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.


Analysis of a Moment: Halo – The End of Two Betrayals

Every once in a while, we run into moments in games that are just incredibly well-designed all around. We might not realize it exactly or why it’s well-designed, but we know these moments are really, really fun. Those of us interested in game-design can look at moments like these as examples; not to copy, but as inspiration. They have elements that make them so great, and we can pick apart these elements to see what makes these moments so fun.

The first I can think of is my all-time favourite part of Halo: Combat Evolved (the first one). At the end of the map Two Betrayals, in order to get to a platform high off the ground, we need to grab a Covenant Banshee (the flying vehicle, for those who have never played the game). We continue through this frozen canyon to find one and run into a battle between a decent-sized Flood force and the largest Covenant defensive position we’ve seen so far. We can clearly see a pair of Banshees at the back, but have to somehow get through this massive enemy force to get it. It’s incredibly tricky to pull off, and I’ll be talking about this as though playing on the highest difficulty setting, Legendary (mostly because I just recently beat this on Legendary myself and haven’t touched it on any other setting in years). To describe the Covenant position, you have a firing line of Jackals and Grunts with a single Shade turret up front, some Elite Majors behind them, and a Wraith mortar tank on each side flanking the main body of the force. At some point, some Elite Ossoona (Stealth Elites. Yes, that’s what they’re called) move out to harass you as you begin your attack. When you’ve either destroyed enough or gotten close enough (it seemed to vary, when I played), a pair of Hunters, some more Grunts and a pair of Elite Zealots run from the back to reinforce.

From the start of the encounter, we are given a great introduction as to what we’re up against. We have a wave of Flood attacking this position we have to assault, and it gets wiped out in about a minute under a rain of needler and plasma mortar fire. At several points in this map before this, we see waves of Flood wiping out Covenant defensive positions without much contest, so we immediately see the potential challenge of this. We can also clearly see fire from a fixed turret and two Wraith mortar tanks among other small(er) arms fire, so we have useful test-dummies to show what we’re actually up against. One of the big problems with giving the player a challenge like this is that he often has to run in and die at least once before he knows exactly what it is, but here they found a nice way around that issue.

Related to the Flood attacking the position, we are also given necessary tools for the attack, mostly dropped by Flood Combat Forms but there’s a weapons cache not too far away. We have a sniper rifle with four full clips, about twenty rockets for a rocket launcher, a Ghost light strike vehicle (yes, it’s possible to get it up that short ledge), and as many frag grenades, plasma grenades, assault rifle, pistol and shotgun rounds as we can carry. Before this, Flood Combat Forms carrying rocket launchers are the most annoying things in the game (it was a very luck-based instant-loss, before this. See why I don’t like glass-cannons?), but now we can appreciate them as a source of ammo. Without them, we wouldn’t have nearly enough rockets to destroy the Wraith tanks. It’s a good way of repurposing an extremely-annoying enemy into something useful.

My favourite part of this encounter is that the game doesn’t actually care what we do anyway. The game makes sure we can’t bring a Banshee from a previous area (which is good, because I don’t think anyone would want to skip this) but otherwise it leaves us free to attack this section however we want. We could try to make a stealthy beeline for one of the Banshees to get in and out without a fight (it has worked for me once, years ago, I swear to God). We could actually try wiping out the entire position before trying to get the Banshee. We could destroy the Wraiths first, or ignore them and kill the Elites. We could use the rocket launcher for that, or the sniper rifle or anything else we wanted, as long as it worked. This section is what Crysis really tried to be; it gives you an objective, a challenge and the tools to work and lets you loose to complete it how you want.

As I’ve said before, it’s very difficult to actually beat this section. Even having a great plan for what to do, it still took me four tries to complete. For example, while I was trying to snipe the Wraith tanks with rockets, the Ossoona surprised and killed me before I could get back to cover. It’s very honest and up-front about why it’s difficult; you always know exactly why you died, and how you might get past it the next time. The only possible exception to this is when the reinforcements appear, they simply weren’t there before and could easily take you by surprise, but it’s balanced by the fact that the Hunters and Zealots are very easily spotted anyway.

More than anything else, though, it’s satisfying! You went up against a massive enemy force and got out with what you needed! More than that, you completed it yourself! While I would hate to get on a soapbox and talk about the crippling issues with the games of kids today, a lot of games today don’t have this sense of accomplishment because of a lack of some of these factors. Either it gives you a very obvious way to beat the encounter, or it’s not challenging enough or something else. This section of the game lets you, the player deal with it yourself. Even better, you can easily tell what your objective is, without any hand-holding objective displays or non-player characters telling you what to do.

