The Secrets Of Weapon Design For Video Games
One thing that makes video games so compelling is the fantastic array of tools available for in-game characters and the incredible feats they can accomplish with them.
Most video game characters are made to be exceptional in their own right. They’re usually stronger than the average dude, smarter, have special training, or are incredibly lucky. However, the fun part usually starts when they gain access to powerful or cleverly devised items that enhance their range of actions to epic proportions.
These items can do a lot of things, falling into various categories such as armor, vehicles, resources, magical trinkets, game-changing MacGuffins, and more. For the purposes of this article, we’re going to focus on the destructive kind: weapons. Let’s see what factors developers consider when creating weapons for video games and how they can make or break a game.
What Are Weapons in Video Games?
Weapons are one of the main reasons people enjoy playing video games. First-person shooters are always at the top of video game charts, making them the biggest revenue generators in the industry. Not to be left behind, most other games feature weapons of some sort, giving players the opportunity to sow the seeds of fear in the hearts of their enemies no matter which universe they’re from. But the FPS genre surely takes the crown.
That being said, it makes one wonder: what makes weapons so important?
Well, human beings love to see how things interact with each other, and weapons provide cause-effect results instantly. Since the early days of video gaming, most players spent at least half an hour learning what their guns did to bad guys and the environment, instead of advancing the adventure or mission. When guns started leaving bullet holes and destructible environments were introduced, doing as much damage as possible to walls and props around us was an important part of the fun.
So, weapons are tools players have at their disposal to interact with the environment in dramatic fashion. If they want to touch something that’s too far away, they just have to point their death sticks in its general direction and click to their heart’s content.
However, weapons need to feel believable and provide satisfactory feedback to be effective in terms of gameplay. Said feedback comes in the form of latency, sound, recoil action, and the immediate effect it has on objects (or baddies). Games like Resident Evil 4 stand the test of time not only because of their detailed graphics or story but also because the weapons wielded by Leon carry a lot of weight and authority, making players feel powerful when using them. We expect next year’s remake to convey the same gritty feel as the original title.
Now, some games exploit this cause-effect craving to the maximum. For example, first-person shooters often offer gamers the opportunity to try a wide array of rifles, handguns, cannons, machine guns, turrets, and rocket launchers so they can unleash hell over hordes of enemies.
Their availability, variety, and level of mayhem depend on the setting or gameplay. Some titles, like Battlefront or Hell Let Loose, strive to be factually accurate, featuring weapons from specific historical periods reproduced with uncanny accuracy. Other games, such as Cyberpunk 2077 or the Borderlands franchise, give developers free rein to go wild with weapon design and variety.
But how do game developers come up with these weapons?
Designing a weapon that “works” depends on a multitude of factors. The gameplay, the environment, the intended realism, and something called the “fun factor” all play a role in weapon design. So let’s check some of the elements they need to take into account when designing weapons.
We already covered most of the technical aspects of creating weapons in this article. So we’re going to focus more on the creative stages.
The Need For Weapons
When coming up with a gameplay idea, developers must decide if the inclusion of weapons is warranted and how these will be used. The expression “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” applies perfectly to video games. If players are given a powerful weapon that “one-clicks” them out of almost any situation, they will overlook every other way of solving problems and miss out on a lot of the intended game experience. That’s why we must always find ways to limit their use or even evaluate the need for having them in the first place.
Batman: Arkham Knight is a perfect example of limiting the use of weapons while giving the player a mindbogglingly huge array of moves and gadgets, thus making the player feel clever every time they get out of a sticky situation.
Other games depend on raw firepower to counter hordes of incoming enemies or give the player a strategic advantage.
Careful weapon design requires balancing out the tools available to the player in every situation. For example, open spaces usually call for long-range weapons such as sniper rifles and machine guns, while narrow corridors and trenches favor the use of handguns, shotguns, and melee weapons.
Now, if nothing stops a player from getting the most powerful weapon in the game and spamming the trigger, they will simply do it and disregard all other elements of gameplay. In the old days, many would use the “IDKFA” Doom cheat code (all weapons, full ammo, and armor) and stick solely to the BFG9000 to one-shot everything in sight. It was fun and effective, but it taught game designers many vital lessons. The most important thing is never to give players the ability to use atomic-grade weapons without any drawbacks.
Firepower balance is now one of the most critical aspects of game design as it signals players what the best tool for the job is. Today, many games place a lot of restrictions on the use of big guns. Ammo scarcity, long reload times, unwieldy aim, and collateral splash damage are but a few of the ways designers found to prevent players from becoming death incarnate and waltzing through every level without even stopping to think about the consequences of their actions.
Other game mechanics are a bit more subtle. For example, 2016’s Doom introduced a lot of cool and deadly weapons that would potentially allow the player to wipe out enemies from a safe distance. However, ammo was relatively scarce and would almost exclusively be collected from enemies killed in melee combat. Moreover, hand-to-hand combat dealt much more damage and was highly satisfying. This enticed players to use a wider variety of melee moves and combos if they wanted to cause more pain while collecting supplies. It also provided enough incentives to play the game the way developers intended.
Weapons and Character Design
Weapon design inevitably affects character design. For example, if your intention as a developer or artist is to depict a murder machine, your weapon selection must reflect this intention. This principle applies to all video game genres.
Games that favor stealth will introduce silencers, bows and arrows, knives, and other weapons that can eliminate threats silently and efficiently. Of course, they must look slim and finely crafted so players understand their intended use before even reading the stats.
On the other hand, titles that want to give players the opportunity to use diplomacy or rogue-like abilities will provide subtle hints through weapon design. For example, maybe high-damage weapons look clunky, hard to wield, or too menacing to carry to an elegant party. They can also introduce alternative tools or flaws in their guns (durability, cooldowns, ammo restrictions).
