Basics of effective FPS encounter design (via F.E.A.R. and F.E.A.R. 2)

I recently finished playing through the single-player campaign of Monolith's F.E.A.R. 2, a military first-person shooter with supernatural elements. In my mind, the design differences between the original game and its sequel highlight a few essential elements of good encounter design in a first-person shooter. These elements all support one primary tenet:

Give the player (and AI) options

The core experience of a good FPS such as F.E.A.R. is the dynamic conflict between the player and seemingly-intelligent, active enemies. This means that both parties need meaningful combat verbs to exploit-- expressive movement, a wide variety of attack types-- as well as spaces which encourage and highlight the use of these verbs.

The worst place to roll out these combat mechanics is in an empty hallway-- no cover, no lateral movement potential, no interesting geometry for the AIs to interact with, no strategy, no surprise. Conversely, the best space is arena-like and varied, with an emphasis on flanking opportunities. The closer any given encounter space drifts towards the hallway model, the less interesting the gameplay there is going to be.

The primary elements of a good FPS encounter space are these:

1. Varied, clustered cover. Players and AI both need useful and varied cover for any kind of tactics to arise. Half-height and full-height cover each serve a purpose, as the verticality/laterality of each is significant (full-height cover is useful against elevated enemies, while half-height cover is invalidated; full-height cover forces actors to alter their lateral path while half-height can be vaulted, etc.)

Clustering of cover is important, as cover which is too evenly distributed becomes undifferentiated and leads to a flat experience. Cover should exist as discrete islands with meaningful no-man's land between each. This gives the player meaningful moment-to-moment choices to make ("should I risk exposing myself to enemy fire in favor of running for a better vantage point?") and causes AIs to be out in the open and moving laterally to the player's view on a frequent basis as they seek new cover, allowing for a shooting gallery experience of trying to take the enemy down before he reaches safety. The idea is to create meaningful points of emphasisinstead of an undifferentiated field of scattered, equally-useful cover nodes.

The most useful cover should be placed in the arena's mid-orbital, the dense ring between the outer edge and the central point of the encounter space. This encourages the player to move into the thick of the action instead of hanging on the periphery, and leaves the central dead zone as a no-man's land that remains risky to advance through, encouraging circular navigation.

Changes in elevation are also recommended, as high ground from which to fire down on enemies can be just as useful as a solid piece of cover to hide behind. Mid-field rises also provide the opportunity to observe the space mid-fight, allowing the player to reassess the situation and adjust his tactics accordingly.

2. Circular navigability. This goes back to the "as little like a hallway as possible" point. A good encounter space gives the actors options, and encourages variability each time an encounter plays out there. This requires not just a wide hallway with islands of cover distributed throughout it, but an open arena that is circularly navigable-- one with pathways around the edges which allow defended flanking movement. This encourages the player to advance and be mobile, and allows the AI to surprise the player by swooping in on their starting position from the side. A wide hallway with cover in it still boils down to advancing battle lines, while defended flanking corridors on the peripheral encourage the actors to circle around one another, take risks ("should I risk flanking into the thick of the enemy force to gain a better close-range firing position?") and generally be active instead of sticking to a single safe point and taking potshots. Circular arenas should give the player a multiplicity of options while keeping him wary of possible enemy flanking maneuvers, dynamics which are conversely defused by the binary flow of a linear hallway no matter how wide or cover-strewn.

3. Observability. As the player approaches an encounter space, he should be able to observe its major features and devise an initial plan of attack. This means that the entry point should feature a vantage point, often elevated, that illustrates the layout of navigable space, cover points, and interactive objects (explosives, water hazards.) All relevant features of the space should be visible and readable, and any element of the space that is obscured should be intentionally so (for instance, the terminal point of a flanking corridor might be obscured to increase the player's feeling of risk in attempting a flanking maneuver by reducing his knowledge of what lies at the other end.) The player, having observed the space, may hereby think beyond arm's reach once he's in the thick of a fight by relating his current position to the overview he saw before the encounter began. Should the player die during the fight, this initial vantage point on respawn provides a reminder of the space's layout, to aid his survivability for the next go round.

