Game Design Deep Dive: Ammo Collection in Wolfenstein: The New Order

MachineGames' Jerk Gustafsson writes about a very specific game design decision in Wolfenstein: The New Order, as part of a new Gamasutra series.
Game Design Deep Dive is a new series from Gamasutra, with the goal of shedding light on specific design features or mechanics within a video game, in order to show how seemingly simple, fundamental design decisions aren't really that simple at all.

Who: Jerk Gustafsson - Managing Director, Executive Producer, MachineGames

I began working in the industry as a level designer in 1998. The first title we released was a third-person action game called Enclave. We then moved over to The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay where I worked as a lead level designer. While working on that game I also got more involved in general game design, something that continued with the development of The Darkness. During the last year of The Darkness, when the lead designer left Starbreeze, I took over the lead design position. This was a role I also filled for The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena, until I took on the role of game director in 2008. I then worked on Riddick and an untitled, now cancelled, Bourne game until I left Starbreeze a few months after the release of Dark Athena. I started MachineGames with a core group from Starbreeze in 2009, and we joined the ZeniMax family in fall of 2010. At MachineGames I work as the managing director for the studio and as well executive producer for the games we make. My primarily responsibility for Wolfenstein: The New Order was game design.

What: "Manual" ammo collection

In Wolfenstein: The New Order, players must pick up ammo by approaching it and pressing a button, instead of simply coming in contact with it. Why isn't ammo collection done automatically? As progressing through the game requires players to make very frequent use of the "use" button, it's a question asked by many, and not very easy to answer.


In Wolfenstein: The New Order, one of our early design bullet-points was: “Action adventuring equally accessible to the casual gamer as to the hardcore fan.” We wanted to include adventuring elements to encourage exploration and replayability, but we wanted to keep it simple. We wanted to stay away from advanced user interfaces and complicated, hard-to-learn systems. As part of accomplishing this, we decided to include a minimized loot system. The initial design consisted of a system where all enemies, once they had been killed, could be looted. Each dead body would contain one single loot item. This item was determined by a smart-loot system with the intention to provide players with a greater chance of retrieving an item they currently were in need of (e.g., players low on health would have a greater chance of retrieving a health pickup). The smart-loot system could be replaced by manually attaching a special pickup to the enemy, like a key or a weapon (the design at the time didn't allow for enemies to drop weapons), and in order for players to know and to be in control of what item they would pick up, the pick up had to be done manually. The only enemy excluded from the smart loot system was the enemy commander. Commanders would instead contain a specific death card collectible – which later was removed from the game -- as was the loot system.
We wanted to stay away from advanced user interfaces and complicated, hard-to-learn systems.
The main reason for removing the loot system was weapons. As enemies didn't drop weapons, we wanted to make sure players would always be in possession of a weapon prior to encountering enemies using it. In order to achieve this, we needed to be in total control of where players would retrieve the first weapon (single wield) as well as the second weapon (dual-wield) of each type. The system didn’t allow us to freely place weapons in the game world for visual purposes -- armories, weapon lockers etc. -- and we got stuck in terms of creating blockers to make sure players actually had to pick up and use the weapon in order to progress. It wasn’t a problem when it came to player-only weapons like the laser cutter or the Laserkraftwerk, which are required for players to progress through a level -- being a progression tool was an important part of those weapons. But being in total control of weapon allocation became more difficult with regular ballistic weapons like handguns, assault rifles and shotguns. Thus we decided to let enemy loot contain weapons not yet retrieved by players. This then caused another hurdle for us, as some enemies would contain a special item, often required for progression -- like a key. We ended up in a situation where players could approach an enemy that was supposed to contain an important item, while not being equipped with the enemy weapon. This forced us to update the loot system by adding another slot – allowing each body to contain two loot items. Loot item #1 was intended for weapons/ammunition and loot item #2 for health/armor/special items, where weapons and special items always had priority. Then, on top of that, we added the throw knife functionality. By adding knife throwing to the mix we had needed an additional loot slot – loot item #3, dedicated to a player thrown knife stuck in the corpse. This loot item would never appear unless the dead body contained a knife. By this time, it became apparent to us that we didn’t want to have enemy weapons fade away and disappear. So, we decided to leave dropped weapons in the world for players to pick up. For this to work with the loot system – now with one specific item containing weapons/ammunition – we needed to make sure that if players picked up the weapon first, the body loot item would disappear and if players looted the body first, the connected weapon would disappear. This was to avoid exploits.
A lot of concerns were raised regarding allowing players to dual-wield heavy weapons like assault rifles in the very first combat section of the game...but in the end, it was just more fun to allow it all the time.
Allowing players to pick up dropped weapons also made us want to allow players to pick up a second weapon to dual-wield. Naturally, a lot of concerns were raised regarding allowing players to dual-wield heavy weapons like assault rifles in the very first combat section of the game, and for a while there we tried out a few different approaches to handle dual-wield, like having a special pickup that would unlock dual-wield, integrating dual-wield into the perks system or only allowing players to dual-wield a temporary power-up. But in the end, it was just more fun to allow it all the time. With dropped weapons, dual-wield and the additional items the loot system had become far more complicated than was initially intended so we decided to revise the system completely. We limited enemies to contain weapons and ammunition only. This included thrown knives. Health, ammo and special items were instead only placed in the world as physical pickups. This was definitely a good thing as extended use of valuable consumables enhanced exploration. Finally, when we only received weapons and ammo from enemies, we thought about the possibility of having ammo being picked up automatically. We definitely didn't want health pickups to be picked up automatically we felt very strongly about the health overcharge system and wanted to encourage the tactical move of saving health pickups in order to charge up and prepare for next fight – rather than accidentally picking up healthpacks automatically in situations when you were in no need of health. In addition to this, which also applies to armor and ammunition, we wanted players to be able to hold-off on picking up these types of consumables as they already might be close to maxed out – instead of wasting valuable points by accidentally walking close to them. But in regards to enemy loot and the low ammo value they contained, we though it would be worth investigating the possibility of having them being picked up automatically. The problem was dual-wield. First of all – we definitely didn't want to auto-equip weapons. This tends to be extremely frustrating, especially if you are in an assault-rifle firefight and happens to run over a commander handgun. Even if the auto-equipped weapon would be a higher ranked weapon, you still don’t want to experience the disruption of being auto-equipped.

The result

In conclusion, we wanted to make sure that the first time the player picks up a weapon it would be picked up manually. The problem then became the second weapon - the dual-wield weapon. We needed to communicate to players that dual-wield was accessible, something that can be very tricky if automatically picked up during full-blown combat. We made a couple of attempts (text on screen audio cues etc.), but nothing really worked. And we didn't want the second weapon to be manually picked up and then the third to be automatically picked up. This would force players to pick up the dual-wield weapon before they would be able to retrieve additional ammunition. Instead, we decided to go for the current hold-to-equip, press-to-pick-up solution which is the solution we felt worked best for our game. With all this said, I must admit I personally find it appealing that players actually have to perform an action to pick something up just like in real life. Are you a developer interested in contributing to Gamasutra's Game Design Deep Dive series? Email editor-in-chief Kris Graft: [email protected]

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