Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Backseat Designer: Mass Effect 2's Ammo System

The Mass Effect RPG is hardly the only way these games have been bouncing around in my brain for the past several weeks. I've held off on posting this, because I couldn't find any kind of statement by the ME2 design team explaining their rationale for adding reloading and ammunition mechanics to the combat. I'd hate to have overlooked something while hashing out this proposed alternative. Happily, one of the slides from Christina Norman's recent GDC presentation lists what I'll assume were the primary factors:
-"Encouraged using different weapons" (Gives the combat more variety & tactical depth.)
-"We could make weapons more powerful with limited ammo" (I'm guessing she's referring to 'feel', though this also expands on the weapon-switching tactics. It's a shame they wound up treating new weapons like clear upgrades, rather than letting variables like this create more interesting choices when it comes to your weapon loadout.)
-"Stopped bullet spraying" (Shooter gameplay gets brainless very quickly when you're running low on reasons to worry about making each shot count.)

Other benefits I would name:
-Finding time to reload=tactical gameplay. The player's mental muscles get a better workout if their plan of action for the next 5 seconds has to account for the need to reload. It's a significant part of the shooter formula- look at the Call of Duty series, where the tutorials go out of their way to stress how the choice of when to reload also includes the option to switch to a sidearm.
-Maintains intensity. Waiting for your weapon to cool off was definitely a buzzkill in ME1. Most of ME2's improvements in this area come from the reworked controls, powers, defenses and enemy behavior; still, reloading also helps.
-Pushes the player to remain mobile during combat. Hang back during ME2's larger engagements, and you'll soon find yourself hungrily eying the pile of thermal clips beneath your enemies' feet. The option to shift positions so as to scoop up more thermal clips presents players with another dynamic challenge.
-Rewards exploration out of combat. This would be the one benefit this proposal would have to give up, though the level designers didn't really leverage it anyway: Some thermal clips could have been placed as hidden goodies, a lower-key version of the minerals and credits.

So what's going on in that youtube clip up above? Here's the details for my proposal.
-You always carry a small number of spare thermal clips. The exact number's obviously something playtests would determine; I'd envision having 2 at the start, 2 obtained by researching upgrades, and 2 more for those who equip spare ammo packs (or 'extra cooling units'). If we're hypothetically applying this to ME2, you could put the 'blueprints' in Mordin's recruitment mission and the disabled collector ship, with the armor upgrades on Omega and Tuchanka. There could also be several research upgrades providing small boosts to your clip's cooling rates.
-Eject a clip from a weapon and it'll start to cool off at a steady rate. You can't load a clip until it cools off completely. My initial playtest estimate would be 15 seconds for a fully-used clip to 'recharge'. I'd originally written out a lengthy explanation for how the GUI could convey all the relevant information in an intuitive fashion; then I remembered that I had access to a copy of After Effects, and could just show people what I was talking about. Something the above video doesn't demonstrate is that once a clip is fully cooled, it blinks white (with an appropriate audio cue) and loses the red aura.
-Clips inside your unequipped weapons also cool off, albeit at a slower rate. Regularly swapping weapons thus reduces your need to reload without making it irrelevant. The classes that spend more of their time shooting things are also the classes with the larger arsenals, so I think this could balance them out nicely. The fiction would be that a firearm's heat vents are open while it's in the 'folded' state. If I had to guess, I *think* it'd be best to still have a fully spent clip 'overheat' and not be usable until fully cooled (or until you eject it and load in a fresh one).
-Picking up a thermal clip swaps out your hottest spare clip for a cool one. Most enemies could still drop clips, and there'd still occasionally be one or two on the ground/shelf/convenient waist-high rock formation. You might also have the player stop and take half a second to pick up clips a la recent Resident Evil titles, just to add to the challenge a little.
-Bolt-action weapons like the Claymore and Mantis only expend about 1/3 of a clip, but 'overheat' with each shot. So you still have to reload (or swap weapons for a moment), but each clip cools off quickly. This is just a way to 'translate' these weapons so as to preserve their unique pros and cons (which are wonderful, the sort of thing that ME3 could expand on beautifully. I'd love to launch into a tangent on this topic, but it'd take up a post itself). The ammo capacity upgrades for shotguns and SMGs could translate in a similar fashion, altering the weapons so that their ejected clips are only half as hot.

One last set of bullet points- the advantages this proposal would give.
-Changes the mechanics to match the fiction. Mass Effect 2's in-game rationale for the use of cooling clips ties beautifully into the game's overarching plot while providing a simple, easy-to-grasp explanation for the mechanics. Yet people are still baffled, and not just because said explanation's tucked away in the codex. To quote Tom Francis: "That’s not how it works. You can run out of cooling clips for your pistol and still have 245 for your sub machinegun. There’s no way to use the pistol until you find more cooling clips for it: so weapons do have mututally exclusive clip types."
-Helps the IP regain a measure of the lost originality. This was the thing that made infinite ammo so cool in the first place- it was the setting's originality made manifest in the form of unique gameplay elements.
-Adds interesting tactical depth to the gameplay. As always, this is just theory. But keeping track of your total ammunition is more of a healthy play habit, with the interesting moment-to-moment challenge only really cropping up when your ammo runs low. This would help give players an engaging cognitive workout on more of an ongoing basis, with players planning out their actions so that all but one or two clips will be cooling at any given moment in time (so as to maximize their "enemy being shot in the face" rate).
-Reduces the workload for level designers. Rather than having to place a hundred thermal clips in every combat mission, they can plant a clip or two in the middle of most firefight arenas- or any other visible location that'd be interesting to try and advance towards while the bullets are flying, especially if it wouldn't normally be the smart/conservative thing to do.


