games feature between thirty and fifty types of enemies, a staggering amount when compared to the whole eleven enemies in Devil May Cry - a game with a bigger emphasis on combat than these Soulsbourne titles. But how do they use their enemies? Bloodborne has the "Fluorescent Flower" enemy for instance which is a foe seen only once during a whole playthrough and never seen again outside of its side-content. The reasoning for this is simple: the enemy has no reason to be in any other location based on the game’s story. This leads to much of the game’s combat revolving around a single area containing one or two types of enemies before moving on to the next one. This lightens the workload on the designers as certain enemy combinations don’t have to be accounted - making balancing a cakewalk. The downside of this mechanic is that lots of possible encounters will never be fought. Soulsbourne titles generally also opt to keep the encounters the same on subsequent playthroughs - with Dark Souls II the only exception - only making enemies hit harder.
To compare back to Devil May Cry the game has less variety which means the player will probably be bored of fighting its Marionet enemies after a while - yet by combining them with other elements they keep it interesting. Some are used halfway through the game, but others only appear on higher difficulties as the designers can expect more from the player. How does the player deal with a Marionet that’s aided by a Nobody? Or when put under pressure with a timer? These mechanics can further break rules of the game’s setting by having enemies appear in illogical locations - but as a trade-off present new challenges and re-playability to a game after it’s completion.
Even the best players in Bloodborne won't be able to test themselves against this setup.
As it is simply not in the game.

Other games like this are Killer is Dead with six enemies and Genma Onimusha with seven; while Genma starts with fights against two types of samurai at once, later ninja’s are thrown in the mix or big demons intermixed with rollers - in the face of lacking content the designers were triggered to be creative with the combat scenarios.

A modern day example is Nioh, a game plagued by tight deadlines which resulted in it lifting animations from other games in hopes of squeezing enough time in to even finish the product. As a result the game contains only twenty enemies, only half of what Soulsborne titles offer. Originally it simply used the same setup of enemies constantly, a skeleton here, a Yokai demon there and perhaps one summoner on that mountain harassing you again; the player would become jaded by the constant re-use of enemies in similar situations. Yet after numerous complaints by fans this was dealt with in Patch 1.06. Here they added new side missions which contained combat scenarios which could best be described as “what if”-fights.
“What if we put these two enemies together in an enclosed space”?
“What if that spider was grouped with floating heads”?
“What if those umbrella foes try to stun the player while a Tengu hunts them down”?

Faced with limited resources Team Ninja experimented with what they had by putting enemies in new situations and combinations, making the game fresh again. And because these new missions were side-content they were free to experiment with the hardest setups imaginable. But a quick approach as this does implicate that the designers don’t balance the enemy compositions, as they are putting pieces next to each other and just see how players deal with it as re-balancing all enemies specifically for one encounter can lead to all sorts of problems - a stark contrast to Soulsborne games where each encounter is analyzed in detail. This can lead to some situations that might not be as balanced as desired, which can also be a strength: not everyone wants a fair fight but seeks the challenge in hardship.

The Crow Shadow Demon only appears on higher difficulties.
Ninja Gaiden Black goes in another route. On higher difficulty-settings it redesigns certain enemies while also adding a new ability or increasing their aggression. This makes the difficulty jump feel more present and the simple change in look reduces a feeling of repetitiveness; a much simpler way of solving the situation. On the flip-side Yakuza Zero contains many different types of enemies, yet they are all re-skins of each other. Some have a different color jacket or lack the pair of shades the other has - this does allow players to differentiate them visually but does give the game a bit of a repetitive-vibe. Yet it cuts down on the design time of the enemies by a ton.

So while there are many ways to handle enemy variety, it’s clear that some ways offer more re-playability and challenge than others. But each comes with it’s own downsides - it all boils down to the type of experience you want your players to have. Immersive, or gamey? Fair, or old school hard? One element rings true for all types though: don’t be afraid to mix and match after the credits roll. The logic of the world has been experienced, so let the real challenge begin. But what about time, and how to deal with it?

To quote Shinji Mikami: “use the time you have not to fix the mistakes, but to polish what is good”.


postscript notes
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  • Ironically many of the ways described in this article lead to people calling the encounters “unfair” which will probably need an article on its own in the future. What is fairness?
  • This article came to be after a discussion with my friend Birdman over on Gamefaqs. Inspired, the complete setup was pumped out in a matter of minutes, but took a while to streamline.

sources
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Lawson, Calab (June 6, 2017). “The Future of Platinum Games”. IGN.com

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