One of the most intriguing roles for me is that of the support monster. The one that can’t do much by itself, or indeed can’t do anything by itself, but through some innate mechanic makes others more dangerous. The support monster allows the designer to improve the abilities of other monsters in some way by introducing a new element while keeping those other monsters the same. However, dedicated supports can be tricky to pull off correctly, but there are some pretty good examples.
Half-Life 2 has more support enemies than most other games, such as the Scanner. The Scanner probably isn’t the most impressive in effect, but the way it was handled in-game is a great example of how supports should be used. The bot itself literally does nothing to you but take a picture. If you’re looking at it when it does so, it actually blinds you, which gets pretty dangerous when you’re fighting other enemies. It makes you want to target it first, even though it never actually attacks you. Aside from that, it doesn’t take much damage, it’s kind of slow and obvious, and it’s very non-threatening. It actually looks kind of cute, for a floating, eye-like robot.
Right after you get your first weapon, it’s the first hostile you encounter. It just keeps taking pictures of you. Eventually you get so annoyed that you whack it a few times with your crowbar and find it can be killed. Later on, another Scanner shows up again when you’re fighting some basic Combine soldiers, and tries to blind you. We’re given a nice introduction before it affects us in a threatening situation. By that point, you have a pistol and are able to pick them out of the air as soon as you see them, before they cripple you. In that encounter, and every one after that, it’s usually easy to spot. Its effect is a bit weak, but it’s a good example of a well-used, weak, offensive support.
Probably the most dangerous support is everyone’s most hated Half-Life 2 monster; the Poison Headcrab. They’re slow, they don’t take much damage, they have have a very distinctive sound set, and I don’t think they can even kill you. When they hit you with a leap attack, however, your health is immediately set to 1 (which your suit recovers at a rate of 10 per second after a short delay). Combined with other fast monsters, such as ordinary headcrabs, they become the most dangerous creature in the game. There is also a zombie that is covered with poison headcrabs and throws them at you. Again, it’s almost incapable of killing you, but it’s the most dangerous thing in the game when backed up properly.
The way the Poison Headcrabs were used in the game was also impressively done. The first time we encounter them, we’re given a nice introduction; there were only two in a fairly small room. Literally, they couldn’t kill you, but we could very easily be hit by either one. It’s not a threatening encounter, but we’re left to slowly realize how really terrifying these monsters can be.
Unfortunately, while those two examples are of support monsters pulled off pretty well, there are some enemies in games that I feel didn’t live up to their potential. One of which is the Teleport Dropper in Quake 4. In design and mechanic, it was excellent; all it did was drop little spheres that acted as beacons for teleporters, effectively spawning in monsters to attack you. If I recall correctly, all it could teleport in were the lower-level enemies that weren’t very dangerous individually, but the Teleport Dropper provided a potentially never-ending stream of them. If you got too close it could bite you, but that wasn’t the focus of the monster. It was also pretty fast, and would try to run away from you. But the fundamental flaw was that the three times you fight this creature in the game, the encounter itself works against it. Each time, it’s always front and center, and very, very vulnerable. The teleport beacons could be easily destroyed by splash damage, and the Teleport Dropper only took a few rockets to bring down. You always had warning that a Teleport Dropper was going to be around because of sounds and some scripted events where it ran past you or away from you. It was as if Raven Software knew how effective it could be, but decided it was a little too effective and designed each fight to work as much in the player’s favor as possible.
Support monsters don’t always have to have some effect on the player, though. In Red Faction: Armageddon, there was this monster (more of a structure, almost) called a Monolith. It looked like a massive three-taloned claw that burst up from the ground and threw rocket-like globs of plasma at you. They were surprisingly common considering their role, but they were always annoying because they doubled the health of nearby enemies. Sometimes, one would actually appear in the middle of a fight with a Behemoth (the most dangerous monster in the game). They were, however, threatening enough in their own right that I don’t consider them dedicated supports, but their effect is really impressive. It demonstrates that effective supports can play the tank role quite well, because their supporting mechanic often demands the player’s attention, but it usually depends on the mechanic involved.
