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: The Support

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.

Roles of Monsters: The Tank

This is a rewrite of the original Roles of Monsters: The Tank article from 2012. I didn’t feel that it was up to quality, there were some factual inaccuracies regarding the Hunter, and there’s one or two different points I want to make in addition. Despite this being rewritten after many of my other articles, I’m still making it read like it’s still 2012, before the others are written.

Over the last year or so, I’ve started becoming more aware of the different roles different monsters play. Most multiplayer games embrace the concept of differing roles, though. In a standard online RPG, the damage-dealers kill everything while the tanks take damage and the healers keep everyone alive. That’s been called the holy trinity of online gaming. There could be other roles as the mechanics in the game allow for it, but those are the main three. Groups of monsters in single-player games could operate the same way. Different classes or roles of monsters can make gameplay more dynamic, as it allows the designer to sculpt encounters that, for example, tax a player a certain way, try to kill him in a way he hasn’t run into before, or provide some other interesting obstacle. I should start out by saying, however, that gameplay design is something very fluid in general, and there is no true correct answer for any of this. That said, “incorrect” is still possible, when something is incredibly frustrating or boring for most players. The purpose of these articles is to give an educated opinion with examples as a good framework to build on, as well as warnings on things that I feel are just not fun to play with.

One of the most basic concepts in an online game is the tank. The tank role in MMORPGs is there to soak enemy attacks and take damage so everyone else in the group doesn’t have to. We can also use a similar concept for monsters: tank-type monsters in an encounter drawing attention away from the others. In a gameplay sense, they’re mostly used for either drawing the player’s weapons fire from others, or for soaking some time, ammo or other resources from the player. Not many games have designs for tank-type monsters specifically, but when they work correctly this role can enable some of the most interesting encounters.

Mancubus, from Doom 3
The Mancubus from Doom 3 is a classic example of the basic tank-type. It’s very large, has a lot of health and is usually placed alongside weaker monsters (except for its first encounter.) For an attack, it shoots fireballs quite rapidly from its two arm cannons. They didn’t show up very often in the game, but when they did they were usually used as large artillery pieces with other monsters for support. It usually made the player want to ignore those others and kill the Mancubus first.

So, what makes an effective tank? Just like the role in any online game, the tank has to be able to take damage and should grab the player’s attention to protect other monsters while they do their jobs. The Mancubus does this fairly well since it’s so large, makes so much noise and can build up damage pretty fast if you let it. It’s not the most threatening monster in the game, but it’s just so obvious that the average player just has to shoot at it. In the case that it has taken the player’s attention, the tank should also survive long enough for those other monsters to do those jobs. The Mancubus has enough raw health to survive for a little while against the player, or else draw some ammo from the player’s more powerful weapons. As it stands, it’s a pretty mediocre tank for a number of reasons, but it’s a very basic, meat-and-potatoes example.

Quake 4 - Gladiator
Another good example of a tank is the Gladiator from Quake 4. While it’s fairly beefy like the Mancubus, it can also put up an energy shield mounted on its arm. Any attacks that strike this shield don’t damage the Gladiator, but it’s still entirely vulnerable if you strike it anywhere else. For weapons, it had a standard blaster, and a very-damaging railgun. Throughout the game, the Gladiator is found leading a group of weaker monsters.

As I said, the tank has to be able to take punishment somehow. The classic tanks like the Mancubus simply just take a lot of damage before dying. The simple high-health tanks have the problem that it will always take this amount of ammo or takes this amount of time to kill. Tanks with some mitigation ability like the Gladiator, though, are more dynamic. In my opinion, some of the best tanks are the ones that can mitigate incoming damage like the Gladiator. These should be designed very carefully, though, because they can be really annoying in the completely wrong way, especially if discovering how to damage it is harder than actually killing it. The Gladiator works in this way because it’s very obvious that the shield prevents damage (or at least reduces it, from the player’s perspective). The player can still shoot around the shield, and the player has multiple weapons at his disposal (such as the grenade launcher) that can bypass the shield entirely.

