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Game Design In Theory

All the Gold, And the Guns

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Deep Rock Galactic just added four new guns.

They now have 3 primary weapons and 2 secondary weapons for each of 4 classes, for a total of 4 X (3 X 2) = 24 possible combinations. Of course, weapon mods and overclocks add to that list.

But that’s small-time numbers. Bigger games, like Payday 2, can have HUNDREDS of guns! There are 28 choices in the Assault Rifle category alone!

And they all suck. Here’s why more guns isn’t always better.

Choices, Choices…

Choices are one of the most basic elements of game design. Rock Paper Scissors has three choices, all equally viable. Tic-Tac-Toe has nine choices, whittled down over the course of the game, all of which have varying strategic value. Games often tout a wide variety of weapons as a major feature, for good reason: People like having choices.

There are two elements to a good choice:

  1. The benefits.
  2. The drawbacks (or opportunity costs).

This seems kind of obvious, but a choice only matters for a game if it’s not something a player can choose automatically. As I mentioned briefly in the post about shaking things up, the perfect build is a bad thing. If the right answer for a choice is always the same, 100% of the time, regardless of the situation, what you have is not a choice but rather a memory check–and memory checks are almost never a good thing. If your players are punished for picking the “wrong” choice, and the “wrong” choice isn’t signposted clearly or taught to them somewhere else, then you’re not rewarding skill–you’re punishing players for not reading the wiki.

A Bigger Gun

Payday 2 suffers from multiple layers of this problem. First of all, every weapon category in Payday 2 has a somewhat-linear progression in power–there’s the guns that you start with, and then there’s the guns that are good. Choosing a rifle in Payday 2 isn’t a complex choice; the benefit is usually better numbers across the board, and the drawbacks are purely opportunity cost (and only if you don’t pick the best gun in the category).

This is compounded by a memory check issue, because the best guns in each category are not the ones with the biggest base numbers! Payday 2’s weapon modding system is difficult to understand at a glance–each mod adds different amounts of various stats, and some guns are notable for having insane potential due to just having more mod types available to them. Not only is the best weapon in each category objectively and always the best weapon in the category, it’s also not something you’d know about unless you study build guides.

This is then topped off with another layer of bad drawback management. Remember those 28 different guns in the Assault Rifle category? They’re all objectively worse than other categories of guns. LMGs do way more sustained damage, and the longer reloads and lower concealment simply aren’t a problem for the situations where you’d bring an LMG. Shotguns are better for damaging multiple targets in quick succession thanks to the frankly cursed pellet mechanics (whether you hit with one pellet or all of them, the target takes full damage!). Akimbo pistols pack concealment, decent mag capacity, and firepower, and akimbo SMGs drop the concealment for even more mag capacity. And DMRs not only hit harder and more accurately, they’re significantly more powerful because of how essential headshots are in higher difficulties.

Now, if you only play on Normal or Hard, you won’t really have to care about any of this. But there’s four difficulties above that! And in those difficulties, you lose a giant pile of choices.

Schlooting The Schlit

Another game that has some serious issues with its gun options is Cyberpunk 2077. Now, I love Cyberpunk’s gunplay, but the thing is, I love it when it works. And it only works on some invisible golden path that carries you through exactly the right parts of the city at just the right times, because the thing is, your guns stop working real fast against enemies that are more powerful.

See, under the hood, enemy HP scales really fast. Like, at level 50, the base HP for enemies is around 10,000, with the main character’s DPS being around 5,000 at level 50. Thing is, if you’re not level 50, you’re probably gonna have a bad time against enemies that are. And that’s not even accounting for the fact that your enemies’ base DPS is 850 at that level, and your HP maxes out at 345 without Body improvements. This is why enemies with skulls over their heads can kill you in 2 shots.

This is made even more messy by the loot system. Cyberpunk 2077 follows the Destiny model of loot, where there’s a limited number of types of guns, but each gun can have some variation in its stats and the “power level” of the gun. This, of course, means that gun damage is based roughly on what level you were when you looted the gun.

This is supposed to be fixed by the upgrade system, but because of how quickly I find new guns (one new gun on each gangoon I kill) I usually find myself just switching when I find a gun with higher base DPS. Except when I have an Iconic weapon, like some of the quest rewards.

And all of that comes together to create a situation where, because I took a mission that was above my pay grade, I was unable to do more than 30% of an enemy’s HP with a .50 caliber capital-U Unique silenced sniper rifle from stealth.

Did I mention that in Cyberpunk 2077, weapons have a level requirement?

The guns I got off those super-high-level enemies, when I finally found a spot to snipe from? Yeah, they were level-locked. Despite being exactly the same model of revolver as the one I already had in my pocket–and despite being lower rarity–they had higher DPS than I’m supposed to have at this level, so I don’t get to use them. Destiny didn’t do that, and for good reason–it pisses the player off when they pull off a crazy underdog victory and get nothing out of it.

(Also, Destiny tied your character’s level to the level of their equipment, so it wouldn’t have made sense to have a level requirement–but I digress.)

All of this comes together to create a situation where you feel overwhelmed by choices for polished, well-animated guns…but there’s not actually a lot of choices, because it’s still all about the raw numbers, and you’re not even allowed to pick the gun with the bigger numbers sometimes.

Doin’ It Right

Deep Rock Galactic sidesteps these problems by simply…not having that many guns. Instead, each gun in Deep Rock Galactic is designed to have its own playstyle. It doesn’t bother trying to model the real world, where there’s several hundred different places to buy a technically-not-an-AR15 from; instead, it strives to make each gun a meaningfully-different, viable choice.

Take the Scout’s primary weapons, for instance–the set most comparable to weapons in Payday and Cyberpunk. There are three: the Deepcore GK2 assault rifle, the M1000 marksman’s rifle, and the DRAK-25 plasma carbine.

The Deepcore is your starting primary weapon, and is a fairly standard Assault-Rifle-ish gun. It can be modified for faster fire rate, higher damage per bullet, or higher mag size–but overall, it’s a well-rounded weapon that can be used for long-distance shots or spewing lead up close. It’s a balanced option–one which works because, instead of trying to balance 28 different Balanced Options as a linear progression, Deep Rock Galactic only has to make one balanced option viable.

Then there’s the M1000 Classic, which is pretty obviously a Space Garand. It features a charge-able shot–one which consumes 2 bullets to do double the damage with one shot. With high base damage, but less ammunition available, the M1000 specializes the Scout into a long-range single-target damage powerhouse–a role that the Scout was already excellent in.

The most recent addition, the DRAK-25, is also very assault-rifle-ish–but it has an overheat mechanic instead of a reload mechanic, and is easier to modify for sustained fire and accuracy. The result is that the DRAK-25 is better at wave-clearing, if you can manage the overheat.

And then there’s the overclocks, which do all sorts of wild shit–from simply making the GK2 have faster fire rates and stronger recoil, to making the DRAK-25 regain ammo when it overheats. Thanks to unique overclocks for each weapon, you can get an even wider variety of gameplay styles from just 3 weapons. This is true variety, and it doesn’t need a million models or incremental number changes to make it happen.

Update: 2021-11-09

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