Cover - Safety/Intel/Planning.

When talking to veterans of the FPS industry it becomes really obvious to me how modern video game trends are starting to collapse into each other leading to a melange of game-play experiences that are becoming really hard to distinguish from each other.

Far Cry 5

In this kind of situation it also get easier to confuse the functional purpose with the implicit purpose of things.

If you talk to hard core FPS players (born and raised during the peak height of the FPS Era) you will notice that is a general disdain for cover shooters and what their mean to the industry today, and how the concept of “cover” is slowly creeping (maybe abusively) into these games, changing and warping the core experience that FPS fans are expecting from the genre leading towards “levels filled with crates” and “slowed down game-play”.

This simply comes down to a basic misunderstanding in regards to the purpose of cover in these games. Why is it there in the first place? What purpose does it serve?

The Division 2- Combat Space

Perhaps the best illustration of this comes with the release of Doom Eternal.

Doom Eternal reverts from the current FPS trends towards a more incipient form of FPS. The game did exceptionally well with the FPS crowd and it was applauded for going back to the roots.

Doom Eternal

The reason for this is simple. Doom strips out all forms of “other things not FPS” and leaves in the simple paradigm of what a shooter “should be”, meaning it’s fast, brutal and leaves no space for interpretations.

Of course I don’t believe video games should be a specific “pure” thing, they should instead be good, regardless, how pure they are are.

But I am not going to talk about what pure “FPS” is supposed to be about. What I want to tackle with this blog what cover is for and what it is doing in our games.

What is the purpose of cover?

At the most basics of levels cover is there to block the Line of Site (LOS) of the enemy NPCs.

Volume

I already wrote a previous blog about how to handle cover placement some time back:

Obstructing LOS cones to get the upper hand on the enemies is generally a feature found in stealth games. It gets used prominently within MGS 1, 2, 3, Volume, Thief Series, Dishonored, Deus Ex, etc.

Volume
Metal Gear Solid
Metal Gear Solid 2

But it also gets featured prominently in video games like: Gears of War or The Division 2 even thought stealth is not a big things in those games.

Gears of War
The Division 2

That’s because the purpose of cover is not really about being stealthy. Cover is there slow things down and allow to think before you act.

Stealth comes as a consequence if it is allowed to exist.

Slowing things down

In this talk from GDC 2006 Randy Smith Talks about the differences between FPS and Stealth games in terms of game-play Dynamics:

https://www.gdcvault.com/play/1013211/Level-Building-for-Stealth

In FPS Games the dynamic is like this:

  • You See the Enemy
  • The Enemy sees you
  • You Shoot at each other.
FPS Dynamic

Failure is measured trough the amount of damage taken and ammo consumption during the encounter. The more health and ammo you have a the end of the encounter the more successful you are. It becomes a game of health/ammo management trough reflex checks that happen under the form of combat engagements.

Doom Eternal — Hud Elements.

There is no in-between state. Everything happens as soon as you are exposed to the enemy. The game is therefor tuned to facilitate this kind of encounters.

The Power Fantasy becomes to be better at aiming, reacting, and managing your resources while being engaged by hordes of enemies. There is no time to think, the player has to react to something that is already in progress.

Combat Scenario

In Stealth Games the dynamic is like this:

  • You see the enemy
  • The enemy does not see you
  • You can plan your way around him
Stealth Game-play Dynamic

If the NPC Spots you however it’s an instant fail. You will need to try again. That’s why the need for a plan comes to mind.

Randy Smith calls this a 100% failure state. The player is either hidden or exposed.

This happens mostly due to the need for having a two different states that the NPCs can be in at any given moment. The player triggers the state change.

  • Player Pull — System push

The player is able to pull on the systems and toying around with their exposed details in an attempt to dominated the encounter. Failure is absolute if the player is discovered and the player instantly loses the encounter.

So in this case the player is either 100% winning or 100% losing based on how well hidden he is.

Thief and Splinter cell provide a way to measure visibility trough the “light gem” allowing the player to judge if he is light or in darkness.

Thief, Splinter Cell, Styx — Depiction of light meters.

In other games where light and shadows are not a game-mechanic other ways of assessing visibility exist:

The power fantasy here is to be able to hide from others, not be discovered. It is not uncommon that Stealth fans will engage in attempts to ghosting levels.

Player hides in mud — Ghost Recon Breakpoint
Player hides inside a bush — AC Odyssey

That’s why in Stealth games visibility is a lot more important then health.

Adding a tactical dimension to the game:

Sticking to cover also allows for a moment of pausing the action and allowing you to “observe” what lies ahead without having to engage automatically.

Stealth Scenario

You wouldn’t be wrong if you looked at cover spaces as vantage points.

Take for scenario for example:

FPS/Stealth — Failure calculation

In the first diagram the player will failure will be based on how much health he has. He will not be technically death until all the HP Goes down to Zero.

In the second diagram the player will fail instantaneously because failure is not a consequence of being death but of being discovered.

However the corner itself is the culprit here because the player does not know what is behind the corner. He is missing this piece of information.

However in one scenario he can tackle the NPC 1 on 1 while in the second scenario he will not be able to do so.

In order to fix this we need to introduce the concept of cover in order to give the player the ability to stay in the 100% win state.

Games like Thief don’t do static cover however they are using shadow spaces for the same purpose.

While the player is hidden (invisible) he is 100% in a win state. Exposure is failure therefore sticking to cover/shadows will allow him to keep winning until the scenario is completed.

Shadow Spaces

By keeping the player in a shadow space or a “soft cover” as Randy calls them the player is provided with the following advantages:

  • Not being seen.
  • Allowing him to gather information about what is happening in front of him without being seen.
  • Allowing the players to plan on what to do next
Thief: The Dark Project — Tutorial Level

This is what we call vantage points.

Far Cry 3 Vantage Point

If we can’t use shadows to hide from enemies we can use crates:

The formula remains the same — We are using the cover spaces to provide for safe stealth areas that the player can use to get Intel on what’s happening in front of them.

Cover in Shooters:

In games that don’t feature stealth, like the Gears of war franchise or the division cover is there as balancing act for the fact that time to kill becomes really short and therefor running and gunning becomes less of a winning strategy.

Adaptation of the tropes for a combat scenario.

If the game also supports tank controls and slow movement, assessing the situation and formulating a plan before engaging into a firefight becomes more important.

Gears 4 — Harbor

So in this regard cover serves the same purpose:

  • Safe movement,
  • Intel acquisition
  • Tactical maneuvering around a set of smart AI that will try to do the same (in theory).

That’s why tactical shooter encounters tend to be less linear in nature and happen in sandbox like spaces that share all the tropes described above.

The Division 2

Sandbox design also translates well into open world maps and is a good approach for Compound, Outposts, Stronghold and location design.

One of the advantages of modern videos however is that they tend to allow for many different game-play styles and stealth coves in as one of them.

Hybrid games like Assassins Creed, Ghost Recon, Watchdogs, Rainbow Six, Metal Gear Solid 5 facilitate easy transitions between game-play styles, allowing the player to avoid the need to restart the checkpoint or revert to save scumming at the brink of failure.

That’s all for now.

If you are interested in learning more about Player Push/System Push and general stealth design please check these resources bellow:

As a level designer I am not a creator, I am a facilitator. Senior Open World Designer @MassiveEntertainment. #Leveldesign #Open World #Design @notimetoulose.