Chapter 1: Hear me out
Going as far back as the Halo trilogy, and especially in more modern games like Destiny, the aptly named Modern Warfare, and even Apex Legends, it has been commonplace to refer to all facets of the 'shooting' in one of these games as its gunplay. Which, in and of itself, is fine - vague and generalized word use is very helpful, and allows us to get complicated ideas across quickly when we’re trying to touch on larger points. For that reason, I don’t go around grilling people who don’t use perfectly accurate verbiage at every turn. However, more often than not, when I hear someone specifically refer to gunplay, I don’t think they mean what they think they mean.
Perfect examples came out of the recent COD Modern Warfare. We all know that game has problems, and we’re not here to discuss them… but in reference to the game, you'll constantly hear “Yeah that game is really campy and the maps have too many windows and doors, and it’s really too bad, because the gunplay is just "so good". This same idea is communicated in and around plenty of other games, and is regular speech for an FPS player. Inevitably, the first thing that shoots into my head is, what do you mean 'good'? Yes, I completely agree that it feels good to shoot in Modern warfare. The hitmarker sounds, the weapons sounds, the animations, the screams of my dying enemy, even the smoke coming from the barrel of my gun contributes to that effect. The score that pops up after a kill, the guitar riff that plays when I level up. There are endless layers of feedback that all make me feel ecstatic, but at the end of the day, that’s just how I feel, not how the gunplay in Modern Warfare functions. And this is important, because how gunplay functions does contribute to how a game feels, but not in the sense we’ve already described.
First of all, mechanics, in the long term, can create a meaningful fulfillment and feelings of personal growth as we understand and even master them. Then, these skills become practical, climaxing when we put this to use effectively, which is immediately satisfying. This whole paradigm is NOT as simple as "short term vs. long term satisfaction". Some of that instant gratification does come from mechanics, some comes from sensory stimuli, and the two can be distinguished. The former version of instant gratification, mechanical fulfillment, is one reason why watching great players is so fun. You get to feel some of that sweet second-hand dopamine as you watch them succeed in ways you only wish you could, even if you haven't seen the meaningful journey of practice that went into being able to play like that.
While feeling is the word I’ve chosen to use within the context of this effect, as well as the former effect, when I describe them, they are obviously very different. One is pleasurable, and the other is meaningful, that is, earned, and therefore pleasurable. When you refer to a game in the way I described earlier, where our imaginary person attempts to diagnose the pros and cons of Modern Warfare, it seems like what is unknowingly being referred to is mechanical function. Just reflect on that quote from our imaginary MW player. First, he talks about the gameplay, the camping, then he talks about the maps, how they have too many variables, and finally gunplay. Context points to a conversation about mechanical function, but upon further questioning, most I've interacted with are almost always thinking about how the gun looks and 'feels', and not as a result of difficulty or cultivated skill, but as a result of punchy hitmarker sounds and realistic blood splatters. To explain it once more, and perhaps in a simpler way, imagine any shooter, but the gun models were replaced with inanimate bananas, and there were no weapon sounds or effects. Would it 'feel' good to shoot? In one sense, no, because there isn’t any convincing feedback. In another sense, the functional sense, it would feel no different than it does now, because weapon models, animations, and sounds are all just sensory stimuli. The game would play exactly the same way. Same kill times, same recoil patterns, same flinch, same mechanics to master.
A game that all too often receives this treatment is Destiny, but it’s understandable. It is so unreasonably satisfying to shoot a hand cannon in that game, that it’s hard to separate how destiny’s gunplay feels and how it works. Which again, how it works does contribute to the feel, just in a different sense. And I’m going to use destiny as an example of why it’s so important to separate in your mind these two facets of shooting as a designer.
