Six spare bullets: the small but vital intricacies of game design

Clint Hocking

Clint Hocking is a game designer who has worked at Ubisoft and Valve. You can read all of his columns here.

Eighty kills ago, our determined hero did what we have all done at one time: he abandoned his hi-tech battle rifle in favour of the simple AK-47 used by the nefarious insurgents he is fighting. Now, almost fully loaded with ammunition, he walks over an enemy weapon on the ground. What happens?

Our hero is currently carrying his maximum load of six 30-round magazines (a total capacity of 180 rounds). His AK-47 is currently holding 17 rounds. The enemy weapon on the ground is also an AK-47, and it has a mag with 19 rounds. How does the ammunition distribute itself? There are many possible design approaches.

One approach is simply that nothing happens. The player does not have any room in his ‘ammo pool’ to pick up the 19 rounds, so the ammunition on the ground stays there. In this case, if the player were to press reload, there are also a couple of possible designs for what might happen next. A more ‘old-school’ design might have the player swap a 17-round magazine for a fresh 30-round magazine, and then require him to manage his inventory to swap the 17-round magazine for the 19-round magazine on the ground, or to consolidate the two magazines into one 30-round magazine. A more modern design would aggregate the magazines automatically when the player presses reload, topping the magazine in his rifle to a full 30 rounds with no inventory management needed.

In either case, there is the question of what to do with the remaining six rounds. One solution would be to ‘clean up’ the weapon and remove it from the game, in which case those six rounds would disappear. Another solution would be to drop the AK-47 and keep track of it as having six rounds left. Yet another solution would be to clean up the AK-47 for optimisation purposes and drop the remaining six rounds in a simple magazine object or a placeholder ammo box that is better optimised for rendering and physics simulation.

An act as simple as picking up the weapon of a fallen foe gives game designers a multitude of choices to make.

A completely different design for what happens when our hero first walks over the weapon on the ground is that 13 of the 19 rounds get added to a ‘buffer ammo pool’ that he is permitted to carry above and beyond his 180 maximum, which represents the empty space in his current magazine. If the player pressed reload in this case, his magazine would fill to 30 and his 180 ammo pool would remain unchanged, but the six extra rounds would stay on the ground (the ‘buffer ammo pool’ is at zero when the current magazine is full). If he were to fire off one round, a single bullet would be drawn from the magazine he was standing on and be added to his buffer.

Other, weaker designs might simply automatically refill the clip currently in the weapon if the ammo pool is full, or simply allow the player to carry six magazines period, requiring him to juggle individual magazines while disallowing consolidation of partial magazines. Another design might do away with magazines, reloading and ammo altogether, simply giving the player 180 rounds with this type of weapon.

By now, you’re probably wondering why I’m discussing ammo management at such length. In fact, I’m not talking about ammo management. I’m talking about fundamental game design, using the familiar idea of ammo management as an example. My point is that even in the extremely tiny subset of the mechanical design of a highly standardised genre there are dozens of design decisions that need to be made, and that these design decisions are important.

I assume it’s clear that a shooter where you carry 180 rounds with no magazines, reloading or ammo management will provide a very different aesthetic experience from one in which you have 30-round magazines, a 180-round ammo pool, and a (30 – CurrentMagAmmo) buffer. No one would mistake one for the other. Yet it seems to be less clear that having a buffer ammo pool or not, or cleaning up redundant weapons and replacing them with ammo boxes or not are also critical aesthetic decisions.

“Even in the extremely tiny subset of the mechanical design of a highly standardised genre there are dozens of design decisions that need to be made, and these design decisions are important,” says Hocking.

While it is true that decisions like these might represent variations on a theme, and that no single decision at this scale is likely to radically shift the overall feel of a game, I’d argue that the aggregate of all of these decisions is more important to defining the aesthetic qualities of a game than the story, setting or rendering style. Unfortunately, because of the small impact of these decisions, they’re often overlooked.

More so than making decisions about which fictional country your imaginary war will be set in, the designer’s job is to sniff out these little details, make sure they are designed correctly, and not simply accept the default implementation most easily generated using an existing code base, toolset or game engine. Failing to quickly (preferably preemptively) question whether a default implementation is the correct one from an aesthetic standpoint leads to us growing accustomed to whichever default implementation falls into place. Once this happens, envisioning the correct aesthetic, reverting and implementing a new design is almost impossible.