Friday, August 7, 2009

Restate Assumption: Out of Ammo

Friday, August 7, 2009
Restate assumption:
The player should never/sometimes/often run out of ammo.

Which statement makes sense? Continuing on the nostalgia trip of my examination of Doom's E1M1, I think of how those early games turned me into an ammunition miser. (Was it the game? Was it, as my brothers and I now wonder at now, peer reinforcement about Dad's fiscal conservativism?)

I remember finishing the first episode of Doom with 95% of the rockets I picked up through the levels, taking down the Barons with excessive zeal. Finally, I could spend those rockets because there's no way to keep them after the last level. I hoarded ammo because I might need it, and unlike many modern shooters, actually running out of ammo was a real possibility.

Maybe it put a crimp in my fun--that BFG-9000 unfired until the Cyberdemon showed--but maybe ammunition conservation is it's own kind of fun, it's own mechanic and reward system.

It's a game sub-system that modern shooters with infinite pistol ammo largely forgo, which is a shame. When gamers are continually re/over-supplied to their hearts' content, the strategic long-term questions about rationing or expenditure recede entirely as does challenge.
I would argue that it undercuts the modest yet crucial roleplay that comes with a shooter: I'm a space marine, I'm a Rainbow 6 operative, I'm whoever Call of Duty calls me to inhabit, and to a man every one of them should be mindful of their ammunition.

I think of every time I've needed the Hammer of Dawn in Gears of War, well low and behold, here one is conveniently dropped and I feel like a chump for keeping a weapon around that is guaranteed to be given to the player again if he ever needs to use it.

More simulative shooters give the player realistic ammunition loads but also restrict information about exactly how many rounds are left: SWAT 4, Red Orchestra come to mind.
Killzone 2 has the option to reduce or eliminate the HUD entirely, something I enjoy tremendously. I'm only about halfway through that game, but I have never once truly needed to know how much ammo I have left. (Though proprioceptive/body awareness cues advanced creatively would be appreciated, like being able to look down at a chest harness and see remaining full magazines.)

Not to say there aren't modern games that consider and tweak the modern conception. Mirror's Edge is a wonderful example of more or less bypassing weapons and ammunition entirely; they are of limited use to Faith. If the player chooses to use them, Faith stops at stooping to reload the things, giving them a temporary power-up like quality. But that is dispensing with weapons, not really reconsidering ammunition useage.

A better example would be more traditional survival horror games, such as old Resident Evil titles, which severely restricted available ammunition. Adherents to this first games generally crabbed at the relative surplus of ammunition available to Leon in RE4 and then later to Redfield and Sheva in RE5, though it's still scrounging by the standards of many games.

As with so many modern shooter paradigms, I think it's Far Cry 2 that has come out with a fascinating balance to this question. Using your own weapons usually means you can stay well stocked, though sometimes with supply runs to the weapons depot; the far more interesting risk/reward mechanic is picking up rusty weapons off your fallen foe. There is a kind of economy of bad-assedness which dictates that your super killer mercenary character should be able to pick up any guns he comes across and kill with it, increased weapon jams and all. And taking his malaria pills in time.

But I can't help but think there might be some more interesting spaces to be explored with very limited ammunition loads, or artificially scarce ammunition, like the aforementioned Detective game concept. Or maybe a game that would play like a sort of no-tech Crysis--instead of playing the super soldier Predator-ing around an island with armed thugs looking for him, it's more of a Manhunt scenario where the player can--and should--use every dirty trick in the book to take down his target. Six bullets, six targets?
Playing a game version of Cormac McCarthy's The Road, where only one round left is an even grimmer proposition than usual?


Anonymous said...

A large portion of the ammo in Doom was also hidden in secret rooms and pathways, rewarding the player for going off-track (and even keeping stats for how many items/secrets that were missed). Later games just took all those items, doubled the amount, and stacked them high in corridors all over the levels.

gauss said...

I was just thinking of this. Go over E1M1 again, and if you know all the secrets, you of course end up with a shotgun early (provided you're playing on medium difficulty so shotgun sargeants aren't around from the start), and the first level of Doom 2 nets you a rocket launcher on the very first level.
Soul spheres, mega armor and all the like were often teased visually but with no obvious path to them, encouraging the search for secrets.

Ammunition always available combined with some form of regenerative health system take the starch out of secrets... as does modern level production.
What's a greater and greater temptation these days is to be scared that the player won't ever see X or Y, which we put so much time into, so the player gets railroaded. What would have been a secret, something for the player to discover, becomes a mandatory mile marker.

Anonymous said...

It's a shame since it also creates a kind of extra replay value; most people won't go around looking for every single secret in their first go, but in subsequent playthroughs will discover more and more of them. It's not that there is necessarily anything particularly interesting inside every secret room, but the knowledge that I haven't seen everything in the game just by playing it once gives more incentive to play it again. Even today I could pick up Doom and in the later levels find secrets I have never seen before.

Doom 3 had alot less of it and maybe id will just phase it out entirely, but I'm hoping that they'll have at least some secrets to search for in their upcoming games.

