Weapon Of Choice

I began shooting at age six — where most kids’ first gun is a plastic toy, mine was real and used to keep the crows out of the garden.  I didn’t eat store-purchased meat until I was a teenager 1, and by nine I was adding to the family larder (though in tiny proportions compared to my father’s contributions. He would disappear for a weeks at a time in the fall and return with whatever game had been legal to hunt during that stretch.)

As an adult, I joined the military and learned to see guns as a way to dissuade those who would do us harm (and as the pointy end of retribution for those who didn’t take the hint) 2. I gained an appreciation for their usefulness and a healthy respect for their responsible employment.

Firearms were essential to my family’s well-being and I will always recognize them as valuable survival tools. I still go shooting as often as I can in my free time.

So, as the designer in charge of guns (and other player progression and rewards), is my experience with firearms the primary source I draw from to do my job?

Of course not.

The truth is, realism is only one of many factors we consider when designing firearms for our game.  — there are a whole slew of other influences as well. Not surprisingly, our top goal is fun.

When we sit down to talk about the guns in our game, the first thing we discuss is player expectations. What do players expect from the weapons they’re using? Keeping expectations in mind doesn’t mean that we’re just trying to create the same weapons that work the same way you’ve seen in a dozen other games. But it does mean being true to the expect feel of a particular weapon — and sometimes putting our own spin on things. It means that we’re talking about the way a sawed-off shotgun should spray a whole mass of zombies at close range, tearing a big, ragged hole of gore in their formation. It means that we‘re anticipating the feeling you should get when you put a red laser dot on a zombie head and squeeze the trigger. It means lining up a triple headshot with a high-powered rifle should feel really, really good.

Next, we talk about play styles. We know that people play games differently, so how does this impact how we should design the weapons they use? Some people are interested in using the most optimal weapon for a given situation. Others just love shotguns, or prefer sniper rifles. And then there are the guys that want to run around with two pistols and leap in slow motion while doves fly out behind them.

We want you to feel like a badass when you pick up that 12 gauge, ratchet a shell into the chamber, and head out to clear the local clinic of zombies. Sure, you’ll know that you can’t paint the wall with zombie brains at 300 yards with it, but hey. You chose the shotgun because you like to get in close. And because your girlfriend seems to love her scoped hunting rifle (jealous?), so she can take the long shots for you.

In the end, it is our job to give you enough choices to let you play the game how you want to. After all, if you’re going to be acting out your own personal zombie survival plan, you should do with the gun that fits your play style.

Believability matters too, of course. When we’re having these discussions, it’s good to do a little research. Here’s where my background and interests really helps. The experience I have with guns means that I’m able to break down the performance, weight, and durability difference between a holographic sight and an infrared scope, or explain why someone who has a suppressor available will choose not to use it in certain circumstances. I’ve also arranged for a bunch of us from the Lab to go shooting together so everyone knows what real recoil feels like and just how much it can throw your aim off. (As a note, we’re shooting in an actual professional firing range — not my backyard. Be safe, everyone! MUZZLE DISCIPLINE!)

Trips to the firing range are fun, but some of the research we need to do just involves getting up to speed on things I haven’t had the opportunity to experience. This means that I do a lot of reading about weapons and tactics in my spare time. When I play modern military games, I find myself saying things like, “They’d never do that” or simply, “Bullshit”. It’s my responsibility to do my best to make sure you don’t have to utter those words when you’re playing our game.

We can call all of this real-world information “realism,” but our intent isn’t to make things as realistic as possible. In fact, in many cases, making something realistic can actually make it LESS fun. Let’s use sidearm accuracy as an example. In reality, very few people would be able to headshot a moving zombie at more than ten feet with a pistol due to extreme stress. And not being able to hit zombies at all wouldn’t be fun, would it? As another example, the M4 weapon system, which is the Army’s standard infantry weapon, can jam if it is not cleaned regularly. If we’re trying to make things that realistic, should we create quick-time games for disassembling your weapon, oiling and cleaning it? Lame. On the other end of the spectrum, a good sniper can reliably put lead into a slow-moving target from three-quarters of a mile away. Impressive, but we’d probably lose some of the tension in the game if you could consistently kill zombies before they can get within half a mile of you.

We don’t want to mimic reality — we want to use reality as an inspiration to make things cool.

After believability, we talk about balance. That means not only discussing how effective the weapons are against zombies, but also how effective they are relative to each other. We consider different situations in the game, and whether we should make some guns better than others for certain things. For example, submachine guns are not my favorite weapons. In fact, I think they have a lot of weaknesses in comparison to modern CQB rifles. But against a mass of zombies with particularly decayed flesh, their very high cyclic rate could be really good at buzz-sawing off limbs. (I await the hailstorm of offended P90 fans, but only a couple of you have fired one outside of a game, and therefore don’t know what a pain in the ass it is to have to recharge that 50 round magazine.)

Balance is about feel. It’s not essential to emphasize the differences between a 5.7mm (the aforementioned P90) and the venerable H&K MP5 in 9mm. But we can adjust rate of fire, muzzle climb, magazine capacity and reload times a bit so each weapon has strengths or weaknesses in these areas. Damage can even differ a little, but the particular terminal ballistics of each caliber needs to be very similar. We want them to both feel like SMGs and fit into the balance role and play style of that weapon even though we know that in reality, the 5.7mm round will penetrate body armor where the 9mm will not.

Finally, we have to consider progression. Should some guns suck, useful only until you find something superior? How much better should one rifle be than another? In what ways can they vary? Being able to talk about realistic differences really helps us figure out our options. For example, an M16 rifle has four times the effective range than an MP7A1, but weighs twice as much. A Desert Eagle in .50, or the Charlie Sheen of pistols, is movie-cool and fires a powerful round next to the 9mm, but the 9mm is more versatile and you’ll find like, 4 million of them before you run across a clip of .50. This kind of thing ties into a lot of the long-term reward systems in the game and is something we’re likely to adjust as the game evolves.

So now we’ve got all this information: player expectations, play styles, believability, balance and progression. Now it’s time to take all of these things into account and make some guns. Our primary goal? Pure and simple — fun.

So what do you guys think? What are the key gun-related things you absolutely want to see in Class3 and Class4? What’s your weapon of choice? What guns do you want to see? How do you feel about gun jams and weapon durability in games? How rare do you think really powerful guns should be? Post a comment and share your opinions with us!


A few extra notes:

1. My sweet mother read this and pointed out that I did, in fact, have store-bought hamburger upon request for birthdays or when the larder was running low.

2. So I don’t do a disservice to those who have served in our country’s Armed Forces, I want to be clear that since I was declared medically unable to continue with my military training just before Air Assault School, I was never deployed for active duty. I don’t want to misrepresent my credentials in this area — I have the highest regard and respect for those who have honorably served.