Back in 2017, I gave my first talk at GDC about combat design and AI in Uncharted 4. A recording of this talk is now free and publicly available in the GDC Vault.
The title of the talk comes from the biggest quandary we faced through development: how to decide what to handle systemically (using generic combat AI systems) and what to author (hand-placed markup and scripting). Previous games in the Uncharted series were highly authored, but we had some new design goals for Uncharted 4. As we pursued much larger wide-linear spaces and deeper stealth gameplay, we knew our familiar scripted approach would struggle to account for all the ways the player could engage in combat.
This led us to explore a more systemic approach to combat design. For instance, we developed the concept of “vantage” in an attempt to programmatically analyze combat spaces and find the strong positions to hold. We tried a similar technique for getting enemies to search, generating “heat” at the player’s last known location that would realistically disseminate through the layout. Unfortunately, both of these approaches failed to generate consistent results. We had oversteered away from authored combat design, and needed to find a balance.
We eventually developed the concept of “hard points”, which allow level designers to mark up strong positions and important places to defend. However, the choice of whether to use these hard points and which NPCs to assign to them is left entirely up to the systemic combat logic. This hybrid approach let us leverage the designer’s holistic knowledge of a space without requiring bespoke scripting to account for every possible scenario. We felt like this was the middle ground between “authored” and “systemic” approaches, and that it gave us the best of both extremes.
The full talk goes into much greater detail on the development process and implementation details, so check it out if you’re interested. As a bonus, you’ll also discover what Uncharted has in common with Pac-Man.