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My game is an open-world co-op MMO with retro graphics, permadeath and no leveling system. enter image description here

The problem I'm facing, is the fact that I don't know how to make some monsters appear harder than others. Since nothing has a level, and characters can only get stronger by acquiring better items, it's difficult for me to "warn" players that a monster is difficult for them.

Fortunately, the whole world is designed by hand and we know which areas should be more difficult than others. So this means, I as developer knows which monsters are stronger than others.

But new players won't! I don't want them to get frustrated by walking into the wrong monsters reserved for higher players.

So then, how can I make monsters appear more dangerous than others?

Some things I thought of:

  • increasing the size of the monsters: This could work but it's not a valid rule for everything. For instance, the end-boss has small minions which are also powerful.

  • use of particles: I remember from playing WoW some monsters who were stronger excessively used particles to make them appear more powerful: enter image description here

  • dividing the world into danger levels: Here I would add a danger level or something to the HUD that displays whether the player is in a safe zone or somewhere dangerous. It would change and display a notice whenever the player moves to a different danger level. Do-able although I have no clue how to portray it on the HUD.

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I could not stop myself from adding this youtube.com/watch?v=cCI18qAoKq4 :D –  Boris Treukhov Jan 6 '13 at 21:24
    
It wouldn't necessarily be unwise to just tell the player. In a lot of games I've played there are often explicit signs and/or NPCs telling the character, "hey watch out, things get tough up ahead." This would make dividing the world up as you've suggested easier to implement because you wouldn't have to add it to the UI really. If the game is somewhat linear most people will generally assume things get stronger as the game progresses. Interesting question though. –  Tony Jan 7 '13 at 19:01
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You could hint it to the player with an outline ( perhaps red ) if they are tougher than you depending on your equipment? It's then up to the player if he decides to face this enemy or not. It doesn't mean he will lose. –  Sidar Jan 8 '13 at 7:03
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I always found it funny how, in final fantasy (8 at least?) the most dangerous enemy looks completely harmless.. –  Jari Komppa Jan 8 '13 at 11:56

13 Answers 13

I think not knowing the monsters strength immediately is a great idea. New areas would be much more threatening and the player can't just overpower his or hers character and run away from everything that's bigger than him or her.

Of course the player needs some hints:

  • Bright colors are generally a sign of danger e.g. poisonous mushrooms or frogs
  • Dangerous characters could act more sophisticated; use sword or other kinds of weapons; ride or use other less dangerous monsters; have their own house/shelter/tent..
  • You could find books which describe some monsters and tell you what attacks they might use or even some basic strategies on how to kill them

As long as the game is balanced and fair i think new player won't get that frustrated by dying. In the end it's part of the game.

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+1: Depending on the type of game, this may make the game much more fun to play. In some types of games (and for some types of players) it might be considered irritating not knowing everything about the monster beforehand though. –  Leo Jan 6 '13 at 15:04
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For a game with permadeath, IMHO this is an incredibly frustrating thing. New players may not get that frustrated by dying repeatedly, but experienced players certainly will be annoyed at the loss of their time investment to threats they have no reasonable means to assess. –  Steven Stadnicki Jan 6 '13 at 18:28
    
this approach definelty takes more time for balancing, in the best case scenario learning to distinguish powerful enemies from weak will be one of the skills you learn, like how to time your attacks. –  sonic23 Jan 6 '13 at 18:44

As someone already posted, nature gives hints:

  • Bright colors, look at poisonous snakes and frogs
  • The lair of the monster, if you run into a troll encampment on the forest, you will find the remains of other adventurers, pools of blood, none piles, etc. the more powerful the monster, the more hints you can give. You can also use environment in a way in which the more dangerous the monster, the more dangerous the area appears to the player, very creepy part of the forest, swamp, dark cave, fog, etc.
  • Sound and light are your friends, use them to give hints to the players.
  • There is a relationship between the power of the monster and the food chain, the more powerful, the more things nature gives them to help this purpose (claws, spikes, etc). Try to take a look at the game Spore from EA.
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+1 esp for environmental hints –  Smalltown2k Jan 6 '13 at 19:56
    
