Six Years With God of War

A Few Words...

My time spent at Sony Santa Monica on God of War III and God of War: Ascension was an invaluable learning experience. I learned a great a deal about the specialized craft of combat design from the original GOW combat designer, Eric Williams, as well as veteran combat designers Jason McDonald and Adam Puhl. Aside from the actual craft, the collaboration that took place between combat design, animation and visual effects departments, in particular, to achieve such awesome content was extraordinary. Engineering, camera and sound design are important as well, but the majority of iteration time and collaboration is spent between combat designers and animators. In the end, the awesome animators at Sony Santa Monica such as James Che, Sean Gilley, Bruno Velazquez and many others make the combat designer look good.

Backstory

Before I joined Sony Santa Monica in August of 2007, I didn’t have a clue that a combat designer position existed let alone have any knowledge of what the job entailed. At this time, I was barely getting my feet wet with general game design at Heavy Iron Studios working on awesome SpongeBob and The Incredibles games. In 2007, Heavy Iron Studios was hosting a USC Game Deconstruction lecture and two of the main combat designers from God of War I and II (Eric Williams and Derek Daniels) were in attendance. Apparently Eric knew of my competitive Street Fighter background and was on the lookout for some up and coming combat talent. A few months later I would be starting my exciting new job at Sony Santa Monica working on God of War III as a Junior Combat Designer. 

What is a Combat Designer?

Combat designers are responsible for designing and implementing the fun behind the player, AI and bosses, respectively. Generally, one combat designer is responsible for the player for the entirety of the project. The AI cast is usually broken up between a couple of combat designers, and then dedicated combat designers focusing on a few bosses or one giant boss depending on the scope and size.

Generally, the Combat Designer needs to come up with the general idea on how the enemy is going to behave. Usually, this is based on the concept art of the character. For example, in God of War III, we knew we wanted to get the Chimera into the game. We had concept art from God of War II, so we had a bit of a head start.  There are times when concept art doesn’t exist and you really have to shape the enemy from scratch, but that isn’t always the case. 

When awesome concept artists like Andy Park paint images like this, you are instantly motivated to match that intensity in the combat design. In God of War III, I decided to keep him simple and stage out the progression of his forms (Snake, Lion, Goat) instead of allowing him to switch between forms at any given time which was one of the early designs. Iteration and playtesting, however, is what ultimately led me down that design decision.

When awesome concept artists like Andy Park paint images like this, you are instantly motivated to match that intensity in the combat design. In God of War III, I decided to keep him simple and stage out the progression of his forms (Snake, Lion, Goat) instead of allowing him to switch between forms at any given time which was one of the early designs. Iteration and playtesting, however, is what ultimately led me down that design decision.

The Chimera essentially had three separate kills we had to design. I worked with Michael Carr to help flesh out ideas and he did an amazing job animating these. Designing one GOW kill is hard enough, but three?!? This Lion Kill (above image) showcases the overpowering nature of Kratos.

The Chimera essentially had three separate kills we had to design. I worked with Michael Carr to help flesh out ideas and he did an amazing job animating these. Designing one GOW kill is hard enough, but three?!? This Lion Kill (above image) showcases the overpowering nature of Kratos.

In short, combat designers take the best ideas, give them structure, and then breakdown what assets are needed to realize the idea. From here, collaboration with multiple disciplines is necessary to ensure the core design is adhered to and executed with the utmost quality in mind. Once the Game Director signs off on a design, it’s time for the combat designer to get his hands dirty so to speak and start implementing all these ideas and shape them into something playable and fun.

The Centaur had one of the most memorable Kills in God of War III where Kratos ripped out his intestines. Animated by Michael Biancalana, it only took him a few passes to get it just right. We worked together on getting the "QTE" timing just right where each button responded quick enough to simulate a proper button press with an immediate action which is the key to making QTEs feel interactive.

The Centaur had one of the most memorable Kills in God of War III where Kratos ripped out his intestines. Animated by Michael Biancalana, it only took him a few passes to get it just right. We worked together on getting the "QTE" timing just right where each button responded quick enough to simulate a proper button press with an immediate action which is the key to making QTEs feel interactive.

Cerberus was one of the monsters from past GOW games that we wanted to make rideable in GOWIII. The main challenge was making sure Kratos didn't look like he was just a passenger while posed on top of the beast. Even though the easy way out is to have Kratos in a static pose on top of the Cerberus, we made sure Kratos looked in control and that the player was actually controlling Kratos and not the beast as a simple vehicle.