Anonymous said...

Ammo amount is something that can really add to the actual experience.
You get the impression that devs nowadays are terrified their games will be too hard without littering the place with ammo.
I know it's an old example but it's really a perfect case with bioshock when you compare it to system shock 2.
Both games have a medical level with the difference being that ss2 maintains that feeling of relief when you find more bullets in later levels while bioshock doesn't let me pick up any more drum mags because my tommy gun doesn't need any more.

Johnnyburn said...

It seems like a pretty straightforward problem to fix with the difficulty setting. If you like the thrill of ammo parsimony, then choose a harder level. If you want to run around and shoot things, choose a lower difficulty setting.

I suppose that one problem with this is a lack of explanation about the difficulty setting. What does "HARDCORE" really mean? Am I HARDCORE or Veteran? I tend to choose "Medium" or whatever I think that the developer tuned to the average player.

Maybe the whole idea behind the standard difficulty setting is too coarse. There could be an "advanced mode" in the choice that let's you choose the higher number of enemies from the "Medium" mode and the high ammo distribution from the "Easy" mode, etc.

theworm said...

Re: gauss - about hidden/teased secrets and forcing the player to see locations/set-pieces.

This is something I've been thinking about for some time now. Because visual production values have gone up so incredibly, it takes far, far longer to create a game level than it used to - compare the amount of detail in Doom vs Bioshock.

The time/cost of this almost forces the railroading you talk about as there is no time or money left to create cool hidden areas, so everything (including weapons/ammo) must be in plain sight.

Also because visual fidelity has increased so much, it would now seem utterly bizarre to be walking around an office complex in, say FEAR - press a button and have an entire wall slide upwards to reveal a hidden room. In Doom and Duke 3D it didn't matter if an entire building slid into the ground or opened up like some mechanical pyramid - everything was far more abstract. If you tried that now the first thing the player would think is "That's completely unrealistic!" unless you heavily pushed the game into the 'wierd alternate world' scenario.

You can tell I miss secret areas in games... :(

gauss said...

Johnny: still love the phrase "ammo parsimony." Sounds thrillingly.. legalistic?

theworm: I'm familiar with this argument but I just don't think I believe in it. Yes, it does take way, way, way more time to build any given area in a game than it used to, but I don't think that's proper justification for railroading. I'm very mindful of the sorts of things that diminish games as their own medium and bring them closer to lame, semi-interactive movies, and forcing the player to experience content falls in that category. It's a loss of confidence in the whole deal--no confidence in players, no confidence in the medium. If choice and my active participation doesn't net any real change, then why am I even playing a game?

Rane2k said...

Interesting topic!

I noticed that in FPS games I tend to make ammo collection conservation into a little minigame of my own. I actively try not to reach 0 ammo with any weapon at any point, except if I know that I can replenish it very soon.
On the other hand as soon as one of my guns reaches maximum ammo I tend to carry that weapon into the next fight. I do this to avoid leaving ammo packs that I find behind.

The one exception to this is if the gun is obviously very weak or too specialised (for example the Quake 4 grenade launcher, while the ones in Quake 1 and 2 were excellent, the one in Q4 was just bad because of it´s weird
firing arc.)

A nice ammo system I recently encountered was in Dead Space. For those that don´t know it: You can carry a maximum of 4 out of the ~10(?) weapons available. Any ammo that you find is for one of the guns that you actually carry, so no ammo is wasted except if your weapons are full. You could also sell excess ammo and buy other powerups instead.

In addition to that, you could also choose to carry less than 4 weapons, which makes you less flexible, but allowed you to always have ammo for your favorite gun (Later in the game I decided on only carrying the Plasma Cutter, Pulse Rifle and Line Gun, ditching the 4th slot).

In fact, there is an achievement for using only the Plasma Cutter all game long, which is the first weapon you find.

(Too bad the game had other problems, like its extremely linear level design)

Anonymous said...

Ammo scarcity in any non-zombie game is bad. The perfect example of this is SS2. I think I killed like 95% of all enemies in the game with the wrench because I could and therefore I could save the ammo for something harder which made most enemies seem lame. I think I could have killed the enemies of the last level by dropping crates of ammo on all of them..

If you want to have ammo concerns (like SS2 should have), they should be handled diffrently.

IMO the entire game should be built diffrently. There should be armories, guardposts and so on that have ammo stored. Now you arent trying to kill everything with the least resources used, you are trying to get a goal done with the resources you have now.

So the flow should be something like:
1. Ambushed while trying to get to the resistance hideout.
2. Fighting a running battle for minutes ending in evading pursuit, but being low on supplies.
3. Check map for the closest place to find supplies. Oh there's a big armory a couple of corridors that way.
4. Sneak into the armory avoiding guards, resupply and sneak off.
5. Go back to the resistance hideout, this time more carefully.

