Cover is an essential gameplay mechanic of any modern game set in the real world, particularly third person action games such as The Division or Gears of War & First Person Shooters such as Call of Duty or Counter Strike. Proper cover placement not only makes the world feel ‘real’ but can encourage flow, control pacing, provide the player with choices and encourage strategies to form. Any video game that has real world elements in the world can be expected to have a cover system placed in the world to provide protection and navigation. A level designer needs to pay close attention when implementing cover in their work to maximise the cover’s effectiveness in protecting the player and retaining the fun elements that come from Third Person games whilst supporting the existing game mechanics. Due to the importance of cover in action games the core concepts that specifically make the cover elements in a game fun, interesting and often supportive of the spatial environment should be discussed.
When implementing cover into your design palette it is key to ask yourself when placing cover props to think about:
How will this affect gameplay?
How does this promote flow?
Does it provide enough protection?
Does the placement offer more options and promote strategy?
A Screenshot from The Division Showing Players Taking Cover.
In games grounded in reality or have real world aspects to them the placement of cover is integral of retaining the real world ‘feel’ to the game world. Cover and the correct use of props that look correct is essential in retaining a sense of realism to unrealistic world and unfathomable battles and ultimately giving a deeper and richer immersion to the gameplay and the experience.
Often third person action games has covered position in layers, cover that is placed behind the last, providing the player cover that gives the player a path to follow in relatively safety, for example a shipping container with a crate in front of it allows the player a clear path to a cover option, creating a layer or continued cover.
An example of this can be seen in Ghost Recon Wildlands. In the below screenshot it shows that cover has been placed in a layer, allowing the player see a safe route to the side of the building.
An Example of Cover Layered in an Obvious Path.
Designing the layout of cover early and iterating on it is crucial to make sure the cover provides three different functions:
Provide Protection from Enemies
Give the Player the Choice of Cover Options
Encourage & Cater to different play styles and abilities
Whilst designing a space to have cover in it remember to identify how the theme affects gameplay, what is the tempo of the level and how is the player expected to move through the space by identifying these two aspects will help the designer to plan and create a layout that includes cover.
It is key to understand the type of gameplay that will likely happen in the space, for example if there is an area in the map or mission that will have an intense combat beat the area should have more cover to use than an area that has a traversal beat.
As expected cover should provide the player and NPCs from enemy fire. It is key to design cover with this in mind to ensure that any cover placed provides the most basic element. If a player takes cover on a barrier but can still get shot relatively easy then the cover must be adjusted to help prevent this.
An element to help with this is to provide the player with multiple varying cover pieces in the same location allowing them to choose what cover would be best suited for the situation or encounter.
A core concept is to ensure that there is always a number of cover options for the player to choose from in an encounter. Instead of simply giving the player a singular box to take cover on place three in front of them to give them a safe path to follow.
Placing cover to the side of a combat area also promotes the player to navigate through the space further by funnelling them into particular routes or alternative paths and encouraging different playstyles to be favoured.
A Diagram of High Level Cover Placement Opting For Flanking Routes.
Identifying Cover Types
Designing the placement of cover is a crucial step in making a third person action game fun but a key element is to ensure that the cover is varied. What this concept indicates is that it is good practice to include different types of cover to make the space feel mixed and interesting. Unknowing to the player the different types of cover inherently affects the way the player moves through the world so it is key to identify what type of cover is best suited for the space or encounter.
Low Modular Cover
Low Modular Cover placed in the world such as crates or concrete barriers promotes player to stay in cover by suggesting through the props visual language that the player will be safe from minimal threats as low cover suggests that the player is exposed.
The visual language of low cover suggests to the player that they will be relatively safe when taking cover at the piece of cover but will still be exposed to enemies flanking or extensive oncoming threats. Low cover typically restricts movement to a small prop that gives the player momentary protection to heal and reload before attacking once more, being an isolated island of safety for quick movement. Using low cover can help improve flow as it encourages the player to move from cover to cover.
An Example of Low Cover in The Division.
High Modular Cover
High Cover placed in the world such as walls or large containers visually suggests to the player that they are safer from increased threats, with the added height and depth.
Typically high cover suggests the player is a lot safer than when they were in low cover.
This also includes raised elevated positions, by making spaces that have raised areas with cover it inherently makes it an empowered position suitable for gaining a height advantage perfect for a sniper position.
Varied Heights of Modular Cover
Placing varied cover that includes low, high and elevated cover in the space helps to create a more interesting horizon, rather than a flat horizon full of low cover or full of high cover but rather filled with cover that moves up and down then the space will inherently be more interesting and support the realism characteristic.
Another concept that can be utilised is to create long stretches of low cover as it encourages the player to stay in cover and follow a specific path. This can be useful to funnel players and solicit flanking.
An Example of Low and High Cover Combined, Small Crates & High Crates.
Often when cover is used in games that are set in the real world or have elements of the real world in it a core cover concept to remember is to utilise the architecture of builds as much as possible to provide a basic level of cover, understanding how buildings can be cover is key. Utilise pillars, window shelves and doorways to create a foundation of existing cover.
Examples of Good Cover and Bad Cover
Typically good cover could be considered that gives the players option and looks realistic, at least for the setting and theme of the title.
An example of good cover can be found in the open world of The Division. The image below highlights that the cover placed in this specific storage unit area features cover that looks fairly accurate to the location which means the crates and pallets of items look ‘correct’ and do not look out of place for the location, they match the theme accurately.
The second reason as to why this example was chosen is that it provides the player with choices, there are at least three or four cover options that immediately stand out to the player when entering the space. By giving the player cover options it inherently adds potential strategies and playstyles to occur.
This is seen throughout the game as cover is used extremely well in the title to make the world feel immersive and by making nearly everything look like it can be used for cover it makes moving through and using the cover mechanic much more user friendly. The game's clear communication and the ease with which players can switch or climb over cover allows players to focus on more important matters, like tactical combat decisions.
A Storage Area in The Division With Crates and Palettes That Look Natural.
An example of bad cover can be found in one of the early Last of Us missions, called Beyond the Wall. In this particular area the player is forced into an enemy encounter with conveniently and odd looking benches that look out of place for the location, the cover does not look organic to the space and looks like it was placed there for a reason, likely to provide a combat tutorial.
When placing props to be used for cover always think about if the cover prop and placement makes sense for the space, if it doesn’t do a cover pass to try and get it to work with the space and locale.
The Cover Looks Out of Place in This Area of the Mission.
Understanding Cover in Games
A method that can help to understand cover placement is to take a screenshot of a game and look at the cover in the players view at the time of the screenshot and place coloured transparent boxes to help define the props used for cover. Doing this can give you a better idea on how other games implement cover.
Blue Boxes Are Used to Identify Cover in the Players Vision.
In summary cover is a crucial aspect of any game that features combat. By thinking of the various concepts whilst implementing cover the mission or level will inherently become stronger and feel polished.
Concepts to Keep in Mind:
Ensure the cover makes sense within the theme or location
Provide varied heights & lengths of cover
Define combat areas early to determine the type of cover needed
Provide a path for the player by using cover in layers