Describing combat is to convey the emergent result of many game complexities. Though mechanics, variation, design space, and balance are all gears in the gameplay engine, how they fit together to shape the emergent whole is a separate more complicated matter. And though discussing balance does consider emergent gameplay, it does not actually convey it.
To help describe combat we'll need two new terms/concepts:
Phases of Combat
This is an indispensable concept that is commonly overlooked when describing combat. A phase of combat is defined as the set of conditions greatly shaping potential strategies and playstyles that all parties are affected by equally. Phases are usually long (in video game standards) taking 30 seconds to minutes at a time. They also generally do not include when one party changes the conditions unevenly for one or more parties (including itself). For example, knocking down the opponent in Street Fighter is not a phase. Pressing the advantage like running a contain strategy in Star Craft (keeping the opponent stuck inside their base) is not a phase either. Phases are also mainly used to describe changes in global battle conditions. After all, all combat occurs in at least 1 phase (set of conditions). The concept is best learned through examples:
- ChuChu Rocket: (see video above). In this wacky action puzzle game up to four players lay down arrow tiles to guide mice to their individual rocket ships on a grid field. If a cat touches your ship, you lose a percentage chunk of your collected mice/points. Grab the ?-mice and a roulette is spun. Some of the options change the conditions of the match for all players. From "cat mania" (only cats spawn) to "place arrows again" (the whole field gets wiped of arrow placement), to mouse mania you never know what phase the combat will be thrown into. This is a great example of a controlled yet random phase change.
- Advance Wars Series: Though random weather effects have never been my perfered way to play (nor fog of war), it's easy to understand this random phase feature. As you play, the weather can change for a few turns. In rainy weather vision is limited. In snowy weather movement is limited. And in a sandstorm attack power is limited.
- Bomberman (see video): In the classic death match, all players begin in the same phase (sometimes called the early game). The phase is defined as having a field full of blocks to destroy. You may destroy blocks for powerups or to free up space for navigation. Regardless, when all the blocks are destroyed the battle conditions change. Whatever powerups you have by the mid game (phase 2), you're stuck with (for the most part). At this point all players will either evade or attack until the 3rd phase (end game). Near the end of the timed match, the game will say "hurry up," and the stage will slowly begin to fill in. Even the most evasive players will be forced into close proximity, thus the conditions are changed again.
- Star Craft: Though a bit tricky to define, the phases of StarCraft matches are divided into 3 phases according to the ability for players to acquire tier 1, 2, and 3 units. Think about it this way, the most powerful units in the game take a lot of resources and time to create. Yet when they hit the scene, the conditions of the battle are changed. The versatility and counter-ability these units bring to the battle are significant. Many players will plan on reaching these phases as soon as possible. It would be difficult to classify the ability of one player to acquire powerful units as a phase if it was one sided. However, the limiter here is time (like in Bomberman). After a set amount of time has passed, all players generally have an equal opportunity to get the next tier of units assuming they aren't pressured.
- In Halo power weapons and other powerups are spawned into the game. After each is grabbed, the game will typically spawn another one after a specific amount of time has passed. This design creates distinct phases in a multiplayer match.
Have you ever studied a gameplay strategy that never worked "on the field of battle?" Have you ever practiced a powerful combo or any specific sequence of moves and never completely pulled it off in a match? One reality of combat is that you rarely get to just play "your game" against an opponent of equal skill or higher. With game systems deeper than Rock Paper Scissors, interplay (counters) is combat. The beauty of deep gameplay systems is that when one player pushes, the other usually is forced to respond in some way (pull). The disadvantaged player will try to minimize the damage or turn the tables. When one player continually pushes, he/she sets the tempo for the match forcing the opponent to respond and keep up.
For a simple example consider a Street Fighter match between Zangief and Sagat. Zangief is extremely dangerous up close. Sagat is pretty great at keeping opponents back and he's good up close. Zangief cannot do what he does best while Sagat attacks from across the screen with fireballs. Until Zengief finds a way to work his way into close quarters, he's very limited. So a good Sagat can play a smart fireball game keeping Zangief in a limited counter situation as long as possible. Notice how many times the Sagat decides to back away from Zangief.
So we can define an interplay barrier as a level of play or a counter strategy that one player can force another to use or suffer a significant disadvantage. Interplay barriers are similar to skill/learning barriers. After all, forcing a player to use a strategy or to step up their game is another way of forcing a player to prove their DKART skills.
Here are some examples...
- If you can't out snake me, then all the items in the game won't save you (Mario Kart DS).
- If you can't out snipe me or dodge my homing missiles, then running away to grab the health ups will not work (Metroid Prime Hunters).
- If don't know the exact timing of bombs or you can't create traps with few powerups, then you'll never make it to the mid game and beyond. (Bomberman).
- If you can't survive a rush or an early push of any kind, good luck getting out of the early game. (Star Craft).
- If you don't understand safe jumps, mixups, or frame traps, you won't even be able to guess correctly (Street Fighter 4).
You can think of interplay barriers as branching, hierarchical tests. When sizing up opponents interplay barriers are often used in a step by step progression. If you pass the first test, I'll move on to the second. If you pass the second, there's always a third. The tester in this case is the person who asks the questions or sets the tempo. Sometimes, the way an opponent responds with their counter strategy turns the tables on the tempo of a match. So the tester or the tempo setter gets no free passes.
In part 3, I'm looking closely at how human players complicate gameplay in the best way possible.