Spotlight Interview: Ben Cureton [ combat designer ]
Ben Cureton Fact File –
To kick off a series of spotlight interviews, we’re starting with one very close to home for me; combat. If you’ve played Darksiders, you know we like our combat intense and meaty, so what better place to start than with one of our in-house combat designers; Ben Cureton. Ben is spearheading Death’s combat, with a focus on flair, fluidity and some other cool word that starts with “F”.
Ben was one of the new editions to the Darksiders II team, and he brings a lot of energy, enthusiasm and a shit ton of opinions! He’s passionate about combat and games in general, and that’s why we love him!
I was contemplating splitting this into two parts, but I’m already at work on the next interview for the site, so please, enjoy this rather lengthy read.
What was the last project you worked on, and what did you do on it?
The last project I worked on was Fear 3 for Day 1 Studios. I was in charge of weapon balancing, co-op, and the scoring system (though I didn’t think a horror game should have had a scoring system… at least not the way we did it!).
Call out some games with great combat, and a little bit about what makes them so good?
Bayonetta and DMC3 are among my all-time favorites and I think they both have an incredible blend of style, substance, while still allowing the player freedom to play how they want. There are so many tricks in both games (more so in Bayonetta) which really reward players for experimenting. Replay value is not always about finding all the pick-ups or discovering all the hidden areas. In both Bayonetta and DMC, you can practice combos and techniques for hours without progressing the game at all. That’s real depth, and that (in my opinion) makes them timeless.
When designing a new combat move for Death, talk us through the process of creation, to implementation?
The first thing we do is take into account the weapon type. Is it the Scythe, a Heavy (Hammer, Mace, etc), or a Melee type weapon. Then we determine what type of move it is going to be, and the input we are going to use to execute it. For example: Is it a gap-closer? Is it a dash-type move? Is it a launcher? How does the player access it? When taking these aspects into consideration, we can get a general idea of the type of move we are looking to create. Then we compare that against what we already have – do we have a lot of slam-down moves? Do we already have too many moves where the Scythe is thrown? Sometimes it’s quite easy to come up with the type of move we are looking to create, due to holes in the moveset, however, sometimes it provides a bit of a challenge.
At this point, we (myself, the animator, Haydn, or anyone else interested) start acting out moves to get an idea of what might flow with the rest of Death’s moveset. Once we think we have something good, the animator puts a few keyframes together so we can put a rough version of the move in game. I put the move into the game with some very basic hit data (such as knockback, knockup, slamdown, pop-up in air state, etc.) and attach it to a button. Then we just play with it and see how it feels. Usually, we can tell if we are on the right track after performing the move a few times. There are a couple of options at this point: A) Take it to polish, B) Rework it a bit (something about it we don’t like), C) Go back to the drawing board.
What’s the hardest part of combat design?
Everyone has their own idea about how combat should be in a game like Darksiders II. Some people prefer a more subdued/traditional RPG approach, while others want high-flying, fast-paced, fluid combat experience. The trick is to get a little of what everyone wants… which is admittedly much harder than it seems.
On a less obvious note, “feel” is actually the hardest thing and much of it is subjective (which relates to the above reason). There are so many elements that contribute to the feel of a move, some of which aren’t obvious at first. For example, the sound trigger may be off causing the move to strike and then make a sound afterward. Or, the rumble may be too early, causing a premature tactile response. This happens with mistimed effects as well, or too much hit-pause, or not enough damage, or a ton of other things. Getting it all right takes a keen eye, and you can/will still miss stuff!
On top of all that, you have your transition windows. Transition windows determine when you can transition into or out of a move, and tiny variants can make or break the feel of the overall combat. In Darksiders II, they also determine when a button press is registered and when it returns that data back to the engine.
