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First-person shooter design: What to save, and what to frag
First-person shooter design: What to save, and what to frag Exclusive
May 22, 2012 | By John Polson

May 22, 2012 | By John Polson
More: Console/PC, Indie, Design, Exclusive

While the first-person shooter is one of the most popular video game genres around, it often relies on tried and true mechanics and concepts. That reliance on stale ideas can often lead to creative stagnation.

In a group interview, Gamasutra sister site gathered the opinions of six independent first-person shooter developers, who discussed where the genre should innovate, and what old tropes should be revisited or retired.

But first, a bit of relevant history. The origins of FPS games have been traced to the 1970s, with titles such as Maze War and Spasim. However, modern FPS titles are often compared to the id Software titles of the 90s, such as Catacomb 3-D, Doom, and Wolfenstein 3D, or more recent titles. Those hits from the 90s were often made with small teams, similar to the size of "indie" teams today.

The genre has since diffused mechanically (even mixing with other genres) and financially (over $50 million budgets). Yet, maybe to evolve, the genre just needs more attention from teams similarly sized to those who brought it to life.

Joining the interview are Alan Wilson of Tripwire Interactive (developer of Killing Floor and Red Orchestra), Kedhrin Gonzalez of Illfonic (Nexuiz), Alex Austin of Cryptic Sea (A New Zero), Michiel Beenen of Interwave (Nuclear Dawn), Oscar Jilsen of Coffee Stain Studios (Sanctum), and Mladen Bošnjak of Misfit Village (SickBrick).

IndieGames: Where do you see innovation is ripe and waiting?

Alan Wilson, Tripwire: We're always keen to try new elements out - like a real first-person cover system. Peripheral vision done well. All sorts of stuff like that. Those things that really make me feel immersed in a game. That is one of the key points about an FPS for me - that it gives me the most real, believable perspective on whatever the game world is. [It] doesn't have to be a "real" world - but I want to feel part of it, from the perspective and the way I interact with it. FPS games, at their best, give you the best possible chance to be "in" the world.

There is also a whole debate about how we pay for games and value for money - and I would really like to see that getting explored more. I've always been on record as saying that I have yet to see a game I really believe is worth $60 up front. I want to go on enjoying my games.

Alex Austin, Cryptic Sea: There's a lot of room for innovation in FPS games, the main one I'm focused on right now is movement. Every FPS game right now uses the same movement as Quake 1 essentially, with a few hacks like prone position or moving your aiming reticule when firing a weapon.

The reason for this is there is a huge gap between simple Quake movement and realistic human movement, and if you don't make it over that gap almost everyone will hate it. The only game that I know of that ever tried to make it was Trespasser, and that was not received well. I'm currently trying to jump that gap with A New Zero. We'll see if I make it, but so far it's encouraging. I have a video of what the movement system allows.

Michiel Beenen, Interwave: In recent gaming history, titles such as Half Life 2, Deus Ex and Dark Messiah of Might and Magic have demonstrated how the 'Shooter' in FPS games is but one of the gameplay approaches that the genre permits. We'd like to see more and more games find and develop these alternative styles, where shooting is but a single component of a great, cinematic FPS adventure.

Oscar Jilsen, Coffee Stain: It's a hard question, as I have not been thinking about it a whole lot.

Most FPS games right now seem to just be repeating the same process. Ever since Halo popularized the two-weapon standard and regenerating health became the norm most recent FPS games feel similar. It is hard to answer that question because the name "First Person Shooter" kinda locks down the possibilities, it demands that you can shoot from a first person perspective.

What I would like to see from First Person Perspective games is more games like Mirror's Edge and Amnesia: to focus on interaction with the environment and to use the perspective differently. Amnesia does this well when they punish you for looking at enemies, that is a very smart and interesting twist to the genre that more games could utilize.

Mladen Bošnjak, Misfit Villager: The FPS genre is pretty straightforward, when you add elements and start innovating, it goes into different genres (add inventory and a few choices, it's already an RPG), so I don't think you can innovate the FPS genre in particular much without it stretching its "First Person Shooter" name.

