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Until You Fall

You Can Block If You Want To: Exploring Core Combat Design In Until You Fall

The second installment of Schell Games’ new dev diary series.

Hi! I’m Patrick Jalbert, the Design Director for Until You Fall. In the previous Developer Diary, Dave Bennett (our Project Director) did a great job explaining his process for coming up with our game’s Project Pillars.

Until You Fall

As Design Director, I guided the specific design elements of Until You Fall’s combat systems to meet those pillars. That means, I handled the design of the core combat system, enemy AI, and the design and balance of specific weapons and traits.

One of the most common questions we get asked about development in Until You Fall is how we arrived at our choreographed combat system. There’s a huge design space to explore in melee combat—especially in VR. The game’s combat system ended up being somewhat unique because we consciously moved away from more free-form, physics-driven combat.

Early on, we knew we wanted to build a stylish, fast-paced VR game we could scale in speed and difficulty. We looked at a LOT of anime/action movie fight scenes and asked ourselves, “Can we make something that FEELS like that when you’re playing in VR?”

The Quest To Avoid Mushiness

There’s plenty of ways to make great, simulation-based combat work in VR. However, we found that unless we slowed combat way, way down, players would often not be able to realize why they won or lost a fight. Waggling weapons was a dominant strategy, and, “What killed me?” was a frequent question in our playtests.

Until You Fall

For us, this was a big issue. For the game to feel fair, the player has to build an idea in their mind of why they died and what they could do differently next time to improve. If we couldn’t present that information clearly, then we just couldn’t make the game grow to present the level of challenge or achieve the fast-pace we were envisioning. 

This type of clarity is important for all action games; most melee games tend to be in the third person for exactly this reason. If I die in, say, Bloodborne or Hollow Knight, chances are I can see my avatar’s whole body, the angle of the enemy’s swing, and where exactly I was hit. This makes it possible for me to watch my death and say, “Oh, I died because I didn’t dodge in time,” or, “I didn’t time my jump correctly.” Then, I know what I need to practice, and/or how to adjust my strategy going into the next fight.

In a first-person melee game (especially a VR one), it’s a lot harder to convey that information. If I’m killed by a sword-slash to my torso, there’s no guarantee I was looking down when it happened. I just saw the enemy swing. . .and then I died. 

Without that clear cause-and-effect for winning or dying, we found players were left throwing their hands up in the air wondering what to do next, and the only solution was to slow combat down until everyone could follow the action happening around them.

The Until You Fall team started referring to this lack of clarity in combat as “mushiness.” Moving out of our initial prototypes, we made it our goal to build a system that had as little mushiness as possible—which is what heavily pushed us towards incorporating block, critical strike, and dodge prompts.

Prompts With A Dash Of Choice

Once we started prototyping with these prompt-based systems, it immediately became clear this would get us to the fast-paced action game we had in our minds. Through being explicit with the most basic actions and using repeatable attack patterns, players could quickly learn what they needed to do and practice committing it to muscle memory.

The new challenge became figuring out ways we could keep a sense of freedom and strategy in the combat without re-introducing a lot of the mushiness we tried to get away from earlier. We wanted combat to feel crisp, but we didn’t want each encounter to feel like a sequence of quicktime events. 

There are a lot of ways we tried to do this, but I think the steps we took figuring out how to get “dodge” prompts to work is a pretty good example.

Until You Fall

Very early on, we didn’t have an explicit “block here” prompts. Our first pass used something like an arrow to show the direction the attack was coming from. We thought players would be able to look at that arrow, think about it, and decide if they wanted to block by holding their sword perpendicular to it or dodge by leaning away from it.

This turned out to be terrible! Not only did it feel mushy, but it slowed combat way down. Every single attack was a choice the player had to make, and we caught ourselves freezing up when we tried to play with the system added.

So, we ended up separating blocks and dodges pretty quickly. To keep the pace of combat fast (and the success and failure clear), we had to have only a single UI prompt display on an enemy at a time. At one point, we tried showing a block AND a dodge at once, and that was also way too busy.

We even tried putting the choice on a button—with one of the face buttons of the VR controller toggling you between an “all block” and an “all dodge” mode. But we found that presenting multiple, nuanced combat options with UI prompts was too busy and too mushy to be worth it—especially in VR.

Until You Fall

Shifting Our Tactics To Strategy

In the end, we had to be very careful with how many player choices we pushed into our moment-to-moment gameplay during combat (blocking, dodging, and crits). We found the best way to do that for Until You Fall was to shift some of the tactical decisions you would make in a game like Dark Souls (Eg: Should I block or dodge?) from the combat loop to the roguelite level of the game.

In the case of block vs. dodge, we gave attacks an “attack rating” and the player a “block rating.” If the player’s block rating exceeds the attack rating, then it’s a block. If it doesn’t, then it’s a dodge. 

This allowed us to make traits and weapons that changed that block rating. This lets players choose (at some level) if they want to block or dodge, but shifts that decision outside of combat. It’s now a part of your “build” for a run. In its place, our movement “dashing” ended up becoming the analogy to a Dark Souls “dodge button.”

Until You Fall

Once we had that in place, we started to get a sense of what would or wouldn’t be “too much” to include in our core combat loops. We were also able to get more creative with the idea of adding mechanics players could select between fights without making the core combat too overwhelming. 

Weapon Supers, for example, became a great way to add more complex actions to our combat that players could select. Supers aren’t required to beat the game, but using them cleverly is a power boost for the player that feels great to master. Additionally, it let us build supers to meet different types of fantasy.

To Conclude

I hope this helps explain a bit about how the combat system in Until You Fall ended up with the core concepts that it has! Some of the most interesting parts of the game’s development involved figuring out what we could and couldn’t get away with in terms of “in-combat complexity.” Solving these problems have been some of the most fun in my career.

The simplicity of Until You Fall’s core combat mechanics is still the subject of a lot of great discussion on our Discord to this day. We’ve learned a lot as a team about the right level of cognitive load for VR melee combat, and there’s still a lot of room to explore and improve on the formula!

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