Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

The Once and Future First-Person Shooters

Posted by Rampant Coyote on May 15, 2013

A week ago, veteran game producer Warren Spector (Epic Mickey, Deus Ex, Thief: The Dark Project, System Shock, Ultima Underworld, Wing Commander, Ultima 6, Ultima 7, and others…) ruffled a few feathers when he publicly griped about the first-person (FPS) shooter “genre” – citing Bethesda’s Wolfenstein: New World Order announcement video:

He later issued an apology to the team working on the game, explaining “I’ve been saying that for years – it’s nothing new. Wolfenstein got in the line of fire, but I’ve been shooting at this target for a long time.”

I was a big fan of  Wolfenstein 3D, and it’s predecessors – the original Castle Wolfenstein by Muse Software, and what little I played of the sequel. It’s owns a special place in my heart. I mean… this is effectively a game series that has been around for 32 years, and is getting a new entry. No, this new one will probably bear little resemblance to the original Castle Wolfenstein, which was actually more of a predecessor of the “stealth” genre than the straight-up shooters that Wolfenstein 3D spawned, or even to Wolfenstein 3D itself. I’m probably gonna get it and enjoy the heck out of it.

Actually, to my recollection, the id Software team did plan on putting stealth elements into Wolfenstein 3D when they acquired the license. But as time and development continued, they made the (correct, IMO) conscious decision to eliminate those elements and intensify their focus on shooting. But we can probably trace all the classic parts of the modern FPS experience back to Silas Warner’s original design decisions, where you were searching through the castle for keys, bullets, explosives (better weapons), armor (bulletproof vests), and miscellaneous items. It’s cool to see the legacy continue with Bethesda’s announcement, and I hope it’s a wonderful game. And for you old-timers… this will hurt: Wolfenstein 3D was released only eleven years after the original Castle Wolfenstein on the Apple II. It’s been twice that long since Wolfenstein 3D was released…

But for what it’s worth, I think Spector is right.

What Was Once Cool Is Now Generic

I mean, there have been a few innovations, certainly. We get “real” 3D now, as an obvious example. Cooler visuals. The ability to ride in or drive vehicles. But for the straight-up shooters, we’ve basically been playing the same game for a couple of decades.  What I think Spector is talking about here isn’t so much mechanics as presentation. It was the sameness of the genre – the gritty, dark, colorless, save-the-world-from-apocalypse worlds and hardcore modern military environments that we run and gun our way through. There are some pretty cool exceptions in the mainstream world. And Spector notes that the indies are an exception to his complaint (although there are some pretty generic indie FPS games out there, too).

Now, sometimes that’s exactly what I’m in the mood for. Gimme some of that awesome butt-kicking Doom with cooler visuals and even more bizarre weapons! Sure. But I don’t feel the need to buy every single entry in the Gears of War / Modern Warfare / Halo franchises. At all. One of those games can take care of my appetite for a couple of years.

And really, while I appreciate some twists on the formula, just as in movies – there’s a formula for a reason. It works. I don’t need the first-person shooter mechanics reinvented with every game. Throw a metagame underneath it (like Borderland‘s RPG-esque foundation, or something like X-Com‘s strategic system, or just variant battle types), or some interesting twists to change things up a little bit (bullet-time, Left 4 Dead‘s integral cooperative requirements, whatever), and I’m good.

A fresh setting, mood, and story can change things a great deal as well. We knew this back in the Doom era, where some “Total Conversions” changed Doom into Aliens or Star Wars, or the one mod that made you toss flowers at people instead of shooting them.  The mechanics were the same, the formula was unchanged – though in the best cases, the different flavor inspired a somewhat different approach to level and encounter design.  You don’t have imperial stormtroopers popping out of hiding places quite as much as you would demons or aliens.