Assessing a space for these high-level principles should lay a strong groundwork which can be further refined-- by line of sight tuning, strategic item placement, lighting readability-- to form the basis for an excellent encounter.

The second aspect of setting up the encounter is blocking out the placement and initial behaviors of the enemy AI that the player will be facing. This determines how the player enters the fight, and ultimately how he walks away from it. In an FPS that features expressive combat mechanics and active enemies, the best place for the player to begin the fight is right in the middle of the action; how does one encourage him to dive in, instead of plinking at his foes from the sidelines?

One way is to give the player the first move-- let him get the drop on his enemies. This ties into the observability factor, while also encouraging the player to set up the fight to his advantage and close the distance before fighting starts.

In this scenario, the player approaches the encounter space and observes his opponents standing or patrolling around in the center or at the far end, unaware of his presence. These enemies should be spread out enough that a single grenade blast won't take them all out, and having backup waiting in the wings is important. The player may observe the enemies' movements undisturbed as long as he doesn't attack or advance too close. This presents the player with options-- does he hang back on the outer ring of cover and line up a headshot on one of the enemies? Does he plant some proximity mines around the flanking corridors then toss a grenade at the group to make them scatter? Does he close the distance and open up with automatic fire just as they notice his presence? The player is allowed to choose his tactics and consider his approach. This is invaluable from a player experiential standpoint.

The opposite experience is often encountered in F.E.A.R. 2: as the player steps through a doorway into the fight arena, enemies are already aware of his presence and spraying the entry point with suppressive fire. What options does the player have now? The only valid ones are to retreat and use the edge of the entry door as cover, or to dash blindly forward into a hail of bullets, which is most often suicide. An unaware enemy is key-- it allows the player to strike the match setting off the encounter, instead of being purely reactive to his opposition's opening moves. It allows the player to take up an optimal position for beginning the fight, which a good level designer makes sure is significantly deeper into the arena than the entry door. It allows the respawning player to intentionally alter his tactics upon retry, instead of being forced to deal with the exact same setup each time.

An unaware enemy is subject to extermination by an opening headshot or grenade, but this is a small price to pay-- backup can be spawned at the far end of the arena to replace any intial fodder as a second wave of enemies advances into the encounter. The gains in player control over the fight's initial moments are worth it.

An alternate approach is the ambush-- the player observes a quiet arena, and advances into the middle, only for the enemy to pop out of hiding and attack (rappel down through skylights, jump down off of balconies, swarm in through multiple entry doors, burst through a wall, etc.) This is a fair approach in the back half of the campaign, as the player should be experienced fighting his enemy and could use some variety to encounter setups. However, the ambushing enemies should nonetheless have terrible reflexes-- enemies that pop out guns blazing will merely frustrate the player. Rappelling/door-bashing/balcony-diving/wall-busting ambushers should take a while to ready their weapons and draw a bead on the player, allowing him to make it to cover and get the first shot off. The idea is for the player to retain some initial advantage while still being thrust suddenly into the middle of an encounter.

My experience with F.E.A.R. 2 is that it unfortunately often misses the principles that made the encounters in the original game so engaging-- frequent are restrictive, linear encounter spaces without flanking corridors, precognitive enemies that begin firing on the player before he gets a chance to enter the space, and unobservable spaces without clear flow or points of emphasis. This not only makes the player's role in combat more frustrating, but makes the enemies appear less intelligent-- with fewer navigational options, they tend to remain stationary more and surprise the player less. Smart AI is only half the equation-- smart arena design is required to convincingly demonstrate your enemies' innate abilities. Hopefully the points above will help guide your encounter design towards showcasing your game's AI in the most flattering possible light, making the enemies look-- and the player feel-- as smart as possible.



GDC Guide 09

GDC shouldn't need much of an introduction: it's thousands of game developers from all around the world gathering in San Francisco to talk shop and gain contacts. It's catching up with friends you often haven't seen in a year; it's good vibes about creativity, passion, and the future of games.

