weapon design

as you probably know, deus ex is not a shooter. but in talking about game weapon design and encountering the same problems time and again, some things have occurred to me that might be interesting. as always, i’d love to hear outside opinions.

3d shooter game-play, in its simplest form, comes down to moving through the game space, interacting with environmental objects, using inventory items (like a jet pack) and using weapons.

obviously, the set of weapons and how they function determines a lot of the game-play because these are the game effects, over which the player has direct control, that affect the other players and/or AI enemies. the weapons are the players ways of reaching into the game world in a shooter and interacting. some are simple: deliver damage. others are more tactically interesting: drop the det-pack and wait for an enemy to come into position before detonating.

sometimes it’s difficult to talk about what the difference is or how to arrive at one type versus the other. a lot of people on a development team will just say, “that game’s weapons sucked” or the opposite. and pinning them down on ‘why’ can be a source of great frustration (for everyone involved). the problem is related to the design process that is often undertaken.

as an alternate to the way i’ve normally seen people tackle weapon design, i’d like to draw from one of the previous cauldron updates (december) and again apply the ‘game-play first, context later’ concept. next time you attempt to design a weapon, do this simple thing: do not allow yourself (or your design partners) to use any description of graphics, sound effects or fictional context whatsoever. that is to say, you are banned from saying things like, “there’s going to be this totally badass green ball of lightning that flies up and splits into four flaming monkeys!” or, “first we’ll play this deep humming sound, followed by an electrical crackle.”

those things will eventually be important, but in the earliest stages, they just hamper the process. once freed of graphics, sound and context, you will find it easier to come up with a weapon that is actually game-mechanically different from all the other weapons out there. a weapon that will function in such a strategically unique way that it actually changes game-play and creates a dynamic that the players can use tactically in the game.

that’s all fine in theory, but what about some working example. so, after thinking this through, i challenged myself to actually use the process to create something i had not seen in a shooter before. what i came up with, in 10 minutes, was this:

weapon X, when selected, projects a targeting indicator of some sort flat on the ground at a certain distance in front of the player. the player, by mouse-looking slightly up or down, can move the indicator close or farther away from himself. when the player fires the weapon, the indicator leaves a copy of itself locked onto its current spot. the player is free to position the indicator at a second spot. then, when the player ‘fires’ for the second time, a field is set up between the two points. in other words, the player designates two points on the ground and anything between these two points is affected in some way (probably damaged).

one of the distinctions of this weapon is that it would be more effective against targets at a lower elevation than the player (because of the way the indicator is positioned on the ground in front of the player). another distinction is that it could be used to affect multiple targets. it could effectively be used to wall off an exit for a second or two, by firing it across the opening. there are multiple parameters that could be tweaked to make it more interesting: after it’s fired, how long does the effect last? how much damage does it do? what if the player could (via modifier key) set up more than two points? (imagine a 3 point version of the weapon–every time the player fires it, a triangular area is affected.)

obviously, then someone would have to come up with a fictional context (what is this weapon? who made it?) and a flashy animation (balls of lightning, walls of flame, flying monkeys?). also, the new weapon’s rate of fire and damage would need to be balanced out. but regardless of what gets decided at that phase, i think that the weapon that goes through this process has a better chance of being fundamentally different on a mechanical level.

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