NOTE: This article was originally published on Gamasutra on 10/21/2015.
In order to fully enjoy a video game, the player has to expect a certain level of challenge that will put his/her skills to the test while still giving him/her the chance to overcome the incredible odds that he/she is going to face. It’s just one of the many unique aspects of gaming that distinguish it from other forms of entertainment such as film and theater. Instead of being a passive viewer who watches the action unfold before his/her eyes, the player is an active participant who has to work (i.e. play) hard in order to reach the conclusion of his/her adventure.
Such an adventure can be made exciting and engaging if the game designer properly balances the game so that the player can feel like he/she is having fun while still being challenged. And in a lot of games, that challenge comes in the form of enemies whose goal is to give the player a hard time by impeding his/her progress.
Originally simple-minded opponents who followed basic routines, video game enemies became more intelligent and menacing as technology got more advanced. With each new gaming generation, it looked like hostile NPCs were getting closer to becoming a palpable force to be reckoned with. And those who took serious advantage of the technology at their disposal managed to craft truly challenging and memorable adversaries such as Doom’s Hell Knights and Halo’s Covenant.
In truth, however, crafting video game enemies is an art in itself. The developer has to ensure that the opponents he/she designs instill fear into the player and put up a tough and considerable fight in order for the player to feel rewarded and satisfied when he/she overcomes the opposition. It’s that feeling of achievement that makes games so engaging and thrilling, and it can be easily conveyed through sound enemy design.
I’ll elaborate on this particular design aspect by giving you a couple of components that the game developer should keep in mind while creating the enemies for the game. Each component will be broken down into two elements that form the core of the NPC’s presentational and gameplay design.
1 – Demeanor
The first component that can make or break a hostile character is his/her overall demeanor, which encompasses both his/her appearance and behavior outside of combat. Those are the first elements that the player is going to notice when he/she stumbles upon a new adversary, which means that the designer must get those aspects right if he/she wants the foe to make a solid first impression.
Speaking of first impression, the very first thing that the player will notice when encountering a new opponent is how that particular enemy looks. Visual components like physique and attire can shape the way the player perceives an NPC. In the case of hostile characters, the player should get the feeling that he/she is about to get his/her hands dirty, and this effect can be achieved by giving the foe an ominous and/or suspicious appearance that will set off alarm bells and warn the player about incoming danger, whether it’s obvious or uncertain.
The S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series takes that aspect to heart by filling the game world with monstrous figures such the Snork. This highly mutated creature strikes fear into the eyes of the player with its decayed skin that exposes its spine and teeth as well as its arched posture, giving the humanoid mutant an animal-like look. But what makes it especially terrifying is its idiosyncratic countenance: the dangling filter hose for its gas mask makes the Snork look like the characters from the cartoon series “Snorks”, hence the creature’s name. Such a stark contrast between cartoonish inspiration and gruesome result can make the Snork appear even more horrifying to the player.
Catching the attention of the player with a foe’s appearance is just one of the many ways the designer can create memorable encounters that will leave a sizable impression on the player. Whether it’s unnerving, deceptive, or both, the way a hostile character looks can alter the player’s expectations of what’s to come when he/she comes across that particular NPC. The designer must ensure that the adversary can intimidate the player by carefully considering the components that will make up the opponent’s visual traits and implementing them in a way that makes the hostile character a real head-turner.
But it’s not just an enemy’s appearance that can make him/her a potent threat to the active participant. How that foe behaves outside of combat can also give the player a good idea of what he/she can expect from that specific adversary, as well as provide a bit of useful information and insight on that NPC. This is where the developer can inject a bit of audiovisual character into the opponent. From the way the enemy traverses the environment to the utterances that he/she makes while patrolling the area, the game designer has plenty of ways to turn a good foe into a great one through convincing behavior.
The Big Daddy from the Bioshock games exemplifies that design element. When this hulking behemoth is not trying to make short work of the player, he is usually seen escorting a Little Sister around Rapture while the little girl is harvesting ADAM from dead corpses. Appearance notwithstanding, the Big Daddy doesn’t really seem like an intimidating threat, a perception that’s quickly shattered if you attack him or get too close to the Little Sister. The fact that the Big Daddy is willing to fight to the death to defend a young girl from those who wish harm upon her shows that he is not your average burly brute, but rather a (mostly) gentle giant whose sole purpose is to protect.