Kedhrin Gonzalez, Illfonic: I think, the largest step FPS games can take at this point, is a new peripheral that gets players more involved with fewer restrictions. They've tried it with the Wii, Move and Kinect, but they're lacking precision control. Aiming at the screen to turn just doesn't work well enough! I do have an idea that can work (I think)... but I can't really discuss it. It's pretty direct...

The thing is, you can't take this entire genre, throw in new controls and expect it to immediately change. Today's day and age isn't like 1996 when Quake allowed +mlook and it changed everything. It also isn't like Halo where the thumbsticks came in with gameplay catered towards console play. Things are a lot more expansive now.

Turning is [also] one of the most important things in an FPS. It has to be smooth, easy, and controllable. Take that away and you just don't have a fun FPS. I'd love to play around with all of these ideas to further expand on what we can do with the genre. Let's face it, First Person View is the most important genre because it will lead into Virtual Reality. The people mastering its craft today will be the ones deciding VR's fate.

Other than that, I think FPS is going towards FPS RPG being the main focus. It gives progression over repetition. It drives commitment within a game. Reward the player with lush story, but also give them hardcore gameplay. I think S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is the best example of this. Although the game had some serious flaws that prevented it from seeing its full potential, it is a star role model of things to come for FPS Games.

IndieGames: Where would you like to see the games imitate, as in what old or forgotten elements of FPSes should be revisited?

Oscar Jilsen, Coffee Stain: I personally am a big fan of the secondary fire feature that was common back in the day. It (usually) made the weapons a little deeper and invited the player to switch up their tactics.

Alan Wilson, Tripwire: I've been replaying bits of Rainbow Six: Vegas recently. I always loved the whole terrorist hunt mode in that game. [I'd like] more tactical games, that don't revolve around some Hollywood plot type of thing.

Kedhrin Gonzalez, Illfonic: FPS games have been losing the exploration factor. This is due to short attention spans. The majority of FPS fans just want non-stop, in your face action. I prefer exploring, getting into the environment. It was awesome running around Redneck Rampage and laughing at all the stuff. Duke Nukem, I mean come on. That was so fun! Games take you on a linear track because developers want constant engagement and don't want to spend resources doing some crazy event players might miss. This goes back my FPS RPG argument. They almost go hand in hand!

Mladen Bošnjak, Misfit Village: Well, I thought that Serious Sam 3 was going to bring back the old Doom-like fun of just shooting hordes of guys, but that's just not working for me anymore. I think that developers making FPS games should look back on the original Unreal Tournament and Quake 3 and see how great just shooting all of those weapons feels. I remember how I always used the ripper in UT just because it was fun to shoot, also the minigun from UT and the one from the original Serious Sam. They just don't make them like they used to.

Michiel Beenen, Interwave: Difficulty. Not every game needs to be murderously difficult, and talk of 'hardcore' switches is plain silly. However, we feel that modern FPS games place too much emphasis on coddling the player from one glorious moment of epic accomplishment to the next.

Games are starting to feel like highlight reels of these unreal, impossible heroes that it's hard to feel connected to them. Kill the player, make them fear the dark and their enemies, and don't make victory a foregone conclusion, please.

Alex Austin, Cryptic Sea: I would like to see games use some elements of pre-Quake FPS games like Ultima Underworld, System Shock or Terra Nova. All of those games had a lot of detail and complex interactions; unfortunately, everyone followed the id Software path of shoot everything. Also someone should remake Hidden and Dangerous 1 with a new engine so I can play it with my friends.

IndieGames: What elements of FPSes are overdone at this point?

Oscar Jilsen, Coffee Stain: I could go on about regenerating [health] and the two-weapon standard. But that's common knowledge. Something I think is overdone at this point is the "cinematic effect." There seems to be more watching than playing in modern FPS games; you constantly get interrupted in the middle of gameplay. If I wanted to just sit and watch, I'd be watching a movie.

Don't get me wrong, though, I don't have anything against cut scenes. Not if they're used at the right moment. But modern FPS games seem to be some kind of half movie-half game hybrids.

Alan Wilson, Tripwire: Modern warfare, bad takes on asymmetric warfare (i.e CT/COIN), immensely expensive scripted story-line pieces with dodgy voice acting. That sort of thing!

