Introduction to Combat Zones

I recently spent a lot of time thinking about enemy encounters in shooters, specifically about the composition of the spaces they take place in. As I looked at these spaces in a variety of games I began to recognize that they could often be divided into three sections: player space, neutral space, and enemy space.

All of a sudden, something clicked into place in my mind; I had a deeper understanding of encounter spaces. Where before there was chaos and confusion, there was now order and beauty. Armed with this knowledge, I began work on a single-player level for Gears of War. My newfound knowledge enabled me to create solid encounter spaces in that level. It’s really been a very useful recognition and I’d like to talk a bit more about encounter spaces or what I now call “combat zones.”

Before I dive into combat zones though, I’d like to thank Joel Goodsell of Insomniac Games and Jaime Griesemer, formerly of Bungie for putting together two presentations that have helped me solidify the way I look at combat in shooters (see the bottom of the post for links).

Okay, that being done, let’s take a look at combat zones.

The way I define a combat zone is as follows: a combat zone is a gameplay space wherein the player and their allies (if they have any) come into armed conflict with a group of enemies. That’s an adequate definition but it doesn’t provide any particularly useful information about the composition of a combat zone. So, allow me to identify the six main components of one.

  1. The player space.
  2. The enemy space.
  3. A player front.
  4. An enemy front.
  5. No man’s land.
  6. A flanking route.

Look at this example taken from one of the early encounter spaces from Gears of War.

Encounter from Gears of War, Ashes: Trial by Fire

Now, look at it through the lens of a combat zone (you may have to open the image in another window to get a proper view of the text).

Encounter from Gears of War, Ashes: Trial by Fire

It fits. I’m sure it’s not a coincidence. The level designers of Gears of War understood this stuff and they kept it in mind when building their levels. Check out a couple examples of combat zones from other games.

Encounter from Halo 3, Crow's Nest

Encounter from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, Team Player

Now, I’m not saying that every combat zone has to be built with all of these components, every time, in exactly the same way. I’m sure there are plenty of awesome combat zones that differ from this model but, as the saying goes: you have to know the rules before you can break them. The more I look at combat zones in shooters, the more I’m convinced that the components listed above are the rules. So, let’s take a closer look at the components and identify their purpose and value.

The player space is the area in which the player and their allies may safely (relatively speaking) traverse. It’s also where the player and their allies are located at the start of combat. Its purpose is to provide the player with an area of relative safety from which to launch an attack or counter-attack against their enemies. Because it’s player-controlled territory, it’s the low-risk section of the combat zone (of course, it can become a high-risk section if the enemy manages to get inside the player space).

Enemy space is the yang to the player space’s yin. It’s where the player’s enemies are able to safely traverse and it’s where they start the battle (or at least where they move to when the battle starts). It fulfills a similar purpose for the enemies as the player space does for the player. Due to the fact that it’s full of enemies who want to kill the player, it’s a high-risk section of the combat zone – though not as high-risk as no man’s land – but we’ll get to that in a bit.

Naturally, in order for these two spaces to exist, they need boundaries. The forward most boundaries of either space are the fronts (or battle lines as Jaime Griesemer calls them). The fronts clearly separate each space from the other, creating two distinct areas.

It’s extremely important that the fronts are well-defined and thus easily identifiable by the player. Otherwise, it’s unclear to them where the player space is and where the enemy space is. Such a combat zone is confusing and potentially frustrating to the player. The player must be able to look at the combat zone and immediately compartmentalize it (with most players, this probably happens subconsciously). This is a critical step in the player’s ability to understand the combat zone and make meaningful choices based off that understanding.

The fronts exist on either side of no man’s land (I used to call this neutral space and Jaime Griesemer calls it the killing zone). No man’s land contains little to no cover and anyone that occupies this space is in an extremely vulnerable position for as long as they remain in it.

Think of no man’s land as a writer, web designer, or artist would think of white space. It brings order to the composition of the combat zone. It further separates the player space from the enemy space, helping each space to distinguish itself from the other and in turn, aiding the player in understanding the battlefield.

The lack of cover in no man’s land helps to distinguish it from the player space and the enemy space. But it also distinguishes itself by virtue of the fact that it’s the highest-risk section of the combat zone. Basically, if the player steps into this space and lingers in it for more than a moment they should expect to be riddled with bullets, as should the enemy.

If it’s so dangerous, why would the player or their enemies travel through it? The answer can be found in the age-old and singularly unfunny joke, why did the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side. Another way of putting that is: to flank the enemy.

A flanking route is the final component of a combat zone and as mentioned above, its purpose is to provide a means for either the player or an enemy to traverse no man’s land and get into a position that yields the upper hand. If the player flanks the enemy, they feel like they did something smart and they have an opportunity to get one-up on the enemy. If an enemy flanks the player or his allies then the enemy is imbued with the illusion of intelligence and the player reacts positively to that (assuming the enemy flanking maneuver was well-telegraphed to the player; otherwise it may be irritating).

A flanking route should consist of one or two pieces of cover that provide the player or the enemy a path through no man’s land to the opposite side. Some flanking routes may only be usable by the player or enemy whereas others may be usable by both forces.

It’s certainly possible to have more than one flanking route, but having too many runs the risk of becoming confusing and noisy. My advice is to limit flanking routes to one or two per combat zone. Give the player choices, but don’t overwhelm them with too many options.

So, that’s my breakdown of combat zones. I hope it’s helpful. Keep in mind that I’ve made some generalizations and that there are no hard-and-fast rules. I simply think combat zones provide a good model for level designers that need to create encounter spaces.

As the title implies, this was just an introduction to combat zones. There’s a lot more depth to the topic, especially as concerns best practices for things like how to establish a clearly defined front. I may go into that sort of stuff more in another post but if you’re interested in reading more about this topic, I highly encourage you to check out Joel Goodsell’s presentation, Crafting Satisfying Combat Experiences at Insomniac Games and Jaime Griesemer’s presentation, The Illusion of Intelligence. Also, feel free to weigh in with comments and definitely link me to any relevant material that I may not be aware of.

Add One More Elf to the Mix

“A friend of mine, another Oblivion addict, confessed to playing the game with the volume turned down after his novelist wife’s acid dinner-party dismissal of the time he spent ‘with elves talking bullshit.’” – Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter by Tom Bissell, page 10

I’m sure many non-gamers are equally dismissive of video games. Some of them may even think of games as nothing more than meaningless bullshit. Yet there exists a whole community of intelligent people who expend a great deal of time thinking about and discussing video games and game design – elves talking bullshit, if you will.

I’ve decided to join these “elves.”

If you’re at all curious about whom I am, see the About the Author section in the sidebar and feel free to check out my portfolio (linked below that).

I’m writing this blog because I believe doing so will provide me with a deeper understanding of level design/game design. I also suspect it will help me improve my ability to speak intelligently about those subjects. Lastly, I hope that some of the future content on this blog will be of use to aspiring level designers/game designers who may stumble upon this site.

You should expect this blog to contain examinations of level design/game design techniques and issues, some level/game design theory, my thoughts about games I’m playing, and reactions to the writings of other video game bloggers.

You should not expect this blog to contain any information about games I’m currently working on, or have worked on, in a professional capacity. From time to time, I may talk about personal projects but I won’t be discussing my professional work.

Finally, I’m new to this whole blogging thing so comments and feedback on the layout and any blogging etiquette I may inadvertently break are welcome.

Feel free to follow me on twitter @ElvesTalkingBS.