For the last couple years I've put together a GDC guide for the design-minded and art-interested. 2009 is below; I've left off keynotes, tutorials and award ceremonies in favor of Wed-Fri sessions, but suffice it to say that the Game Design Workshop and Game Developer's Choice Awards are worth attending. Also be sure to spend as much time as you can in the Independent Games Festival pavilion! Play them all!


Helping Your Players Feel Smart: Puzzles as User InterfaceRandy Smith
TBDGame Design/
60-minute Lecture
Overview: This presentation examines the predictable series of steps players take when approaching a puzzle or challenge and describes a set of principles adapted from user-centered design that can be employed to keep players on the path to discovering the solution for themselves. Examples are drawn from the presenter’s experience on the THIEF series and DARK MESSIAH OF MIGHT AND MAGIC and from Valve’s Portal.

It goes without saying that Randy Smith is a smart dude with valuable experience in this area. A chance to glean the knowledge should not be passed up!

The Iterative Level Design Process of Bioware's MASS EFFECT 2Corey Andruko
Dusty Everman
60-minute Lecture
Overview: This session examines the BioWare Mass Effect team’s new level-creation process, which is focused on maximizing iteration for quality while minimizing rework and cost. It shares some of the lessons learned from creating Mass Effect and evaluates how well this new process is working based on current experiences.

Iteration in level design is beyond essential. In the current age of high-fidelity visuals, agility can be hard to maintain. Always interesting to see how other studios tackle common problems.

Beyond Balancing: Using Five Elements of Failure Design to Enhance Player ExperiencesJesper Juul
TBDGame Design/
20-minute Lecture
Overview: This 20-minute lecture presents a toolbox for improving the design of failure in video games. Based on research on player reactions and attitudes towards failure across different audiences, the lecture identifies Five Elements of Failure Design for better failure design in single player games.

As someone who's following up that game that had Vita Chambers in it, this issue is well within relevancy for me. It's an interesting problem, and one that can easily be over- or undersolved.

Master Metrics: The Science Behind the Art of Game DesignE. Daniel Arey
Chris Swain
TBDGame Design/
60-minute Lecture
Overview: Seven cutting-edge metrics-based game design techniques have been gathered from some of the leading game designers in the world via personal interviews. All are presented visually and in a hands-on style. Each is intended to be practical for working game designers who seek to make better play experiences.

While designer instincts are important, cold, hard numbers cannot be denied. Gathering hard metrics along with soft playtest interview feedback is essential. Input on best practices in gathering and utilizing this data is always valuable.

Valve's Approach to Playtesting: the Application of EmpiricismMike Ambinder
TBDGame Design/
60-minute Lecture
Overview: This talk will focus on how Valve is broadening its playtest program to apply methodologies from behavioral research which should serve to both increase the stock of useful information and to decrease the collection of biased observations.

And speaking of which, you couldn't ask for better than insight from Valve, the masters of data-based design.

Player's Expression: The Level Design Structure Behind FAR CRY 2 and Beyond? Jonathan Morin
TBDGame Design/
60-minute Lecture
Overview: While designers often want to support player’s expression, it rarely materializes in the end. This lecture describes how this particular problem was approached on FAR CRY 2. It explores its level design structure at every level and concludes with examples on how it could be applied to other projects.

Open-world level design is an interesting topic to me, mostly because I haven't really done any of it. A breakdown of how Far Cry 2's playable spaces were conceived and constructed is sure to be illuminating.

Lighting with PurposeJay Riddle
Paul Ayliffe
TBDVisual Arts/
60-minute Lecture
Overview: This session offers attendees a guide to better understanding both the aesthetics of lighting and its practical application in game development. By sharing recent examples, the speakers will demystify the process and bring insight to the how and why of its use. Don't just throw lights in your worlds willy-nilly. Light with purpose!

I view lighting as just as much of a design element as an art element. My hope is that this session will present concepts like direction and readability to lighting artists-- and some pointers along these lines that could be applicable to designers as well.

