ExperiencedPoints 3x3

These mooks are playing peek-a-boo from behind cover. I guess it’s good I’ve got this assault rifle.

Now I’m being attacked by a small, fast-moving foe. I better switch to the submachine gun.

I see some dudes in the distance. Time to bust out the sniper rifle.

A big bruiser is rushing me for a melee attack. I’ll use the shotgun.

These idiots are all clustered up, so I’ll use the grenade launcher on them.

Here are some wimpy foes. I’ll switch to the pistol so I don’t waste more valuable ammo.

Uh oh. A boss fight is coming up. I’ll switch to my expotic gun that shoots lightning / fire / physics objects / nukes / acid / whatever. Whee!

That was what shooters were like in the 90’s. And to be fair, I think a lot of older guys overestimate how popular those games were, or how well they hold up with audiences today. A 90’s shooter was a game where you ran at automobile speeds, carried 10 weapons, dodged projectiles by strafing, and murdered waves of foes in a cloud of particle effects. I loved it, but the market has made it pretty clear that this is a niche genre. We don’t get many of these and they don’t sell particularly well compared to their modern counterparts.

I love 90’s shooters, but there aren’t enough people like me to support a steady flow of them. Heck, it’s tough funding at indie levels in this genre. The Kickstarter for the Ghostbusters Board Game ought to rake in at least a million bucks. (Kicktraq claims it’s headed for two million.) Meanwhile, STRAFE is an attempt to recapture that bygone genre, and they’re having trouble hitting just $186k. (As of this writing, it looks like they’re going to be a little short.)

(Disclosure: STRAFE is the first Kickstarter I’ve ever backed.)

So the market has spoken, and the market doesn’t want 90’s shooters. That’s a bummer, but there’s no sense in crying about it.

I don’t know if Bungie was the first developer to implement a two-weapon limit, but they sure were the ones to popularize it. Depending on who you ask, Halo either ruined or perfected the shooter genre. But I don’t think either of those are true. What it really did was bring us a new genre of shooter. The two-weapon limit. Health regen. Enemies that played peek-a-boo from behind cover instead of rushing the player. The focus on rhythm and timing more than aim. There were so many things that Halo did differently that it really was a new thing.

And I understand most of the changes. Aiming with a thumbstick feels very different than aiming with the mouse. In a PC shooter, you just have to put that crosshair where you want the shot to go. In a console shooter, it’s more about moving horizontally and pulling the trigger at the right moment. (At least, based on my own play habits and what I see other people doing. Maybe it’s different in high-level PvP games.) Before Halo, console shooters felt like ports of PC games. Halo was the first time someone really thought about what sorts of play would make sense on the controller.

But in the rush to transform the shooter genre into something that makes sense on a console, I think a major mistake was made with the two-weapon limit. It’s the one change that never sat right with me. Hopefully you noticed in the opening paragraph that video game guns are tools that you use to solve problems. If they keep the diverse enemies then you rarely have the right tool for the job. (Which is frustrating.) Or they can limit foe diversity so you only need two guns to solve all of your problems. (Which is boring.) This change makes the least sense and does the most damage to the gameplay.

ExperiencedPoints 3x3

Allow me to anticipate objections in the form of a list:

1. It doesn’t make sense for you to carry around 10 guns!

Are we really saying we’d rather have realism than fun? The entire shooter genre is one big compromise where realism is sacrificed in the name of fun.

Anyway, it doesn’t need to be 10 guns. And they don’t even need to be physical guns that you carry around. Iron Man shoots missiles out his shoulders, lasers from his wrists, and kinetic blasts from his palms. Other games allow a single weapon to serve multiple purposes through alternate firing modes. (Like an assault rifle with an attached grenade launcher.) If we want the player to have more options, there are plenty of ways to make this happen without needing them to carry a wheelbarrow load of firearms.

2. Having only two weapons makes the game more strategic!

I would think that a situation where you have more options is the one where you have “more strategy”. Strategy is about making decisions. With many options, you’re making constant decisions about what weapon you want to use in this particular venue against these particular foes. In a two-weapon game, the only time you make a decision is when you encounter a new weapon and have the opportunity to replace one of your existing weapons.

And that’s not even a strategic decision! If this is your first time through the game, then you don’t know what challenges are ahead of you. So you have no information to guide your decision. You don’t want to take a sniper rifle and find you’re fighting in a tight maze, and you don’t want to take a shotgun into a long-distance engagement. Which means you’ll probably stick to boring old assault rifles because they’re the “jack of all trades, master of none” of video game firearms. Choosing a weapon for an unknown future engagement isn’t a strategy game. It’s a guessing game.

3. Having only two weapons forces you to think about what weapons to bring with you and encourage you to plan ahead!

Actually, it makes it sort of pointless to think about it. The usual loadout will be “An assault rifle, plus one other weapon that might be situationally useful”. Lots of combinations are out of the question. You don’t want to take a sniper rifle and a grenade launcher at the same time, because if you end up fighting in tight quarters you’ll be completely helpless. Instead of making you think about what weapon to take with you, it encourages playing it safe, not taking chances, and not experimenting with different combinations of weapons.

These limits also trap the game designer. If there are foes that require shotgun use, other foes that require a grenade launcher, and another that needs a sniper rifle, then they can’t go in the same area because it’s impossible for you to have more than two tools for those three jobs.

I’m not saying that all modern shooters need to die and be replaced with 90’s throwbacks. (Although I do love when developers give us something like Wolfenstein: The New Order that reminds us how fun it is to have options and be able to experiment with different combinations of foes and weapons in a game.) But the two-weapon (or in some cases, three-weapon) limit is a mechanic that murders fun itself. If we had something like four or five options we could take exotic guns with us without worrying they will be useless baggage.

Again, this doesn’t mean I’m asking for some sort of horrible “cycle through weapons” thing. And I certainly don’t want a game-pausing weapon select wheel. (Ew.) Really, this can be done with modifier keys and alternate fire modes. Just hold down some other button before you pull the trigger and your character will use the weapon in a different way.

Modern games are cool, but the past wasn’t all bad. Choice is good. Variety is good. There are some great ideas that got left behind, and we ought to go back and rescue some of them.

Shamus Young is a programmer, critic, comic, and crank. You can read more of his work here.

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