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What Makes a Good Combat System? | Game Maker’s Toolkit

One of my most requested video topics is combat systems. So let’s look at everything from Bayonetta and Yakuza, to Batman and God of War, to break down the essential elements of a good melee combat system.

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Further Reading / Viewing

Making a powerful punch sound from scratch | Marshall McGee

Action Game Analysis Playlist | Turbo Button

7 combat systems that every game designer should study | Gamasutra

Games shown in this episode (in order of appearance)

Devil May Cry 4 (Capcom, 2008)
Golden Axe (Sega AM1, 1989)
Double Dragon (Technōs Japan, 1987)
Bayonetta 2 (PlatinumGames, 2014)
God of War (Santa Monica Studio, 2018)
For Honor (Ubisoft Montreal 2017)
Furi (The Game Bakers, 2016)
Dark Souls (From Software, 2011)
Devil May Cry 3: Dante’s Awakening (Capcom, 2005)
Metal Gear Rising (PlatinumGames, 2013)
Nier: Automata (Platinum Games, 2017)
Horizon Zero Dawn (Guerrilla Games, 2017)
Dark Souls III (From Software, 2016)
Yakuza 5 (Sega, 2012)
The Surge (Deck13 Interactive, 2017)
Yakuza 0 (Sega, 2017)
Monster Hunter: World (Capcom, 2018)
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow (Mercury Steam, 2010)
Transformers: Devastation (Platinum Games, 2015)
Bloodborne (From Software, 2015)
Middle-earth: Shadow of War (Monolith Productions, 2017)
Bayonetta (PlatinumGames, 2009)
Ryse: Son of Rome (Crytek, 2013)
Darksiders (Vigil Games, 2010)
Yakuza 6: The Song of Life (Sega, 2016)
Batman: Arkham Asylum (Rocksteady Studios, 2009)
Super Smash Bros. for Wii U (Sora, 2014)
Call of Duty: WWII (Sledgehammer Games, 2017)
Batman: Arkham Knight (Rocksteady Studios, 2015)
Tekken 7 (Bandai Namco, 2017)
Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood (Ubisoft Montreal, 2010)
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice (Ninja Theory, 2017)
Assassin’s Creed II (Ubisoft Montreal, 2009)
Metroid: Samus Returns (MercurySteam and Nintendo, 2017)
Nioh (Team Ninja, 2017)
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo, 2017)
Shank (Klei Entertainment, 2010)
The King of Fighters XIV (SNK, 2016)
Punch-Out!! (Next Level Games, 2009)
Lords of the Fallen (Deck13 Interactive and CI Games, 2014)
Resident Evil 6 (Capcom, 2012)
God of War III (Santa Monica Studio, 2010)
God Hand (Clover Studio, 2006)

Music used in this episode

Sayonara (Blue Wednesday)
We’ll Figure it Out Together (Lee Rosevere)
Waiting For the Moment That Never Comes (Lee Rosevere)
Southside (Lee Rosevere)
Sayonara (Blue Wednesday)
k. Part 2 – 01 untitled 1 (animeistrash)

Blue Wednesday on Soundcloud –
Lee Rosevere on Bandcamp –

Video transcription:

DANTE: So you're looking to play, huh? Alright, I guess I got some time to kill…From Golden Axe and Double Dragon, to Bayonetta
and God of War, there’s no shortage of gamesabout beating the crap out of people in hand-to-hand
combat, or close quarters sword fighting.And so, it’s no surprise that one of my
most requested video topics is melee combat systems.How do you design a brawler that makes you
think carefully about every move you make?A game that’s so deep, you’ll still be
learning the ropes a hundred hours in?And one that just feels incredibly satisfying
when you score a perfectly-timed parry?What are the essential elements of a good
combat system?Well, the truth is, like most things in game
design, there’s no one-size-fits all solution.The needs of a fast-paced fighter like Devil
May Cry, are very different to the slow anddeliberate combat of Dark Souls, which are
different again to the scrappy street fightsof the Yakuza series.So there will be some commonalities that are
shared universally, but other design decisionsthat will change depending on the feel and
flow of the game in question.We’ll figure that all out as we go along.But for now, though, let’s jump into the first
major topic: attacking.Every protagonist in a combat game is defined
by the ways they can attack.That might mean swinging a giant sword in Monster
Hunter, bouncing enemies into the air in DevilMay Cry, chucking a hefty great axe in God
of War, or cracking a whip in Castlevania.Action game heroes typically have a small
handful of base attacks – and each one willhave its unique advantages.It might be a particularly strong attack.Or a very fast-moving strike.It could have a wide area of effect, or a
big range.It might push enemies away, or knock them
into the air, or bring them in closer.The attack might let you fight from a distance.Or perhaps it stuns the enemy, or breaks their
block.Of course, each of these attacks will be balanced
with disadvantages.A heavy, damage-dealing attack will often
be quite slow to perform.A move that can hit lots of nearby foes is
great for crowd control, but doesn’t actuallydo much damage.Maybe the move leaves you vulnerable after
performing it, or requires a certain resource,or is on a cool-down timer to stop you spamming
it.Now, when we talk about fast and slow attacks
– we’re really talking about frames of animation.You see, when you hit the attack button in
a brawler you don’t immediately strike yourenemy: you just start the animation that will
– eventually – land a blow on your prey.Every animation can be split into three phases:
the anticipation, which is the wind-up tothe attack.The contact, which is when the attack actually
lands and does damage.And the recovery, which is when the character
goes back to a neutral state.It’s mostly the anticipation phase that
will dictate the speed of the attack.Look at the light and heavy strikes in Transformers
Devastation.The light attack makes contact in just 14
frames, while the heavy attack takes a whopping 36.That’s really worth considering, because
you’re completely vulnerable during thoseanticipation frames, meaning the enemy could
move away, start blocking, or – even worse- attack you with a quick strike.And if you want a really ridiculous example,
try doing a heavy strike with the Black KnightGreatsword in Dark Souls, which has almost
two seconds of anticipation before the moveconnects.Plenty of time for enemies to poke you the
tummy.Now what makes Dark Souls really interesting
is that during this time – plus another secondor two of recovery afterwards – you can’t
do anything.You can’t dodge, do an attack, or block.That’s because the Souls games don’t have
“animation cancelling”, which is whenyou can interrupt one move with something
else.In stark comparison, check out Bayonetta where
you can change your mind at any moment.You can be halfway through an attack and then
cancel that animation by instantly transitioninginto a dodge.This somewhat subtle change makes Dark Souls
very deliberate, and forces you to considerevery move carefully – and makes Bayonetta
very free-flowing and non-committal.But does it make the latter game easier?Not necessarily.When you’re given the opportunity to cancel
any animation at any time, enemies can bemore aggressive and won’t wait for you to
finish up your current move.Look at how you’re completely invulnerable
during these finishing strikes in Ryse: Sonof Rome, but you have to really be on your
toes and ready to dodge when punishing foesin Bayonetta, as enemies will come up and
fight you midway through a spanking.Now when we talk about range, it really depends
on how “sticky” the game is, which ishow easily you snap you to nearby enemies.So in a game like Arkham Asylum, where Batman
will magnetically snap to enemies in the nextpostcode whenever you hit the punch button,
attack range is pretty irrelevant.Whereas in Bloodborne, which has almost no
snapping, it’s critical that you’re inthe right spot before you strike – and that
you think about the size, range, and shapeof each attack.As the game goes on, you’ll come to internalise
things like the exact pixel distance yourwhip will reach when you jump.A certain amount of stickiness is going to
crop up in fast-paced games – but I thinkit’s generally a good idea to ask the player
to think about positioning because it addsan extra dimension (or two) to consider.And if you want, you can get incredibly specific
– like with Marth in Super Smash Bros, whodoes much more damage with the very tip of
his sword, compared to the rest of the blade.So you can think of these different attacks
as your tactical options.And what designers should aim for is to have
every move fill some niche, and with minimaloverlap.So when you see an enemy in an action game
you shouldn’t just randomly hit one of theattack buttons, but carefully consider which
will be the right move for this exact situation.I guess it’s like the difference between
weapons in a shooter: a shotgun, sniper rifle,and assault rifle all deal damage, but with
