Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Designer Notebook: Bad Reload

I'm burning through my backlog right now, and one of the games I really wanted to get to was Earth Defence Force: Insect Armageddon.  The prequel, EDF 2017, was an exceptional "B" game that knew it's place in the gaming landscape: done on a shoestring budget, it knows it won't win awards with the story or graphics, so it relied on having a solid a simple gameplay loop to hook players in.  

At first glance, it's not much of a game either: bugs are dumb, there's no strategy other than shoot, and some of the enemies seems overpowered or borderline absurd.  But give it a few minutes, and it becomes very clear why it works: it's the perfect stress relief, turn off your brain kind of game.  It's about empowering the player in blowing stuff up as fast as they can, and with the least amount of hinderance to blowing stuff up.  As a shooter, there's no cover, there's no reload (reloading comes in when your gun is out of bullets/ammo), there's no recoil, and there's no other fluffy stuff like rebounding health meter to deal with.

Then I booted up Insect Armageddon, and I saw this...

Yup, an active reload mechanic.  Why?

The simplicity of EDF 2017 was that even as simple as reloading was taken out of your hands: run out of bullets = reload.  Giving the player a choice in allowing addition reload on their own term sounds like a good way to increase depth, but why go on to add active reload?

Well, for one, it was probably the cool thing to do: "Gears of War did it, so you should too", but it's implemented clumsily and wrong here.  Let's pinpoint what Gears does with it's reload, and then lets look back at EDF:IA:

In Gears of War:

  • Each gun has their own reload bar (where the optimal location for active reload works)
  • Two windows: The Active Reload window, and the "close enough" window.
  • Each gun's total reload length is different from each other
  • Failing to reload the gun leads to a visual/audio queue that is obvious to the player.
In EDF: Insect Armageddon:
  • All guns have the same reload bar (and, always in the middle of the entire bar)
  • There is no "close enough" window: failing it means an automatic wait
  • No visible queue on failure (ironically, an audio queue on success)
Outside of this barebone analysis of the actual mechanic, there's also the overall design of how it works with the rest of the game (which is the biggest fault here).  In Gears of War, the Active Reload works as a bonus, allowing players to get out of cover quicker and shoot more (also to note, the average guns will have a reload length of under 2 seconds even in failed active reload); in EDF, the reload acts as a "minimizing punishment" option, cutting down the absolutely lengthy reload to somewhat more tolerable time.  More importantly, since you're dealing with a much higher enemy count, no cover, more "swarming" (where the AI rushes towards you), and no effective way to melee on close range, players in EDF will be motivated to run away from battle to reload, the opposite of Active Reload was trying to achieve.


  1. It's been a number of months since we put this one down, but we logged a considerable amount of hours into such a mindless game and there were different reload bars, once you start unlocking tons of guns, the really big ones have the tiniest possible reload spot, and I'm pretty sure some of the guns had the bar earlier on (but I might be wrong, they might have just had a wider area). But I do recall a number of guns were a nightmare to use if you couldn't get that active reload. Watching a bit of that video almost makes me want to play it again though...

  2. So I ended up playing more, and you're somewhat right: Yes, there are different reloads with all the guns. However:

    1) They are definitely all in the middle.
    2) The shortest one is at least 2 seconds long.

    For a game like EDF where you're swarmed from all corners, that kind of delay (even if you get active reload) working seems absurdly long. It feels like the game is missing a class of weapons that has short reload that trade off for something else.