If we are to look at destiny, on paper, without the seductive visuals of the dreaming city or my homegirl ada-1, you might be surprised of what we actually find. Many times Destiny has been compared to Halo, but when you really look at it, you will see that Destiny, in reality, will reveal itself. The first thing to look at would be your players movement and strafe within Destiny. Yes, there are plenty of advanced movement options, but the lack of mid-air accuracy successfully grounds players for most gunfights, so as far as gunplay is concerned, these are separated. So then, next, we can look at the players strafe. How good is it? Well, it’s not that great. Even with a max mobility build, it’s not very effective. The insanely high bullet magnetism within Destiny can’t help, but I digress. Most combat is grounded, and the strafe is of little effect. Next, we can look at weapons. Almost all weapons are hitscan, and what is projectile usually (99 times out of 100) tracks your target. For the sake of making a point, humor me, how about the maps? Well, with Destiny 2 especially, we see nothing but Treyarch-like 3 lanes, and flat ones at that. This is starting to sound familiar... The last facet to consider would be any system baked into the mechanics, like descope in Halo. Well, Destiny doesn’t have descoping, but it does have hefty flinch, or aim punch as some call it, where enemy bullets cause your aim to jump about and render your gun inaccurate.. Not only is a strong flinch present, but most weapons are also inaccurate when fired from the hip... Okay, so considering all of this, why does it feel like Halo? Well, as far as I can tell, it’s almost exclusively because of the time to kill. This is where Destiny is closest to Halo, with an average TTK of around 1 second. And so, even though we may feel there is a connection to Halo, and there is, when we parse through the mechanics one by one, Destiny isn't "just like Halo". In reality, it's a lot more like a Call of Duty game.
I trust you see what I mean, reader. You're a smart guy. You know that there’s usually more than meets the brain when it comes to this stuff, and I'm sure you'll agree it to be extremely important to look under the hood before we make claims about how good or bad a mechanic is. You probably already know this, but this thought process can be applied to anything, in order to separate the superficial from the real, and not just with gunplay.
Chapter 2: Shoot me
And, while we’re here, I’ll expand on what I personally find to qualify as ‘good’ functional gunplay.
Right off the bat, the suffix of gunplay, play, assumes the presence of, well, play. In other words, some sort of give and take. Some sort of interaction.
Going back to Modern Warfare, the games functional gunplay consists of very little give and take. You essentially put the crosshair on your opponent, and click. Attachments combined with the mounting mechanic will often completely nullify recoil, and most COD players already know instinctively to aim at center mass to prevent flinch from knocking them off target, because flinch will severely punish you for aiming at the head by making you miss entirely, which means you never really should go for headshots unless someone isn’t looking at you. All of this, by extension, is less opportunity for 'play' within your shooting mechanics by discouraging the player from aiming at the crit spot. Now, with the games near instant kill times in mind, and the distinct lack of any strafe, again, the game is essentially point, click, and move on. Yes, technically, there is some gun play, some give and take, as you still have to do the aiming, with a little bit of recoil to account for. To that I would say, if the only requirement for good gunplay, functionally speaking, is the generalized presence of aiming, then every shooter ever made would qualify as having ‘good’ gunplay. No, this can’t be the bar we set, I think we can do better.
The first way we can do better is with projectile based weapons. Projectiles, while harder to use, are just as accurate as hitscan. The obvious difference being that one must aim ahead and utilize his spatial awareness to account for bullet travel time in order to land shots. Many have said that projectiles are "messy", and that hitscan is the cleaner choice, but projectiles, assuming no other factors are involved, are perfectly accurate. There’s no loss of control as to where your bullets land, they’re just harder to land. Instead of aiming here, you aim 'there', in accordance to your projectile speed and how fast the target is moving and in what direction. This introduces a layer of play, not only within yourself as you master spatial awareness, but when considering projectiles on the slower end of the spectrum, like rockets in Quake, this starts to introduce a layer of play with your opponent, as he can preemptively move away from, and sometimes even react to, the projectiles as they travel, which you then have to adjust for in the future. This becomes an adjustment which your opponent can predict, and then play around, and the cycle of 'mind-play' repeats.
