California Literary Review

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The Golden(Eye) Rule of Enemy Design!


October 1st, 2011 at 5:22 pm

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Last time the committee was called to order, we touched upon perhaps one of the biggest most insurmountable and at the same time grandest issues in gaming. We also exceeded our standard session length by about 2,000 words, twenty minutes and past most folks’ tolerance for walls of text. Doing so caused an eyebrow of Mayor Haggar’s to be raised, and he calmly yet gruffly suggested that perhaps we “keep it punchy and to the point”.

Considering he’s also a published author himself, we’ll take the advice.

Though in my review of Gears of War 3 I focused on my disappointment that the developers didn’t really shoot for the stars and craft a narrative with long-term resonance, there’s a lot to love about it. Actually, that’s true about the series in general: they’re simply incredibly well designed and highly polished games.

Games which have quite a bit that anyone who wants to make a game, or just know why a game is well made, can learn from each of them. I’m obviously not the only one to think this, otherwise the series wouldn’t have pretty much spawned an entire genre of games emulating it; even if it does seem like quite a few of the folks making cover shooters after Gears missed several of the fundamentals it contains more often than not.

Yeah, this is pretty much what most in the industry took away from Gears of War. Shame they didn’t learn from so many of its other qualities.

(By the way, this pic is from a Comic that you should read. It’s hilarious.)

I’m going to talk about one of these aspects of game design today, something I like to call “The Golden Rule”. No, this isn’t about the Golden Rule of The Gears, that’s about not getting your head blown off when there are perfectly solid chest-high walls about. It’s also not about the more traditional maxim, though it is similar.

No this rule is golden to me because it stems back to my experiences with Goldeneye.

A little game. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?

I absolutely adored Goldeneye when I was a kid. It is probably still Rare’s best game, did much to make First Person Shooters work on consoles and has some astoundingly good ideas in it (it pretty much created headshots among other things). Considering it seems to be on pretty much everyone’s “fond nostalgic memories” list of great Nintendo 64 games I also know I’m not the only one who felt this way. But, there was something in Goldeneye that bugged the hell out of me whenever it occurred:

The guards would sometimes roll out of the way when you aimed your gun at them, and I couldn’t.

It never made sense to me. I mean, here I am, playing as James freaking Bond, a secret agent trained in all manner of weapons, cutting edge technology, languages, martial arts (and marital arts, if you know what I mean), yet If I see a guard coming down a hall and I need to reload as he levels his AK-47 at me, the best I can do is slowly sidestep behind a wall and hope that various amount of bullets don’t hit me as I awkwardly strafe away with the game’s patented “the running man on butter-shoes” animation.

I’m the first to admit that this particular disparity really isn’t that big a deal. I mean it’s just rolling around on the ground after all, and if memory serves, it really didn’t do much to help Trevelyan’s men that much. Half the time they just rolled into walls as if they were drunkenly playing Sonic the Hedgehog.

Drunk Sonic getting a ride.

That’s actually what Tails is for: designated driver, er, flyer.

But the importance of this disparity wasn’t in the balance, which favored the player, it was in the simple fact that it broke my sense of immersion – that all important word that is pretty much the video game equivalent of “suspension of disbelief” – and that’s why I began thinking more heavily about why it did and how it could be avoided. This pondering eventually led to the first official “Rule” I had for what factored as “good” game design, though only in the very narrow category of Enemy AI and Functionality:


If in any video game, there are enemy NPCS (Non-Player Characters) that are the same basic TYPE of character as the PC (Player Character), they shall abide by the same physical restraints and have the same capabilities as the player and all others of that TYPE of character, not including unique training and/or super-powered abilities or skills that an individual variant such as a boss or the PC(s) themselves may have.

Or to put it at it’s most basic:

If the enemy can do unto you, you better be able to do the same thing unto them!

Capt. Falcon Punching Ganondorf Punching Captain Falcon

Yeah, pretty much this.

Seems a really simple rule right? Lots of games abide by it, in fact it super common to see games doing so. However it often seems that just as many don’t. I wonder sometimes if it’s such a basic concept of game design that the people who follow it in their games aren’t consciously aware of it.

Now, the main reason I think it’s important is mostly because of immersion. It seems pretty natural that if you’re playing, say a militaristic First Person Shooter, where you’re a soldier for one side of a conflict, and you’re fighting against your opposite numbers on the other side, that there wouldn’t be too much difference between how you use guns or cover or what have you between your character and the enemy NPCs right?

all with brown hair

While “military guy” is one of the most common video game protagonists, it’s odd that even more fit into the “White with brown hair” grouping!

So if there ends up being an obvious disparity, like say your playing Call of Duty and notice that opponents can take cover behind objects and you can’t; it just ends up making the player have to sit there and ask “Why?”