While I wouldn’t like if anything outright copied this part of the game, I really hope to see more sections like this used. Too often, these days, games give you a moment that is supposed to be really fun and epic, but they expect you to do this or that specific thing to get through it. In games like this that give you the freedom to do something yourself, it’s always far more satisfying from the player’s perspective to give them the tools to accomplish what they need to and let them do it themselves.

Roles of Monsters: Fodder

Not every monster is intended as a threat. Some monsters are there to ease the player into the game at the start, keep him a little busy in between dangerous encounters, and back up more dangerous monsters. These non-threatening monsters are called fodder.


The best example of fodder is the Imp from the original Doom. Somewhat like a swarmer, they don’t have a lot of health, though still more than a swarmer. Usually enough to take one or two shotgun blasts. They throw slow-moving fireballs that are easily dodged, and don’t do a lot of damage anyway. While they’re often encountered in groups, they have no mechanism for attacking all at once, so it’s more like you fight a few at a time. The only threat in that case is if you have very limited space to work with.

So why do Imps exist, if they aren’t much of a threat? Basically, they’re used whenever the designers want to give the player something to do without challenging him much. Usually, as a break between encounters that try to kill the player, keeping him busy but still giving him a short rest. They’re also used very often to back up stronger monsters. For example, we often see a group of Imps with a single Baron of Hell, in Doom 1. The Baron of Hell is the main part of the encounter, but the Imps give us something else to worry about, to take our attention off of the main threat.


Fodder can also use some variation. The Guards from Quake 2, for example, are basically the same kind of fodder monster, but each has a little more health and different weapons. Quake 2 itself comes with blaster, shotgun and machinegun versions, with laser and ripper variants added in an expansion pack. Without much effort, they’ve added more monsters that are still familiar for a player; especially when these weapons mirror those the player has, himself. By necessity, fodder monsters have to be somewhat common throughout a game. When there’s enough variation, like with Quake 2’s Guards, it keeps the fodder from getting boring too quickly; especially when new versions are introduced more slowly over the course of the game. It also adds more flexibility for the designer to sculpt an encounter.

One more minor point about this, keep in mind that the player will be seeing a lot of fodder, so it’s a good idea to have even more variation. The Strogg Marine in Quake 4, for example, has more sounds than any other monster in the game, so it doesn’t play the same sounds all the time (which can get annoying).


Another fodder monster is the Grunt from Halo. Like the Imp, they have some weak projectile attacks, but they have some variation as well. In Halo 1, they could be equipped with either Plasma Pistols or Needlers, and there are Minor (basic, yellow-armored), Major (red-armored, more health and can throw plasma grenades), and towards the end of the game there are Special-Ops Grunts (black-armored, even more health and almost never panic). Often, they’re seen backing up Elites, the major threat of these encounters.

The big difference between this and the Imp, however, is that these guys drop their weapons, giving the player a source of ammo. Similar to Combine Soldiers in Half-Life 2, or the basic Former Humans in Doom, they act as a method for the player to resupply, but the player has to do something to earn it. This gives them another function alongside what fodder already does.


There is one major variation of fodder, and that is the basic meat-shield. The Demon from Doom is the best example of one, though the Headcrab Zombie from Half-Life 2 is one, as well. It has a lot of health, but only has a melee attack that doesn’t do a lot of damage, and can only hit with if it pins you against a wall. Unless very strategically placed (There are some traps in Doom 2 that take advantage of them, most notably in “Tricks and Traps” and “Downtown”), they aren’t particularly dangerous. All they really do is rush at you and absorb damage.

They have most of the characteristics of fodder, but they bring something else to the table in that they can drain resources. Somewhat like tanks, they drain either ammo, time, or especially space in an area, but unlike true tanks, they don’t really demand your attention like they should (either by being threatening or having some annoying mechanic). There are some meat-shields that have ranged attacks, but usually those are low-damage or easy to dodge in any case (though some consider Doom’s Baron of Hell this, despite its high damage). They do add a bit on the mechanical side, but they can be pretty boring for the player.