One of the great things about enemy design is that the developer has the opportunity to give enemies a peculiar attitude or behavioral trait that can make them interesting for the player to watch and listen to from afar before coming into close contact with them and triggering a fight. It’s that extra level of character dimension that can turn the player’s opponents into fleshed-out beings who act independently of the player and help make the overall experience more immersive and enticing, something that the designer should strive to achieve if he/she wants to draw and keep the player’s attention in the long term.
2 – Tactics
The second component that can lead to a great and memorable rival NPC is his/her combat tactics, which revolve around his/her attacks as well as his/her level of adaptability to the in-game situation. This is where the combatant can truly show the player what he/she is made of, and the designer can turn combat into a thrilling endeavor by properly tweaking the combat functions of the hostile character.
An enemy lives or dies by the way he/she engages the player during combat, which means that he/she will have to initiate a series of attacks that will potentially take the player by surprise and impede his/her efforts of overcoming the opposition. With each foe comes an opportunity for the game developer to design offensive gameplay functions that not only symbolize the NPC in question, but also give that same character a special bag of tricks that he/she can employ to get the upper hand on the player.
The Special Infected from the Left 4 Dead series all have unique combat characteristics that make them formidable opponents as well as unique hazards to the player. Each one of them possesses an attack that, unless quickly countered, can end the player’s life in a matter of seconds. Special abilities like the Boomer’s bile, the Tank’s powerful punches that can send survivors flying, and the Jockey’s tendency to cling to survivors and “ride” them while simultaneously meting out punishment perfectly encapsulate the unpredictable nature of the Left 4 Dead games and, as a result, complement the dynamic gameplay very well.
When designing combat maneuvers for enemy characters, the game developer has to take into account two factors that can affect the hostile NPC’s attacks: balance (is this attack underpowered/overpowered?) and congruence (does this combat ability fit the opponent’s profile?). With those elements in mind, the designer can develop a better understanding of how to cohesively craft a distinctive combatant who harbors a unique set of combat abilities that not only challenge the player, but also shape the identity of that particular foe.
Of course, it’s not just the way an enemy attacks that can make him/her a lethal threat. How he/she reacts to the player’s actions and the in-game situation can also give the impression that the adversary is more than meets the eye, and this is where the developer will have to get especially creative. Since fights can unfold in a variety of ways, the designer has to seriously take into account the combatant’s ability to adapt during combat so that battles feel realistic, which can lead to a greater sense of immersion and a more believable virtual experience.
Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor accomplishes that feat by making use of an advanced gameplay feature dubbed the Nemesis System, which allows enemy characters (Uruks) to remember past interactions with the player and react accordingly to his/her actions. This means that the Uruks will be able to counter combat maneuvers that the player previously relied on, making them more difficult to defeat and prompting the player to seek new means of dispatching his/her foes. Not only does this level of adaptability keep the experience fresh, it also makes the Uruks scarily smart and compels the player to work even harder to eliminate his/her adversaries, leading to encounters that can make for great “water cooler” moments.
Of all the aspects that I listed, making the hostile character highly dynamic and adaptable is the hardest task a game developer can undertake, which merits that particular element special attention if immersion and replay value constitute the core components of the game. But it’s that same component that can make each combatant unique, regardless of whether or not that NPC shares the same characteristics as other adversaries. Through careful consideration of the game’s dynamic nature and the possible combat outcomes, the developer can create a multifaceted foe who will leave a huge impression on the player.
So creating compelling and formidable video game enemies is something that’s easier said than done, but it’s an endeavor that can pay off in spades if the game designer plays his/her cards right. From an enemy’s demeanor to the combat tactics that he/she employs, there are several ways that the game developer can flex his/her design muscles and come up with an outstanding-looking nemesis who not only impedes the player’s progress, but does so in a believable and intriguing manner that can make the virtual experience much more engaging and exciting.
Let me know what you think of my article in the comments section, and feel free to ask me questions. I’ll do my best to get back to you as promptly as possible.