Ammunition in shooter video games is up near the top of my list of Most Ridiculous Video Game Conventions out there today. Seemingly implemented because “that’s what you always do,” the mechanics are purportedly intended to instill a sense of urgency within the player, who should try and make every shot count. In reality, legacy imbalances within the standard implementation of these mechanics almost universally result in half-assed pacing mechanics that seem tacked-on at best, and controller-throwingly frustrating at worst.
The One-Sided Attrition Game
Tell me if you’ve done this before. You’re running through the war-strewn ruins of your Space Future Colony, flanked by gun-toting mercenaries. You just killed one a few moments ago, grabbed his almost-spent rifle, and have 17 rounds left with which to kill the guys now shooting at you. You take cover, hoping to wait them out. One by one they each take their turns popping out of cover and emptying a full clip of ammo into the other side of the wall you crouch behind. They duck back down, reload, and pop out to repeat the process. You count: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6… 27, 28, 29, 30 emptied clips. Okay enough is enough, so you pop out at the right times and cap them each with a skull-atomizing head shot, slowing down time for a moment so you can revel in each satisfying spleurgch! of victory. You rush over to their corpses, and check out their rifles which are identical to yours…
…only to find seven more bullets. On each of them.
But you feel like you really need some more ammo right now, and you just passed a checkpoint, so you reload and try again. By this time you’ve memorized their patterns and you take them each out with expert efficiency. You run over to their corpses a second time, and a second time you find only seven bullets. Each. You can look at the physical remains of their corpses and see that they are wearing multiple bandoliers with dozens of ready clips, but you only get seven bullets.
Or four, if you’re playing on “hard” mode.
Space Future, Brown Apocalypse, and Hero War Land alike, they are all the same. Even when an enemy is fighting you with the biggest gun which uses the rarest and most expensive ammo, they will have an infinite amount of it until the moment you kill them, at which point they will magically have only just enough to let you fire it once or twice. The world’s industry has ceased to exist after the Nuke Explosion Bombs destroyed it, but your enemy has an infinite supply of bullets in his underwear.
The Big Problem with this is that it enforces an attrition game that only affects you. A newcomer to this type of game could easily look at his own limited ammo count and deduce that the same would apply to his enemies, but quickly realize that fairness only applies among those enemies themselves, with his own character’s life being one of constant suffering and statistical injustice.
Ranting aside, why is this? I’m thinking it’s largely due to a combination of two things: lazy game balancing, and insufficiently advanced game AI. The former is pretty obvious, but the latter might not be immediately apparent until you consider: what would happen if the player were allowed to force the enemy into an attrition game? The programmer would have to develop and then subsequently implement (and test!) an AI that can react to the fact that its ammo is nearing or has already reached exhaustion. At that point, what does the enemy do? Should it be programmed to run forward from cover, charging the hero’s covered position with a bayonet every time? Should it just sit there and do nothing at all? Should it instead be programmed to run over to some kind of base camp and restock its supplies before running back to fire ceaselessly upon the player once more?
It’s my opinion that most developers don’t feel they need to program such an advanced decision into their games because the ammo system already exists and “everyone does it” and expects it to be there. It’s a bit of mechanical hand-waving that everyone does, so much that it has become inextricably embedded within the shooter game genre, right there alongside infinite guard patrol loops, nonexistent radio status checks, and unsurmountable knee-high obstacles.
Ye Olde Ammo Pouch of Holding
Speaking of infinite bullets, when the hero is actually allowed to build up her ammo stores, where the hell is she keeping all of it? She’s running around in a catsuit, carrying only an assault rifle, and 600 rounds of invisible, weightless rifle ammo. I don’t need to really expand this point, as it speaks for itself.
Little Timmy’s Secret Collection of Guns ‘n’ Ammo
Later on in Space Future Fortress, you’re taking a shortcut through a residential area of the complex, and while cutting through an abandoned nursery you spot a twinkly out of the corner of your eye. The game’s HUD has illuminated a blue-and-green foot locker with Magical Flying Robo-Boy! stickers on it and a teddy bear on the floor adjacent, letting you know that this box can be opened for loot. Without skipping a beat, you bee-line for it, fling its top open, and discover another seven bullets for your currently-equipped gun. If it weren’t for little Timmy and his apparent fanboy obsession with guns, there wouldn’t be seven or less additional dead bad guys by the end of this game.
Video game designers really need to stop and just think for a moment about where they put their random loot drops. Years ago, playing Neverwinter Nights on PC, I lost track of the times that I would be running around the poorest part of a city, notice a lootable refuse bin, and pop it open to find anything from twelve gold pieces to a Wand of Horrible Death +5. The weakness of the random loot location-checking logic was astounding.
Shooters are no different. Ammo and loot drops can be found in the most bizarre places: plasma grenades in a child’s bedroom, throwing knives in a refuse bin, nuclear bombs in the bathroom of a fast food restaurant – although that latter one might actually make sense, in a twisted way. Now I’m hungry.
All that being said, there are a few rare examples that spring to mind of games that do it right.
In the Dead Space series, ammo counting is integral to the entire game experience, and it works for three major reasons. First, being a survival horror game, limited ammo is crucial to making you feel like you are almost-but-not-quite helpless. Although it is guilty of Little Timmy’s Stash from time to time, the series does it well enough that it doesn’t ever break the mood. Second, another crucial mechanic of the game involves your ability to use non-weapon items and debris as weapons, and it’s so fun and intuitive that skilled players prefer the unconventional weapons to the game’s actual weapon-weapons. Third and most important, in Dead Space you are the only one in the game actually using ammo-requiring weapons at all. All of your enemies are monsters, none of them have guns, and thus you never experience any immersion-breaking infinite-ammo enemies.
Mass Effect is a shooter that eschews traditional ammo counts, replacing them with a weapon heat-venting system that is actually embedded within the game setting’s canon. All weapons have infinite ammo, and they just need time to vent their heat buildup between volleys. It works wonderfully, so well that it was a bit mind-blowing that Bioware decided to revert back to Ye Old Ammo Clips for the game’s sequel.
End This Now
It is my belief that the insistence upon repeated implementation of ammunition conservation in every new shooting-based video game released today is a clinging-on to obsolete methods of design from The Past (TM). Developers, if you insist upon enforcing this antiquated mechanic, then please at least put some real actual thought into its development, and balance it out with the rest of your attempts at game immersion. You put all this effort into nifty HUDs, smooth water effects, complex blood splatter, and realistic wound physics, but then you go and waste it all by grandfathering in the immersion-destroying thing that is the current default ammo system.
By not re-tooling and creatively balancing this, you are merely parroting what you perceive as mechanics that contributed to the successes of titles that have come before you, unaware of the sheer lack of worth that these mechanics imbue within your product. Just ditch it entirely and let your game’s other mechanics shine more brightly – and let me assign that reload button to something more useful.