Payday 2 and the Problem of Ammo
Ammo has been included in almost every shooter to this day but let me ask you this, how often have you actually run out of ammo in a video game? Like the appendix, it has persisted as an evolutionary left over since the conception of the first person shooter but rarely do designers do anything interesting with the mechanic. The importance of ammo has been primarily focused on the size of the magazine rather than the player’s total store of the resource, with designers using reloading to force players into regular tension filled moments of vulnerability in an experience mostly built around making the player feel powerful.
Designers giving players access to a virtually endless fountain of bullets is understandable, after all it’s hard to do anything in a shooter if you can’t, well, shoot, but it does make one wonder why many first person shooters even bother with providing ammo as a resource at all. Why give the player a resource to manage that they never have to worry about running out of? I can only think of two reasons.
Ammo usually only comes into play as a relevant factor when the player comes across a super weapon. That is, the designer has chosen to provide the player with a weapon to give them a feeling of being exceptionally powerful for a short time. Giving this weapon a very small amount of ammo is a natural way to limit this period of extended power and prevent it from just becoming the new gameplay paradigm. By giving all weapons ammo limits, the game maintains a sense of cohesion when the super weapon comes into play, rather than coming off as jarring by suddenly blindsiding the player with a new resource to manage that feels out of character with the rest of the game.
The other reason is part aesthetic, part immersion. Guns in real life just have ammo. By not providing the player with an ammo counter, the game may be setting itself up with an additional unnecessary obstacle to overcome in its mission to immerse the player in its experience. Designers may be putting ammo counts into the game simply because it would be weird to have a gun in the game without one. It’s just an accepted and expected idea that guns have ammo and designers don’t want to find themselves on the wrong side of these expectations, especially if they’re trying to get the player to buy into other more interesting disruptions of their expectations already.
Now none of this is enough to make ammo in shooters an inalienable mandate, but it is enough to make its presence in games persist. Ideally, every mechanic in the game would be working towards letting the player make interesting gameplay decisions and having mechanics implemented that don’t contribute to that just feels a little sloppy. Payday 2 however has gone against the grain and has found a way to make ammo a relevant aspect of the game.
The problem of ammo is that if you run out of ammo, the game becomes uninteresting, but if you never run out of ammo, there’s no real point to having ammo to begin with. From this perspective, running out of ammo exists in gameplay terms as an additional threat for the player to deal with. The question then is, how do we allow the player to mitigate this threat in a way that contributes to the gameplay experience, without the act of getting more ammo being a trivial experience. Payday 2 offers an interesting solution.
Payday 2’s answer involves three main aspects. First, players start with a noticeably limited amount. Throughout the match, the player can feel the pressure of their ammo dwindling almost from the start. Second, the game allows a player to bring an ammo pack along as a class item. Other games have done this before but there is one other aspect that makes Payday 2’s application much more relevant than other implementations. Third, player death matters. The issue with other class based shooters’ implementation of the ammo pack is that a player rarely lives long enough in a multiplayer match for ammo to become an issue. If you run out ammo and die in a Battlefield game, you just respawn in thirty seconds with another full stock of ammo. In Payday 2, if a player dies he’s out of the game for at least five minutes unless his team mates can trade a hostage with the police during a lull in the action. Often the rest of his team will fall shortly after him as well, especially if they’re running out of ammo too. By putting the entire round in jeopardy after a single death, respawning is no longer a solution to running out of ammo, in this way Payday 2 has increased the consequences of running out of ammo substantially.
With limited starting stores of ammo and consequential player death, Payday 2 succeeds in establishing ammo as a very credible threat that must be mitigated by the player. The second part of the trick is to make that mitigation interesting. The ammo packs in Payday 2 stand out in one particular way, the player carrying it only gets to place it once for the entire round. Once it’s placed, it can’t be picked back up again. Essentially, the entire team only gets to reload once during the entire round, meaning the player has to pick his moment and place to drop the ammo pack very seriously. If he places it too early, it may be out of reach later on as the players progress through the round. If he places it too late, the players will become vulnerable and may be overwhelmed before they can take advantage of the ammo pack.
Payday 2’s solution may not work with many other shooters. The game goes for a very specific vibe that other shooters may not be necessarily interested in imitating. While ramping up the tension may make the player feel even more powerful when they succeed, that increased tension also makes the game less accessible. To those that master it, Payday 2’s mechanics deliver a greater payoff in its empowerment of the player but this is at the expense of those unwilling to take the time to learn the nuances of its system. Still, Payday 2 should be lauded for tackling the problem of ammo and coming up with a way to take advantage of what is an otherwise missed opportunity in many shooters. I strongly encourage every designer to try and find a way to solve the problem of ammo in a way that’s appropriate for the experience they are trying to curate and make sure every implemented mechanic enriches the experience in some way.