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Here's how big a deal Doom's shotgun was: in a game with another weapon called the Big Fucking Gun, the shotgun is the one we remember best. It's reliable at practically any distance. One clean shot to the chest will eviscerate most enemies. Somehow that pump action reload animation and its cha-chick are satisfying every single time with only five frames of animation. How many other games are confident enough to give you a gun this good 10 seconds into the first level?
Before Doom, shotguns were for shooting clay pigeons. After Doom, they were for annihilating demons. And for annihilating practically anything else: as Doom birthed a new genre, you could rely on the trusty shotgun to be there almost anytime, more steadfast and reliable than a squirrely pistol or a ammo-hungry rifle. It's our pellet pal. Our blunderbuss buddy. In the wry words of John Romero, when we spent half an hour reflecting on the design and history of Doom's shotgun: "No other game has a BFG 9000 in it, but lots of games have shotguns."
Today we're celebrating that lineage by talking about some of our favorite shotguns and why we love them. Step one: make it kick, and make 'em bleed.
"Number one, the damage it does is the most important part," said John Romero. He was talking about weapon design in general. There's so much that goes into a good game gun, but those pain points have the biggest impact in making a weapon feel powerful. "If it does more damage than any other gun, it doesn't matter if it has no sound effects, you're going to be using it," he laughed.
OK, but all that other stuff is important too. Animation, sound effects, the works. When they all come together, you can just feel it. It's an almost animal hell yeah. Fullbright's Steve Gaynor practically got poetic describing this sensation:
"Shooter games can be about a lot of things—the complexity of tactics as you use the environment to your advantage, the cat & mouse drama of chasing and being chased, sneaking up on your prey or falling into your enemy's trap—but it's also always about that aesthetic moment where the trigger's pulled and the audiovisual effects deliver that moment of utterly blowing a videogame creature away. And that's what the shotgun's all about. It's loud. It's sudden. And above all, it's effective."
So how do design all that stuff to feel just right? Bill Munk, animator and creative director at Tripwire, had this to say about developing Killing Floor 2:
"We start with the gore system, which is a very important ingredient that makes shotguns feel devastating. Second is the impulse force applied to the creatures when they get hit, this is really important to not only make the shotgun feel powerful but also adds to the enjoyment of taking down a target. Third is the damage each pellet does, it's a hard balancing act because depending on what you shot, if it doesn't die or react the way you picture it, everything falls apart and the weapon feels unsatisfying. To balance shotguns in KF2 we first start with the price for the ammo, the weight of the gun and the time it takes to reload. Shotguns generally have massive damage but become less effective at range due to the spread of the pellets which also is a nice tool to balance these high damage weapons.
"Last but not least are the shoot animations. This is an area we've put a lot of time and research in. We animate the shots at high framerate so that we can animate the violent force when you fire a shotgun. This is a detail you barely notice in realtime but can feel the difference."
And when Killing Floor 2 slows down into Zed time, you can really see that animation at work.
You can see even more detail in KF2's shotguns firing and reloading here. They're ahead of the curve in animations, but the fact that Doom's shotgun still feels good with only five frames of reload animation shows how much the damage, muzzle flare, sound effects, and other elements of a shotgun can make it feel satisfying without much real detail.
Take Resident Evil 4's starting shotgun, a standard pump action. It's much simpler than Killing Floor 2's weapons, but blasting zombies with it feels a bit like smiting them with the fist of God. Part of that comes from RE4's once-novel over-the-shoulder weapon aiming. It's incredibly physical. You hold a button down to aim and Leon plants his feet. The camera zooms up to his shoulder, and it feels like you're aiming the shotgun with the whole of his body. The muzzle jerks sharply upward when you fire, and a single blast can send a whole crowd flying backwards. Leon pumps out the spent shell before recentering his aim. It's not fancy, but it feels sublime.
No game gun sounds more pleasing to the ear than a shotgun except for, maybe, a bolt-action rifle. And those two weapons have something in common: both are about a single moment of release, followed by a peerless sound saying fire again, baby.
Most game weapons are about a constant stream of sound. The blam, blam, blam of a pistol, the ratatatat of an SMG, the heavy thugthugthugthug of an LMG. With a shotgun, it's all about that one shot. It's a crack of thunder, not a boom. "You need a good, sharp, aggressive sound to drive the shotgun's presence home, not some underplayed thud but a good, bracing crack," said Gaynor.
But the reload can be even better. Only a heavy bolt can match the click of a double barrel popping open and closed or the cha-chick of the pump action. That sound effect really hasn't changed much since Doom 1, and it's easy to see why.
Sound is a big part of why we love shotguns, but it's also crucial to the "feel" of hower powerful they are. "I'd say sound is 70% of the feel of a great shotgun mostly because I've played games while they are muted and they lost the feel," said Kynan Pearson, who's worked on the Halo and Metroid Prime series. "The reload noise, the boom and the pain noises create a fantastic symphony of death."
