Roles of Monsters: Redundancy

Many of the games I’ve cited monsters from in previous articles have some really great examples of specific roles. The Vore makes a good turret, the Gladiator makes a good tank, and the Fiend makes a good shocker. I’ve also said in places that some of these roles can also combo well with others; either with a monster from one role in an encounter alongside a monster from another role (a tank taking the player’s attention away from the swarmers attacking him), or a monster that fits more than one role (that tanky support increasing the power of other monsters). If we have a particular monster that fits more than one role, then it stands to reason that we can have more than one monster in a lineup that fits a particular role. That is the kind of redundancy I want to talk about in this article.
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Gameplay Mechanics: Regenerating Health

Health packs!Every shooter in the history of the genre has had some form of health system. As you get hurt, your health decreases, and you die when it hits zero. This is very cut-and-dry throughout most games. Of course, there must be some way of recovering that health though. There are some variations, though it’s one area that I think some good mechanics can still be created for. Many games have had different ways of recovering health, but the form we’ve seen the most often is that it regenerates automatically with no action from the player. It’s become very popular in most shooters and other genres and I’ve seen it implemented in several mods for Doom, Quake and other games. However, many don’t seem to realize all the different effects this has on different aspects of gameplay. Now, there are a few misconceptions regarding what regenerating health actually does because it’s so often paired with a few other mechanics: namely cover mechanics, slow movement speed, dominantly hitscan attacks, checkpoints and reloading weapons. There are several games that feature some or even all of the mechanics at the same time, and each one brings their own set of considerations. Because they’re so often featured with regenerating health, it’s very easy to associate the effects of one with the other mechanics. In this article, I’ll write about health recovery systems specifically, and will try to avoid consequences that these other systems introduce.
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Monster Placement

Around November of 2011, Grymmoire and I set out to write a guide/article/essay on monster placement in Doom maps. This was partly to help newer modders, and partly as an exercise in learning more about design themselves. We asked several award-winning map designers for opinions and checked a few classic and award-winning maps. Here, finished in mid-2015, is the result. This is aimed primarily at the Doom community and uses examples from Doom exclusively (some from popular level-sets), but the information could also help placement and design in other shooters.

Monster placement is arguably the most important feature of any map. It contributes a great deal to difficulty and enjoyment. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the components that can be difficult to get right for newer mappers. Thus, to help out as much as we can, we’ve asked a few famous, well-respected mappers their opinions and strategies with regards to placing monsters on maps, and we’ve written this to condense a lot of it into an easy-to-understand package for new mappers to benefit from.

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Roles of Monsters: Stealth

Stealth is one of the more interesting roles in many class-based multiplayer shooters, such as the Infiltrator in Planetside, Tribes: Ascend and Quake Wars (Infiltrator is a pretty popular name, apparently), or the Spy in Team Fortress 2. While not too many single-player shooters have them, there are a few stealth-based monsters that bring interesting new ideas to the table. Similar to my article on kamikazes, this isn’t exactly a role in and of itself. It’s more like a modifier you can apply on top of another role, but there are some things to consider when you add some kind of stealth ability to a monster. I’ve wanted to write this article for a while simply because I really wanted to do the research and figure out exactly how these things work.

Veil Assassin, from Wolfenstein 2009

The Veil Assassin from Wolf ’09 is probably one of the most successful stealth monsters I’ve ever seen, and one of the most successful shockers despite a few balance problems. There aren’t many monsters that set me crouching in the corner of a room waiting for it to appear as soon as I hear it, but this is one of them. The Veil Assassin is completely invisible unless the player enters Veil mode (but that drains energy), and I’m pretty sure it can teleport away though I didn’t notice that much if it can. In more open areas, it has a habit of coming after you from an angle you don’t expect, and though it only had melee attacks it could potentially kill you in two hits. The time-slow and shield gimmicks from Wolf ’09 made it way too easy (the balance in that game was not incredible, to be honest), but overall it was a great monster besides that.

It could be invisibility, it could be the ability to teleport around, it could be something else I haven’t thought of, but a stealth monster always has some quality to mask where it is or what it’s doing. As you might expect, it can be a good way to make a monster be more of a shocker. Stealth monsters aren’t necessarily shockers and shockers aren’t necessarily stealth monsters, but it’s a mechanic that helps. The old adage is that people fear what they don’t know, and invisibility is a good gimmick to either ensure that people don’t learn what a particular monster does as easily (I still don’t quite know exactly what the Veil Assassin does, since I only played through Wolf ’09 once and they didn’t appear often), or so even when they do know what the monster does, still hide where it is or what angle it’s coming from. This can be handy to keep a monster an effective shocker through multiple encounters. However, like the Fiend from Quake 1, Berserker from Quake 4 or other similar monsters show, that’s not a requirement for a shocker.