I’m not sure if there’s a theorem that totals this, but I think there’s a “Why Event Horizon” – or WEH – and if you end up asking this question either a certain number of times or at a certain rate, the WEH is reached, and immersion is broken in half like that time Batman met Bane for tea. One of the primary things this Golden Rule seeks to avoid is reaching the WEH through what is probably the most common event in the game: the constant battles you have with the normal enemies.

Now there ARE discrepancies that are acceptable for the purposes of keeping the game fun. For example, most enemies in games have infinite ammo, and often never have to reload their guns when the player always has both of these limitations. This is an area where, yeah, if the enemies could run out of ammunition, it could theoretically end up boring, so we discount it due to the “Rule of Fun” and move on.

The Rule of Fun is why the characters in Blast Corps spend no time or effort working to disarm the runaway nuclear warhead, but instead just break all of the buildings in its path with dump trucks and power armor. Makes no sense, but it’s fun!

It really seems a rather subjective thing as to what logical inconsistencies are acceptable and which ones might pull the gamer out of the game though. But that’s why immersion isn’t the only reason to consider abiding by this Golden Rule. For I find that it’s also quite useful as a guide for balance.

In general, video games strive for a sense of balance in terms of difficulty. The game needs to be challenging enough that the player is engaged and feels like they’re struggling with a sense of danger that provides tension, yet it also needs to not be so hard that they become frustrated and walk away. This is of course represented in what developer’s like to call difficulty curves.

difficulty curve

The most obvious tell that it’s we nerds that make games: we can seriously GRAPH EVERYTHING WE DO.

Now, there are a lot of factors to balancing a game so that like your girlfriend, it has a pleasant curve or two. One of these is to ensure that no individual mook or goon the player encounters is too powerful, nor too weak, and this is exactly where the Golden Rule can come into play; why not make them functionally the same? If you truly need an opposite number, why not give them all the same capabilities? It can keep things VERY fair.

This is where Gears of War 3 (and its predecessors) can be seen to abide by the Golden Rule quite well. Anything the player characters – the Gears – can do, so can the primary enemies – Humanoid Locust or “Drones” – do the same, with very few exceptions (mostly related to moving from one loading zone to another). The locust can take cover, and so can you. If you can pick up a weapon, so can the locust. You can execute a downed locust, they can do the same to you.

Sure, there are special types of locust that don’t have humanoid forms such as the “Tickers”, large explosive ticks, or the “Corpser”, a pseudo-crab-like giant monster thing, but with the baseline of equals that the drones provide, it becomes simpler to see just how these non-humanoid enemies are easier or harder than the average, and if they are we tend to forgive them for being so. This equality between Locust Drones and Gear soldiers keeps the vast majority of the game always feeling fair, even if the exact situation at the time is actually unfair due to the number of enemies or their superior position or weaponry. This sense of fairness creates a sort of respect for these types of enemies. We know they’re just as capable as our characters and so we know that if we lose to them it’s probably our own damn fault. Since the designers didn’t give them ridiculous AI advantages, if they laugh at us in our failure, it’s totally justified rather than cruel.

Cliffy B surrounded by Supermodels

Cliffy B and his supermodels chortle at your inability to beat his game!

The funny thing is, the Golden Rule keeps things from getting unbalanced in the other direction as well. Playing through Deus Ex Human Revolution it becomes easy to notice that the player (as Adam Jensen) often has huge advantages over the similarly augmented enemies he faces. Not in terms of obvious things like weaponry or numbers, but in terms of functional mastery over the environment, primarily in the fact that he can hide in vents and they can do little about it.

If you ever get into a dangerous situation in Deus Ex, you can usually disengage from the fight, run into a vent and hide – the enemies won’t find you and won’t investigate the vent past the opening. It’s a tremendous advantage throughout most of the game, but not the only one. There are other enemies that share one of your abilities – turning invisible – but none that share the counter that only you can learn – seeing invisible opponents – and thus again the player has a tremendous advantage. So it goes throughout the game, and overall the player ends with a tremendous advantage over the game by the end, feeling like a cybernetic god.

Gold Filter Comparison

Considering the game’s obsession with gold, it’s a tad ironic it doesn’t follow this rule.

Now I could go on, providing examples either in the immersion or balance categories of how abiding by the Golden Rule is more preferable than not. I could continue onto the major exceptions to the rule and spend a bunch of time explaining its importance even considering them, but I think I’ve made my point (hopefully). Besides, Haggar’s giving me the stare down of “wrap things up or else”, and I really don’t want to **** with him about this.

I’ve seen what happens:

YouTube Preview Image

Some NSFW language, but this video’s also pretty awesome.

Good job Epic Games and Cliffy B! May the others who follow your lead look at the solid design you abide by rather than just latching onto the obvious elements of coolness!

Anyway, until next time readers, this session of the Committee is ended. Stay Golden!

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