Ever since I read the article “Restate Assumption: Out of Ammo” on Gausswerks blog I have been giving ammo a lot of thought. Coincidentally, at the same time, BioWare abandoned thier “infinite ammo” system from Mass Effect 1 in Mass Effect 2. Why would they make this change?

Action shot of Mass Effect highlighting the overheating ammo system action shot of mass effect 2 highlighting the ammo clip system

(Quick recap: In ME1 your guns overheat if you fire them to quickly. They work similarly to the plasma weapons from the Halo series. You either have to control your rate of fire, letting off the trigger when heat gets critical or let them vent for a few seconds after overheating, leaving you unable to fire. In ME2 they abandoned that system and switched to a standard ammo system with clips and reloading.)

I think they did this because, like myself, the developers realized Mass Effect’s combat style lacks tension. You never need to worry about running out of ammo. You are allowed to use your best weapon 100% of the game without ever having to switch. Eventually once you found the best gear, overheating wasn’t even an issue anymore. On some gun and upgrade configurations you could literally hold the trigger down indefinitely and never have to worry about overheating. That situation doesn’t make for interesting gameplay.

What is ammunition in first person shooter games? Its a way to kill bad guys of course, but in the end its what keeps you alive. Ammunition is the ultimate realization of “a good offense is the best defense.” What happens in a shooter when you are in the middle of battle and run out of ammo? You are probably dead. In many cases, ammo almost acts as a separate life bar. Maybe a more situational life bar, but if ammo runs out, your life is going to run out next.

The risk of running out of ammo, which you need to defend your precious life bar, creates tension in your gaming experience. You need to choose which gun you use, which ammo to use, and when its safe enough to conserve and use a knife. Limited ammo pulls you to explore the levels in hopes of finding a hidden stash. I love ammo, and I love being almost out of it. It makes the game more enjoyable because it demands that you as a player make more decisions.

Decisions = Gameplay

Let’s look at the very beginning. Games like Wolfenstein and Doom pioneered the FPS genre, they were the first, and can be forgiven for a rather simplistic view of ammunition. In both of these games you have limited ammo but your guns never had to reload, and you have access to every gun you at all times. I call this the baseline. The “control.” Dozens, probably hundreds of shooters were released after Doom that had the exact same ammo/weapon system.

Wolfenstien retro gaming! Doom, retro gaming!

The first game that decided to break the mold (from my personal experience) was Bungie’s Marathon. An exceptional shooter with an excellent story and a unique mechanic for reloading. By unique I mean realistic. In most games that offer a reload button (most of them today), you will reload anytime you press it. If you have a clip that is three bullets short and you reload, you will somehow put three bullets into the clip. It happens in an instant, and nothing is wasted. How is that supposed to work?

Bungie's Marathon highlighting the game's ammo system.In Marathon there is no reload command. The only way to reload a gun is to empty the clip. If you have one bullet left in your eight round clip then you need to shoot that bullet off and insert a new clip. It is the most realistic mechanic for dealing with ammo I have ever seen to this day. Although oddly enough your character can still carry eight different weapons, and ammo for each all at once.

Playing Marathon presents wonderful tension. The risk of running out of ammo is very real, but reloading in the middle of combat also puts you in serious risk. So what do you do when you have three shots left in your pistol, and 2 extra clips on your belt? You have two choices:

1. Run into battle with a three-round clip and two behind. You have 19 bullets, but you will have to deal with a reload three shots in to combat. 2. Play it safe, fire off the three rounds and load up a full clip. Now you will enter battle with only 16 bullets, but a full clip.

You are constantly faced with this situation with the pistol, the assault rifle and especially the grenade launcher. This element added a lot to the game and I wouldn’t mind seeing a similar reload mechanic explored in the future.

Bungie didn’t stop innovating there. The next big hit they created is Halo. I doubt Halo is the first game to do it, but it is certainly the first that caught my attention: in Halo you can only carry two guns at a time. This is a huge change from shooters I have played up until Halo. Each time you come up on a weapon you need to make a serious choice. You must exchange a gun you already have with the gun you found.

Bungie's Halo Highlighting the rocket launcherThe rocket launcher is the best example. It is a very polarized weapon, it ranges from being indispensable, to horrible. Giving up a more general weapon, like a the plasma rifle to take the rocket launcher involves pretty intense benefit analysis. This opens some great design space for weapons. Because the player doesn’t have every weapon at his disposal at all times, extremely specialized weapons can be designed, which are super powerful sometimes forcing players to choose and anticipate. The rocket launcher is obviously well suited for taking out large armored targets like tanks and banshees. But it it is usually overkill against standard grunts and elites. It also has a limited ammo capacity, you can only carry a maximum of six total rockets. Being out of rockets makes the gun totally worthless.


Gears of War continued the tradition of limited weapons and brought something new to the table. Reloading in Gears is actually a mini game. Once you click reload, a timed animation plays, displaying your reload progress. If you do nothing, once the animation is over you will reload as normal. However there is a little indicator on the bar, and if you tap the reload button again right on the indicator you perform a “active” reload. Not only will you reload faster, but your bullets will have a damage boost for a short time. If you mistime your second reload, you jam your gun, severally delaying your reload. I am in love with this system! Especially in the middle of a fight, with an enemy charging your cover position, performing a super reload and blasting the enemy with an enhanced shotgun round really makes you feel like a badass. Jamming your gun at a critical time is both dramatic and hilarious.

What am I getting at? Ammunition shouldn’t be an afterthought when it so often is. Ammunition is design space open for crafting a better gaming experience. Mass Effect 2 is catching a bunch of complaints for adding a “stupid ammo system.” Stupid? ME1 had an ammo system which reduced tension (eventually down to zero), and decision making (always used the same gun). Mass Effect 2 is more fun to play. The pressure to conserve your ammo is a primary reason. You are not able to just snipe your way through the game. You only get nine sniper rounds before needing to find ammo or switch weapons, so you need to make each shot count, or make a choice to use a different weapon altogether to ensure you have your primary weapon available when you need it. This massive increase in decisions is directly related to the game play of Mass Effect 2.

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  1. […] am interested in limited resources in games, special powers, magic and especially ammo. I often find myself analyzing how useful they are, and how the game chooses to limit them. Metal […]

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