Monday, March 16, 2009

Creating Powerful Characters

Today I'd like to talk about something that I think doesn't come up nearly enough - creating a powerful character.

Often times in games we end up playing as some average schmuck stuck in the middle of some crazy situation. And almost as often said schmuck gets a little more powerful in some form as the game progresses - whether it's physical strength, better weapons, or new abilities.

This model is great in that it gives the player a great sense of accomplishment as they progress throughout the game. Unfortunately it also leaves the initial portion of the game feeling a little less awesome. A standard practice in this case is to give the player everything up front, and then have the character "lose" their abilities, which must then be regained.

Of course, if your game is designed well enough, not having a ton of abilities at your disposal from the start isn't so bad, but what if your character started out that powerful and only got better? Well that's what we're here to discuss.

High Ceilings
One of the biggest issues with powerful characters is having nowhere to go. Superman Returns actually does a really good job of making you feel powerful, but as the game progresses, there's not a lot of upward movement (pun not intended). The key here is making sure there's room for improvement, and that everything isn't the same at the end of the game as it is at the beginning. Your character is powerful, but he still needs to get better.

Keeping On Your Toes
The other serious downfall with a powerful character is that they may be too powerful and the game no longer presents a challenge. So how do you make the scenario challenging for your demi-god while keeping things fun?
  • Swarms of Enemies. Put your powerful character up against an army. Keep in mind you don't want the battle to be at all annoying. It should be satisfying but still challenging. My humble suggestion is to have waves of semi-decent enemies - removing the annoyance of cheap shots from a ridiculous number of opponents coming at you at once, but still giving you the satisfaction of having kicked a whole ton of ass.
  • Enormous Bosses. For a perfect example of this, see God of War 2, or Shadow of the Colossus. Make your bosses huge, and it'll equal out the power level of the character (not that SotC features a powerful character).
  • Equally Powerful Rival. Give our powerful character a rival of equal strength. The combat should look as amazing as it is - a true clash of super powers. You don't want to make it a mirror match though, as that isn't a theme you can bring up again later in the game.
So you've got the right moveset, and you've got plenty of room for that set to grow, but how do you get people to believe that these moves are truly powerful?
  • Variety. Give players the option to power their move up for big damage, or keep it fast and easy. A good example of this are a lot of the charge up attacks in Marvel Ultimate Alliance - it's a basic concept that time = damage, with the downfall being that you give up something like the ability to use an attack button, or mobility, or something in that vein, in order to get the more powerful attack. The key here is to make sure that both the fast and strong versions are useful, and that your game doesn't stuff the charged moves (making them effectively useless).
  • Area of Effect. Any move that hits an area and can hit multiple enemies at once is a good bet. You don't want to overdo it so as to make it the only attack of choice when presented with multiple enemies - perhaps a timer on the ability or something of the sort - but in general this helps with the hordes of enemies we discussed earlier, letting you handle several opponents at once in a way that let's you feel powerful.
  • Hit Hard, Hit Often. Your character should be able to hit HARD, and it should be obvious. Flying bodies, explosions, dismemberment, whatever it takes. When he hits, there should be someone, somewhere saying "oh, SNAP!' In addition, he should have the option to hit fast and often, allowing him to trade his powerhouse moves in exchange for something a little more combo-friendly. This is something the Devil May Cry games do fairly well, but not until later in the game when you've collected all the necessary weapons.

Well, that should be it for now, this is simply a rough outline with several ideas to make a character seem powerful, while still keeping them in the scope of the game. It'll always be a tricky balance along with keeping things challenging, but it comes down to a lot of play-testing, and how the game feels in the hands of the player. And with that, I want to touch briefly on one last piece...

Multiplayer Woes

All of the above becomes infinitely more difficult to implement when you factor multiplayer into the mix - specifically versus multiplayer. No one wants to get hit with the aforementioned big, meaty attack, only to almost die from one attack.

In this situation, it's incredibly difficult to keep both sides feeling powerful - but the key is to make gameplay revolve around landing attacks over simply pounding the opponent. Your powerful characters are going to need tools to avoid getting hit by their own attacks, and should be able to take a good series of hits before falling to their knees. You don't want combat to drag on, but you don't want people dying so fast they get annoyed either. Besides that, we'll leave multiplayer issues for another post, as there's a lot to be said about balancing any kind of competitive multiplayer game, and is somewhat outside the scope of this post.

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