Kedhrin Gonzalez, Illfonic: Well, I do think multiplayer games have become too slow. I'm not saying those games are bad. But every FPS game? Give us back the right to really brag about being a good gamer. FPS games got slower because of how Halo dominated the console market. I think multiplayer is fun in Halo and Call of Duty, but not every game needs to mimic them.

Mladen Bošnjak, Misfit Village: Call of Duty is pretty overdone as a series. I think that Call of Duty and Battlefield are hurting their developers in a way that they're not innovating enough. There's only so much you can do in the warfare scenario. DICE did a great thing with Mirror's Edge, but they can't build on that because EA is probably pushing them to make new Battlefield franchise installments.

As for particular game elements I don't know if anything is overdone, maybe just not done enough. I'd like to see more bullet time in AAA FPS games. Fear 3 and TimeShift are the last ones that had it that I have played, and both of those games aren't really good.

Alex Austin, Cryptic Sea: Linear story. Multiplayer where you run in, shoot a guy, die, respawn and repeat. Perks. Basically, Battlefield 3.

Michiel Beenen, Interwave: Martial themes could be turned down a notch or two. These days, it's impossible to have an adventure, it seems, without being some kind of elite commando master sergeant of awesomeness who was removed from service for being too cool for the army.

Half Life's main character was a nerd with glasses, System Shock's was anything from a technician to a psi expert. Drake from Uncharted (not an FPS, but still) is a rogue adventurer. People who don't spend 29 hours a day polishing their shotgun are cool, too. They can go on adventures, as well!

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Bart Stewart
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The respect expressed here for games by Looking Glass (Ultima Underworld, System Shock, Terra Nova), games inspired by Looking Glass (Deus Ex, Dark Messiah of Might & Magic), and quirky/atmospheric FPSes (Redneck Rampage, STALKER) warms the very cockles of my heart.

There may be hope for this genre after all.

Will Buck
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Wholeheartedly agree Bart!

One glaring omission for me from those lists, though, that I think should continue to inspire ideas is Metroid: Prime. Exploring and reading rich lore can be hugely satisfying, atmospheric perspectives, all those types of 'environmental' aspirations harken me back hugely to playing the original MP. Deus Ex, System Shock, the original FEAR and MP round out my favorite FPS games of all time, pushing the boundaries on that kind of immersion are definitely things I want to see more of!

Brandon Kidwell
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My opinion on what holds back the FPS is movement. Games like Call of Duty and Halo are successful because of how smooth they play. Almost every other FPS that tried different button layouts and movement types failed to deliver and were put down before the 10 minute mark.

Don't be afraid to try old school shooters today with health packs and ammo on the ground. If tr game plays smoothly and doesn't interrupt the flow people will like it and the genre can evolve.

John McMahon
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I loved Deus Ex: HR movement and controls. but I could murder a whole police station and oh no one bothers to arrest me.

When I go back to Deus Ex or Fallout, those really classic games. There's a lot of freedom, but that freedom isn't an incentive or positive piece of the puzzle for publishers.

They want linear games. I just want an open, truly open battlefield where not everything revolves around me. Let me sneak around some enemies. Let me steal their ammo and tech when I'm low. Let me sabotage them, but not in an RPG-ish binary choice. As a gameplay mechanic, I mess up their systems and it affects the people in that area.

Anyway, there's just too much of the same structure and gameplay and not enough new approaches.

Eric Geer
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I agree with Brandon--Movement in FPS has always been an issue for me. Also level design seem to go along with this---

Never in my life have I seen more flat landscapes like I have seen in FPS--What gives? Movement. Even in the biggest shooters there are still issues with movement across horizontal landscapes--I'm looking at you Battlefield 3--I'm still getting stuck on curbs!

Where we have seen some revolutions in this are games where you can either jump incredibly high(Halo or Tribes :P) or you have games where you can smoothly traverse the landscapes--Mirror's Edge/Brink.

With mechanics like those found in ME or Brink I think we can see a great variation in landscape both horizontally and vertically--- I think the most recent good example I saw would be Prey 2( and maybe Farcry 3

Eric Schwarz
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1) It's easier to think in 2D than 3D. A lot of level design is done in 2D as well, and that tends to translate into flat levels.