Let’s take a basic 3-hit combo chain. The player presses the attack button and the engine sees the input and plays the move attached to it. So now we are in the first attack – pretty standard. Now, let’s say the player presses the attack button twice back to back. The first move begins and the engine stores the second button press so that when the first attack finishes, the second move begins. If we don’t remember this second button press then even the basic 2-hit combo chain will feel unresponsive. However, it’s not as simple with the 3-hit variation.
If the player presses the attack button three times quickly, we don’t want to queue up all 3 attacks. The second attack is probably not even playing at this point which means the player can just mash and release and a full 3-hit chain would come out. Even though the player actually pressed the button three times, by the time the second move finishes, they may not actually want to perform the third hit. This is where our transition windows come into play. We have to decide when that third button press is allowed to be stored/registered. Compound this issue with dozens of moves and hundreds of transitions and you can see where it gets complicated. The person adjusting all of these windows can make or break the responsiveness of the main character by simply changing a few numbers around. It’s a lot of work!
What would you like to see advance within combat games?
I’d personally love to see even more layers of ability-based player customization (think: Godhand). Players are controlling the same character, but the way each plays is completely different. You can see some of this in DMC3 where one person might play Trickster and another is more interested in Swordsmaster. I’d like to see it go even further with character customization mechanics brought into the mix. Take the initial Styles of DMC3 being “Classes” but then each has its own talent tree and customization options. This way, your Swordmaster may be totally different from my Swordmaster, which might be totally different from someone else’s Swordmaster. The basics are all the same, but the way you utilize them with the supplemental skills and talents are completely different. The good news is, Darksiders II is already leaning towards this a bit. Let’s see where we go in the future!
I’d also like to see more multiplayer!
What do you think players will like most about the combat in Darksiders II?
One of our main goals with Darksiders II was to remain accessible while allowing more advanced players the opportunity to let loose. I think that players will really appreciate how easy it is to jump right into our new system and quickly realize the amount of freedom they have to play their own way. Fans of the first game should be pleasantly surprised at the lengths we’ve gone to make Death feel like an entirely new character from War, and yet how easy it is to do something badass. At the same time, I’m personally looking forward to the stylish combos that more advanced players will come up with.
I think players will like that it is both familiar, and new at the same time!
From a combat point of view on Darksiders II, what are you most proud of?
I’m probably the most proud of the fact that we are doing something no one has really done before. Of course, there are definitely elements of many games within Darksiders II, but no one has done this particular combination. We wanted high-energy, action packed combat, but we also wanted to incorporate lots of character customization as well. On one hand, Death has tons of attacks, unique weapons, juggles, bounces, parries, dodges, but on the other hand, we’ve also included talent-trees, loot, and even more Wrath abilities with decidedly deeper context. It’s crazy!
Do you have any advice for budding combat designers?
Play everything! From the most revered combat games to the most despised – play them all. Just playing the big games gives you a limited perspective of what is out there. Even if you don’t like a particular style of game, there is probably something that might pique your interest or even surprise you. From DMC, Bayonetta, God of War, and Ninja Gaiden, to Otogi, Shinobi, Ninja Blade, Mark of Kri, Soul Reaver, Godhand, to Spike Out, Powerstone, Urban Reign, and everything in between. All of these games (and dozens of unmentioned games) have done something different and brought something new to the table. You may love them or hate them, but there’s always something to learn from them. Even games that aren’t “combat” games have something to offer.
Basically… play everything!
Are there any resources readers may find useful?
Believe it or not, reading reviews for games as well as user comments can really give you a general idea of what people thought was cool, what they didn’t like, and what they’d like to see in the future. There are tons of sites that have one person’s philosophy on game design, but that doesn’t particularly make it right or wrong. However, if the general consensus thought “GAME X” had unresponsive controls, go check it out and see for yourself maybe they are onto something! In many cases, some players go the extra distance and break things down with well-written documents and even videos. Also, watch tutorial videos for combat systems. Even if you haven’t played the game all the way through, you may be missing all sorts of really cool techniques that you didn’t know existed. Remember, these are the people that will most-likely be playing your combat game as well! Don’t be afraid to check sites like NeoGAF, SHORYUKEN, or even GameFAQS (yes, even GameFAQS!).
