Call of Duty Has Been Doing Gun Game Wrong For Years (And it’s driving me bananas)

Gun Game, if you’re not familiar with the concept, is simple enough. It’s a free-for-all deathmatch game mode with a twist. Everyone starts with the exact same weapon, and when you get a kill the weapon instantly switches to something new. The goal is to be the first player in the server to cycle through the entire armoury of weapons available — once you do, the game ends.

The first time I saw it was in Counter-Strike, the Half-Life mod. Maps like FY_Iceworld had been popular for some time, giving players an opportunity for some goofy team deathmatch style fun in a game that was otherwise played quite seriously. Gun Game was a natural evolution of the idea — instead of the weapons being littered across the ground, you were given them from the get-go.

At the 24 hour Lock-In Nights I ran at the LAN cafe I managed, it quickly became a favourite. The entire cafe would take a break from playing C&C Generals, Battlefield 2 or, often, Counter-Strike, to get into giant games of Gun Game, fuelled by competitive spirit, Mountain Dew and those service station frozen cheeseburgers that you’d microwave.

Regular gun game starts with weak weapons and ends with the most powerful.  You begin with pistols, work your way up through shotguns, SMGs, ARs and finish on launchers — before needing to get a knife/melee kill to finish.

Talking to developers at Treyarch years ago I found out that this is considered the original form, but it’s not actually the version I played so much of back in the day. What I was playing is generally considered “Reverse Gun Game”, and it is by far the superior version of the mode.

In Reverse Gun Game, you start with powerful weapons and work your way backwards. The Sniper Rifles or Launchers get things off to an explosive start, but before long you’re belting through Assault Rifles and SMGs and running into the hurdle of the short range weapons like the shotguns and pistols. The game ends with a knife fight, the same as ‘regular’.

This is the superior format. I think I buy into the idea that the traditional Gun Game involves the upward progression because Reverse Gun Game conveys a sense of forward momentum from a design point of view. It’s a better game. “Regular Gun Game” came first, because if it didn’t, its existence would be a devolution. Let’s break down why.

With normal Gun Game, players quickly snowball out of control in terms of power. A bad start — say two deaths in a row without any kills — essentially writes a player off. With the exception of the murderous Diamattis in Call of Duty, most people aren’t building Call of Duty loadouts centred around pistols. There’s a reason why the ‘pistol round’ is a thing in Counter-Strike, a round where both teams have the ‘worst’ guns in the game, and a bold strategy often involves buying a Desert Eagle to secure a long-range early advantage — at the cost of your economy if your gamble is unsuccessful.

So if you die immediately in regular Gun Game, your path to victory becomes very difficult to navigate. You need to get kills, but your enemies will have the distinct advantage of superior firepower — and as you take new fights and lose, that firepower only grows in strength.

Joining a round of regular gun-game mid-way through is basically a waste of time. Some games actually account for your inherent disadvantage by putting you on a mid-tier weapon, but most of the time you’ll just wind up having a pistol against an entire server of people already using sub-machine guns or better.

The one advantage — and whether this is an advantage is up for discussion — is that regular Gun Game matches are over quickly. The players who get their great guns early quickly reach a point where they can’t be matched, and so the only thing stopping the round from being over is the melee level, which can be challenging for anyone.

Reverse Gun Game is not like this. It’s self-balancing. Starting with Snipers or Launchers means even if you join late you’ll be rocking a one-shot-kill weapon. Now, some people can’t snipe, so they still might struggle, but after they escape that tier they’re on to the Assault Rifles and SMGs — fast-firing high damage weapons that make up the bulk of the in-meta loadouts and are the most purchased competitive CSGO weapons. 

Meanwhile, the best players, those who got out to an early lead, they’ll wind up using shotguns and pistols against people behind who are equipped with full autos. They’ll struggle, but if they play well they can still succeed. It’s a catch-up mechanic built into the function of the game itself, and it means games go longer as players try to persevere through the hurdle of having to get kills with worse weapons.

What makes it work is that because of the catch-up mechanic, other players will actually slowly find themselves on similar weapons, lowering the hurdle and allowing progress to occur naturally again. In Regular Gun Game, the hurdle grows into a wall as the game progresses and a player fails to escape the early rounds, but in Reverse Gun Game the playing field levels out as it goes.

Because games go for longer, and because they feel more inherently competitive, Reverse Gun Game works better as a warm-up match for people trying to get their aim in before some sweaty multiplayer action.

Call of Duty has had Gun Game for years now. I remember going to the review event for Call of Duty Black Ops and playing Gun Game back then. Now, with the beginning of Season 2, Activision has added Gun Game to Black Ops Cold War once again.

But ever since Treyarch introduced Call of Duty players to Gun Game, they’ve been using the wrong format. The “regular” format. Call of Duty WWII featured something very close to Reverse Gun Game, but outside of that the Call of Duty games have had it wrong.

It’s been more than a decade, so I don’t hold much hope in thinking they’re going to change it. But I’d love to see them try Reverse Gun Game, even for a limited time. I assume they won’t, though, because if they did, most people wouldn’t ever want to go back.

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