Now if thats the case you are constanly actively using the ammo (and explosives and hacktools and other supplies) and you dont have to think about using weapons - it adds a new goal to the game (getting resupply) instead of taking away the chance to use your non-endlessammo weapons for most of the time. It also adds the minigame of both finding places to resupply and getting into places of resupply since most of them would naturally be very heavily guarded.

gauss said...

Rane2k: great comment, your personal system makes me think of the various strategies I've employed over the years. I think it's a shame when games feel the need to incorporate infinite pistol ammo--how dumb do you have to be not to realize "if I shoot everything I have, then there are no bullets left?"
I also noticed that Dead Space employed a pretty satisfyingly dynamic system for weapons/ammunition. Man, I need to finish playing that game.

Anonymous: I like your proposal. While I don't think any game's development should automatically assume infinite or highly scarce ammunition, incorporating ammo resupply more fully into the context of the game is clever. Really, anything that can shore up the immersion of the world and also provide interesting deviations from conventional assumptions is a good deal in my book.

Anonymous said...

(same anonymous from above)

All game elements should be there for a reason. In zombie games there is one - it is to stop you from killing them from range and only shoot the ones you really have to. It is the main challenge.

It is a bit like mana of dps casters in wow atm - The devs have said several times that if dps casters run out of mana, it's a balance problem. I mean what is the point of having a resource at all if it isnt supposed to run out?

A much smarter system is to to use resources to make goals or force rhythm. For example rogues in wow use it smartly - their resource (energy - runs out in a couple of seconds) dictates what they can use and when.

Anonymous said...

Warren Spector actually once suggested a 'dream game' that takes place in secluded Victorian mansion, where the player is given a revolver with one bullet, and that's it - for the entire game. The player could secretly murder one of the AIs, or maybe miss, and shatter a mirror in the next room. The point was that the AI's would react realistically to whatever decision the player made.

Obviously, this is beyond the tech-focus of modern games, and requires a level of network-AI that we simply haven't yet acheived.

But I've always loved the idea. :)

Anonymous said...

I used to be an ammo hoarder. It was a hard habit to break. Here's how I did it (or rather, how it naturally happened).

I was replaying DUKE3D for the Nth time, and naturally went and grabbed the rocket launcher below the 'innocent?' sign. From the nearby building an enemy took some pot shots at me, and my first reaction was to switch back to my pistol and plink-plink him to death as per usual, but something swelled within me at that moment (I like to think The Duke himself spoke to me then) and I opened fire with the rocket launcher still in hand.

The payoff was grand: Gibs flew out of the window and splattered wetly below! It was complete overkill. But I didn't stop there. I blasted every dude in sight with that rocket launcher, even the harder-to-hit one that flies out of the dumpster.

From that point on I resolved to play more like Duke Nukem, and use my best weapons as soon as I found them. After all, I know I can take out virtually any enemy in the game with just a pistol (not that it even ever came to that).

I've since adopted this view for almost all shooters. It's served me pretty well.

DemonDoll said...

I've been reading through the archive of your interesting blog and this article really struck a cord. I intimately know the feeling of unloading my rockets and BFG rounds on the final boss for the first time (and subsequently feeling sort of like I cheated because it was too easy). You're absolutely right that modern games have been taking ammo management out of the equation more and more. It seems like the amount of ammo they give you is meant to prevent you from relying on one single weapon (unless it's the one the enemies are using) but with never any danger of being all out.

One example of a very well done ammo/weapon management system is the original Far Cry. My 4 weapon slots were always automatic rifle, shotgun, sniper rifle, and rocket launcher but the point is that if you wanted to snipe then you better keep the rifle when you find one because when the game won't hand you one when you need it. That way you're making actual meaningful decisions about which weapons to bring instead of just being handed the right tool for the job. The hazard, of course, is that you might not have brought the right tool for the job and will have missed out on some dose of fun/novelty in the process by solving the situation with the same tools you use for everything else.

My other point was originally brought up by theworm - that secrets, while very cool, seem incongruous in modern games. He used the obvious example of FEAR but I think that even in a game with the caricatured anti-realistic style of Team Fortress 2 a wall-textured sliding panel that responded to the use command would seem like an anachronism - a slap in the face. The sliding panels of Doom are out for good because now you can make your secrets open with a button hidden under a desk or something (Thief II has many good examples of well hidden secrets that don't feel too out of place).

But the best example of ammo management in the modern gaming world is undoubtedly S.T.A.L.K.E.R. You have viciously restricted carry capacity and must choose maybe 2-3 weapons from dozens, and dozens more unique ones and then choose how much ammo to bring. If you want a rifle, a sniper rifle, and a sidearm with a couple hundred rounds then you don't get to loot. But the best part of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is the awesome secrets, and the way they are explained away: it is actually other !people! that are trying to hide their prized possessions to deter theft. Even in Thief II it seemed suspicious that a castle have that many secret passages since there are easier ways for medieval folk to keep their stuff safe in a nominally lawful world, but the post-apocalyptic world gives the perfect reason for a bucket-full of ammo to be at the very very tip of a grain mill - and a lot of fun for an acrobatic player trying to reach it.

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