Cerberus was one of the monsters from past GOW games that we wanted to make rideable in GOWIII. The main challenge was making sure Kratos didn't look like he was just a passenger while posed on top of the beast. Even though the easy way out is to have Kratos in a static pose on top of the Cerberus, we made sure Kratos looked in control and that the player was actually controlling Kratos and not the beast as a simple vehicle.

The Hades Boss fight was an epic moment in GOWIII. It was the first time Kratos has fought someone with pretty much the same weapon as him...but only much more gnarly. A lot of the original design and flow of the fight was already established early on in the project. Adam Puhl initially got the combat progression up and Hades basic behavior, but eventually he had too much on his plate and the entire Hades boss fight was handed off to me. I worked with James Che on finalizing Hades' movement, attacks and special moments such as "Flesh Rip" and "Knife Fight". The level design aspect of the fight was handled by Warren Price and possibly Jo Wright and Jonathan Hawkins (if memory serves me correctly). A GOW boss fight, in general, requires a small strike team of different disciplines to achieve the final design. My job as a combat designer is to ensure all the parts make sense and flow properly and the back and forth between boss and hero is fun.

The Hades Boss fight was an epic moment in GOWIII. It was the first time Kratos has fought someone with pretty much the same weapon as him...but only much more gnarly. A lot of the original design and flow of the fight was already established early on in the project. Adam Puhl initially got the combat progression up and Hades basic behavior, but eventually he had too much on his plate and the entire Hades boss fight was handed off to me. I worked with James Che on finalizing Hades' movement, attacks and special moments such as "Flesh Rip" and "Knife Fight". The level design aspect of the fight was handled by Warren Price and possibly Jo Wright and Jonathan Hawkins (if memory serves me correctly). A GOW boss fight, in general, requires a small strike team of different disciplines to achieve the final design. My job as a combat designer is to ensure all the parts make sense and flow properly and the back and forth between boss and hero is fun.

In GOWIII, the Shield Grunts were one of my favorite monsters to work on. They were a versatile enemy whether alone or in a formation. Most of the shield formations you see in the game are were hand scripted by me using monster coordinates, rotation values and hand scripting their behavior choices while locked in these formations. On top of this, custom animations created by Michael Biancalana would have to be made to for each formation. Some shared the same poses, some did not.

In GOWIII, the Shield Grunts were one of my favorite monsters to work on. They were a versatile enemy whether alone or in a formation. Most of the shield formations you see in the game are were hand scripted by me using monster coordinates, rotation values and hand scripting their behavior choices while locked in these formations. On top of this, custom animations created by Michael Biancalana would have to be made to for each formation. Some shared the same poses, some did not.

Another "rideable" creature in GOWIII, the Cyclops was another returning character where we wanted Kratos to use him as a weapon ("Weaponizing" we called it). It took a few iterations to get Kratos looking strong and in control as well as the Cyclops not looking like a vehicle. The key was to sell the "pain" in the Cyclops reaction when Kratos stabs him and make the reaction feel natural but also propel the player forward.

Another "rideable" creature in GOWIII, the Cyclops was another returning character where we wanted Kratos to use him as a weapon ("Weaponizing" we called it). It took a few iterations to get Kratos looking strong and in control as well as the Cyclops not looking like a vehicle. The key was to sell the "pain" in the Cyclops reaction when Kratos stabs him and make the reaction feel natural but also propel the player forward.

In God of War Ascension, we pushed the cinematic presentation of Kratos abilities especially his Magic powers. We decided to take a cue from Marvel vs. Capcom 3 design and keep Kratos' animation simple and let the effects and aftermath sell the result and personality of the four elemental powers. Michael Biancalana and Bruno Velazquez did an amazing job animating these sequences. I had a strong vision of the shape and feel of the effects and the exact combat result I wanted to see so I worked with Max Ancar, the Lead Visual Effects artist, to achieve this and he did an amazing job.

In God of War Ascension, we pushed the cinematic presentation of Kratos abilities especially his Magic powers. We decided to take a cue from Marvel vs. Capcom 3 design and keep Kratos' animation simple and let the effects and aftermath sell the result and personality of the four elemental powers. Michael Biancalana and Bruno Velazquez did an amazing job animating these sequences. I had a strong vision of the shape and feel of the effects and the exact combat result I wanted to see so I worked with Max Ancar, the Lead Visual Effects artist, to achieve this and he did an amazing job.

These are just some of the characters, interactions and moments I've worked on in my six years at SSM. Next blog post I'll get into more technical detail about combat design in general.