I've been playing quite a bit of Gears of War 4 lately, and with it has come the chance to revisit one of my favourite mechanics in modern game design, "Active Reload." Active reload brings an active and rewarding component to an otherwise passive moment in most shooting games. In these games, reloading your weapon is synonymous with waiting, before you can once again fully engage with the game. In Gears of War they added a mini-game to this moment. Each time you reload your weapon, a slider appears where pressing the reload button again while the indicator is in a target zone will reward the player with a faster reload animation and even a temporary damage boost (if the mini-game is resolved optimally.) Failure to hit the reload button within the target zone will cause the gun to jam, resulting in a slower reload time. The result is a quick burst of adrenaline inside a high adrenaline experience.
When I was first introduced to this mechanic in the initial Gears of War I was, with a phrase popular in games journalism, "blown away." It perfectly complimented the game's over-the-top nonstop action. It was so simple, and yet it had such a significant positive impact on my experience with the game. It encouraged me to start looking at games with a more critical eye, and started me on my journey to explore what makes for great experiences in games. As a result, I've wanted to write about this design feature for quite sometime.
Starting fresh with the franchise after a few years off, I was pleased to see that the feature remained in tact (with some tweaks.) However, I quickly discovered that because I was rusty, I had to pay full attention to the slider on the top right HUD if I wished to fully succeed at this mini-game. This posed an immediate problem for me, as it required that I take my attention away from the center of the screen (where the action and threats were) and required that I look at another part of the screen. Needless to say, I found myself getting frustrated with this quickly. Here was a piece of design that was intended to enhance the action and flow of the game, and due to it's placement on the UI, was causing the opposite for me. This was a problem, so I set out to find a solution. (I should mention that while playing the game I was sitting close to a large screen, set at a high resolution, so this inevitably amplified my issue.)
To begin with, I determined that it was vital that the player see the mini-game slider without having to take their eyes away from the action. Gears of War 4 offers a third person perspective, where the focal point is the center of the screen. As this serves as your eyes in the game, near here was where I felt the slider should appear. It was important that whatever visuals appeared here would have minimal obstruction of the view. Gears, like most games, uses a reticle system for aiming. Reticles tend to be designed with very simple guiding lines, to avoid the aforementioned issue.
A simple and lazy solution would have been to transplant the slider, as it exists, from it's current position and slap it into the center. I threw this idea away immediately as I knew it would look sloppy, and had a good chance of really obscuring the view. This left me with 2 options:
1. Diegetic interface elements
These are elements that exist in the same world that the actor/character inhabits. Dead Space is probably the most famous example of this. With this approach, it provided many interesting visual elements that could be really fun and add to the emotion and animation of a perfectly loaded or jammed gun. However, for the most part, Gears of War doesn't use this approach in other areas, so it would have felt out of place. Also, it can be really tricky to present these elements in a way that they read correctly, especially in a fast paced action game with many state changes.
2. A rounded shape with simplified details
This would be more in-line with the simple approach of the reticle and other components that occupy the center. Here the biggest concern was the possibility of the slider conflicting with other elements that appear here. I did some research, and from what I can tell, the reticle never shows when reloading. Still, the solution I designed was made so that it could co-exist with elements like the reticle if the need ever arose. The other major component to be aware of was the directional damage indicator, but its visual style and the fact that it is significantly offset from the center, has me fairly confident that this wouldn't be a problem.
Why rounded and not flat? I was worried that a simplified horizontal version of the existing slider would still look odd near the center and be more of a distraction than it needed to be. Generally speaking, elements in the center of the screen tend to have a rounded or boxy shape. This helps to encapsulate the invisible cursor that exists in the center of the screen. I felt a slider with a rounded shape would feel more natural here and be less distracting.
Once I decided the round shape was the right direction to take. I then set about visualizing it. When I began work on it, I discovered what could be a small flaw. The animation of the indicator could feel a slight bit unnatural if following the exact same philosophy as the current horizontal one. This style exists in other games, and generally speaking seems to work well enough, so it's not a large concern. That said, this sent my mind down a path that lead me to my next solution. Why not have the rounded slider subtly evoke the look of a rev counter in a car? After all, shifting at the optimal moment in a car, or car game, provides a benefit of increased performance and success at the given task, paired with the feeling of exhilaration and satisfaction when hitting the "sweet spot." It's extremely similar to perfectly nailing an active reload. Plus, this subtle emphasis could make it easier for newcomers to the Gears franchise, especially those familiar with movies like "The Fast and the Furious" or cars, to more quickly become comfortable with active reloading. I may be reaching on that last point, but it would be something to pay attention to when observing and gathering feedback.
Below you will find my result. I definitely see potential here, and with proper testing I think this idea could have real value. One of the advantages of this approach is that I feel it would be relatively easy to implement from the technical side. The precedent and the function to draw UI elements near the center of screen already exists, so there would be minimal work to integrate it. Of course the option to toggle the feature on or off would be important as high level players don't require the slider once they have the timing down, and they would likely find it a nuisance. This also presents a solution for players who enjoy playing without the HUD, but would still like to see the active reload slider. Lastly, a solution may need to be implemented here to display the remaining ammo once a reload is complete, as players might stop paying attention to the top right of the screen and get frustrated when they discover they are empty. Solutions for this would be simple, like an ammo count that is displayed above the slider, but more testing would be needed.
As with any new idea; testing, observing, gathering feedback, and iteration would be vital to proving this concept out. I've presented the solution as is, without the ability to gather feedback from the Gears of War audience or test it in the game (as is the case with all of my speculative explorations.) For me, this was a fun quick challenge. Thanks for reading!
Gears of War is owned by Microsoft, and I take no credit for the creation of the game.