LEIPZIG, GERMANY--Peter Molyneux's luggage didn't arrive at the Leipzig airport on the same flight as he did. We know this because we were on the same flight, and because we were talking with him at the baggage pickup point when he realized that the laptop with his GCDC 2006 keynote presentation on it was missing. It came as little surprise to us, then, that this morning's keynote address got under way two hours late.
What was surprising, though, was that the keynote--delivered to a capacity audience of around 400 developers--focused almost entirely on video game combat. Titled "Combat: Time to Evolve?," Molyneux's address kicked off with a brief video clip of Street Fighter II' Hyper Fighting, after which the seasoned designer proceeded to question the need for many of that game's enduring gameplay mechanics in this day and age. Hit points, blunt weapons, and meaningless environments were the first to come under fire, as Molyneux discussed some of the experiments that he's been conducting with his Lionhead team, none of which have anything whatsoever to do with Fable 2, apparently.
Molyneux's goal is to make combat in games less repetitive, less dependent on the player memorizing button combinations, and more dramatic. He believes that Hollywood, rather than real life, is the place to look for inspiration when thinking about combat in games, a point that he illustrated by contrasting footage from Kill Bill with a movie made by role-players running around a forest with wooden weapons. "Real-life combat is rubbish" exclaimed Molyneux at one point, before going on to explain that while the swords in Kill Bill were invariably sharp enough to dissect enemies, those in most games (including Fable, which the audience was shown a brief clip of) behave more like blunt or only quite sharp objects. There are exceptions of course, Dead Rising's zombie-slicing katana being a recent example that springs to mind. But Molyneux's assertion that it should be possible to kill an enemy with just one well-placed swing of a sword definitely appeared to get members of the audience thinking.
Another feature of combat in games that Molyneux hopes will benefit from today's powerful game hardware is the role of environments. Referencing Hollywood again, and specifically the movie Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, which features a memorable fight scene on a spiral staircase, Molyneux asked the audience how often combat in movies takes place in a perfectly flat arena. The answer, of course, is not very often, and he went on to cite a number of examples of locations that moviemakers often use to make fights more interesting, such as bars, rope bridges, and staircases. The point was not only that different elevations and interactive objects can make a fight more varied and dramatic, but also that the range of moves available to you should vary according to the amount of space that you have to work in because of the proximity of walls or allies, for example.
The challenge that Molyneux posed to his team was to come up with a combat engine that requires no user interface (health bars and such), includes one-hit fatal blows, lets players use the environment to their advantage, and which can be played using just one analog stick and a single button. Context-sensitive controls are the answer, according to Molyneux. He suggested that if you were using just one button to perform all actions, the challenge would then come from the positioning of your character and the timing of your button presses rather than from your ability memorize button combinations or mash a button faster than your opponent. Molyneux also touched upon his desire to do away with the idea of a block button, although when talking about boss fights with one-hit or, at least, very-few-hit kills, he said that much of the challenge would come from evading the enemy's attacks and from finding a way around their defences.
To illustrate the kind of combat that he would like to see in games in the future, Molyneux showed a couple of brief videos in which characters reminiscent of those in Fable ("Again, for the press in the room, this is not Fable 2") did battle with each other in textureless but highly interactive environments. In the first clip, the player was able to pin an enemy to a wall using a nailgun before getting into a swordfight on a staircase. The player was disadvantaged by the fact that he was positioned two or three stairs lower than his enemy, but he was presented with an opportunity to turn things around when the enemy's sword got stuck in a banister after a particularly wild swing. The second movie was set in a bar, and illustrated the variety of moves that Molyneux believes could be performed with a single action button--at least after overcoming some serious development challenges relating to animation, artificial intelligence, and physics. When the player was attacked while sitting at the bar with his drink, the first press of the action button saw him picking up his bottle and hitting an enemy with it. After putting some distance between himself and the other two enemies, subsequent button presses saw him launching tables and chairs across the room (because the enemies weren't close enough to simply swing them at) and then swinging from a chandelier. When or if this type of combat will be possible in games remains to be seen, but Molyneux's four conclusions at the end of his presentation read like a wish list (or perhaps instructions) that he might as well have handed to every developer in the room:
We are making entertainment.
Combat must make me feel heroic.
More like Hollywood.
The presentation was followed by a brief question-and-answer session in which Molyneux was prompted to explain that enemies should have swords just as sharp as those wielded by the player and, at least where bosses and powerful enemies are concerned, they should be able to utilize the environment just as effectively. One of the more interesting questions posed by the audience concerned the Wii controller, which the owned-by-Microsoft Molyneux seems less than enthused by, going so far as to say that immersive combat "isn't about turning the controller into a sword". Molyneux's main concern seemed to be that, as a self-proclaimed "lazy gamer", he can't imagine swinging the Wii controller around in his living room for more than 20 minutes at a time--preferring to slouch on his sofa with a controller resting on his beer belly.
Molyneux ended the session not with that bombshell, but by showing a concept shot of Fable 2--the image showed a hero armed with a sword and shield walking through a wooded area and, regardless of the fact that it appeared to have been drawn by a 5-year-old using felt-tipped pens (yes, it was a joke), it was met with enthusiastic applause. Fable 2 is one of two games currently in development at Lionhead; we look forward to bringing you more information on those as soon as it becomes available.