Everything I Learned About Level Design I Learned from DisneylandScott Rogers
TBDGame Design/
60-minute Lecture
Overview: Scott Rogers (GOD OF WAR, MAXIMO) reveals his secret weapon for designing levels: Disneyland. Learn how to inject the genius of the Magic Kingdom into your own game designs. Topics include player's thematic goals, pathing techniques, and illusional narrative. From skeletons to trash cans, there’s a lot to learn from Disneyland!

As commenters below have pointed out, there's more to 'learning from Disneyland' than a single ride. I've frequently heard the comparison between a game and a Pirates of the Carribean-style ride, which are worrisome: keep your hands inside the cart while you watch interesting things pass by. The description of this talk sounds like it analyzes the park as a whole-- from skeletons to trash cans-- which could touch on some interesting approaches to directed but open spaces.


Fault Tolerance: From Intentionality to ImprovisationClint Hocking
TBDGame Design/
60-minute Lecture
Overview: As a follow-up to the second-highest rated talk of GDC 2006, this presentation looks at the specific challenges of designing game mechanics that both allow and encourage players to play expressively, while opening the door for them to accept small incremental failures and set-backs as an engaging element that adds depth and variety to dynamic play.

Clint Hocking's talks are routinely the most thought-provoking and engaging at GDC. A 'sequel' to the first talk I saw him give, from GDC 06, is hard to resist. He tends to talk about designing the kinds of game experiences that mean the most to me.

Read Me: Closing the Readability Gap in Immersive GamesPatrick Redding
TBDGame Design/
60-minute Lecture
Overview: Visual fidelity and procedural complexity have grown independently of one another. This disconnect means that game information presented to players often provides little feedback about their actions. Patrick Redding (Ubisoft Montreal) discusses why the disparity must be addressed before games can tackle more complicated problems in narrative and AI.

Though this could theoretically (get it?) go into the Practical pile, Redding tends towards the higher-level. I suspect this will be less an in-depth examination of specific techniques as much as an overview of limiting factors to addressing more complex issues than shooting, jumping and driving through game mechanics.

Stop Wasting My Time and Your Money: Why Your Game Doesn't Need a Story to be a HitMargaret Robertson
TBDGame Design/
60-minute Lecture
Overview: Stories help sell games, but they help break them, too - adding expense, frustration and inflexibility to the design process. Drawing on first-hand experience of troubleshooting a wide variety of story-based games, this session will demonstrate how you can deliver high levels of emotional engagement and strongly marketable themes without bogging your game down in cut-scene hell.

Margaret Robertson is awesome. I hadn't heard of her before going to see her talk at last year's GDC, and it blew me away. Her topic this year is right up my alley.

From First Date to a Committed Relationship: Designing for Engagement and Sustained SatisfactionScott Rigby
TBDGame Design/
60-minute Lecture
Overview: Based upon multiple studies with over 10,000 gamers, this session presents the Player Experience of Need Satisfaction model (PENS) which focuses specifically on those experiences that lead to sustained engagement and player value. Each of three specific intrinsic needs will be reviewed (autonomy, competence, and relatedness), alongside specific game examples, recommendations, and strategies for implementation during design, development, and testing.

This one sounds like it may be some good-natured academic mumbo-jumbo, but useful approaches to thinking about a subject can often be distilled from what on the surface seems to be an over-systematized thesis paper.

The Human Play MachineChaim Gingold
TBDGame Design/
60-minute Lecture
Overview: Every game we make or play engages a human faculty, whether it’s movement, make believe, or flirting. But are we, as game designers, using the full range of the human animal’s play capacity? What latent play faculties have the Nintendo Wii, casual games, and player authorship games (SPORE, LITTLEBIGPLANET) tapped into that makes them so novel, fun, and broadly appealing? What play faculties do we traditionally engage, and what play potentials are still out there?

Exploring fresh avenues of play and mediated creativity is incredibly important. Presumably one of the designers of Spore's creature creator knows a thing or two about the subject. Taking casual games and the success of the Wii as jumping-off points makes me somewhat dubious, but I trust some novel angles will be presented.