Not only are projectiles an incredible source of depth in our games, but they also solve what we could call the 'problem of ranges'. Look, every game is made with target ranges in mind, which is why we often see damage fall-off implemented into games like overwatch and Destiny. This is needlessly frustrating, as it’s next to impossible to predict just how much damage my shots will do. And the question does need to be asked, if I’m landing my shots, why are my bullets arbitrarily doing half damage, and when I take a few steps forward, now full damage? What if I only took one step forward? Or half a step? With this system you inevitably run into these thresholds, which can’t really ever be predicted. You have a vague idea of how close you need to be with a hand cannon in Destiny, but It’s not like there’s a ranger meter in my UI telling me how far my enemy is from me, and so even after hundreds of hours of practice, it’s still impossible to always grasp exactly how much damage I can do. I can’t ever really know. Now THIS is what I call messy.
On the other hand, projectile weaponry doesn’t require damage fall-off to keep fights within certain ranges, as the travel time of a projectile inherently makes shooting at players who are further away, harder. Once implemented, the developers need only tune how fast the projectiles will travel, until his or her idea of the perfect median encounter range is found, while still allowing for an excellent player to deal full damage if he can land those difficult shots at range. Seriously, God has handed us the perfect design solution via physics, so why are we so apprehensive to utilize it?
Moving on, I believe that we can also do better with the player strafe and movement in our shooters. It’s hard to determine how fast is fast enough for base movement speeds, or strafe acceleration. Do not assume that more is always better. In fact, some games will sport such extreme abilities that the rest of the game starts to fall apart. For example, I can spend a year meticulously designing a Titanfall map, just to have someone grapple across it in one go and completely nullify the level design. Now that's frustrating. I think there's a balance to be struck here.
Simply put, I just want to be able to avoid damage. My goal is to always allow the player to live and succeed, even with 1 health point. If play is an interaction, I want to be able to interact with my opponent as he shoots at me. Standing in place and seeing who wins as determined by the whims of flinch should not qualify as gunplay (looking at you, PUBG). The way I see it, my own gunplay is only half of the 'play'. The other half is how I am interacting with my opponent with my strafe, and larger scales of strafe like general movement, geometry manipulation, and advanced movement options. This is about as far as I can go within the context of this topic, because I would have to start introducing specific mechanics from specific games into the discussion to take it any further, and I don’t want to go that far. You get it.
Next up, we can do much better with the likes of recoil, spread, and bloom.
Randomness doesn't work, because any random penalty is incredibly frustrating, as I know it wasn’t merited by the other player and wasn’t a result of an honest mistake on my part. There’s nothing I could do about it. On the other hand, any random benefit is devoid of meaning, as I know I didn’t earn it, and therefore have nothing to be proud of, and nothing to learn from the win.
With that in mind, predictability is key when talking about these things. Recoil, you're up.
Some games, especially some PC games, are very heavy handed with the recoil. I’m not the biggest fan of recoil, but I would totally respect it, and do totally respect it, if and only if recoil patterns are predictable. Pulling your thumbstick or mouse down at a rate proportionate to your weapon rise, all while tracking your enemy, certainly is a skill. The problem arises (pun intended) when games, often for the sake of realism, introduce random recoil patterns, and especially horizontal recoil. Even the ‘random’ vertical recoil patterns in games aren’t truly random. That is, they have a general direction. A predictable unpredictability. Horizontal recoil, however, is not the same. Unless there exists a weapon with horizontal recoil that tends to only one side of the weapon (which doesn't exist), horizontal bouncing is entirely uncontrollable. It changes directions radically. Even if you knew when the recoil would bounce left or right, we just don’t have the reaction speed as humans to cancel this out on the fly, which means I don’t have control. To put it as simply as I can, that’s why everyone hates the Flatline and Spitfire in Apex Legends.