Just wanted to note that there are lots of creatures that use mimicry to pretend to be dangerous: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mimicry, perhaps by using bright colours. –  Zolomon Jan 6 '13 at 22:59
    
If you rely on sound as a necessary cue then you do prevent playing with sound off. –  psr Jan 7 '13 at 18:57
    
@psr it also makes it rather difficult for players who are deaf or hard of hearing. Sound should only be one of several types of cue. –  Alex Jan 8 '13 at 17:13

Some ideas:

  1. You could make something like a small crystal (like in Sims) or such (a bar, name of the mob) which would appear above all monsters with different colors

    for example:

    • gray - insane
    • pink - extremely hard
    • red - hard
    • yellow - a bit hard
    • green - normal
    • blue - a bit easy
    • light blue - easy
    • white - extremely easy
  2. This is not really a sure method but when the player is close to a powerful mob some kind of scary music might start playing.

  3. At the beginning of the game you might also insert some type of guide which would help players in knowing the dangers in the world.

  4. In general, for bosses it is best to use the big-size technique.

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While you might not have explicit levels, you can probably come up with labels that give a warning. This could be done manually when the creature is created or automatically by calculating the sum of HP, attack bonuses or however else you gauge difficulty.

For example, if the monster is targeted and it's name appears in the UI, it would be pretty obvious that "Common Goblin" is a lot easier opponent than "Goblin Bodyguard" or "Goblin Lord" even if they share the same graphics.

It would be best if this is combined with the previous answers. A name combined with color, size, music or effect cues.

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Well, it all depends on what kind of enemies you are trying to make stronger.

If you are making variants of enemies that are stronger (Like an elite or champion enemy that is based off of another weaker enemy), you could always add deadlier appearances. Lets say you have a slime. The ultra version of it could have red eyes and have spikes sticking out of it. But then the elite version would have white eyes, horns, and be glowing white.

Characteristics like red eyes, glowing a color, spikes, horns, greater size, and having weaker enemies around it could help distinguish dangerous enemies from their stronger counter parts. Those characteristics can also work for enemies that are stronger but do not have a weaker counterpart.

Different sounds can also help separate stronger enemies from weaker enemies. While battling a weak enemy, a small song could be played. But when you engage a stronger one, the music goes dark and gives a sense of fear and urgency.

Terrain can also help. Darkened or stormy skies show danger, as do barren or deserted lands. You would put weaker enemies in happier territory, like a grass field or a forest. But you would put the stronger enemies in a darkened isolated cliff side, or a fiery volcano. Ambience can tell apart the weak areas from the strong ones. Birds tweeting or a small breeze could mean weak, but screams and moans would tell a player that the area could cause death, or potentially have strong enemies.

Even the location of the enemy could tell them apart. If you have enemies that are guarding treasure, make the stronger ones guard a more elaborate chest than the weak ones. If the strong enemies are near weaker enemies, put more weak enemies, and less strong ones. That gives a sense of leadership, showing that the strong one(s) are ruling over the weaker ones.

Equipment details can also decide strong and weak. More detailed and/or bigger weapons can show strength. Blood stains can show that the weapon has killed before, or that blood has splashed on his armor.

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This goes into the concept of character development and design which can go very deeply. There are many ways to alter the hostility of an enemy, it is all relative to the resources you have at your disposal to make it happen.

Here are some ideas that will help you:

Choice of color: This can affect how a player perceived an enemy and in which order do the player encounter them. For instance, if a Green Blob is the first encounter for the player, the player will know that the Green Blob is the weaker enemy to fight. As the game progress, if you introduce a Red Blob, the player will be more attentive to what the Red Blob can do.