The Job

Creative Career or Grueling Job? Staying Passionate about Our Craft in the Games Business Don Daglow
TBDGame Design/
60-minute Lecture
Overview: The games business keeps spawning more mega-corporations. It's tempting these days for individuals to start thinking of ourselves as depersonalized cogs in a big machine, or as boats torn from our moorings by distant storms and tossed around in the surf. Are we in creative careers or grueling jobs? Does the answer seem to change day by day and week by week?

I'd be interested to hear the perspective of such an industry veteran, and more pointedly the president of Stormfront until it closed, probably right around the time that Daglow was submitting this talk proposal. He's been in it for a long, long time; what's the secret, man?

Failure is NOT an Option - Basic Survival Techniques for any Producer/DesignerRich Vogel
60-minute Lecture
Overview: This session gives you important insight on why games fail and by providing these insights we learn how to survive. The speaker will provide examples and give his personal experiences fire fighting in the trenches. Expect to see lots of examples.

High theory is useless without the ability to get shit done right and out the door. This could easily go in the Practical pile, but it feels more like a "get the job done" thing. Ship it, ship it good!

10 Things Great Designers ExhibitGordon Walton
60-minute Lecture
Overview: The speaker shares his condensed, 10 step version of his 25+ years experience in hiring and working with game designers, focused towards emerging challenges in game development. Expect to learn what to look for in a successful designer, and be entertained and inspired simultaneously!

Though the speaker's experience is heavily online-focused, I'd be interested to hear a veteran's take on what's made a good designer through the years. Hopefully it could give me some tips on how to become a better one myself!

Just for Fun

Experimental Gameplay SessionsJonathan Blow
TBDGame Design/
Two-hour Panel
Overview: A series of short presentations, where game developers demonstrate and talk about their new and experimental games. Independent games, academic projects, and AAA mainstream games are all represented.

Always interesting. Get exposed to small, new, weird, funny, innovative indie titles. Though for the most part you could get the benefit of this session by taking the list of games and downloading them yourself, the developers' takes on the pieces adds useful context, and usually some of the titles covered aren't available to the public at the time of the session. Expand your horizons!

Nuances of DesignJonathan Blow
TBDGame Design/
Two-hour Panel
Overview: Most modern games are conduits for a large amount of visceral communication: the colors and sounds that the player sees, along with the way his actions feel, convey most of the game's information and constitute most of the experience. By augmenting a classical presentation with play sessions, we hope to facilitate understanding that is instinctual rather than intellectual.

Similar to the above, but playable! An interesting 'tactile lecture' approach. A laptop is required-- talk about elitist!!! Just kidding, but I've never attended because for two years I didn't have a laptop, and for the third my battery died. Maybe this year I'll make it.

The Game Design Challenge: My First TimeEric Zimmerman
Steve Meretzky
Kim Swift
TBDGame Design/
60-minute Panel
Overview: Welcome back for another year and another Game Design Challenge, where three amazing game design greats create original concepts around a very unusual game design problem. Join us as returning champ Steve Meretzky squares off against two new challengers.

The Game Design Challenge is often hilarious and entertaining, but it epitomizes the 'Just for Fun' heading-- completely frivolous. If you're paying your own money to be here, there are much more responsible ways to spend your time. But if you've got an hour to kill, you're pretty much guaranteed some laughs and a good anecdote coming away from the session. Did you know that Alexy Pajitnov once made pants for himself? This I learned at a prior Game Design Challenge.

GDC Microtalks - One Hour, Ten Speakers, Unlimited IdeasRichard Lemarchand
Robin Hunicke
Eric Zimmerman
N'Gai Croal
Frank Lantz
Jenova Chen
Tracy Fullerton
John Sharp
Clint Hocking
Jane McGonigal
TBDGame Design/
60-minute Lecture
Overview: Imagine this: ten visually intense game design micro-presentations in a row, given by ten great speakers in the course of one fascinating hour! Come along to have fun, be challenged and get creatively inspired, or use the session to preview speakers who are talking elsewhere at the conference to see if you like their style!

When 20-minute sessions just can't satisfy your desire for compressed ideas and truncated trains of thought! Could be fun, could be pointless, could be thought-provoking... probably all of the above, cycling in 10-minute intervals. Some good speakers, to be sure.