Stealth Elite, from Halo

I did talk about Elites in the previous article, and talked a bit about variation on threat-type monsters. The Stealth Elite is a version that acts much the same, except it’s almost invisible. If you look closely, you can see a faint outline of them, but if they aren’t moving it can be hard to spot them before they start trying to melt you. Their disadvantage, though, is that they don’t have the defensive shield the other Elites have, so they’re  killed more easily once you finally get a bead on them.

The stealth variant is also a lot more aggressive than most of the other Elites. As soon as it sees you, it starts filling the air with more rapid plasma fire than the blue and red variants and doesn’t waste as much time on sight animations as they do. Hilariously enough, many stealth monsters can be incredibly in-your-face with high aggression or high-damage attacks. Imagine the first fight with Stealth Elites in the Silent Cartographer map in Halo 1; the player’s coming back through a building he’s already cleared out after completing one objective. Once he enters the larger room, he starts taking plasma fire from targets he can’t easily see at close-ish range. On his first time through the game, the player would likely be very surprised by this. This creates a similar effect as a shocker through sheer surprise without having an actual shocker monster. It can be done with ambushes with non-stealth and non-shocker monsters, but stealth monsters can do it a lot better because the player just might not notice it until he gets over that surprise.

Many monsters have a sort of introduction so the player can start guessing how to deal with them, and some monster types almost require one. However, stealth monsters don’t really give you the chance to get to know them very well because by definition, they try to be unknown. These two ideas don’t have to come into conflict, you can give a brief introduction somehow without completely ruining a stealth-based shocker. The Veil Assassin had a small chunk of the first map you encounter it as an introduction to show the player what it can do through scripted events. It went invisible, slaughtered a few people, teleported away, and even took a quick slash at the player and ran off. With its very high damage attacks, it would’ve been incredibly unfair if the game just sprung it on you without any lead-in. It showed what it was capable of, but by the way the Veil Assassin works, its stealth abilities still leave it unpredictable in actual combat. The Stealth Elite didn’t have any such scripted introduction, but it works really well because it’s a variation of an existing monster with a new twist. The player, having fought normal Elites for the last few maps, already has a good idea what these new monsters are capable of, but has to approach them a new way because of that twist.

Wraith, from Red Faction: Armageddon

About halfway through Red Faction: Armageddon, the player runs into the Wraith. It was only encountered a few times in the single-player game but is used a lot better in the multiplayer Invasion mode. It spends most of the fight invisible and changing positions, but after a few seconds it appears attached to a wall or somewhere in a corner, charges for a short time and launches a powerful blast of energy. Immediately after, it cloaks and moves around again. In the campaign it’s only encountered alone, but it’s used to support other monsters a lot in Invasion. It also blurs your screen slightly while it’s alive, maybe making it less likely for the player to notice it while it’s charging for an attack, but it’s a minor effect.

Another thing the Wraith does in the campaign is block the exits of the area until it’s dead. Some people assume this is just to make set-piece arena fights, but the major reason is because of the downtime in the fight itself. There’s a good seven seconds at a time where the Wraith is cloaked, moving around, and where other monsters aren’t attacking you. If it didn’t block you in, you could walk past it and ignore it. Monsters that can’t be fought for periods of time like this have this problem because something needs to hold the player down while the stealth monster itself can’t be fought. In Invasion, it doesn’t even bother with that, because there are always other things to worry about while the Wraith is invisible. The more aggressive a stealth monster is, and the less downtime a fight has, the less likely a player is to outright ignore it. The Stealth Elite is much harder to ignore because of all the fire it throws as soon as it sees you, and the Veil Assassin can’t be ignored, partly because it’s taunting you for the whole fight and partly because of the amount of damage it can do. You can still make stealth monsters with this kind of downtime, but you have to be careful that the player can’t just skip it or ignore it somehow; either with other monsters holding the player down for the duration, or something else. I don’t agree with blocking the player in like the Wraith, however, does because that whole thing felt so artificial.

These three monsters are pretty low health, but they’re hard to see coming. For the Stealth Elite and Wraith (monsters that aren’t really shockers), you can look at their stealth effect as a kind of damage mitigation. Until you finally spot it clearly, it’s hard to get any solid hits on the Stealth Elite. The Wraith’s ability to cloak and switch position buys time for it to charge its attack and cloak again. For stealth monsters that attack in groups (or at least can attack in groups), these stealth gimmicks can also hide numbers. The fight at the end of the Silent Cartographer map, for example, you see fire coming from different sides of the hallway from Stealth Elites, but you really have no clue exactly how many there are. Depending on their effect, stealth monsters can be somewhat tricky to kill even if they aren’t tanky.