As you can see, weapons are as crucial as character or gameplay design when communicating to the player what the best (or desirable) course of action is.
Another way weapon design impacts character creation is believability. The player must believe their character can use them appropriately, and their demeanor must also align with the intended consequences of their use. For example, a thoughtful and resourceful character would feel weird if they had to carry a rocket launcher or an assault weapon, while a hulking grunt might not be the best match for a tiny revolver or a finely crafted rapier.
Weapons and realism
Not many gamers worry about realism when playing their favorite shooters (really, how in the world can magazines always be full when players keep reloading after shooting a couple of rounds?). However, many games do leverage realism as part of their attractiveness, reeling in thousands (even millions) of tactical combat enthusiasts from around the world. For example, MilSims like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and Escape from Tarkov give the player a good taste of how guns actually work.
Yet, plenty of titles steer away from realistic gun design to give the player a lot more freedom and ramp up the “fun” factor. A good example is the Halo series which has an amazingly consistent gun lore, and every gun feels solid and grounded even when some designs are pretty odd.
Titles like Overwatch favor fun and tactics over realism, allowing players to perform amazing feats with their characters and learn how to become effective warriors.
To achieve this, games must never feel “unfair.” What that means in terms of weapon design is that guns should always behave in a way that can be predicted (and countered). When designing weapons and coming up with stats and effects, designers must consider consistency and balance, making sure there is always a way to counter every type of weapon or ammo. After all, warfare technology has always been a tight race between offensive weapons and ways to counter them, and your game must reflect this tension.
Gun Design Tips
Game developers tasked with designing realistic weapons can feel a bit limited in what they can do regarding weapon design. However, some titles give designers a bit of creative liberty. A good example is when they can’t, or don’t need to, use licensed real-world gun designs but want to model weapons closely to known guns to make them recognizable for players.
Having as many references and real pictures of actual guns as you can will help you design weapons that look realistic and functional without having to break the player’s suspension of disbelief. Moreover, having a practical knowledge of how guns work will also help create convincing models and assets.
A common mistake many weapon designers make is not understanding the four-boxes and five-point rules.
The four boxes rule helps designers create guns with a structure that makes sense. If you divide your design into four sections that have a coherent and logical order, there is a high chance your design will make sense for the player.
Here is what it looks like:
Here, we can see the essential parts of almost every gun ever designed. The magazine should feed the bolt, which should be connected to the gun barrel, and have a buffer space to store recoil energy when it moves backward for reloading.
An AK rifle follows this logic:
So do shotguns:
Of course, we can design our own guns for futuristic or steampunk universes with these elements moved around a bit. There is no point in being a designer if you cannot go crazy from time to time. However, we must strive to create models that make sense for the player and the world the game is based on.
For example, designers didn’t modify traditional gun design much when creating games based on the Star Wars IP. However, they made sure to explain how the technology worked. For example, blasters are not light-based weapons which explains why projectiles are slow, and shooting generates recoil. So, while they didn’t have to explain the physics behind blaster technology, the concept makes sense, and now nobody laughs uncontrollably when they see these pistols and rifles go “pew pew.”
The Five-Points Rule
This rule has more to do with ergonomics. The believability of our guns will rest upon how easy they are to use with our hands. A firearm or tool that you can’t hold is not practical.
When designing a gun, it needs to take finger positioning into account. We have four fingers and one opposable thumb. Therefore, gun grips and trigger guards must be designed in a way that they can accommodate all five fingers comfortably.
The user must be able to position a thumb opposite the index or trigger finger, and the other three fingers must fit comfortably along the grip at an angle between 10° and 35° in relation to the barrel.
If we forget to give room for any of the fingers, or if they’re positioned at a weird angle, the player will probably feel something’s off.
The concept of anchor points is one design principle that sometimes gets overlooked because it deals with things that sound too basic to be relevant. However, it is incredibly important when designing objects such as weapons, vehicles, and buildings.
To understand this concept, it is always good to start with a simple question: What makes a gun look like a gun?
Some might say that the barrel or the ironsight accomplishes this function. However, if we first draw a cannon with an ironsight, the result won’t look like a gun unless we explain to the viewer what they’re seeing. If we, in turn, draw a trigger and a grip, the viewer will instantly know what the object does and how it works.
So, anchor points, in terms of design, is the feature that grounds your design and gives it a solid foundation regardless of all other added elements.
This point is proven when we draw extremely detailed gun features before adding the trigger-grip combo. No matter how “realistic” these elements are, nobody will understand what it is until you add the proper anchor point. Now, if you draw a believable gun grip and trigger, the viewer will know it is a gun, even if the rest of the design is utterly incomprehensible.
Having clear anchor points gives designers a lot of freedom as they know they can go wild with gun design as long as they nail the grip-trigger area, always following the five-point rule, of course.
Try drawing a sack of potatoes attached to a nicely designed gun grip, and everyone will instinctively want to pull the trigger and watch potatoes fly.
So, given our brain’s natural tendency to recognize anchor points and feel comfortable when it understands what an object is or does, we can use that to our advantage.
For example, when designing futuristic weapons, we tend to draw long, slim, and pointy features when they are intended for long-range and penetration. At the same time, more boxy or square barrels give the sensation that the gun is extremely powerful but has a short range. Round or bubbly shapes usually signal low damage or slow projectiles with weird effects.
All these designs will make sense as long as we draw a perfectly clear grip and trigger section that makes sense.
As you can see, weapon design requires much more than mastering arcane design tools (although it helps). Weapons can make or break a game and give gamers the right incentives to adopt the desired strategies developers had in mind when coming up with gameplay strategies.
If you are looking for expert weapon illustrators and developers who understand all aspects of game design, contact our team and see how we can take your project to the next level.