Little Hands, Foul Moods, and Runny Noses 2.0: The Research You Should Know When Making Games for KidsCarla Engelbrecht Fisher
TBDGame Design/
60-minute Lecture
Overview: When developing games for children, especially preschool and elementary aged children, game designers often work in a vacuum. Far removed from the experiences of childhood, they might create games that they believe are interesting for children, but never have the opportunity to interview or watch children play the games.

Though I don't personally make children's games, the evolving design of games for kids has rankled me for a while. The current trend seems to be making kids' games the simplest, dullest, most child-proofed experiences possible. And I have to assume that children find this boring as hell! Remember playing the NES as a child? Remember Zelda's worldmap being a vast mystery? Contra kicking your butt even with the 30 lives code? Going back to Punch-Out!!, Metroid or Super Mario Bros. again and again until you finally beat them after months of trying? Children have a whole lot of time on their hands, enjoy being challenged and the feeling of accomplishment that comes with overcoming real obstacles, and can't be harmed by difficult or 'dangerous' situations in games. The overwhelming popularity of Pokemon for instance demonstrates that kids aren't looking for something simple and shallow. I hope the research here will bear out my feeling that children's video games don't need to treat their audience with kid gloves.

Cinematic Game Design III: Action! Richard Rouse III
Martin Stoltz
TBDVisual Arts/
60-minute Lecture
Overview: This next installment in the popular Cinematic Game Design GDC lecture series focuses on action scenes. Many games deliver highly immersive conflict, but action films manipulate a wider range of emotions and make their conflict meaningful.

A series of film clips that demonstrate different cinematic action techniques will be shown and deconstructed. Each technique will then be analyzed to see how it can be applied to gameplay to make a game more visceral and compelling.

It bothers me that "how to make your game more like a movie" is a "popular" series at GDC constituting three parts. Broad cultural influence is of course essential to good game design, but showing clips from big-budget action films as a guide to how you should design your video game is just a problem, plain and simple. I'd be interested to see the actual content of this presentation, as it sounds scary on the surface.

Art & Postmort

The Brutal Art of Brütal LegendLee Petty
TBDVisual Arts/
60-minute Lecture
Overview: A behind-the-scenes look at creating the art for a highly ambitious, Heavy Metal inspired original game, this talk examines how the look of Brütal Legend was defined and realized. Details on how Double Fine met the challenge of creating a unique, stylized look while also delivering a “AAA looking” game on the current generation of consoles are revealed.

I am actually not super-psyched on Brutal Legend's visual style, but I do love any big-budget AAA game that shoots for a non-standard aesthetic. Maybe this presentation will help me warm up to Brutal Legend's particular take on dark 'n' quirky.

Creating First Person Movement for MIRROR'S EDGETobias Dahl
Jonas Aberg
TBDVisual Arts/
60-minute Lecture
Overview: Dice has taken the first person genre to new grounds with the free running first person adventure MIRROR'S EDGE. Learn what some of the challenges were and how we successfully overcame them when creating a believable first person full body experience

First-person body awareness is pretty excellent in my opinion. I can see my feet? Holy shit! Seeing DICE's processes for conceiving and implementing their first-person parkour sounds interesting.

The Unique Lighting in MIRROR'S EDGE: Experiences with Illuminate Labs Lighting ToolsDavid Larsson
Henrik Halen
Wednesday, 10:30am — 11:30amVisual Arts/
60-minute Sponsored Session
Overview: We will present the technology and ideas behind the unique lighting in MIRROR'S EDGE from EA DICE. We will cover how DICE adopted Global illumination into their lighting process and Illuminate Labs current toolbox of state of the art lighting technology.

Sure it's a sponsored session, but the lighting in Mirror's Edge was really cool! The bounce lighting off bright orange paint onto a white concrete wall was just beautiful. I'd love to see how they did it.

There you have it, a full lineup! Sounds like a great selection of sessions this year-- it's all incredibly interesting, even the stuff that might rub me the wrong way :-) Safe travels and hope to see you there.