Are there any websites you regularly visit that revolve around combat?
For sites that only revolve around combat, I mostly visit www.shoryuken.com. However, that’s for more traditional 1 on 1 fighting games (Street Fighter, Marvel vs. Capcom, etc.). The bonus is that there are a TON of combat game fans on the site and they are definitely some of the more hardcore players. It’s a good site to go to for opinions, techniques, wish-lists etc.
Has any game surprised you with its combat?
Godhand. Demon’s Souls/Dark Souls. Monster Hunter.
Godhand for the customization options which allowed players to be creative. The Souls series proved that you don’t need a ridiculous amount of complexity to be rewarding – you simply need solid mechanics and great enemy / boss design. Monster Hunter, similar to the Souls series, reinforced the idea of simple/straightforward mechanics but also added the element of teamwork. While I absolutely love the high-flying, in-your-face combat of DMC and Bayonetta, I also love games that can make something simple contain so much depth.
Most overrated combat game?
This is probably a question I should avoid! That being said, even the games that I don’t particularly like have some really cool features. This is why I suggest that players and budding combat designers play everything!
Best thing about working at Vigil?
There are actually two great reasons about working at Vigil (among others!). The first is the sense of collaboration. While everyone has different titles and seniority and experience, the general idea at Vigil is simply “is it going to make the game better?” It doesn’t matter if you are a tester or the General Manager; a good idea is a good idea. There are always exceptions, but the vast majority of the time, the game comes first.
The second great reason is the fact that you know the people you work with want to make an awesome game. I’ve worked at plenty of places where getting even the simplest thing done becomes a task. At Vigil, it comes down to doing whatever it takes to make the game better. If a sound needs to be redone, then the sound guys make it happen, even if they are completely swamped. If someone needs to learn a new tool, someone will take the time to teach them, even if that means staying late to make up for their lost work/time. If retouching or redoing animations will make a much greater impact, then it will get done as well.
We only get one chance to make Darksiders II awesome. The team knows this, and embraces it.
Tell us something we don’t know about you?
Well, some people don’t know that I came from the same little studio that many of the industry’s most notable combat designers came from – Paradox Development (which eventually became Midway LA). In fact, I was the first one there, but I took a different path than many of the other guys. You’ve probably heard of people like Eric Williams – Lead Combat Designer of GOW, GOW2 (as well as assisting on most of/all of the other versions). He also consulted on the first Darksiders! Derek Daniels – also from GOW, and GOW2. Omar Kendall – one of the driving forces behind THQ’s UFC titles. Adam Puhl – GOW3 Lead Combat Designer. John Edwards – one of the Lead Designers on Mortal Kombat 9. Paul Edwards (John’s Brother) who is working on some really cool stuff for Sony. Ed Ma – a famous SF4 player who is now working with Paul and Omar at Sony. Mark Acero – now a Senior Combat Designer at Radical!
It’s pretty crazy that such a tiny studio produced so many combat designers that have gone on to work on some of the biggest games in the industry.
I’m also an amateur beatboxer. =O
Give us an answer to a question you would’ve liked to have been asked?
How about “What would you like to accomplish in this industry?”
Well, I’d absolutely love to get one of my original ideas to a console or PC (who wouldn’t!). I think it would be awesome to take all of the things I’ve learned over the years and create a game that focuses on combat, teamwork, and competition. There is a ton of room in our industry for combat games; especially when people are willing to try something new. However, risks in our industry are expensive. Since I don’t plan on going anywhere, perhaps one day you might hear about a brand new combat game from Vigil/THQ that centers around the elements mentioned above!
We’ll see. For now, I hope you all enjoy Darksiders II!
That’s it, I hope you liked what Ben had to say and you found it interesting and/or useful in some way. Comments are welcome people, make it happen!
The next interview will be based around Art Direction.