There’s a small trap you can fall into with stealth monsters. Imagine you’re using stealth as damage mitigation, so the monster doesn’t have much health, and it’s pretty aggressive. That can be the exact definition of a glass cannon, but with one more factor to balance; visibility. If it does too much damage, the player could die before he even notices it; if it doesn’t have enough health, the player can spot it and immediately kill it before it does anything. The Stealth Elite was pretty well-balanced (especially since it was a variation on an already well-balanced monster), but the Veil Assassin had problems. It did broadcast that it was around by taunting the player, which worked perfectly, but it was completely invisible unless the player was using one of the Veil power gimmicks, during which it stood out like a sore thumb. If the player used powers like Empower or Mire, it can die really quickly before it does anything at all. If the player never noticed the Assassin, he could die incredibly quickly without a way of dealing with it. Despite that, it was a good monster, and would’ve been great if it didn’t have these problems and was used in the game a lot more often. Keep all three factors, health, visibility and damage, in mind when you’re designing monsters like this.

The monsters I’ve listed work pretty well alone or grouped with other monsters of their type, but stealth monsters also work well grouped with other monsters. If those other monsters get your attention before the stealth monster is revealed, then it works even better. In Halo 1, towards the end of Two Betrayals where you’re trying to fight past an army to get to a vehicle at the end of the valley (I did an article on this fight), it’s very easy to start fighting the army itself and not notice some Stealth Elites come around behind you. Stealth isn’t really a role, either; just a gimmick to help a monster do what it does even better. So when you work stealth monsters into encounters with other roles, consider roles that stealth monster might fit into.

There aren’t very many stealth monsters and fewer still are used really well. While the three I used here as examples were good, there’s a lot of potential here to interact with other roles, either with stealth gimmicks on those roles or stealth monsters interacting with monsters that fill those roles. I feel like stealth monsters haven’t entirely been fleshed out well enough, and I’d love to see more in the future.

Roles of Monsters: The Threat

There are some monsters who don’t really have any special abilities as a tank or support. There are some monsters who are supposed to be shockers but just fail at it, but are still dangerous. They could be all of the above, but too strong to be fodder. It could possibly be more of a closer-range monster and have absolutely no utility as a turret. There are a lot of monsters that don’t fit these roles we’ve discussed before. Would these sorts of monsters work, in normal gameplay?

 

Gunner, from Quake 2

Quake 2’s Gunner was one such monster. Up to this point in the game, you’ve only run into fodder, swarmers and meat shields. Then you run into the Gunner, which has much more health and two high-damaging attacks. It has a chaingun for one arm that already can do more damage than every other monster up to this point, and a much more dangerous four-shot grenade launcher that can potentially outright kill the player if he gets caught by each attack. Granted, you never took full damage since the chaingun was damage over time and the grenade launcher was splash damage spread over an area, but if you weren’t careful, it really punished you. While still nowhere near as powerful as the Tank, the game’s designated heavy, it’s a huge ramp up in strength compared to other monsters.

As I’ve alluded to in the intro, it also has basically nothing to do as a support or shocker, not much value as a tank, could conceivably work as a turret but isn’t strictly useful there (more a carpet bomber, in a few Quake 2 maps). The Gunner is a monster that exists to be a threat to the player, to just be more of a challenge. There’s nothing wrong with this; just like fodder is a useful tool to sculpt encounters with, threats work in much the same way to help set pacing. Many encounters, you don’t really want to use a special role.

 

Berserker, from Quake 2

The Berserker, from the same game, was a monster that I think was supposed to be a threat in a similar way. It had even more health than the Gunner and it was much faster. The problem was it only had melee attacks; attacks that took time to wind up, no less. Even considering that, if they connected, they didn’t do much damage compared to the Gunner.

Be very careful how you design threats, especially melee-only threats. Compare it to the Berserker from Quake 4 (which I consider more of a shocker, but ignore that) which does more damage, doesn’t have long attack wind-ups and had a very rare ranged attack too (rare enough that I still consider it melee-only). As it stands, Quake 2’s Berserker ended up as a meat-shield, fodder that could only absorb damage and herd the player during fights with more dangerous monsters, rather than the threat they were probably intended to be.

