#003 – Combat meta & control

My interest in sports has waxed and waned over the years but the one constant has always been fighting, first with boxing and later with MMA (in fact, the original inception for this game was a boxing simulator). In watching thousands of fights, I’ve noticed a few things.

Even amongst the subset of people fighting for a living, only a tiny minority are born to fight. The rest can become effective but only through years of practice and training. Those years are not required for mechanical proficiency. They are required to unlearn all of your basic instincts. It turns out the most effective way to fight is also the least intuitive. Most people, including professional boxers, get deeply unnerved standing squarely in the pocket and countering when they get attacked. That’s why every bar fight ends up a wrestling match.

One of the most interesting moments to watch in a boxer’s career is the first time they get hurt in the ring. Until that moment, nobody actually knows how tough they are. Brilliant fighters literally get the skill knocked out of them and turn into indecisive, clutching shambles. Some fighters are so physically gifted that the moment does not come until well into their careers, when age slows them down a step or another phenom materializes.

What makes it all so compelling to watch is a cliche that’s not just true, but inevitable; any fighter can lose on any given night. The cause can be predictable: inadequate preparation, opponent has a difficult style, physical mismatches, partied the night before or less direct – Mike Tyson’s first loss came about as much from a disastrous marriage as Buster Douglas’ durability. But the good fighters are remarkably consistent. Even though any random punch can end a fight, the reality is much less variable as skills rise.

Roy Jones Jr. is the most physically gifted boxer I’ve ever seen (skip 25 seconds in for a stream of destruction). So gifted he made champions look foolish and wasn’t even remotely challenged until very late in his career. He had inhuman hand speed, accuracy and reflexes (at 2:00 an opponent throws a punch which Roy sees and reacts to by throwing two counter punches before the original punch lands). He didn’t have conventional power but he did have snap in his strikes. When you combine all that he was simply unhittable and could pepper even fast, defensive opponents with insanely accurate punches from all angles. And while he fought unconventionally (something he paid for once his reflexes slowed), he threw perfect combinations. Not that it mattered, Roy often threw power shots as if they were jabs, landing without his opponent even beginning to react.

The meta games around combat

Before we get into the details of combat, a huge part of the game is about what happens before the bell rings. We’ve been talking about gladiatorial combat but that conjures the wrong imagery of massive coliseums and squad based fighting. The scene is much closer to what you’d find in 18th century New York; hundreds of licensed and unlicensed venues, small rings, close quarters fights with variable rules and conditions (to which we add weapons and armor).

Pre Fight Negotiations

This makes picking the appropriate venues and fight conditions, to be negotiated by agents along priorities you set, another chance to use non-physical means to tip the scales in your favor. David vs. Goliath is used as shorthand for the ultimate underdog triumphing over a vastly superior foe. It’s a terrible analogy. From all tactical considerations, David was favored to win. The combatants did not fight in a ring, they started from opposite camps. Historians speculate that Goliath’s massive size was likely do to gigantism. Picture Andre the giant, not Lebron James. He was plodding and slow. David, for his part, was a slinger. An expertly launched bullet is extremely accurate and will break bones at 30 meters. I posit that with no ring size limit there was little chance for David to lose and his pin-point head strike was an easily repeatable feat. Goliath’s pre-fight negotiators failed him.

This variety also makes running your own fight venue as viable a business as any and open to the same customization and character building as any other aspect. Are you an unscrupulous promoter, taking payouts to adjust settings and spike the water or do you strive to build the most hallowed fighting grounds in the city?

Scouting

Because creating the perfect fight plan is so integral to winning, pre-knowledge of your foe is helpful. Here, again, is an opportunity for less martial and more subterfuge or social minded schools to extract advantages. Smart coaches can scout opponents directly, watching them fight and gleaning data based on their evaluation skills and stats. Less diligent but wealthy schools might make do with post-fight bulletins or purchasing data from professional scouts. Likewise masking your own fighter’s full abilities might make sense, with new moves and training ready to be unleashed only in critical bouts.

Fighting Style

Your school’s fighting style(s) are as much a character as your avatar. They provide a base set of instructions and reactions which you shape as you grow in skill and complexity. Large schools might develop multiple styles while young schools start with established ones that they later modify. The axiom “styles make fights” applies and smart, experienced fighters might learn complementary styles to deal with various tactical situations.

Styles also provide efficient training and can be designed for fast implementation that makes rookies semi-effective quickly, or lengthier training that eventually leads to superior warriors. And learning is a two way street. The constant flow of new, diverse characters into your school brings new styles and fighting philosophies which you can incorporate (assuming your employees like or fear you enough to share).

The Crowd

While winning or losing is crucial for the fighters, you are the manager. You might be more concerned with your school’s reputation and the opinion of the crowd. And like all crowds, they want to be entertained. Under the hood is a very complex simulation of crowd preferences and reactions to events during the fight. And crowds are not uniform. Race, social class, area of town and other parameters let you be a hero to some and heel to others. As any wrestling fan knows, heels can be as popular as heros and popularity is what counts. If enough fighters fight in certain ways for long enough, your school begins to earn a reputation as its own entity leading to greater pressure, rewards and rivalries.

How This Game Handles Combat

There are two layers to the combat engine. Under the hood, much like everything else in the game, things get very granular. The game tracks intentions, movements and actions using a time increment smaller than 1-second. It also tracks not just the location of combatants, but their body orientation, limbs and relative facings which means blows are tracked along incoming vectors and land on specific body parts. Even this description is a simplification as the system allows for blows to change direction or turn into feints and for defences to react accordingly.