Beyond the Basics

And then there’s Half-Life. Half-Life proved that with a compelling storyline, a solid setting, and intriguing AI & level design, you really don’t need to change too much. It (and its sequel) are acknowledged classics and deservedly so. The smart thing Half-Life and its brilliant sequel did – and the setting gave it some leeway to do so – was adapt its gameplay to match an intriguing world and story. The fundamentals of running and gunning didn’t need to change. But they kept doing different things for you, the player, so that you had to use those basics in different ways.

Mega_Man_XThis was the same principle used in the classics of platform-based shooters (today often called “Metroidvanias“)… they basics of running, jumping, and shooting were unchanged, though there were usually some additional mechanics that varied between games.  Once you had the chance to master the basics, things got interesting. It was like a language made of only a few basic words that you eventually had to speak fluently to express really complex ideas.  As the environment threw all kinds of curve balls and new situations at you, you were effectively entering into a complex dialog with the game. While accuracy and timing were always important, creative adaptation of the fundamentals were equally critical.

Of course, for every great side-scroller where the designers truly understood these principles, you had dozens of knock-off titles that felt like they were made in an assembly line which had different graphics and little more. Nothing but a fresh coat of paint over the same tired look & feel. There were tons of 2D platformers, and 99% of them felt exactly the same. While technique – accuracy and timing – could be pushed to require an absolute mastery, that wasn’t necessarily fun for most players. Players got bored.

Which is kinda like the situation the FPS category is in now.

Funny – the id Software guys maintained in the early days that Wolfenstein 3D was nothing more than a 3D perspective put on a fundamentally 2D game. It was simply an extension of the same kinds of games they’d been making for years on platforms like the Apple II and Commodore 64, and the very old 2D gameplay of Silas Warner’s classic title. So could it be that in spite of vast technological gaps, we’re dealing with the same problems of 2D games – and can use the same solutions?

Play Portal and find out.

Lots of Story, Need More Substance

I can’t argue that modern FPS games haven’t gone to great lengths on story – the budget for storytelling (cutscenes, voice-overs, etc.) could probably fund any three games in the 1990s. But too often they serve to change the context of why you are shooting at these kinds of bad guys this time. Underneath the really expensive paint, there’s a lot of the same-ol’, same-ol’. It feels like they are forcing a story to match tried-and-true gameplay, rather than the other way around. The games may require mastery of the basics, and provide some highly scripted context shifts. But they are still lacking  a lot of that real depth of fundamentals and creative adaptation. Going back to that language analogy, you are never required to use more than two-word sentences, but you may be punished for the slightest mispronunciation or grammar error. (Wow, that sounds like the Internet culture).

I believe Spector understands this. His own contributions to the genre were  (although, rumor has it that in at least one case he was dragged a little by his team into it) so transformative that they really became new categories. And the indies – especially if you look at stuff like last year’s 7-Day FPS Challenege  – have proven there’s a lot of interesting directions the mechanic can go if we’re willing to depart from the the same pool of adolescent power fantasies we’ve been swimming in for decades. Or – hey, we can just go to another end of the pool, really.

We need more designers who actually understand game design, and who are given freedom to really design rather than being restricted to “bigger, better” versions of last year’s hits.

I’m Not Really Talking About First-Person Shooters

While I’ve been talking about first-person shooters and their 2D roots, this is something that isn’t limited to any genre or category.

For RPGs, I’ve been saying the same thing for a long time.  Aside from the pure novelty of playing games on a machine, what was fun once upon a time can still be fun now. The concepts may need to be cleaned up, tuned up, and adapted to modern audiences, but just as first-person shooters may not be all that different from running around Castle Wolfenstein on an Apple II in 1981, the fundamentals may work just as fine in the modern era.

But we can’t just keep playing the same game with prettier technology and a few details changed. I’ll keep harping on indies the same way… while it’s great to be inspired by older games, you have to draw a line somewhere where you can make your game your own and you aren’t just creating an echo of the past.