The Gunner is used quite often over the course of the game, in a variety of different ways. Occasionally, you see one used like fodder, a single one in a corridor in between encounters, to try to keep the pace of the game. You can see them in groups of two or three as a whole encounter, or you can see them mixed in groups of other monsters (Berserkers and Gunners mixed particularly well). The Gunner particularly worked well with different terrain, since its grenade launcher made it incredibly dangerous if it was placed on a ledge above you. It works really well in all of these situations. The problem with the Berserker is because it’s so limited in how it can act, it doesn’t work as a threat. In my opinion, threats should be more well-rounded, like the Gunner, if only to give yourself more room to work when designing encounters.

 

Elite, from Halo

The Elite from Halo is the best example I can think of for this type of monster. It’s pretty mobile, takes a beating (more of a beating, because of its shields), and can deal a lot of damage pretty quickly if you let it. Another interesting feature is their shields; you would think having recharging shields (the ability to mitigate damage) would make this monster more of a tank, but the shields can’t stand up to a player’s focus and the Elite tries to get out of the way as quickly as possible when it starts taking damage (while a good tank would prefer to take focus). The recharging shield gives it staying power in a fight, as long as the player has other things to deal with.

Most of the time when you fight Elites they’re leading groups of Grunts, the game’s dedicated fodder. Not only does a threat/fodder mix work really well, but they were almost designed for one another. Grunts are so short that the Elite can fire clean over them, allowing the stronger and more accurate monster to attack you without the fodder inadvertently assisting you. Again, this helps the threat as a tool for customizing encounters.

More than anything else, the best feature of the Elite (in Halo 1, at least. I didn’t notice it much in Halo 2) is that it’s a lot smarter than any other monster in the game. It changes its behavior based on how much health it has and whether or not it needs to let its shields recharge. They will lay down covering fire to keep you down while they go for cover, they will avoid grenades, they will actually flank you. Advanced AI like this works really well for threats. AI might help other roles (except fodder, which you probably don’t want to be very advanced), especially swarmers (to help them swarm) and shockers, but it’s mostly the mechanics that make a tank, support or turret what they are that are important. Threats can use more advanced AI to be threatening.

The Elite also has quite a lot of variety. The four color-coded varieties (Blue, red, gold and black. In the first Halo, anyway) can use either plasma rifles or needlers. Then there are stealth versions, and the tougher three varieties can use plasma swords for one-hit shots. Each step up is more aggressive, a little smarter and takes even more damage. This kind of variety helps the threat, just like it helps the fodder. Because the player might run into these fairly often over the course of the game, it helps to mix it up, so the player doesn’t get bored with that particular variety. Though, I’m not a fan of small changes, like the difference between blue and red, or even blue and gold, unless it brings something new for the player to consider, because then the same approach to the gold Elite still works for the blue Elite, for example. It doesn’t make anything really new. Though that’s more a comment on variety than on threats. In the next article, I will point out a variation that I think works very well.

Other roles can still be threats, of course. Quake 4’s Gladiator is a threat so it makes you want to target it, otherwise it doesn’t work as a tank because the player can just kill everything else off before fighting it. Quake 1’s Fiend is definitely a threat, and if it wasn’t then it would fail as a shocker. Quake 2’s Icarus is a threat so it can try to restrict your movement like it does. In groups, swarmers like Manhacks or Cherubs all together are threats, otherwise they have no point. The Quake 1’s Shambler is by definition a threat. They don’t obsolete this role, however, because sometimes the lack of those things is useful. They all have their strengths, but they each have their balancing factors and issues with implementation.

I don’t think there’s anything really new in this article. Like my piece on hard vs soft roles, I think it’s something that seems more common-sense, but should still be defined to make things clear. Really, the only reason I classify this is because I’ve noticed a lot of monsters that really don’t have any virtue as a tank, shocker, support, turret, etc., don’t have the raw power to be heavies but are too tough to be fodder. The threat is a good role to use when you don’t want to build an encounter around a specific monster or type of monster, or if you want to ramp up difficulty in an encounter without adding too many members of other roles. Not everything has to be one of those special roles, sometimes you just have a cool design and an idea for a tough monster.

Neglected Blog

I’m hoping to get back to writing articles soon. My most recent semester at college (thankfully over) has been a complete meat-grinder and I haven’t been able to keep up a schedule. I’ve also run into a huge writers block on the two or three articles I had in the works already. I have a job and I’m taking another class over the summer (network security; always fun).

However, as I said, I have two or three articles in the works that I’m bouncing between, and I should be able to get back to working on them and get over this writer’s block.