Six Years With God of War
My time spent at Sony Santa Monica on God of War III and 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.
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.
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.
My Time With Kratos
After spending most of my time designing the majority of the AI cast and finalizing the Hades Boss design in God of War III, I knew I wanted to tackle the ultimate challenge - Kratos. It wasn't going to be an easy task to live up the hyper standard set by original GOW combat designers that established and built Kratos' combat flow.
I worked closely with animation, visual effects and engineering to achieve Kratos’ combat design. Other disciplines such as character art and sound design, for example, are important to the final design, but don’t necessarily require day-to-day collaboration and iteration.
Technically, I use a custom text editor to tweak and tune his entire moveset. At the core of this implementation, I use custom scripts created by our engineering team to modify and enhance animations to achieve the desired combat look and feel.
First, however, animations need to be created for me to tinker with. Since we hand-animate all gameplay animations, my job was to collaborate with the animator assigned to Kratos to help create the best possible combat animations. For God of War: Ascension, Senior Animator Michael Biancalana and Lead/Principle Animator Bruno Velazquez were tasked to handle the core animation duties for Kratos.
Generally, these guys know the essence of Kratos inside and out, so they have a good foundation on which to start animating. But as a designer, there are some basic parameters that I will usually give to them such as the frame I want the attack to start to hit (referred to as the “Hit Frame”), the amount of frames Kratos should be in recovery (unable to perform any attacks/actions) and how long the animation should be (total frames) to ensure a consistent rhythm of moves.
Aside from the technical details, sometimes I will also loosely describe the “type” of attack I’m envisioning. I will say something like, “I’m looking for something that hits all around him (radial)” or “I just need a transition animation to this attack.” I may have the whole animation in my head but sometimes I like to come with a general idea so there’s more of a back and forth with the animator.
If I do feel strongly about a certain move, I usually act out the key poses with the animator to ensure we are thinking along the same lines or even find really good reference so they aren’t animating “in the dark.” Ideally, you want to find good reference for all animations, but since Kratos has a very unique combat style, it’s not always easy to find something that directly relates.
Animators have their own ways of visualizing the animation: some record themselves, some use still image or video reference and some even sit at their desk and act it out without even standing up. And each of these different methods works for them! As a designer, whatever I can do to help them visualize the animation, I will do. In the end, you will have a stronger animation, a stronger silhouette and ultimately a stronger idea realized.
So now I have my newly-created animation straight off the presses, so now what?!? Now I take this animation from the library and I hook it up to the game engine ready for me to tinker. Animation is really just bits of “sculpted time” (Cory Barlog, God of War 2 Game Director, I believe said this), so I start there. Is the animation overall too slow? Ok, let’s try speeding the whole thing up. Sometimes this can be a quick method to making the move feel “stronger”, “punchy”, “snappier” which is what Kratos should feel like 99% of the time or any stronger character in general. If the animation holds up when artificially sped up, then you may not need the animator to delete frames from the animation. If it doesn’t hold up visually, then I will do the math on what frames need to be deleted in order for the move to feel stronger. The lesson here is that the scripting isn’t always the answer, but just a tool to help shape the animation.
Since God of War combat is all about hyper responsiveness and the ability to cancel most moves with certain other moves such as evade and block, then my next job is to ensure the new animation feels responsive. In other words, I specify in frames when this animation can exit to another one and vice versa. In terms of the core combat scripting feel, these are pretty much the building blocks.
One of the most satisfying moments of my job is when I receive the first batch of visual effects I’ve requested for a particular attack. Sometimes a well-designed effect is enough to turn a decent animation into a great attack. Sometimes the effect IS the attack and the animation can take a back seat (read: strong static poses). Usually the animation leads in terms of readability, but in God of War: Ascension, there are some new moves that are very effects-driven.
Similar to how I collaborate with an animator to achieve the desired animation, I work closely with the visual effects artists to achieve the desired result. Since visual effects artists aren’t mind readers, I provide them with as much reference as possible. For GOW:A, I ranked Kratos’ arsenal in terms of presentation value with Magic and Rage moves being the top 2. As a result, these moves become very effects heavy and required unique looking effects design. Visual reference was key to achieving this. Although our character visual effects artists (Max Ancar and Jay Bakke) are very talented, reference ensures design and effects are on the same page and the core idea remains strong.
Although a skilled carpenter is a master with a hammer and his ability to drive nails into wood, he doesn’t generally create his tools from scratch. The same applies to the tools used by combat designers. The programming team creates tools that allow us to solve any creative problem and implement a solution. Our system is pretty powerful to begin with and if you can think of an idea, you probably can implement it on your own!
But there are times where I will need custom technology in order to implement a design and I will collaborate with an engineer. Generally, for my personal design purposes, I roughly design out the tool/technology on paper then write a few sentences on what exactly I’m trying to achieve design-wise. I keep this tool specification “in my back pocket”, but usually I go to an engineer and discuss what exactly I’m trying to achieve as opposed to handing him a design and saying “I want this”. Often times, the engineer will have a better idea how to achieve this design from a technological point of view.