Do you know what the best feeling a video game can give you is? Letting you feel like you outsmarted the game when, actually, you are simply playing as intended. It is a different matter entirely when you outsmart the game and the developers did not intend it. That is simply poor design, and although you can be proud of yourself, it isn’t the same situation. Usually when it’s unintended, whatever it is you discovered, will likely ruin the gameplay and likely break the game. It takes real genius to give a player a key gameplay element, or method for beating a level, in such a way that he or she thinks they found some kind of secret or shortcut. Let me give examples.
Recently I have been playing some DOS games because, oddly, most of my most nostalgic video game feelings come from DOS. Mostly Master of Orion II (which I covered here), Prince of Persia and Dungeon Master 2. I haven’t played DM2 for a very long time although I do remember getting pretty far into it. I played it again. It’s still amazing. Most importantly the games cryptic magic system got me thinking about this very concept.
Dungeon Master 2 is a dungeon crawler RPG. The first thing you do is revive three companions from the “hall of heroes” where a bunch of random heroes are in cryogenic sleep or something. Then you begin your assault on Skull Keep. You find weapons and armor and kill monsters. The game is pretty awesome and atmospheric. I own the soundtrack. Anyway, back to the point.
The most interesting thing in this game is the magic system. When you click on the cast spell button you get a series of six symbol none of which make any sense to you. When you click on one, you lose mana, and it gets imprinted. Then the interface gives you six more symbols you can’t understand. Then again, and then again! So a spell consist of four or less symbols in a certain order. Once you click cast spell you just get a weird symbol and nothing happens (Unless you lucked out and actually cast a spell). How the heck are you supposed to know how to cast any spells? Guess!?
You will pretty quickly discover that these magic runes are used throughout the game. Many heroes you revive even start with some items that have abilities which are displayed as a series of runes. The staff for example has a spell ability which is simply named (square, weird backwards n shape) and you have no idea what it does without trying it. Once you click it, the room you are in gets brighter. If you try to input these runes as a spell, it makes the room lighter! You just learned the “light” spell. Take a look at it, notice how the light spell uses the fire rune? Yeah! the spells actually make logical sense too. Once you know several spells, you can deduce additional spells just my understanding the symbols better.
Throughout the game you will find potions, weapons, shields, music boxes, rings, wands etc. Many of them will have spells on them for you to experiment with. The spells that are most useful (fireball, lighting bolt, guard minion, haste) you memorize and use constantly. The rest of the spells you better write down in some kind of physical spell book in case you need to cast them later. Because the game won’t hold them for you.
The beauty of this system is the sense of accomplishment you feel as a player when you “outsmart” the game by “stealing” spells from items with limited uses. You find a staff that can only cast two fireballs, but you figure out how to cast unlimited fireballs off of it. For a good part of the game I still felt like I was going to find some kind of spell book and I am just cutting corners copy-catting these spells. Then it dawned on me that this is exactly how the designers intended that the player learn magic spells. But when I first started dropping attack minions all over the map I felt like I was the smartest kid in the world.
Portal was another game that gave me the same feeling except in portal instead of a gameplay mechanic, it was the level design. In Portal you use a special machine that can connect any two points together using portals. You shoot a portal “over there” and one “right here” step into the closer one and you come out “over there.” The game takes place in a testing facility where you need to beat a series of puzzle rooms by using your portaling ability.
The cool part of the game is how often you “thought” you were taking a shortcut, doing something sneaky, discovering a path that is not the intended path and feeling smug. Well, that is how everybody felt, because that is the way you are supposed to go! For those of you that played and beat portal, trying playing it a second time, and avoid your gut instinct to take the shortcut and try it “the hard way.” You will find out that there is no hard way! You found the only way but the game let you believe you outsmarted it.
That is the feeling games need to provide. Less tutorials! So many games beat you over the head with their “genius” mechanics because they are too afraid you might miss something. There is no discovery there, no sense of accomplishment. Let players discover things for themselves don’t be afraid of letting players be stuck for a while. The way games are going now, soon it will be unacceptable for a player to have to concentrate at all. Everything will need to be served to them on a text-heavy platter. I bet there are spells in Dungeon Master 2 I have never even seen and I think that is a really good thing. Can you think of any video games that made you feel like you outsmarted them?
I guess this is the new big thing in the video gaming world. Exclusive pre-order content. You know the drill by now. An anticipated game is coming out and everyone wants you to buy it from them. Then some fucking genius had this idea. How about, if a customer pre-orders the game from my retailer, they get bonus content only available with that pre-order? It is a pretty good idea, I remember being VERY happy to pre-order Mass Effect 2 from GameStop and get my free Terminus armor and Singularity Generator. But it’s a double edged sword. I didn’t get the collector’s edition off Amazon or whatever so I didn’t get Collector armor or the Collector rifle. You cannot get all of the bonus content, and you always want all of it because you feel like you have an incomplete game. You have this collector mentality, except you are 100% UNABLE to collect all the pieces. Unless you want to go around pre-ordering the game from everywhere.
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?
(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.
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?
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.
The 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.