Filed Under: Design - Comments: 8 Comments to Read

  • Bad Sector said,

    FPS games put too much emphasis on the “story” part while they forget that there is a “game” part. Personally i believe that the best era for FPS games was the mid-to-late 90s when there were a lot of different kinds of FPS games and experimentation – both in how story was presented but more importantly how the game was played.

    Then at some point Half-Life (and soon after, Halo) came out and basically destroyed most other “branches” with its awesomeness. After that most developers tried to be like Half-Life (and later like Halo).

    FPS games at their core are games where you navigate a world from your avatar’s point of view and shoot things to progress. There is nothing that says that FPS games have to look or behave in a realistic way (all you need is to have enough “realism” in the avatar’s interaction with the world to maintain the illusion that you’re looking things from its point of view). Nothing that says that stories have to be about soldiers or that you’re using real guns.

    I have so many ideas for FPS games… hopefully at some point i’ll even be able to implement them 😛

  • Albert1 said,

    I completely agree with Bad Sector, and most FPS fans wouldn’t mind a return to the origins.
    Also, as I commented time ago, what’s a good story is highly subjective: I still think the best game story ever was Unreal’s one. In Unreal you doesn’t even know the name of your character – a la Doom/Quake1/2 – and there are no cut scenes, no logorrheic scientists like the ones in Half-Life, and yet the world was so vivid, the facts were so open to player’s speculations and imagination – that was really great! And the reason the new wolf will be (almost surely) shitty is because it’s no longer the brutal FPS of the 90s – it will be stuffed with scenes, dialogs, maybe even some RPGesque stats.

  • guiguibob said,

    Just heard the same points of genre stagnation in the most recent three moves ahead podcast about the space 4x genre. In short : Nobody tried anything really different since master of orion. We’ve been playing the same game only bigger and better since.

  • Xenovore said,

    . . .too much emphasis on the “story” part while they forget that there is a “game”

    Agreed. The Crysis games, for example, have gone downhill for that very reason; now there’s just too much story (and primarily in the form of intrusive cutscenes).

    Regarding Half-life: Those games nailed it — stay the hell out of the player’s way; let the environment and the game-play tell the story. (Everyone and their dogs’ fleas would immediately pre-purchase Half-Life 3 in the event it was announced. Dunno why Valve isn’t doing anything with that IP.)

    Nothing . . . says that stories have to be about soldiers or that you’re using real guns.

    Totally! My personal wish is to play something like Heretic or Hexen again, i.e a fantasy FPS game. Those games were awesome to say the least, yet we haven’t really seen anything like them in a long while. (Although Xotic should get a mention here for being a cool little fantasy FPS, but unfortunately it didn’t scratch the itch; too surreal maybe. . . ?)

  • Eldiran said,

    Megaman X is the perfect game to illustrate a “great side-scroller where the designers truly understood these principles”. 8D

    I just hope the new Wolfenstein remembers there’s a world of fun FPSes beyond sluggish movement, sprint buttons, recharging health, cover, and 2-weapon inventories. (I highly doubt they will avoid even one of those things, though…)

  • Felix said,

    Hear, hear! I love first person shooters, but only the minimalist kind. Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, Unreal 1, Serious Sam… these are the titles I remember fondly. Even Quake 2 only appealed to me in deathmatch mode. And I say this as someone whose other favorite genre is turn-based strategy.

    The complexity of a game matters. The pace of a game also matters. If the two are mismatched, players are going to hate it. As for story… many games are trying to shoehorn one in for the sake of appearing intellectual, and it’s ugly.

    Perhaps it’s the same mentality that leads people to want hugely complex websites or office suites for the sake of it… I don’t know. But I’m glad for the ability to do my own thing instead.

  • Albert1 said,

    @Xenovore: take a look at “Hellraid” – it seems to be on the right way!

  • Xenovore said,

    @Albert1: Thanks for pointing that out! Hellraid looks pretty interesting; I’ll definitely have to keep my eye on that one. (Although it’s hard to tell yet if that’s quite what I’m looking for.)