very unique properties that make them tacticallydistinct.The more moves the player has, the more options
they will be granted – but the distinctionbetween these different options will start
to become very subtle in a way that noviceplayers may never see.Veteran players, however, will certainly appreciate
the minute differences.Still, there’s no need to put attacks on
every button on the controller.After all: one of the most sophisticated action
franchises around, Devil May Cry, has loadsof unique moves with just one main attack
button.So we can look to my video on versatile verbs
and perhaps grant the player a charged attack,if they hold the button down.Or use buttons in tandem with one another:
DMC’s basic attack becomes an uppercut ifyou hold the analogue stick back, or a darting
stinger if you hold the analogue stick forward.There are also plenty of opportunities for
contextual moves, like Yakuza’s environmentalfinishing attacks, or the backstab in Dark
Souls.And, of course, there are combos.These moves, which see you pushing buttons
in a predetermined sequence – sometimes witha small delay between buttons – are an import
from fighting games, and offer a reward formemory and timing.They generally just grant extra damage, but
sometimes they provide even more tacticaloptions for the player.Combos can be a bit overwhelming, mind you.I can barely remember my PIN number, let alone
all these moves in Bayonetta.So more casual and accessible games like Assassin’s
Creed and Ryse: Son of Rome, instead grantyou extra damage if you hit the attack button
as soon as the previous one lands.This time, the games are testing and rewarding
your timing and ability to read the animations- rather than your memory.So attacking is one thing, but a great combat
system also offers interesting ways to defendyourself from damage.This typically comes in the form of a block
and a dodge.And, much like attacks, these defensive options
should be distinct from one another to makeyou think about the right way to deal with
the next incoming strike.Let’s look at Dark Souls.In that game a block is easy to perform, and
typically negates all damage.But it’s a big stamina drain, and some enemies
will even break your block.The dodge on the other hand lets you completely
avoid an attack, because your character ismade invincible during the roll, but it requires
careful timing to pull off, also drains somestamina, leaves you vulnerable during the
recovery, and changes your physical location.Hm, decisions!There’s one other defensive move, though,
and it’s one you’ll see in a lot of goodcombat systems.I’m, of course, talking about the parry,
or counter.This is typically when you hit the block or
dodge button just as the enemy’s attacklands, giving you some kind of bonus – often
a lethal blow.These are super fun to pull off, and a real
test of timing that make you feel amazingwhen they work.But they can become overpowered, drowning
out the rest of the combat system and turningthe whole thing into a waiting game, and a
simple test of reflexes.I’m not even exaggerating: if you’ve ever
played the early Assassin’s Creed gamesyou’ll know the, uh, “joy” of standing
around with your sword up, counteringone enemy after another.So how can we avoid this?Well one way is to make parries more risky.You see, designers need to pick the exact
moment during the enemy’s attack animationthat a parry is viable.Games like Batman are way too generous, making
it effortless to counter every attack.Whereas something like Nioh makes it a lot,
lot tougher.You can also increase the punishment for missing
a parry, like how if you mistime a dodge inBreath of the Wild you’ll be trapped in
a recovery animation and vulnerable to being attacked.Another option is to limit the number of parries
you can perform, like in Bloodborne whereyou have to fire quicksilver bullets to stun
enemies and leave them open for attack.That ammo limitation makes you think carefully
about which moves you’ll try to counter.Other games simply don’t let the parry be
a one-hit kill.In Bayonetta, dodging at the last second lets
you enter a slow-mo Witch Time – while inGod of War, a well timed counter puts your
enemy into a stun.Both help you, but you’ll need to use the
full combat system to actually defeat enemies.So those are some ways to stop a game becoming
too reliant on defence.But on the flip side, some games let you get
away with being so aggressive that you don’treally need to block, dodge, or parry at all.This is often down to the way that enemies
get stunned when you attack them.Hit an enemy during its anticipation frames
and it will cancel your foe’s attack andleave it unable to move or dodge while you
tee up your next attack.This is generally called ”stun-locking”
an enemy, and lets you just wail on foes withoutneeding to worry about them fighting back.One way to fix this is to give enemies a stat
that stops them from being stunned until youdo enough damage.Dark Souls calls this poise, while most fighting
games call it super armour.Another way is to have some form of stamina,
like in Nioh, to stop you from infinitelyspamming attacks.Or you could have multiple enemies attacking
you at once, so you can’t focus all of yourtime on one enemy and must block and dodge
those incoming foes.Or you could just make certain attacks impossible
to interrupt.Or let enemies break out of stun lock.I mean it’s not very hard to implement – designers
just have to remember to do it.Basically, we don’t want the player to aggressively
chew through enemies without ever thinkingabout defence – but we also don’t want players
to hide behind their shield, waiting to pulloff parries.An exciting and dynamic back and forth between
offence and defence should be encouraged atall times.And really, the main way to encourage this
sort of behaviour is through interesting enemy design.Enemies should test you on both your offensive
and defensive skills, with a wide range offoes that move in different ways, attack at
different speeds, and can block, dodge, andperhaps even parry your moves.Plus: the player should be prioritising different
