In many genres, the gun is the point where the gamer meets the game, making it the single most important element in a given title. That makes the guys who make the guns important, too.
So many titles, especially (and obviously) shooters, give you such limited interaction with the game world that what you do with your gun is often the extent of what you can do with the game.
You shoot at people. You shoot at things. Most of the things you pick up are things for your gun, which you got off people you shot with your gun. In most shooters you're even spending the entirety of your time in the game looking at its world not through a pair of eyes, but down the barrel of a gun.
Being such an important part of so many of today's (and yesterday's, and tomorrow's) games, we thought we'd have a talk with a man who builds video game guns for a living: artist Gregor Kopka, from Crysis developers Crytek.
"When you're living and working in Germany it's nearly impossible to get your hands on weapons", he tells us, explaining the process that goes into building a gun inside a video game. "Since my childhood I've been kind of addicted to the design of weapons, but I don't know much of the technical side of things".
To get around this, Kopka is assisted by several Crytek staffers who do know the mechanical side of weapon operation, guys who "know almost every detail of almost all modern firearms". The team also spend a lot of time in various countries visiting shooting ranges, so that for reference's sake they can have first-hand experience of what it's like to discharge a variety of weapons.
During early development of Crysis 2, for example, the team took a trip to the California desert for a recording session and let loose on almost every kind of gun imaginable, from handguns to submachine guns to assault rifles sniper rifles to a minigun. Those sounds then formed the basis for Crysis 2's projectile weapons.
"Once that is done we always start with some quick sketches. After this I prefer to work with animators and designers with simple whitebox models (basic, unpainted 3D models), to find out the best position for the gun's animation and silhouette. I think it's important to start with a whitebox as you can quickly proof and test if your idea works when using a first-person camera position. I can see immediately what problems there may be."
The next step Kopka takes is to work with concept artists on painting the weapon, and if that all looks good, then it's on to the toughest part of the job: coming up with something he's happy with.
"The first person camera position can be tricky depending on the field of view and size. I sometimes wish to go back to alien characters or any other assets which are not viewed through the fixed camera position, but on the other hand I remember I have my own screen space and that's enough to forget all problems which comes with these kind of tasks."
The final stage of Kopka's design work comes with turning these whitebox models – which are essentially 3D sketches – into both high and low-polygon models for use in a game, and then compiling and applying textures to paint over those models.
That's all well and good for a simple weapon. One that's an actual real-world gun, or at least closely linked to the design and technology of today. But Kopka is working on Crysis 2, a game set in 2020 and featuring alien technology, so what happens then? Is there a line, I wonder, between making a gun look and sound "real" and making one that's fun for use in a video game?
"I prefer a mix of both", he says. "It's great to have the freedom to go nuts but at the same time to use details of real guns to achieve the feeling of a weapon could really exist 10-20 years from now."
"If you plan for example to create some realistic sci-fi weapons, which feel believable, you have to give the player an art design that he can understand and which is based on existing weapons."
"People see guns in movies all the time and they know what a gun looks like. When you're going completely crazy as a weapon designer and add only details that haven't got anything in common with real weapons, you will quickly realize that it doesn't feel real."
"Of course I could take some photos of real weapons and paste them together but then it wouldn't be a challenge and would not have its own style. You also have to use the right materials. Modern weapons have a lot of hard plastic which I personally like. It gives a beautiful contrast on the asset."
Moving on from Crysis, I wonder as someone who spends their working life putting guns into video games, what are his favourite weapons?
In real-life, it's an easy, quick response: the "good old M14 rifle", mainstay of the US armed forces between 1959 and 1970. For his own work, he's proudest of one of Crysis 2's weapons, the newly-redesigned Scar assault rifle, which you can see above. And the in-game work of others? "I've seen some really good ones in Bad Company. These guys did a great job on how the guns feel, and the sound especially supports this very strongly."
Before we finish up, I ask one last question: guns may be a focal point in games, and games may be fantasy, but they're still guns, something that in real life are designed to kill people, and which in many countries outside the US are seen as dangerous and undesirable weapons. So does he think there's anything particularly wrong with video games for making guns such an integral part of so many experiences?
"There is nothing wrong with adults that are playing first person shooters, or let's say watching action movies. I believe people who play games can tell the difference between virtual and real guns."