Spread… oh man. Spread is a tricky one. First of all, it should go without saying at this point that random spread is never good. Hitting your shots is not a rewarding experience when you know it’s random, and missing is just annoying, because it's not up to you. So, what then entails a perfectly predictable spread? Honestly, the shotguns in Apex Legends and Gears of war are the only examples I can think of at the moment, and I don’t think there’s a better way of going about it without changing how the weapons themselves fundamentally work. Fixed pellet placement. Hipfire spread on non-shotgun weapons, on the other hand, is a different beast, especially when sustained auto/semiautomatic fire is in question. We all know how annoying it can be to die to someone with a spray weapon in an FPS, hip firing his way to victory. This is true for almost any game, Key word being almost. Think on Call of Duty, where your killcam reminds you of the clueless player that just bested you, as he hipfires and hits all headshots, likely on accident, leaving you saying “ah come on, he just hip fired me!”
Let's create our own weapon to use as an example, in the image of all militaristic shooters. We'll call it the… D… the D-78... the D-789 Reaper or something. Nice and boring, just the way developers like it. Now, of course this weapon, while aimed in, is pinpoint accurate. While hipfired, however, the spread becomes a cone. While this cone is no longer pinpoint accurate, all of the bullets will land within the cone, which means, if the cone is about the same size as the enemies hitbox, that all of the bullets within the cone will land. It’s like your bullets become 50 times their normal size, while being just as effective. I know that's not always true, it varies, but bear with me. Now, imagine shooting at someone with this cone vs. aimed down sights. Rather than aiming in, wouldn’t it be easier to hip fire, and always have at least part of the cone on target? Yes, and paired with random spread, this means the chance for perfect accuracy with much less effort required. It’s easier to always be partially on target while using a flashlight instead of a laser pointer, which means you almost always have a chance to hit. In this scenario, hip firing is easier, and potentially just as effective as pinpoint accuracy while aiming in, which is why we get frustrated. It’s inherently easier, partially random, and depending on the game, is almost just as rewarding as aiming. After all, the saying is risk vs. reward, not... less risk, similar reward.
The solution to this one of two extremes. Either you can make hip fire on the R-765 Dynasty, or whatever it's called, unusably inaccurate, or make it perfectly accurate. Let's think. Making hip fire spread worse will make it less rewarding, and therefore not as frustrating as often… but at the same time, will crank up the random factor, and make it all the more annoying when someone does get lucky with the hipfire. Not good. The alternative, perfectly accurate hipfire, may just completely solve the issue at hand. No randomness, and hipfire is no longer inherently easier. Hmm… think back, we don’t say “ah, he just hipfired me!” in Halo, do we? In fact, noscopes with certain weapons are considered harder and more impressive! If you then want to incentivize aiming in while keeping hipfire predictable, you could even add something like increased recoil to hipfire. Not random recoil, but increased recoil. We're killing it! Design is easy!
Finally, while I hate to say it (that's a lie) we could just do away with bloom. With the recent launch of Halo Reach on PC, this is just in time. With bloom, your shots become increasingly inaccurate if you shoot quickly, which encourages you to pace your shots, and rewards the patient. Or at least, this is what it proposes to do. In reality, it forces you to pace your shots, lest your bullets become forfeit to random spread, while it often rewards the goofball who just spams his trigger and gets lucky. Once again, the problem lies in the unpredictability. The defenders of this mechanic always say “well I like bloom, because you have to pace your shots” and while patience may be worth rewarding generally speaking, it’s not a reward if it’s forced on you. And more than this, the random spread that comes along with this fake patience is just not worth it. Again, I like it when I’m watching a Quake duel, and patience wins out over the other players aggressive play now and again. That can be cool. Bloom, however, especially in reach, is a terrible implementation of that idea.
All right! That's all I have to say about Gunplay today. Keep in mind, the scope of most of these arguments will inevitably be limited to what we see in shooter orthodoxy. To many of these questions and proposals, I would personally just get creative, and make entirely new weapon archetypes and entirely new games and systems. But, within the trends that define almost every modern shooter, these were my thoughts. Thanks for reading!
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