Like the Imp, these fodder monsters are there to keep the player busy while giving him a break. In the case of enemies like Halo’s Grunt or Doom’s zombies, they can also give the player ammo and weapons without simply having them lying around (he has to earn it). Sometimes, as well, they’re a minor challenge after giving an important item, but without actively trying to kill the player (for example, the Imps after you get the shotgun in Doom 1’s Hell Keep level). They also give the player the ability to ease into gameplay slowly at the start, letting him get used to controls and other mechanics. Many games these days (Crysis, for example) omit the fodder role entirely, and I think that’s a mistake. Games that don’t have fodder at all either don’t give the player a break, or have downtime where absolutely nothing happens. Fodder is best used to help the designer control the flow of gameplay like a sonata, with high-action and low-action segments, as opposed to high-action and no-action.

There are cases where fodder doesn’t really help. For example, I don’t think fodder works well in survival-horror games; weak monsters tend to give the player a feeling of complacency, making him feel like he can handle whatever the game throws at him. Dead Space’s idea of fodder, the Slasher, is capable of killing the player, it’s just easy to deal with unless it catches him off guard. Fodder works best when your game uses multiple, different roles of monsters.

Every once in a while, some games give certain kinds of fodder some incredibly-powerful ability, like Grunts Majors and the basic Chaos Heretics from Space Marine both have the ability to throw grenades. This is mostly some attempt at keeping the player on edge, because this group of easy monsters can actually kill him if he’s careless. However, it really depends on the pacing and mechanics of the game in question; for example, this works well in Space Marine and Halo because it’s easy enough to dodge, but it could never work in a game like Doom. Doom is just too fast and hitboxes are too easy to hit for this to work. It also works because not every fodder monster in Halo and Space Marine has an ability like this; it’s just the red-armored Grunts in Halo, for example. It would be annoying and overpowered if every Grunt in Halo could throw plasma grenades, and it gives more meaning to that variety besides slightly-increased health.

When fodder monsters do have nothing but powerful attacks, they’re what are commonly known as glass cannons. The best example of this that I can think of are the Special-Ops Grunts with Fuel Rod Guns in Halo 1. Again, among the weakest monsters in the game, but suddenly has a weapon that can instantly kill you if you don’t see it. These surprisingly don’t work very well, but usually a game can get away with one if it’s well-used. The problem with glass cannons is that they’re pretty luck-based. If the player spots them, he can kill them quickly and they aren’t a problem; if he doesn’t, then he takes a lot of damage. The upside to this is if the glass cannon is a variant of an existing fodder monster, like the Special-Ops Grunt; we know it’s going to be easy to kill from experience, but suddenly it has a much bigger gun, so we immediately know exactly how we should handle this. Also, for balance reasons, its gun explodes when it dies, so the player can’t use it (which nullifies the ammo-giving mechanic of Grunts). I’ve heard arguments that the glass cannon could be considered its own role, but it doesn’t have enough characteristics on its own to warrant that, so I figured I would talk about it here. I will be expanding on this in future monster role articles, as it applies.

There are enough similarities between swarmers and fodder that you could say that swarmers are fodder that simply has some way of taking advantage of their numbers. Certainly Halo’s Grunt and Drone aren’t very different aside from the Drone’s mobility. Because of that, you can use swarmers as fodder by just reducing their numbers enough to where they don’t really swarm. I still like seeing an individual kind of monster as dedicated fodder, but using swarmers as fodder is good to mix things up. This is also a warning; if you make a swarmer you should make sure it is actually dangerous in groups, otherwise it’s just fodder.

Except for that, though, the fodder role isn’t as compatible with any other role (as a dual-class monster). You could never have a fodder/support; that’s just a support. Because tanks have to be threatening or annoying enough to demand your attention, the closest thing to a fodder/tank is a meat shield, and that’s not particularly good at being a tank anyway because they don’t do that. However, fodder works very well in encounters alongside those kinds of monsters. How many times in Quake 4 do we see Strogg Marines backing up a Gladiator or other strong monster? We also have the Scanner in Half-Life 2 supporting pistol-wielding Combine soldiers, making them a bit more dangerous than they would normally be. Fodder often makes up the meat of encounters, after you decide what roles should be central.

I hope this shows how important the fodder role is to actual gameplay. As I said, most games these days skip this entirely. If you’re designing a game that uses different roles of monsters, you kind of have to add in at least one variety of well-designed fodder. Without them, it can be a lot harder to control the flow of your gameplay.