I think I love action games so much because they are all about the thing that makes games so great: the verbs: attack, shoot, block, jump, etc. Players are constantly engaged with and interacting with the game. In this blog I want to examine the most popular of action game genres: the shooter. I recently finished playing through a few different shooters and it got me thinking about different weapon systems in shooters and what developers can do to ensure that their weapons are interesting and keep the player engaged with the combat. I’ve concluded that there are a few different methods on how to approach the problem, and while I think some are easier to implement than others, I hope that most designers at least think about these methods and how they would affect the core gameplay of their game while developing their shooters.
Think before you limit the player’s weapons
Ever since the success of the original Halo, most shooters have limited the amount of weapons a player can carry at a time to 2-4. This mechanic comes with a lot of pros: it’s more “realistic”, it makes it easy to switch between weapons (especially for gamepads), and it can add a layer of strategy to the game in picking out a load-out. However I feel like many shooters that I’ve played over the last few years have not properly considered what the cons are of this system: it discourages players from trying out new weapons, designers must always find ways of making other weapons available to the player by scattering them around levels (how many times have you played a game and “luckily” stumbled upon dead soldiers carrying weapons that you need?), and it generally limits the player’s options of how they can play the game in some way.
Now if you design your game right, those cons can become pros. I think Halo is so successful because it fully knows the consequences of the system from the start of the design, and is thus able to treat their gameplay as almost puzzle-like (ideally), presenting the player with some weapons and a certain scenario and asking them to figure out how to progress through it. Oftentimes however, I will play a game that seems to fail to fully recognize the consequences of the limited-weapon system, and I find myself afraid to experiment with weapon load-outs or feeling ill prepared for many scenarios. I think it’s a totally valid design decision to want the player to always have weapon X in their 2-slot inventory for the entire game, but just make sure that the rest of your design benefits from that before choosing a limited-weapon selection for your game.
Don’t treat your rocket-launcher like a key or as a “skip encounter” button
For as long as shooters have been around, there have been rocket-launchers. And for as long as they’ve been around I feel like many designers have poorly implemented them into their game’s arsenal. In the vast majority of shooters I have played, rocket-launchers (or maybe they aren’t quite a “rocket launcher” but are the mechanic equivalent) come in 2 basic categories: a key (where the player must use a rocket launcher provided to them to destroy an enemy that is immune to all other weapons, such as tanks in Brothers in Arms or Call of Duty), or as a “skip encounter” button where players can easily and instantly destroy large groups of enemies in a manner so far removed from standard gameplay it is as though they essentially skipped the encounter.
Allow me to better explain the second point. Let’s take one of my favorite games of the last few years for example: Vanquish. Let’s say that I am playing Vanquish and I am in a level where I am up against a few Georgies (standard foot soldier robots) and 2 Romanovs (larger, more dangerous robots). If I were armed with the standard layout of an assault rifle, shotgun, and heavy machine-gun I would have a good 3-6 minutes of gameplay where I am sliding around the level, taking pot shots, trying to sneak up on the Romanovs to shoot them in the back with my shotgun, etc. However if I were armed with a rocket-launcher I would be able to take out both Romanovs in seconds, and easily clean-up the Georgies in ~45 seconds at most (even less if I got lucky and all of the Georgies were very close to the Romanovs when I shot the rocket).
In the Rocket Launcher scenario, sure I may have seen some cool rocket explosions, but I basically skipped an entire encounter (or at least robbed it of any interesting components). I think it’s a totally acceptable design decision to have these sorts of “panic buttons” as relief for players (more so in games without regenerating health), but I hope that designers will realize the consequences of incorporating powerful, simple weapons like rocket-launchers into their shooter. Some examples of what I think are good rocket launchers in games: Quake (rarely a 1-hit kill and balanced out with other weapons reasonably well), Halo (when used properly as an item in a “puzzle scenario”), and somewhat Half-Life 2 (mostly because of how the laser-aiming creates a new type of gameplay that is different from the core gameplay yet is still engaging for the entire game and not just “press a button and see explosion”).