Range is handled in inches, not hexes. Damage uses a complex simulation of the body (I shudder to think how many watchlists I’m on after a year of googling and buying books dealing with anatomical damage to humans) that tracks organ function, blood levels, adrenalin and a wide range of conditions. It’s all part of caring deeply whether you use a rapier or battle axe.

The layer the player interacts with to get at this juicy, detailed combat is still up for testing. Currently there are three systems designed, each with increasing player agency.

1) Realistic Method

If you don’t know Teddy Atlas you might dismiss this as a goofy middle aged man pretend boxing and yelling catchphrases. This dude knows boxing and when even established, veteran fighters join great trainers like him or  Emanual Steward their tactical ability vastly increases. It’s also interesting how difficult it is for some fighters to follow even simple fight plans, while others follow elaborate decision trees that react based on individual strikes. It depends on much more than just intelligence.

In real life coaches don’t control their fighters like a puppet. They craft fight plans based on their knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of every opponent. Smart fighters work out contingency plans that deviate from their styler when they get hurt or see an opportunity. Other fighters eschew all planning and just wing it on fight night. In game terms, this method in effect “programs” the fighter, with the complexity of the plan dependent on a host of attributes and skills. Likewise the fighter’s ability to follow the plan (and what they naturally do when unpredictable things happen) is dependent on their own attributes and condition.

Although probably the most polarizing method because of it’s hands-off nature, the realistic method has a lot of advantages, especially in the multiplayer version of the game. For one, it would be the fastest to resolve and allow greater focus on the strategic, management layer. For another, it puts the focus on anticipation, planning and preparation which fits the general vib. Finally, this method is used for NPC on NPC battle resolution so will be created regardless.

2) Coaching Method

This method retains the indirect control but allows attending coaches to scream instructions, thereby changing to preset fight plans or just increasing the parameters controlling the fighter (ie screaming for more or less aggressiveness, trick moves, etc.) Fights would still resolve relatively quickly but not in whole batches like the first method. The two approaches can also be combined, letting players have some control over particularly important fights (you can only be in one place at a time and a busy school might have many fights on a given fight-night).

After losing his first fight and getting his right eye smashed in, Rocky’s trainer forces him to learn how to fight conventionally (Rock is a southpaw or left handed). This protects the bad eye and in the crucial final round, Mickey screams at Rocky to switch back to his old stance, surprising Apollo and letting Rocky pile up enough damage for the knockout. Marvelous Marvin Hagler was a master at doing this, often in the middle of combinations, to devastating effect.

3) Direct Method

As granular as the underlying engine is, we’ve designed a very elegant way to directly control the fighters while retaining the full suite of automation, customization and tactical variety. It’s unlike any existing game but the closest analog would be a complex CCG (albeit one without the deck element as all maneuvers and attacks are available, limited only by circumstance and stats, not draw order) mixed with Frozen Synapse style short simultaneous turns.

This method produces a noticeably different game as fights turn from an exercise in planning and predicting to one of quicker tactical decisions. With the finer control comes a loss of character as fighters are governed less by their mental attributes and more by the player.

Current Plan

In a perfect world, I would use all three methods in the single player campaign, letting you directly control your character whenever they get into combat themselves but letting your coaches and fighters do their best on their own when you’re not physically there. It’s important to note that although a typical fantasy city is a violent place, and gladiator schools in particular trade in violence, your actual character should rarely have to fight directly unless you invite it (or deserve it). I expect many players will opt to create purely mercantile characters.

For multiplayer I would also use all three, but in separate instances of the game, letting players choose the shard that matches their preference. As the game needs a certain critical mass this only becomes viable if it gets popular.

I say “in a perfect world” because the 3rd method of direct control requires a very good, separate UI. While it’s designed on paper that’s a very long way from being pleasantly useable on your screen and so this would have to be developed last after all other core game functions are completed and at the cost of planned enhancements. We’re going to prototype and test to death before deciding.

If you only know Ali from popular culture, you might think he was always dominant. But he’s beloved by boxing fans specifically because his career had Rocky like dips which he came back from despite slowing down and aging. In the most famous fight of the 20th century, against George Foreman, Ali was a heavy 4-1 underdog. Ali had been beaten by Frazier, another scary heavy hitter. Foreman was not the smiling grill pitchman you know today. He was a mean, Tyson like monster, who absolutely destroyed Frazier, knocking him down six times in two rounds and then demolishing Norton, the only other fighter to beat Ali. In game terms, Foreman only had one game plan. He assumed Ali would dance around, so his plan was to hit him whenever he stood still. Instead Ali, using the unusually loose ropes, lay back and took heavy punishment for eight rounds. Professional fighters can take tremendous damage if they see the punches coming. Knockouts happen in the midst of flurries, from the punch they don’t see. By laying back and taking body shots and weaker headshots (full extension punches have less power) he exhausted George and exhaustion makes you susceptible to knockouts just as much as damage. All it took was a quick, surprise punch to the head and the giant was down. 

What’s Next?

Tomorrow we finish off combat, going over the weapon system, damage and what it’ll actually play like as well as a bit of a stretch goal.

Mike Tyson is not a perfect athlete like Roy Jones Jr. (who could have been an NBA player) above. But he is perfect for heavyweight boxing and lucky enough to be found by the perfect trainer who crafted a fighting style perfectly suited to his physicality. In the same way Nolan Ryan is a physical freak specifically when it comes to throwing baseballs, Tyson’s entire frame is perfect for throwing hooks and uppercuts. Cus D’Amato, a legendary trainer, added a very effective, cagey, peekaboo defensive style (that naturally put Tyson in perfect hook body position when dodging) and rapid head and foot work to get Tyson into range. Skip to 1:00 and watch what I believe is the best fighter of all time, a teenager, just annihilate grown, scarey men.

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