Body Gesture: What is the enemy doing in their idle state. Is it actively roaming? or is it just stationary? It is fast moving or is it slow? The way a monster moves can emit an aura of danger.

Uniqueness: Position a monster that is out of context is a good way to let the player know something is not right. If you have a group of Green Blob and suddenly you see a Bear, the player will know something is off.

Sound: What types of sound it is emitting? It is a cute oink or is it an aggressive ROAR!

Of course, there is more to it than just those. Things such as Environment Context, Facial Expression, Dress Code, and Size. Other things that indirectly notify a player the enemy is dangerous could be different display of health bar, change of music, etc.

I hope this helps :)

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You can borrow ideas from nature! Horns and spikes, big angry eye spots, and many other such cues make things look more menacing. You might also try giving higher-level things tendrils, glowy red eyes, and so on.

Heck, using eye color as an indicator of relative strength might work pretty well too - when you're level 10, that level 5 slime has baby-blue eyes, but if you're level 1 it has glowing red eyes with a bloom coming off of it.

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You could give a character an 'awareness' property, modifiable via some in-game equipment/collectible.

Behavior description:

  • Every character has a default awareness of the enemy they are fighting. Once you attack an enemy, a partial ring appears under them. The color indicates relative difficulty and the completeness of the ring indicates health. At this level, the awareness ring only appears after an attack has begun.
  • Interested players can obtain equipment/collectibles to increase their awareness, allowing them to view the awareness ring of enemies before they engage them in combat. Factors such as enemy proximity and environment (lighting, e.g. dark cave level) could be modifiers to the players effective awareness, as well.
  • The above could be tweaked, for example in response to a 'blindness' curse, which might disable any awareness indicator for the curse's duration.

This element would set a tone for the gameplay. Players that like the feel can stick with it. Players that don't can pursue the awareness upgrades.

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Consider how Halo: CE does things with the Elite enemies. There are several different colors of elite armor that one encounters, and as far as I can tell, the color is the only visible difference between them. So how does the player know what the hierarchy of colors is? Rarity! Blue elites are the first color encountered, and they are by far the most common. Next are red elites, which are less common, and finally yellow elites are the rarest and most difficult (and they usually have giant glowing energy swords, which is another hint). There are other colors too, especially in the sequels, but you get the idea.

So, sometimes simple visual distinctiveness combined with the frequency and context of encounters is enough to distinguish. For example, I believe that for the first 2 and a half missions of Halo: CE, there are only blue elites. So the first time the player encounters any other color, the natural response is to proceed with caution until the player knows how the new color is different from the blue elites. Basically, the important thing is that when the player encounters a new "level" of monster, it mostly just needs to look and behave obviously different from what the player has seen before. Once the player realizes it is new, wise players will approach with caution until they understand the new abilities and behaviors of the new monster.

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WoW uses level color to make monsters appear more dangerous than others.

For example a monster far below your level has a gray level, monsters slightly lower level than you are green, monsters on your same level are yellow and monsters on higher level than you are orange then red.

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His game has no levels, how is he supposed to do that? –  Luke B. Jan 7 '13 at 13:07

If your goal is to highlight some special qualities of the monsters, you may also make them flash or change their colours, or make them moving in a different way, or changing their dimentions at certain rhythm.

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I think in enemy design, form follows function. I would suggest that you consider what makes each enemy more or less of a challenge and, given that part of your goal is to efficiently communicate this information to your players, to also consider some existing enemy modeling paradigms:

  • Is the enemy a sentinel who can take tons of damage? Make it large.
  • Is it capable of a specific type of damage? Color accordingly.
  • Is it particularly agile? Perhaps model a smaller character.

Also, in addition to what Fluffy and Shadows wrote about eye color, I think you may be able to add character to the appearance of your enemies by altering eye shape and size.

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What about some kind of simulation of fear (tunnel vision, heartbeat sounds etc.)? Approaching enemies that would easily kill the player would trigger this.

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