perfectly spherical

Game Design In Theory


☰ Table of Content

Why, exactly, should this gun reload?

I want to start by saying that, even though I fucking love boomershooters, this isn’t coming from a “Doom didn’t have reloading so neither will I!” point of view. This is not about cargo cultism. This is not about elitism. This isn’t about whether or not games have gotten worse over the past 20 years (maybe) or why they’ve gotten worse (it’s not any one thing). This is about reloading, and what reloading does to your gameplay.

Rising and Falling Action

Bet you forgot that one, huh? If you live in America, you probably heard about this in middle school and forgot about it entirely. The basic gist of it is, if you make a graph representing the tension in a story, it looks like a hill with a cliff on one end–with slowly rising tension throughout the story, the occasional dip partway through as the characters reach a safe place or resolve a plot thread, a peak where the finale happens, and a steeper slope downward as everything gets wrapped up in the epilogue. It’s a fundamental part of story structure, mostly because people tend to lose interest if there’s not something to look forward to.

The thing is, what they DIDN’T tell you is that the rising-and-falling-action graph is a fractal. If you zoom way in–say, to the scale of one scene–you can find the same curve, with a slow buildup of tension until the biggest moment of the scene–and then a moment of relief before the next piece of action.

And if you zoom down to the scale of an individual shot, the *best* writers and filmmakers put this rising and falling action into *individual* actions, which brings me back to games: the best weapon designers do this, too.

Take as an example the Super Shotgun from Doom 2, maybe the most famous shotgun in gaming history. I’m not sure if this was something the folks at iD Software stumbled on by accident, or did deliberately, but the long reload animation followed by a massive BOOM and the shredding of everything in front of you is a perfect example of rising and falling action in a weapon animation.

So, with that in mind, you can use the reload animation–or the cooldown animation–as part of selling the weapon’s power.

Resource Management

Part and parcel of talking about reloading is talking about ammo. Some games have reloading and limited ammo supplies; some games have reloading, but unlimited ammo supplies; some games have limited ammo and no reloads; and some games mix all three in the same set of weapons. It’s fairly common in Doom modding, actually–often the pistol replacement will have infinite ammo, but also have to reload every so often, while the rest of the guns are non-reloading with limited ammo.

Resource management has been part of games almost as long as games have been around. Limited lives were the earliest example, probably, alongside the bunkers in Space Invaders, power pellets in Pac-Man, and hammers in Donkey Kong. Ammunition is another kind of resource, in the same vein as the hammers and power pellets: it lets you defeat your enemies. If you run out of it, you’re in trouble. Using it well is key to your success; hosing enemies down with your most powerful weapon comes with the cost of not having it later.

Reloading adds another layer to this resource management. On top of having to keep in mind how much ammunition you have left, you now also have to keep track of how much of it is ready to go, and how long you can keep firing before having to reload or switch. Of course, this can be remedied with a second or two of fiddling with your gun…

Time Management

…which means having to stop firing. Reloading can be used to great effect as a balancing tool on weapons, especially weapons that are meant to be high risk, high reward powerhouses. The Super Shotgun is famous in deathmatch because the long reload makes it easy to punish an enemy for missing that deadly close-range blast; reloads in Counter-Strike are lengthy and noisy, giving watchful opponents a clear signal that you can be caught off-guard. In games where you have many weapons at your disposal, this can reward players for having the dexterity to cycle between each of their weapons. In games where you can only hold a couple of weapons, overextending is deadly, even though you can make your damage output last a bit longer by switching to your pistol (it’s faster than reloading, don’cha know?). Slow reloads make a weapon feel big and weighty, and give the choice of using them a bit of that weight; fast reloads punctuate smaller guns with a brief pause in the action before the next pile of lead flies out the front. This sometimes comes hand-in-hand with animation cancelling–i.e., starting a reload and switching before it finishes, either stopping the animation early or switching to a weapon that is ready. The same thing can be achieved with a cooldown–ULTRAKILL’s rail cannon has a lengthy waiting period between shots that can be spent firing other guns, creating the effect of having a long reload animation to cancel without introducing reloading as a mechanic.

When It Isn’t Necessary

ULTRAKILL is actually a very important example for this. See, ULTRAKILL doesn’t have ammunition as a mechanic at all. All the guns are constantly available at all times, with no penalty for missing and no worries about overusing any one gun. Well, you don’t get as high of a score if you’re struggling to hit things, but that’s mostly because you’ll miss out on things like point multipliers for jumping and sliding while shooting, a “Fresh Weapon” bonus that lingers for a few moments after you switch weapons, and extra damage when you hit limbs, heads, or unfired projectiles. Each gun in ULTRAKILL also fills a specific niche, with the Revolver being a reliable and highly-accurate source of pinpoint damage, the Shotgun specializing in crowd control and get-off-me options, the Nailgun providing a way to hose down a single target or create a bit of area denial, and the Railcannon being your “fuck that guy and everything behind him” button. The altfires provide mechanical complexity, too–the coin toss altfire for the Revolver, which gives you the option to set up a risky but powerful shot if you can hit a small predictable target, is a great example of this. There’s also the tricks you can pull off with combinations of altfires, like the Nailgun’s magnetic spike combined with its overcharge button, as well as new mobility options, like deliberately overcharging the shotgun’s pump altfire and blowing yourself up for a midair rocketjump.

And all of this happens WITHOUT reloading as a mechanic, without even having ammo as a mechanic. ULTRAKILL functions just fine as a first person shooter with only cooldowns and health as a resource to manage, because the other mechanics of its guns are more than enough to keep the game interesting. In fact, ULTRAKILL is a pretty damn complex game when you dig into the really clever techniques.

And the lack of ammunition is actually a good thing for ULTRAKILL, because it takes the focus away from juggling ammunition counts and puts that focus on using the weapons for what they’re good for. This plays directly into the overall goal of ULTRAKILL’s design as a sort of first-person character action game: You, as the player, should not have to worry about ammunition, because You, as the player, should be focusing on doing sick combos.

On a similar note, Doom Eternal has a button you can hit to saw a demon in half and turn them into an ammo pinata. Some guys on a discord I’m in said that they don’t like this, because it means the player basically doesn’t have to worry about ammo so long as they’ve touched a fuel can in the past five minutes. I’m going to pretend that their criticism is something that people say outside of one discord for quake 1 fans, for the sake of this blogpost. It’s a good thing that D:E lets you refill your ammunition supply on, effectively, a cooldown–because that plays into the rest of the playstyle that D:E is built around, rewarding the player for tracking their resources and remembering which options refill those resources.

Resource management makes sense for a game that’s built around it. Take survival horror, for instance–that’s an entire genre that was built on resource management, to the point that Resident Evil 1 made your ability to save the game contingent on a resource. That’s fine. That’s good! Resource management is a thing in basically every game since Pong, and if you want your game to be the kind of game where every zombie is a threat because you might not have enough bullets left to deal with it, that works perfectly. If you want your player to have to think about when they reload–like you do in Counter-Strike–that’s a valid design decision, and it works in the many games that implement it. But if you wanna make a game where the player slaughters hundreds of those zombies, you probably don’t want to limit their ammo supply.

Update: 2021-06-17

<< Small Games My Love-Hate Relationship With Minecraft, Part 1 >>