Don’t let your weapons overlap too much
In the last few months 2 very big FPS games (Halo 4 and Bioshock: Infinite) received criticism for having a lot of overlap between their weapons. Defendants of the game could argue that there are many differences between overlapping weapons mechanically and (more so) aesthetically, but I think both cases demonstrate lack of functional differences between weapons. For instance let’s look at the Carbine and Burst Rifle from Bioshock: Infinite. Aesthetically both guns look very unique. The Carbine is semi-automatic with iron sights while the Burst Rifle has 3-shot bursts and a scope. However the guns overlap in niche and function so much (medium–to–long range precision weapon) that the player still has to use the exact same behavior (point at enemy’s head and shoot) while using either weapon, making the differences unsatisfying.
An example of overlapping weapons that are satisfying in their differences I think can be found in Twisted Metal’s special weapons for Shadow and Meat Wagon. On the surface both cars shoot a projectile forward that can then be remotely detonated for splash damage or hit directly for more damage to a single target. But there are some subtle yet critical differences between the two. Shadow’s special does not having homing capabilities but does more damage the further away it travels, meanwhile Meat Wagon can fire a homing version of the attack or remote-control it for more damage, but the attack can be shot down by enemies. These differences add up to make each weapon require considerably different tactics to be used to greatest effect, making the differences quite satisfying.
The conclusion is this: it’s just sort of boring to have multiple versions of basically the same weapon or weapon function if they do not require different tactics or skills from the player at all. Or to put it another way: a variation on a weapon niche is only meaningful if it requires the player to alter their behavior to utilize it properly.
Add ability depth to your weapons
If you want the weapons in your shooter to be memorable and keep people coming back for more, you are probably going to want to add some depth to the weapons. The first type of depth as I would define it is “ability depth”, which implies that a weapon has subtle (or not so subtle) behaviors that alter that weapon’s effectiveness depending on how the player uses the weapon. Ideally this will help make each weapon more unique (IE encourage the player to use weapons in different ways) and also make the player more engaged with learning how to master the weapon. I would say that the most important goal in adding ability depth to your weapon is to encourage the player to use fundamentally different actions with each weapon (IE in a FPS encouraging behavior that is not just shooting at the enemies’ heads all the time).
Generally adding ability depth will either reinforce or widen a weapons niche. For example let’s look at the sticky bomb in Twisted Metal (PS3). By default the weapon is shot forward onto a surface (or laid down where the player is) and will detonate when the player presses the fire button again. The sticky-bomb main niche is that of a trap: players are encouraged to set up a bomb somewhere, anticipate that an enemy will unsuspectingly drive by, and then detonate that weapon at the right time. But the weapon has 2 extra features that add a lot of ability depth. The first is the ability to “cook” the bomb: the longer the player waits to detonate it, the more damage it will do. This reinforces the trap niche of the sticky bomb: even better preparation and planning will mean that the sticky bomb will be even more powerful. The second ability allows the sticky bomb to be stuck directly onto an enemy car: effectively expanding the weapon’s niche into a more conventional weapon (although it is less powerful this way).†
Add handle depth to your weapons
The other type of depth you can add to your weapons is that of handle depth: adding in variables to the way a weapon “feels” that require the player to sub-consciously memorize things like specific weapon recoil, range effectiveness, etc. This is equivalent to “ball control” in sports games. It is not very “strategic” so to speak most of the time, but offers a visceral satisfaction when mastery is achieved. Ideally handle depth allows players to develop new tactics that are not possible without a certain amount of player skill.
The best example of this sort of depth is found in Counter-Strike, where players can spend hours getting better at firing the different weapons in the game. In Counter-Strike your first bullet or two will go directly to where you are aiming (if you’re not moving and ideally crouching), but each weapon becomes much less accurate after a that, requiring players to know how to adjust their reticule during a burst-fire to ensure sustained accuracy.