Producer Matt Powers, who worked as a producer on the Medal of Honor and Call of Duty series, wrote about this on Gamasutra:
"I kept getting feedback that our shotgun was underpowered…people really kind of hated the shotgun. When I looked at the balance numbers, the shotgun was actually a little overpowered if anything. So…after much consternation I decided to attack the balance issue from the side of perception rather than through the actual numbers themselves. I went to our audio director to talk about changing the sound. He added a bit more low end to the fire sound, pulled out some midrange and bumped up the high end to give it a sharper punch. I did not tell the team that the only thing I changed was the sound, I just asked them to give it another try to see if the changes I made addressed the balance issues they were seeing. The feedback came back unanimously positive."
Animation, sound, weight. Those are some of the ingredients of a great shotgun. So how did id make the first FPS shotgun, with no history to draw on, back in 1993?
Our love affair with the shotgun started with Doom, but for Romero, it started with two other sources: Rednecks, and Evil Dead. In one of id's earliest games, a 2D sidescroller called Dangerous Dave in the Haunted Mansion, you blast ghouls with a shotgun (and can even shoot at diagonals!). In Dave's first game, you had a pistol, but changing that to a shotgun in the sequel was an obvious move. "You're a redneck in Louisiana, of course you'd have a shotgun," Romero laughed. "We mentioned it when we were talking about Doom, we're like 'Hell yeah man, we had a shotgun in Dave and it was awesome. Why not?'"
Doom's shotgun wasn't originally in the plans for the game at all. The small team at id had the pistol, and plans for a rocket launcher, but they needed something in between. So they designed a rifle with a bayonet. The only problem: it wasn't cool enough. "We didn't like the fact that when you jabbed, it just didn't look good. It looked lame," Romero said. "We'd already had lameness issues with Catacomb 3D earlier, when you're using your hand to throw fireballs and stuff. That didn't look or feel cool. With Doom, we did have the bayonet in there, and I believe we even had it working, and it was just like, you know what? No amount of frames will make this look good."
As they started brainstorming sci-fi weapons like the BFG, their thoughts turned to Evil Dead 2. And voila: a shotgun and a chainsaw appeared. "We basically went, 'a shotgun would totally blow away that stupid rifle.' We made the shotgun, we made the chainsaw. It totally felt right in the game. We put it in, and it was just perfect. The gun cocking animation, the sound, it was perfect. The shotgun blast was great and did a good amount of damage. So that's what happened."
The Doom faithful may know that the shotgun was a cap gun model bought at Toys R Us and scanned into the game using a video camera, then edited and animated in a Carmack piece of software called Fuzzy Pumper Palette Shop. It was named after a Play Doh toy. What's surprising about Romero's story is how little tuning it took to get Doom's shotgun just right. They added a spread and randomness to the firing, but treated the shotgun pellets as if they were bullets, making the gun easy to implement. And because they "wanted every gun to be effective at super far distances," handicapping the shotgun's range wasn't an issue.
"It was important that whenever we added any gun to the game, it never nullified a previous weapon. There had to be a reason for keeping the pistol around and everything else," Romero said. "The shotgun, I believe used the pistol randomness, and also added some to the spread, but not too much. So you could kill stuff at a distance. It was not like a sawed-off shotgun that would have a massive spread."
That would come later, of course, with Doom 2's double barrel super shotgun. First person shooters have since skewed towards treating shotguns more like the sawed off: close combat killers with a very particular purpose, a more compartmentalized approach to "balance" that gives every weapon its role.
"I feel shotguns live and die by where they sit in the balance," said Pearson. "It's easy to make a shotgun too effective or nerf it so it's not dominant in the weapon selection. I feel like shotguns need drawbacks, but part of the satisfaction is the exaggerated quality of wrecking opponents at close range. I prefer tight spread with damage dampening at distance. Everyone has different preferences so it depends on the game."
We can still delight in a good kill with a well-balanced modern military tactical 12-gauge, but our favorite shotguns are the ones that defy those restrictions. Look at the shotgun in Halo: Combat Evolved, which was overshadowed by the pistol but still had tremendous range and a vast ammo reserve.
Other shotguns do something unique to stand out, either in how they affect enemies and the world, or in how they let lead fly.
When I get a headshot with a pistol I expect, at best, a backflip or an exploding skull. But much of the joy of a shotgun comes from its physicality. I want my enemies blown backwards by raw force. This is where other elements of the game come into play to make the shotgun itself better. A perfect example, Gaynor explained, is Bioshock's shotty:
"It reinforces what makes a great shotgun on its own—an awesome muzzle flash, great pump action animation, amazing sound design, and high destructive power—but also how important its effect on enemies can be. Not just the blood effects or how much damage it does, but how they flip, spin, and pirouette through the environment when blasted. BioShock used tech that allowed the enemies to do a crafted death animation—ie spinning through the air in response to catching a handful of buckshot in the side—and transition that smoothly into a dynamic ragdoll that leaves them convincingly sprawled on the environment in the aftermath. Blasting Splicers with the shotgun was great because the shotgun was great, yes, but also because the Splicers were such wonderful fodder, their reaction to your blasting being an integral part of the whole exchange."
