Out, Damn’d Spot!

Call of Duty’s Contribution to Terrible Game Mechanics

Call of Duty has contributed an awful lot to the First Person Shooter genre, particularly where multiplayer is concerned. Any FPS taking itself seriously now gives players a chance to level up, unlock weapons, customise their playercard, and reward the player when they rack up a few consecutive kills – features implemented or popularized by the Call of Duty series.

Now that these features are being ripped-off wholesale by other titles, it seems that they’re also taking another, less hyped feature that has been around since 2003’s Call of Duty. The ‘damage-inflicted’ indicator.

Modern Warfare 3 Multiplayer

Someone is being killed in this picture. The crosshair told me so.

I hate the damage-indicator. That X overlaid over your crosshair is an admission from the game developers that they failed you. They were unable to provide you with sufficient visual feedback to confirm that you’re having an effect on your target, so they cheated.

This HUD addition has many effects on the gameplay, both subtle and blatant. For one, the thrill of uncertainty completely vanishes. Did I wound that guy? Should I rush in and finish him off or see if he pops his head out again? There’s an element of chaos missing when you magically know which bullets met their target.

The more blatant behaviour modifiers apply to situations where a stun grenade is blindly thrown into a room. If you get a big X, great – go in and mow everybody down, but if you don’t get the X, you won’t bother – there’s excitement in not knowing what waits around the corner, but that’s being robbed from the player. More egregious still is the way you can use the damage-indicator to shoot through walls and game the system. Spamming bullets into a wall and adjusting based on the feedback is a cheap way to score, and an aggravating way to die.

Battlefield 3 screenshot

Battlefield 3's damage-indicator in action

Furthermore, it’s distracting. I can’t ignore the X. It’s too important. The satisfaction I derive from shooting my opponents in Call of Duty is not the death animation or ragdoll, it’s the X, accompanied with the ‘phutt’ sound of bullet on flesh (regardless of how distant the target is). Even if I could disable the feature, I wouldn’t, because the game is designed around it. This is what players are trained to respond to, because the gratification is instant, and unsubscribing from this information would put you at a major tactical disadvantage.

homefront screenshot

Homefront's Single Player Damage Indicators. The worst of all

It troubles me to think that a big-budget game that employs all kinds of psychological tricks to ensnare casual and hardcore players alike couldn’t get this simple facet of visual feedback down. Doom, the granddaddy of deathmatch had an elegant system – blood. Successfully connecting with someone resulted in a big blotch of red, with a spray of red pixels to confirm that damage had been dealt. In the less-bloody Goldeneye 007’s frenetically paced multiplayer, the cacophony of pain-sounds and particle-effects were enough to drive home that you were dealing death.

A screenshot from id Software's Doom

I think I got him.

Call of Duty generally shies away from ultra-gore (Treyarch caught flak for World at War’s dismemberment, but giving the player a visceral affirmation of the power they wield seems sensible), and combat frequently takes place at less personal distances than the games discussed above, but it still doesn’t mean that they can’t take the same approach. At present, a bloody mist appears when bullet meets flesh. Throw in a proper pain sound and make it so that regardless of the distance, the shooter can always see the blood-spray (like Valve did with Left 4 Dead’s Smoker; his particle effects never dropped below a minimum size).

I’ve yet to pass on a Call of Duty campaign, but I’m rarely captivated by the grandiose set pieces and eternal monster-closets, because the bread-and-butter of the game – the shooting – feels like hitting plastic toys with pellets, rather than the sensation of rending through sinew and bone that (more stylized) games like Gears of War and Rage can offer. When damage-indicators finally creep into the Call of Duty single-player campaigns, I’ll know it’s time to not bother, because the developers aren’t trying anymore.

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3 Responses to Out, Damn’d Spot!

  1. It’s a necessary addition to make players feel like they’re responsible for their own success and failure. If the game didn’t have the indicator and players ran into battle because they thought they’d killed an enemy then it’s the game’s fault for not letting them know they’d failed to execute.

    In addition I think it’s part of the roleplay of the situation. Hand me a real sniper rifle and I can’t guarantee I’ll know if I hit someone. However, a trained soldier — like the one I’m playing in COD — would know. That indicator conveys the information that my character understands without being overt.

    Beside all that, it would really make no difference. You’ve been getting kill confirmations for years, this one’s just in the middle of the screen. http://farm2.static.flickr.com/1059/528964995_b93c6f26af.jpg (See top left corner)

  2. I come from mirror land.

  3. Sully says:

    The points you raised are ones I considered, but didn’t include since I didn’t want to get too bogged down in the history of HUD notifications. Alerts to slain foes goes back to Doom; it’s the per-bullet updates that annoy me (and affect the flow of combat as discussed in the post).

    It’s possible that at some stage during the Q&A, the playtesters on the original Call of Duty complained that they couldn’t tell if they were connecting or not, and the damage-indicator was slapped on – which I’d consider a band aid, rather than a solution to the problem.

    Call of Duty’s combat clips along at an unforgiving pace – the indicator is vital, but I’d prefer if the bread-and-butter of the shooting mechanics obviated the need for the meta-layer. Now that COD is mega popular, everybody’s doing it, which I worry will distract devs away from delivering that ineffable sense of satisfaction that games like Gears deliver when you’re murdering fools, without the need for per-nanosecond HUD updates.

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