Anonymous said...

Get rid of spray weapons??? Have you ever faced a geth hunter, or geth prime up close? Better hope you have shotgun shells, because if you dn't your screwed.

You talk abut waiting for weapons to cool off is a buzz kill but then you suggest reloading should take 5 seconds? As a player of ME let me be the first to say on this board that waiting 5 secs just to reload would be very tedious and completely annoying. I also have a question. Have you ever played on any setting besides casual? Do you know how long 5 seconds is in the harder modes?

Mobile during combat? Have you ever played this game?! even in casual mode a mere few seconds without cover is enough to drop your shields and damage your health. In some modes 2 seconds without cover kills you! Mobile?!

I skimmed along the rest of your article and let me say if your systems was adopted, I would never buy this game...

Dagda said...

You're making alot of misunderstandings here. (And yes, I've beaten ME2 on Insanity)

"Stopping bullet spraying" ALREADY HAPPENED. It's not something I would do for ME3, it's something the design team did for ME2. It's not about weapon ROF.

Nor am I saying it'd take 5 seconds to reload- look at the mockup, if I was going to change reload times I'd have tweaked the timing in the video.

Can you get mowed down in seconds if you're not in cover? Absolutely. Which is why you have to rely on smart tactics- using powers to disable your enemies for a second or two and create that window of opportunity. Same way you survive after using the Vanguard's Charge power.

Sakaki said...

I know this is a few months late, sorry. Just been looking at your stuff on a mass effect tabletop (something I've been wishing for for a while now. I like your ideas on it), and ran across this.

I haven't played much of ME2, to be fair, because I haven't had a good character from 1 to transfer. I just beat a Full Completion run of ME 1, and I do notice that the weapon system of 2 seems a lot more balanced, with cooling clips and all.

Your proposal seems right on the money in my opinion, at least as they decided to change from ME 1's style anyway. The idea of needing cooling clips and rotating them makes perfect sense, as well as weapons and clips cooling off as you switch them around.

Mass Effect 1's weapons systems were explained quite well if you read the codexes through, and it bothered me by the end how OP Shepard and his team seemed by the end. I could fire and fire and fire and my weapons killed several enemies before overheating. Another proposal, and im not sure if they worked it out in 2 or not, so please forgive a stupid mistake on this, is to move the recoil and accuracy of the weapons to what they were described in the codex. My master gear VII (the HW assault rifle) fired so accurately through specs and the assault rifle skill that i could move zoomed in, and 63 shots later when it overheated my reticle hadnt budged. In the codex it talked about how the weapons worked, by chipping SMALL things off a block, removing the need for reloads as it took thousands of shots to disintegrate, and how the chips were accelerated to MASSIVE speed through element zero mass reduction and just propulsion. However, it talked about how recoil was HUGE because of how it worked, stating that the same amount of force was shot back into your shoulder. So high tech weaponry firing fast and hard should be huge recoil, but in the endgame it was nothing. Made no sense to me at least.

Just pinging ideas at ya. Sorry for my lack of ME 2 knowledge here. Just giving my thoughts from the first game and how it described weapons working.

Anonymous said...

idk, i think it's a step back. remember that ME3 is supposed to be based in the time AFTER mass effect 2.

the transition from over heating weapons to having to use clips provided difficulty, but also seemed like the "makers" of weapons in the ME world have it backwards aha.

so now having clips that over heat seems like more of a drawback, but providing more difficulty. I liked the clip system and wouldnt like it changed, especially with some junk like this that you've proposed. 5 seconds IS a lot of time.
i think the ammo system should be able to be chosen by the player in each difficulty before they play, maybe changeable after the story has already started in an option menu or something, to provide stability for the ppl that dont want to see another change.

Dagda said...

Making it a "step forward" is something the fiction can handle. In ME2 they framed the need to reload as being a trade-off for more intense/concentrated payloads. This is much easier, because it's not replacing or changing the cooling clip system- they've just come up with an armor accessory that lets you reuse them, instead of tossing them aside and hoping you won't run out.

Ghostly said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kravolkolst said...

Hi! this new system of ammo clips makes the perfect balance between ME1 and ME2... I'm just starting to mess with the editor... Can you tell how do I make the changes, for my game be exact like your video?

Dagda said...

That video isn't a mod. I recorded a video of the normal game, and then changed how it looked using special effects software.

When you say "editor", do you mean a save game editor? I don't think that can change the game enough to create this.

To have the game work this way, you would need to be able to mod it so the game could several variables and adjust them based on time passing, shots being fired, and the player reloading. It would also need to use those variables to directly or indirectly dictate when the player had to reload.

I could pseudocode this if anyone wants, or at least explicitly set out all the relevant numbers & behaviors involved.

Anonymous said...

OMG, this is exactly the system of reloading I want to see in ME3. This thermal clip system of ME2 is just stupid.

Which battle-hardend marine would give up the advantage of unlimited ammo(with limited weight) for a small fire rate boost at the beginning and with bad luck any fire rate at the end of a battle? Most annoying is to see how many clips can be found everywhere without any logical reason. Did you ever saw only ONE weapon to use all those clips?

Pls send this idea to BioWare to rescue ME3 from thermal clip inflation.