This is one area where Valve's typically soft weapons really shine: Left4Dead 2's shotguns can lift a group of zombies off their feet and send them flying. They also absolutely shred enemies. Valve's Alex Vlachos gave a great talk about Left 4 Dead 2's wounds at the 2010 Game Developer's Conference, and you can see how the system works in this presentation. This applies to all weapons, but shotguns are your best bet for blowing off limbs or big chunks of torso.
Gaynor similarly praised the F.E.A.R shotgun's "effect on a highly dynamic gameworld, where firing this thing off causes dust, concrete chunks, and broken glass to fly everywhere. But of course it would be nothing if not for F.E.A.R.'s slow-mo bullet time mechanic, allowing you to enjoy the shotgun's effects at half speed, every frame of its destructive power lovingly rendered for the player's satisfaction. Jumping over a barricade, going into slow-mo, and hearing an enemy soldier shout "OOoooohhhhhh shiiiiiiittttttt" as you pull the trigger, causing him to backflip over a railing with balletic grace, is maybe one of the most satisfying interactions in any FPS game. Oh, and if you play your cards right and get up into point-blank range, this thing can straight-up mist an enemy in one shot. That's how badass it is."
Romero and Bill Munk both called out Soldier of Fortune's shotgun for similar destructive power. "Soldier of Fortune, especially for the time, really showed the brutality of a shotgun and made the player feel extremely powerful based on the gore system," Munk said. "But for overall feel I'd have to give it to F.E.A.R. The first time you experience a shotgun in slow-mo seeing every pellet fly and the ragdoll react to it is a thing of beauty!"
Soldier of Fortune sure wins for nastiness, though.
God I love the flak cannon. In my imagination, the flak cannon is what would happen if the god of death metal looked at a normal shotgun and turned it into an industrial tool that could conveniently be used to shred men into paste. It's not simply firing a shell when you pull the trigger: a metal piston slams forward to propel a disc the size of a hockey puck out of the muzzle, where it separates into a spreading pattern of glowing superheated scrap. You can watch every piece make bloody contact with your enemy, but it also has a utility unlike any other shotgun: bouncing those metal meteors around corners to shred bad dudes from afar. Is there any wonder it's our favorite gun ever?
When Doom gave us a shotgun to blast demons, it was novel. Now that every shooter has its own take on the shotgun—and it's usually pretty straightforward—we love the flak cannon and other alternative shotguns for stepping out of that mold.
The flak cannon's secondary fire is a perfect example: it concentrates the heavy damage of the shotgun into a single arcing grenade that's harder to land, but offers concentrated damage you won't get at range with a spreading flak cloud. Romero himself designed a shotgun that was meant to diverge from the straightforward utility of Doom's shotgun: Daikatana's Shotcycler-6.
Daikatana had rocket jumping, but because its rocket launcher fired two shots, it would really hurt. "I thought, can I make a safer rocket jump type weapon?" Romero remembered. "With the Shotcycler-6 I can do six shots, and if you jump it'll take you up to another place. I thought that would be kinda cool for people who are good, and know the secret of the shotgun jump. So it's basically six shots, who doesn't love that, with kickback enough that you can actually get propelled up in the air, almost like a rocket launcher."
Gears of War 4's Overkill is a madman's fusion of double-barrel and auto shotty: it fires a shell from one of four barrels on mouse click and on mouse release, giving you the flexibility for tactical timing or a panicked barrage of eight shots in the span of a second.
Bulletstorm's ridiculous four barreled shotgun has a charge shot that simply vaporizes enemies, burning them away to nothing but bones. It's a fitting middle finger to the concept of balance.
And though it was a short-lived glitch, not an intentional design, I have to sing the praises of the most overpowered shotgun of all time: Battlefield 3's briefly broken underslung M26 DART. A patch made every 12 gauge flechette pellet deal the full damage of the assault rifle's primary bullets, making the spread an ungodly cloud of death. And yet it's so politely soft-spoken.
Videogame shotguns are rad. When you use a good one, appreciate it: marvel at its kick, its cocking action, its thundercrack, and the knockback like no other.
"There's something inherently satisfying about video game guns that are built to be 'one shot, one kill' like, say, a hefty magnum revolver, or a bolt-action sniper rifle," said Gaynor. "And that's also the shotgun's job... with the added benefit of not really having to aim. Who could ask for more?"
Long live the gib.