Our goal with Ghost of Tsushima has always been to capture the heart of the samurai fantasy — to transport you back to feudal Japan, to live through the beauty and danger of Tsushima Island under attack. Our hero, Jin Sakai, has trained his whole life in the samurai way — watchful, precise, disciplined, deadly. He’s a master of the katana, a confident horseman, and skilled with the bow… but those skills aren’t enough when faced with thousands of Mongol invaders. He needs to be something more than the perfect samurai if he wants to save his home. That’s what Ghost is about.
Our hopes of achieving our goal, of creating the time machine we were after, rested on capturing the right feel for the katana. Without katana combat that looked right, sounded right, and felt right, Ghost wouldn’t succeed. We could look for inspiration in the great combat examples in classic and modern samurai movies — my personal touchstone is the 2010 remake of 13 Assassins — but the things that work in movies don’t always work in games, so there was work to do.
In the end, we ended focusing on three things: speed, sharpness, and precision.
First, speed. We wanted your attacks to be fast. Katanas aren’t heavy — roughly two to three pounds — so quick slashing attacks are at the center of most katana fighting styles. All the attacks in the game are captured on our in-house motion capture stage, so they represent realistic movement speeds. Those realistic speeds created an interesting problem — they were too fast to react to.
Human reaction times are slower than you think — it takes about 0.3 seconds to respond to a visual stimulus, no matter how simple the stimulus and response are. That’s just how long the nervous system and your brain take to figure things out. This time doesn’t vary much from person to person — we’ve done lots of internal tests, and everyone’s pure reaction times are about the same.
A lot of the design work we did on katana combat was dancing around these limits. There’s no problem with your attacks being fast, of course — the NPCs can react instantly if we want them too. We actually ran some experiments with NPCs having more realistic reaction times and it looked totally wrong. That’s probably because our ideas about how a sword fight looks are driven by watching movies, not real sword fights, and in a movie everyone knows the choreography ahead of time. (We actually watched real sword fights with blunted weapons during development, and they’re way sloppier than we wanted the game to be.)
So your attacks can be arbitrarily fast, but Mongol attacks can’t be faster than the player can react. That created imbalance early on — just hammering on the quick attack button defeated most enemies, which was certainly not the deep combat experience we were aiming for. It would have been nice to have solved this before Hideo Kojima visited Sucker Punch and tried Ghost combat, since that was the first thing he tried. Sigh.
We changed a couple of things to fix this. First, we realized that while there’s a limit to how fast players can react, there’s no limit to how fast they can anticipate. If an enemy launches into an attack string, we need to give the player enough time to react to the first attack in the string, but since subsequent attacks can be anticipated, they can happen arbitrarily fast. One of our Mongols uses a five-hit combo, for instance; the first attack is slow enough to react to, but the others happen fast.
We also realized that we could overlap enemy attacks. While one enemy attacks, another enemy can be winding up. We tune things so that Jin has barely enough time to deal with each enemy attack as it lands, just like in the samurai movies that inspired us, but there will often be two or even three attackers in the middle of an attack sequence at once.