[This article was originally published by The Game Prodigy.]

Food for Thought

     Imagine: you’re playing a shooter set in a zombie apocalypse, and you’re holed up in what was once a parking garage as zombies come in from the fog outside. You’ve got everything under control since they usually only come in groups of two or three, which you quickly get rid of. But after some time, a group of six zombies shuffles in, and it proves too much for you to handle. Before you can get the last one, it manages to let out a shriek, and in the next few seconds you hear a lot of undead battle cries in the distance. Suddenly, thirty zombies shamble through the foggy entrance towards you. What’s worse is that you’ve only got three rounds left in your two pistols. What’s going to happen? If you’re playing a traditional shooter similar in mechanics to the likes of Medal of Honor or Call of Duty, you’re about to get overwhelmed, but it may still be possible to make it out of this mess with your brains intact if you do a bit of fancy shooting and a heroic grenade toss. This is the thrill that makes the game so fun, the kind that pushes your skills to the limit, but once you spend those three bullets and cash in for fresh clips, the chances are that the four seconds it takes to reload are going to seem like an eternity.

     But let’s flip the coin a bit here; it’s still the same situation, the same thirty zombies moving slowly towards you, but what you’re playing is not a traditional shooter and is instead something more along the lines of Gears of War. The situation is no less intense. You’re going to need all of that fancy shooting, and you’re definitely still going to need that heroic grenade toss, but when it comes time to reload, you’re not going to just sit there and hold your breath. This is the part where you put your skills to use and perform an action that will have you reloading your gun just in time to catch that ghoul on the left which had almost flanked you. After surviving the onslaught, you might wonder why all shooters don’t have an interactive reload mechanic like Gears of War.

A Look Under the Hood

     The active reload in Gears is one of its most popular accomplishments. We’re going to examine it from a variety of perspectives, but let’s introduce ourselves to the basics of the mechanic first. In the traditional shooter genre, reloading is part of the punishment and reward system. The primary weapons in most games are balanced so that a single magazine should be able to get players through a typical fight. Players who reload during the down time between fights reward themselves with a bit of breathing room. Players who rush into fights with a partially empty magazine, and those who carelessly go through their ammo during fights, punish themselves by having to reload one or maybe even two or three times in a single fight. In real life, it’s an entirely different and necessary function of shooting, but in entertainment, it’s a system that’s in place to get players to balance themselves. Shooter games would be very different if players could hold the trigger down and never have to release it.

     The above applies to Gears of War, but it adds another layer to the punishment and reward system by utilizing a very simple and intuitive mechanic that comes into play while reloading. Once players begin a reloading cycle, a line will move across a meter in the heads-up display, moving towards a stationary line closer to the end of the meter. It’s a button prompt for the players to try to stop the moving line once it hits the still one. If players don’t participate, the reloading will be carried out as normal, and if they hit the prompt too soon or too late, reloading will take even longer than normal, punishing the players; if, however, they time it right and get everything lined up, the game character will finish reloading quicker than normal and be ready to get back into the fight.

     A similar mechanic is found in thriller title Alan Wake: if players continually tap the button throughout the reloading process, Alan will reload his weapon faster. While similar in manner, they serve different purposes entirely. The interactive reload in Gears of War is built more to enhance the base mechanics by providing skilled and practiced players with an advantage in battles. Alan Wake’s interactive reload, while it does provide players a game advantage, is focused more towards enhancing the core experience. It’s a game about thrills and suspense, close shaves and a struggle to stay alive. Rapidly hitting the reload button can really make the fights feel like a white knuckle experience. Since a lot of players start smashing buttons anyway when they’re struggling or panicking, it was an obvious and incredibly fitting choice for an interactive reload system.

Make It Your Own

     Now, that’s interesting and all, but what good is the above information if you’re not even making a shooter game? Is there something relevant in these mechanics that you can learn from and apply to, say, your fantasy adventure, puzzle platformer, or arcade racer? You bet! What Epic Games and Remedy Entertainment did for their games was take what is traditionally a mostly passive mechanic and turn it into something more interactive, our industry’s one advantage over other forms of media. Let’s look at this less as interactive reloading and look at it more as the concept itself by applying it to a different genre entirely. Let’s pretend that we’re making a fantasy adventure game.

     Alex Moore’s article Learning by Analysis more thoroughly covers the topic of observing and learning from mechanics, but here let’s just look at the basics. The first thing we’ll need to do is decide on something to improve, and an easy way to do that is to think of some of the genre’s most common base mechanics as well as what some of its most popular stereotypes and criticisms are. After that, we’ll have to pick what of that would be easiest to improve and how to improve it. When doing step one, it’s best to look for elements that are interactive on a very limited level, or maybe not interactive at all, and also elements that aren’t in harmony with the game’s core experience. Your resources will be better invested in improving something that isn’t synchronized with the core experience. During step two, it’s better to make the improvements simple and practical, since these most likely are going to be secondary mechanics rather than primary. Not everything has to start a revolution or renaissance, and even small innovations can turn a good game into a great game.

     Step one: obviously, in our adventure to save the world, we’re going to help at least one elderly lady save her garden from pests, find her lost family recipe, or what else have you. We’re also probably going to spend a lot of time running around. Now, the first stereotype is very vague; fetch quests can have various styles of game mechanics, levels of interaction, and degrees of synchronization with the core experience. It’s not a good choice for these reasons, because it could end up being a massive time and resource sink which may end up leading nowhere. The second stereotype, on the other hand, is by and large much more similar across all games. It can be formulaic and precise like in the original Fallout, tedious like in any Rockstar game, minimal and empty as in Shadow of the Colossus, or fast and fluid like in Assassin’s Creed, but it always feels like running. This is a better choice because running is very rarely synchronized with the core experience outside of the platforming genre, and the scope is usually limited enough that even a little bit of work to make it more enjoyable will be much more noticeable and appreciable.

     So, we’ve decided on what to improve. Now all that’s left is to decide how to improve it. For this part, it’s paramount that you understand your game’s core experience inside and out, so let’s define the lines a little bit. Let’s say this game is all about becoming the most powerful warrior in the land while brawling endless hordes of flaming skeletons and werewolves and their ilk. For comparison’s sake, the running is similar in style and function to that of Ico, Ocarina of Time, or Fable; it gets you to where you need to go, but it’s not exactly deep or stylish. Maybe the play tests show our testers really like the fighting, but interest quickly dies off whenever a lot of running is involved, so we need to think of a way to fix that and keep the interest level up. There are a lot of different things we could do to make the running more interesting, so we need to carefully consider each option and how it will affect our game. We could add a few combat moves that could only be performed while running, or perhaps design a few visual effects that will activate while running.  For example: when our warrior reaches top speed, reality will start warping in his or her wake. The former would enhance the base mechanics and interactivity more but the core experience less, and the latter would enhance the core experience more but the base mechanics and interactivity less. Since play tests show that players are already satisfied with the fighting but are really bored with the running, it may be best to pursue the latter option.

     So, there you have it. This is a simple technique that can go a long way to taking your game’s fat and turning it into muscle a lot like Gears of War’s interactive reload did with traditional reloading. All you need is to know what options are at your disposal and to have a good grasp on your game’s core experience, and you’ll be well on your way to maximizing the effectiveness of its mechanics.