Making Better Enemies
by Dylan Woodbury
In many genres, physical enemies are the most common challenge a gamer must face, and they are easy to conceptualize. I’ve put together some things you should keep in mind for designing enemies in your game, some always done right, and some rarely.
Enemies should embody the world. The enemies in the Half Life universe embody the world perfectly, and when you fight them, you realize just how bad off the place is and how suppressive the government is. So before you conceptualize what you want your enemies to be like, you should first figure out what you want your world to be like. The enemies in your game can actually drive that home more than anything else. Their look, actions, and strategy change the way your world feels. If your game takes place in a poorly-run, budget, low-trained prison, when you break out, the inexperienced guards will fight for themselves, one or two even running away from the action. If the player sneaks around to flank them, maybe he will see them shaking or praying. On the other hand, if you are a fugitive of the FBI, the enemies will probably work well together, one agent covering another by firing at you, and they will probably be braver, taking risks (like their life) to take you down.
Enemies should give the player satisfaction. This can be done several ways. The first is the look: you want your enemies to be tough if you want the player to feel really good about defeating them. Adding muscles, a determined attitude, and actually making the enemy hard to beat is good (think of your average level-boss), but not every one of your enemies can be a Bowser. So make sure your enemy looks tough and has confidence (it can trash-talk your player or swing his sword around skillfully). This will make it look hard to defeat, so when the player does, he/she will feel more accomplishment and power. Your enemies don’t have to be tough to give the player satisfaction, though, and the opposite can work just as well. This was done in Batman: Arkham Asylum. When you take out an enemy in stealth from above, the others will gather around, discussing what they should do. You can tell they are getting more and more nervous. They yell at you desperately, later begging for you to leave them alone. This surrendering attitude and fear gives the player a sense of power and skill, whether their skill is being challenged or not.
An enemy example that I believe did not succeed at all in this category are the overworld monsters of Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. They were all the same, weak enemy that you had to slash a couple of times to beat. I never lost, or witnessed anyone losing, to this thing. It looked like a scrawny lizard, and it fell down just as easy. The player is forced to kill hundreds and hundreds of these things, and it got very boring very fast. I soon began to just run around them as I was beginning to realize I was just wasting my time with them. This leads us to our next guideline.
Enemies should be varied. You don’t want your player to grow tired of any of your enemies (of boredom, not of difficulty). You can do this by making sure you have a good number of enemies for your game that all challenge and build the player’s skills in different ways. Often, when I play a game and receive a tool to solve puzzles and navigate over blocks and such, I think, “This would be a great weapon!” Twilight Princess pulled this off very well, as most of the tools you received could also be used against foes (some even required it). After all, the physical enemies in your game should have a learning tool to them too, right? With more weapons of a different mechanic (sword, gun, shield, boomerang…), different types of enemies become available. Including enemies which require your new tool to defeat can even train you for when you use it to solve a mental challenge.
But a big part of varying your enemies is the balancing of challenge. If you threw some easy enemies at the player, throw in a harder challenge, and then go back to easier (over time). When the player quickly defeats an easier challenge, he/se wants a more difficult one that will test his skills. When the player finally defeats a difficult challenge, he/she wants a break from the difficulty he/she just endured. This pacing is very important in games, and often makes/breaks them (if you want a great example of pacing, of balancing the different extreme sides of a game, you should play Uncharted 2, which I thought had perfect pacing).
One thing I see very little in most games (especially action) is enemies with a story. Sure, you might have one or two (the main villains of the game), but for the most part, the things you are fighting are soulless puppets with no past and only one motivation – to kill you. In the history of video games, we have made some great protagonists (although we can do better), some great allies/NPC’s (although we can do better), and some great antagonists (although we can do better), but the characters I believe we can improve the most are the enemies (yes, they are characters too). This is a very confusing topic, though, that I haven’t even come up with a solid opinion on yet. Do we want the enemies the player to encounter to have a past, a soul? I think it depends on the enemy’s role and what feelings the designers want the player to feel.
For example, if you have to kill a bunch of guards, picking them off one by one, you will probably get less enjoyment from it if you hear them talking beforehand about their little children and spouses back home. You are making the player feel empathy for all these people you are just about to ruthlessly kill. This is a major no-no (99 percent of the time). If you found out later that all the people you killed had grieving families or something, and the designer did this to make you feel regret (if this regret was important in the plot of the game), than it might be good (you still had fun defeating those enemies when they were just enemies), but you will probably get less enjoyment out of it the next time unless you know that all the enemies are backstabbing, alone, good-for-nothing killers.
But enemies’ stories don’t have to make you feel like crap. In fact, it can enhance the determination you feel if you witnessed your enemy hurting an innocent person or something down that line. A great example of this is actually Rambo (2008). In the movie, Rambo and some soldiers are in a Burmese camp full of people Rambo witnessed pillaging a innocent little town in the beginning of the movie. In the middle, Rambo had to watch some of the same people forcing women and children to run through a field filled with landmines. On the other end of the camp, they are forcing some women (one of which, a Christian missionary, Rambo knows) to dance in front of them. Rambo has seen what these people do throughout the movie, and when he finally gets back to killing them, the action is all the more better, as you are full-heartedly rooting for Rambo. If, in Twilight Princess, you developed a hatred for the stupid lizards, you might be more immersed in the fighting against them. Backstory of enemies adds or changes motivation; either you want to kill these people even more, or the opposite (maybe after fighting and killing many innocent people in the Vietnam war, you decide to help them).
The bottom-line is that there are a lot of stories that aren’t being told through the enemies, but to tell them, designers have to be very careful (it is a near unexplored frontier full of hidden landmines). The young warrior who has something to prove. The blinded patriot who believes too much in his/her cause. The person who is fighting out of fear of his own side. This is something I would like to be tackled in this next decade of gaming. What do you thing? Do you have any ideas regarding the stories we could tell, how we could tell them, and how we could use them to influence the character?(source:dtwgames)