enemies, like focusing on attacking thosewho can attack from a great distance or quickly
killing off healers who can respawn fallen enemies.Picking your targets is yet another thing
to think about.These enemies should be given clear designs
– with distinct colours and easily readablesilhouettes – so players can learn which enemies
are capable of which attacks, and then pickthem out from a crowd with ease.Plus, those all-important anticipation frames
should be hugely exaggerated on enemies, becausethey should be telegraphing upcoming attacks.Other games, like Bayonetta, also use sound
and visual effects – like glints on the enemy’sweapon – to give you a heads up that an enemy
is about to strike.Handy, when the game is just buckets of visual
stimuli being pumped into your eyeballs.What designers want to avoid, I think, is
enemies that can only be killed with veryspecific moves.This essentially crushes all those tasty options
we just came up with, down to just one dominantstrategy.However, enemies that are resistant to certain
attacks – like big brutes who can’t be parriedin God of War – are good because they force
you to use other moves and strategies.Because interesting enemies are a major way
to encourage you to use the full move-seton offer – and not just rely on the same few
attacks, or a couple memorable combos, forthe entire game.But there are more ways to do that – like
how Furi gives you some health back if youpull off a difficult parry, or how Transformers
lets you do a high damage vehicle attack atthe end of successful combos.Of course, the most obvious way to achieve
this is through a scoring system, as seenin pretty much every Clover and Platinum game.These give you points for pulling off combos,
mixing up your attack patterns, and fightingenemies in quick succession – but remove points
for taking damage.A scoring system allows novice players to
get through the game with simple button mashing- but bad grades – but provides an extra challenge
for those who have learnt all the intricaciesof the combat system.One other way to make sure you’re using
every tool in your arsenal is to have enemiesadapt to your playstyle.It’s not something we’ve seen in a lot
of action games, but it cropped up in lastyear’s Middle Earth: Shadow of War.In one memorable battle, an enemy got wise
to me jumping over its head and so startedto deflect that move – forcing me to find
another option.Namely, shooting him in the arse.So: you’ve made lots of distinct attacks.And you’ve crafted some great defensive
moves.And you’ve used interesting enemy designs
to keep a good balance between offence and defence.But your game still sucks. Why?Well, it probably just doesn’t feel very
good.Hits feel weak, and counters don’t have
that crunch that make you feel like you justpulled off the most difficult move in all
of gaming.So to properly provide this feeling, action
game developers spend huge amounts of timeon art, animation, and sound to really sell
the impact of every attack you make.So, remember those three animation phases
I talked about earlier?Well they’re also used to make attacks feel
more impactful.Check out this ridiculously satisfying punch
finisher from Resident Evil 6.If we break it down, there’s a huge wind-up
where Chris leans back, then a very quicksnap to the enemy’s face, a brief pause
upon impact, and then a lengthy recovery whereChris’s arm hangs in the air afterwards.This is the secret to a good, crunchy attack.Huge anticipation – in God of War 3, we even
get some some cheeky slow mo at the startof heavy attacks to increase the animation
frames.Then a very quick strike towards to the enemy
– in Ryse, this is so fast that huge chunksof the animation are cut out.From one frame to the next, your sword can
travel great distances.Then a brief moment to pause upon impact – in
Transformers, the two characters stay in theexact same pose for three frames upon impact.And finally, a hefty recovery, to show that
your hero really put their all into the attack.And all this can be accentuated with visual
effects like coloured lines of motion, whichare super prominent in God of War and also
help explain the unique shape of each attack.Or blurring the screen upon impact.Big sparks and other fireworks.The enemy flashing red, or playing a hurt
animation, or being bounced off to theother side of the room.And, of course, some good, crunchy sound effects.Here’s a great video on making a powerful
punch sound from scratch.So, what makes a good combat system?Well, ultimately, an action game is all about
making decisions.About which enemy to hit.Where to stand.Which attack to use.And when to use it.Plus, how to react to incoming attacks.In some games this can be quite thoughtful
and considered – in others, you’re makingthese decisions at a thousand miles an hour.These games might be overcome by just mashing
buttons, but good enemy design and addictivescoring systems push you to be more precise
in your movements.But every design decision must be made carefully
to contribute to the overall feel of the game.Everything from the camera – which swoops
out wide in free-flowing fighters, but hangsin close for one-on-one brawlers – to the
stickiness of your character, to the use ofanimation cancelling, to the generosity of
when you can parry moves, should all fit eachgame’s unique feel and flow.And on top of all that, the game should just
feel amazing to play – with all sorts of subtleanimation tricks to make every attack hit
as hard as a truck.Nail all that, throw in some innovative new
mechanics, and you might just have a combatsystem worthy of the greats.Thanks so much for watching!In the future, we might be able to look at some specific gamesand see how their melee systems are designedto fit a specific style of combat.For now though, lemme know your favourite
combat systems in the comments below.GMTK is supported by viewers just like you,
who kick a few dollars a month my way overon Patreon.


game design,combat,god of war,devil may cry,yakuza

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