Thursday, February 19, 2009

Devil May Cry 4: Gating and Mission Design

I was reading an interesting feature article on the website earlier today where a game designer was analyzing various elements of encounter and AI design in 3D brawler videogames. I was rather disappointed that he didn't analyze any entries in the Devil May Cry series; in fact, I am considering trying out his method of analysis on the game later. In the mean time though, one aspect of his article caught my eye: the concept of gating. While the concept behind gating is something that I was already familiar with, it is nice to finally have an accepted word for it.

In essence, gating is where the game developers put in obstacles to prevent the player from running away from or circumventing a battle. It is a valuable tool of the game developer, since it is pretty pointless to make a brawler-style game where the player can just walk right past every fight. There are a couple different ways of implementing gating: one way is to explicitly lock a player into a room until every enemy is dead, and the other is to design the enemies' attacks and AI to punish the player for trying to run away. While Devil May Cry 4 uses both methods of gating, it leans heavily towards the former in every mission, to the point where I think it begins to be detrimental to the game.

As is traditional in the Devil May Cry series, DMC 4's most common form of gating is where the game blocks off all of the doors and escape routes out of a room with red or white walls of energy. The games even use a specific color of wall to differentiate them from walls that can only be removed by solving puzzles or advancing the plot. Now then, there is nothing wrong with this strategy in of itself; plenty of videogames, including most incarnations of the Legend of Zelda series, lock the player in a room until the player defeats every enemy present. I think doing this is a great way to mark major battles. However, I think the technique is severely over-used in Devil May Cry 4. The typical mission structure of DMC 4 can be safely summed up as a string of three to five rooms where the player has to defeat every enemy in the group in order to proceed. While optional enemies sometimes appear, they are in the minority. After the first few missions set up like this, I actually began to forget that I could avoid some battles.

The problem is compounded by the fact that the majority of the battles that don't have explicit gating often are designed to take advantage of "soft" gating. For example, one of the few areas of the game where the player can run away from battles is in the long corridor sections of Fortuna castle. However, these long corridors are typically populated by either Frosts or Basilisks, both of which possess a mix of both high pursuit abilities and dangerous long-range attacks. So while the player can try to run from these enemies, he will probably take a few bad hits from enemy attacks. Furthermore, these groups of enemies are usually comparable in numbers and fighting strength to enemy groups that the player is locked in with. So even they still count as part of the linear chain of major fights.

Honestly, I think the developers went overboard with the gating in Devil May Cry 4. Gating is particularly useful for differentiating big, important fights from small, inconsequential fights. However, the developers decided to make just about every fight in Devil May Cry 4 a big fight, and cut out all of the little fights, and then they used strict gating to lock the player into that structure. However, that uniformity gets tiresome after a while. While Devil May Cry 4 has plenty of variety in enemies, it doesn't have enough variety in the kinds of encounters that the player faces. The consistent use of gating also denies the chance for the player to use running away, even of the temporary tactical withdrawal variety, as a viable strategy.

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