Halo - Hunter
One of the most incredible monsters capable of soaking up damage in any game I’ve seen is the Hunter from the Halo series. If the player hasn’t seen it before, the sight of a nine-foot tall wall of metal, a set of long spikes arcing from its back, firing explosive balls of energy is really intimidating and immediately demands the player’s focus. What’s more, they always come in pairs. The Hunter is also mostly immune to small-arms fire if you hit the very-abundant armor plating. However, there are a few gaps in the armor where you can hit the tissue beneath, which takes off a lot more health. They can also be damaged and killed by explosives no matter where you hit them.

Damage mitigation is a strong tool for tanks, but it can be very tricky to balance. In the first Halo game, the gaps in the Hunter’s armor count as the head of the model, and some weapons like the pistol will just kill it outright with just a single shot. It’s tricky to hit these spots unless the Hunter is charging at you, so in order to exploit this, the player has to directly put himself in harm’s way (especially tricky with a second Hunter shooting at him). Like with the Gladiator, a quick, intelligent player can get around that mitigation. In this case, I think the Hunter’s defense mechanic wasn’t designed correctly; it’s almost impossible to kill them with normal weapons (even if you’re shooting the weak points, it takes a lot to kill it), but they die to a single “headshot” from headshot-capable weapons. Either it’s a complete stone-wall without explosives or the right weapons, or they die outright with no challenge. It still does take the player’s focus, though, but it dies a little too quickly to work well as a tank. They changed the Hunter quite a bit in later games: In Halo 3, they take a bit more damage, their weak spots are covered up by armor plates that can be shot off, and they don’t die to single attacks even when those weak spots are exposed.

Hell Warrior, from KDiZD
There are some monsters that would potentially make decent tanks, but for many different reasons don’t quite work. The popular ZDoom mod Knee-Deep in ZDoom (KDiZD) had the Hell Warrior. It’s very similar to Doom’s own Hell Knight but with a large shield and an alternate attack that passes through targets. When damaged, it can sometimes raise its shield and become invulnerable for a few seconds. Fights with the Hell Warrior were more about time management, hitting it with high-damage weapons while the shield is down and waiting until it’s vulnerable again.

There were two things wrong with the Hell Warrior in KDiZD. The first is that while it does have some damage mitigation, there’s no choice for the player and no way to play around it. It becomes invulnerable, and the player just has to wait for it to become vulnerable again. The player could take this time to ignore it and focus on other monsters in the encounter. Which leads me to the second issue: there usually weren’t any other monsters in the encounter. The Hell Warrior was almost always placed alone blocking a hallway, and you had to kill it in order to continue. It wasn’t a threat on its own, but it could have done okay supporting other monsters, so its abilities were completely wasted the way it was used.

The last and probably the most situational and minor role of the tank is to use up some of the player’s time. In the Resurrection of Evil expansion for Doom 3, there was a section where you had limited air in this toxic waste area. Once or twice, a Mancubus comes along and blocks your path, forcing you to deal with it while your air was ticking away. This made the limited oxygen mechanic seem more urgent, though there was still more than enough air for the section. Another example was in the Strogg Medical Labs in Quake 4; in one spot, you go into a dead end to pick up some ammo and a Gladiator comes up behind you. You have a limited amount of time to kill it before it walks up to melee range and starts slapping you around, making it much harder to deal with. These timed scenarios are very situational, however, and often depend on outside mechanics (such as limited oxygen) to work correctly. Without those outside mechanics (and even with them sometimes), it just feels like a waste of time for the player without accomplishing anything if it isn’t done right.

In this article, I’m not only talking about how to make a tank-type monster, I’m also talking about how to use the tank role. Any monster that takes enough punishment and is threatening enough to focus on before other monsters is a tank, and there are things to consider when they’re used. If they’re used alone, then it should have a purpose. When they’re used with a group of other monsters, tanks can help create more interesting encounters for the player, making him decide how to proceed and making him think about what he should prioritize. The only times a dedicated tank fails at this role is if they outright die, or if they don’t take the player’s attention. If you design a dedicated tank-type monster, building in damage mitigation can make them more survivable and can add more choices for the player in how to deal with it. Hopefully, I’ve given a good enough overview and given enough to think about when designing and using this role.