Handle depth is rarely seen in shooters now-a-days, which I think has to do with consoles becoming the main platform for most shooters over the last 10 years. It is much harder (almost impossible) to create satisfying twitch-based shooting with analog sticks. Sure many modern shooters have recoil on their weapons and have certain types of range effectiveness and bullet-spread, but rarely do these games require strict mastery of a weapon’s feel to achieve a greater level of perfection. For example in Far Cry 3 there are many different rifles that all have slightly different recoil, but the recoil is so mild and the guns are so accurate that you never really have to adjust your reticule while aiming, failing to achieve meaningful handle depth. Instead choosing between the different automatic rifles in Far Cry 3 comes down to player taste in aesthetics (sight and sound) for the most part, with a little variation on damage and clip size (although since you are always aiming for the head, and the guns are all pretty accurate even at far ranges, these differences are marginal at best and completely unnoticeable at worst).
Don’t make your “reliable” weapons too reliable
All too often in shooters do I find that the standard assault rifle is by far the best, most reliable weapon to use in almost every situation. As long as you don’t waste too much ammo, you can easily (and likely will for the most part) go through the entire Gears of War franchise using just the lancer (minus the certain levels where enemies are immune to lighter weapons). I only felt like changing away from the ISA assault rifle in Killzone 2 due to sheer boredom. This is a shame because both have some pretty cool weapons that players are discouraged from using due to limited weapon selection (the decision to limit players to only 1 gun at a time in Killzone will forever baffle me) and the amazing effectiveness of the standard rifle.
While I think it’s up to the designer if they want to have a reliable stand-by weapon in their game, I think there are a few easy methods to balance out “standard” weapons in shooters and encourage players to try out other weapons more if that is what the designer wants. For instance in Half-Life 2, the most reliable and standard weapons are the SMG and the Pulse Rifle. However the game does a pretty decent job of encouraging players to use other guns a lot of the time by fitting both weapons into a vague niche. The SMG is pretty weak and inaccurate at long distances (fitting it into a close-quarters niche), and the Pulse rifle has a very low ammo capacity and high rate of fire (forcing players to only use it as an almost “last resort” weapon much of the time).
Do not have a “reliable” weapon at all
This is more of a drastic measure but I have found that oftentimes if I stop myself from using certain reliable weapons in a game, it becomes incredibly more tactical and engaging. Playing Gears of War with the Torque Bow and Sawed-Off shotgun only is a much different experience than playing with the Lancer, and for me enhances many of the qualities that I like about the core gameplay. The same can be said for when I refuse to carry the HMG or Assault Rifle in Vanquish: suddenly the hordes of Georgies that were once easily dispatched with the automatic weapons are much more troublesome when I am weary of wasting ammo on such lowly enemies, forcing me to be much more careful every time I fire a weapon.
†I think as designers we should do this from time to time (purposefully not use every mechanic in a game), as it will shine a new light on a mechanic and allow us to see how much the core gameplay relied on it, or if it was hindering it all along. There is definitely room for giving players options in games and sure you could say that the player is free to use whichever weapons they want. But I think as designers it is our job to at least encourage players fully try out all of their options, and be willing to take out options that ensure a less satisfying experience. †Again I think it’s all about the type of gameplay the designer wants in their game, but I think that a lot of shooters I’ve played are strongest when they offer a certain type of gameplay that is often discouraged by having a too strong “reliable” weapon.
So ultimately I think that in order to have interesting weapons in a shooter, a designer should want to have weapons that offer different variations on the verb “to shoot”. If all of your weapons can be described as “shooting at the head” then your weapons are probably not going to be very memorable or engaging. I think one important part of this all that I sort of failed to mention very often is that all of these methods help reinforce the sensation of creativity in the player: as they learn about the differences between the weapons they are creating new tactics for them throughout the experience. Shooters may have a bit of a reputation of being mindless, but I think any good shooter can be defined as good because it can offer an incredible sense of creativity and improvisation to players, which is something that I think gets forgotten a lot of the time.