The first time you dove into a gang of thugs in Batman: Arkham Asylum or lobbed a few grenades then switched to a Needler against the Covenant in Halo: Combat Evolved, you knew. You knew that something about the fighting mechanics of the game felt so good that you were hooked. But what exactly was the secret formula that made the combat feel so satisfying, you wondered?
Designer Sébastien Lambottin—who works at Ubisoft's Montreal studio—asked himself the same thing and the answers he came up with went into a great article about the design of combat systems that's up on Gamasutra:
The main objective we have in mind when we design the gameplay mechanics of a combat system is to push the player to make clever choices and use the right ability at the right time. We want the player to be able to anticipate the next action he'll perform and also to develop a tactical plan during the combat.
There are many ways to reach this result, but here are two very important characteristics which help to design the player's abilities for a combat system:
• Each ability has a unique function: hit a specific area, stun an enemy…
• Each ability is balanced with the reward vs. the risk of using it.
Lambottin hits on something when discussing the trial-and-error method which many players use to feel out just what they can do:
As mentioned earlier, when we design a combat system, we are really aiming to challenge the cleverness of the player, and the tactics he'll be able to apply during the battle. So basically we want a system with multiple choices, but in which the player has to evaluate and choose the best option for each situation.
He also offers some illuminating slides about how balance work, too. The next time I really enjoy the combat systems in a video game, Lambottin's article will be knocking around in the back of my mind.
The Fundamental Pillars of a Combat System [Gamasutra]