After reading up to this point, you might think “my monster has an ability that debilitates the player or powers up other monsters, so it must be a support,” but it also heavily depends on the strength of the monster and how dangerous it is. The Rezbit from Metroid Prime 2 (by far the most annoying enemy in the game) has a particular ability where it uploads a virus into your suit that stops most functions and forces a reboot (of the suit; not necessarily the game). This blinds you, takes away a few abilities and makes you unable to fight back for a pretty lengthy period of time (around 15 seconds if I recall correctly). They had a few fairly damaging attacks, as well, and some defensive abilities, but it’s the virus that really stands out.
But is the Rezbit a support monster? I don’t consider it one for two reasons. Firstly, it’s too powerful to be one; it has a few attacks that can be pretty damaging and are difficult to avoid. In any other FPS (Metroid Prime was more of an adventure game, and by the time you fight these, you would need to stand still for 15 minutes before one kills you), they would be incredibly dangerous. Secondly, they’re never encountered alongside other enemies, and are usually fought one at a time. It’s not a support monster because it doesn’t support anything else! Its virus ability is to make itself more dangerous, though it would be really evil and overpowered if you were fighting an Ingsmasher while a Rezbit is supporting it. But these are two important points to consider before classifying a monster as a support.
More than any other role, supports can make encounters different by some random element or making familiar enemies more threatening. They should change how the player approaches the encounter, much like the tank role, but in different ways, and usually necessitating a different strategy. For example, if you were fighting ranged enemies, the Poison Headcrab might make you break cover and take damage from those ranged enemies in order to avoid it. The Scanner helps extend the life of surrounding enemies by making you temporarily unable to attack them effectively; and can you imagine if a Scanner blinded you if you were being chased by quick melee monsters? Then we have monsters like the Medic from Quake 2 (revives dead monsters with full health), which could potentially restart a fight you’ve already completed if released in an area the player’s already been. The Teleport Dropper is capable of spawning an infinite amount of randomly-chosen monsters, and if it was used properly, can make encounters different every time you play them. If used correctly, supports can make encounters in your game potentially different every time the player plays through it.
While this is also true for especially dangerous monsters, the way supports are introduced is very important. In every case, you want to give a taste of their mechanic to the player in the introduction; it’s usually really sad when the support dies before the player knows what it does, as well). For offensive supports (supports with some direct but non-lethal effect on the player), it seems like a good idea to have the player fight it without any other monsters, but in an encounter sculpted to show the player what it does, like in the introductory fight with the Poison Headcrab. For defensive supports (monsters with an effect on other monsters), you have to put it alongside other monsters, but it’s sometimes a little trickier to show what their effect is. The Monolith is obvious only because it gives surrounding monsters this green aura to show an active effect, and because your AI friend in the game outright tells you what that active effect is. While this probably isn’t a hard-and-fast rule for all supports (especially those that don’t fit these two categories), it’s what seems to work. You always want to show what their support effect is, however.
As I’ve implied before, there are really three types of supports; offensive (some effect on the player), defensive (some beneficial effect on other monsters) and a special category (doesn’t fit into the other categories, or has more effect on the map itself), and each role has to be balanced differently. Almost counterintuitively, you don’t want offensive supports to have a very long-lasting ability, or a too-debilitating effect on the player. The Rezbit makes you defenseless for around 15 whole seconds; could you imagine that in a fast FPS like Quake? What about a monster that freezes you in place for 10 seconds, rather than just slowing you for a moment? Defensive supports almost need to be tankier, so their effect shows more obviously. If the Monolith wasn’t as tough as it was, its double-health mechanic might never be even noticed. The other categories should be balanced (health, potential damage, duration, things like that) around what their effect is.
More than balance, they should be placed correctly in encounters. Some offensive supports like the Scanner and Poison Headcrab can be front-and-center even being weak, because their effect just has to happen once. The Teleport Dropper failed so badly because it was placed front-and-center every time it was encountered, so its support effect could be outright skipped and they became a non-issue.
Of course, the overall goal is to make encounters more fun for the player, and the element that supports brings to switch things up accomplishes that quite nicely, if the support is well-designed. A poorly-planned support will simply add frustration, but a solid concept can make the game more memorable for the right reasons. Though the concept isn’t limited to this genre alone (I’ve seen supports in strategy and RPGs especially), support monsters are always fun to see in shooters.