2) Gamepads are less precise pointing devices than mice, and building games with gamepads in mind generally means taking focus off of 3D movement and aiming, and putting it more on resource management and tactical decisions (Halo and Gears of War being the two big obvious examples).

3) Human beings tend to look left and right but not up and down, because that's where the vast majority of information relevant to our lives comes from. Teaching players to look up or down and move in 3D is difficult, and may be contrary to the goals of a more mainstream-oriented title.

Eric Geer
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I wasn't really looking for excuses why not to do it---
1) Its easier...
2) Less precise---avoid doing it.
3) Human beings aren't used to it.

I was merely saying the mechanics have been built to do it---and they are being implemented. I just think there should be more of it. And even if straight, left and right are the first places people will look. The last two will be up and down...gamer's have great sense of process of elimination and are great puzzle solvers...give them the benefit of the doubt.

Timo Tolonen
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There's a lot of interesting developments in the indie scene. Dear Esther and Amnesia are great examples of mood, atmosphere and immersion being put at the absolute foreground of a first person experience. Some of my most memorable experiences in Thief, System Shock, Deus Ex and their ilk are the moments of quieter exploration that even their spiritual successors seem to be forgetting. Even in more action oriented games, the quieter moments carry impact and make you care more about the action that follows...

benn rice
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i love extreme metal.

there are certain bands that play at full speed most of the time. which makes you numb/desensitized to it, so it loses its effects.

the heaviest sounding bands get their heaviness from changing up the tempos, and having different timings, stops & starts, etc.... with no contrasts, and context switches, the parts just kinda blur together.

Tony Downey
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Mladen Bošnjak, Misfit Villager: "I don't think you can innovate the FPS genre in particular much without it stretching its "First Person Shooter" name."

What truth. As a thought exercise, trying innovating on Laser Tag or Paintball (not iterating - truly innovating). The form itself dictates almost 100% of the experience. Innovation has to break the format to have a chance. And then it's not a FPS anymore. (And good riddance)

benn rice
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not at all. first of all, real life is limited by real life. games have no such limitations, only mental limitations (which as you demonstrate, are largely brought about by people thinking in physical reality limitations and not thinking of all the game mechanics possibilities).

i'll give you one example. in the FPS i'm making, weapons/spells are made by combining runes. to get SOMEWHAT of an idea, think of Magicka. altho my system doesn't have any useless or non-functional combos, and really doesn't work like that, and wasn't inspired by that. but some people can't imagine anything they haven't seen, and most people here are probably familiar with Magicka and have seen it.

it basically allows for you to "create" new "weapons" on-the-fly, in the midst of battle. thousands of spells that can roughly duplicate almost any type of gun you've ever seen (and a WHOLE LOT MORE that are entirely unique*). and you don't need to do a big series of rune selections each time you fire. just press fire like normal.

its still very much an FPS game, complete with shooting weapons as the primary gameplay. there are LOTS of ideas out there yet to be explored. humans generally just can't think past things they've already seen or experienced.

* imagine a weapon/spell that shoots a shotgun like spray of projectiles.... that take time to travel thru the air, & arc according to a gravity-like pull (like grenades), reflect off of walls a set number of times (like everything else, determined by the rune combination), then each one explodes like a mini-rocket on its last impact

Tony Celentano
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Battlefield 3 did some awesome stuff. Huge open maps with loads of environment destruction, all kinds of vehicles, and also little things that matter like an adjustable FOV slider. Devs also need to stop the console / PC port nonsense. When it's glaringly obvious that this PC game was originally made for consoles, you've pretty much failed as a dev and as a gamer/consumer, I'm not able to trust your future products. Look at how much derision the recently announced "Elder Scrolls MMO" has received, simply because gamers have lost faith in Bethesda's ability to make a game for PC first, and console second. This happens in the FPS genre alot, and it needs to stop because the modding community for PC shooters is pretty much dead.

Bob Johnson
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They just aren't interesting. But I don't think the meat of the market that these games are aimed at cares.

Duong Nguyen
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Problem is it cost 60+ million to make a AAA FPS no one is gonna "experiment" on those scales, since no matter how much you like a feature there isn't any guarantees it will work and the only sure way to see it play out is to implement it in full. That's why we need small indies willing to experiment with the game concepts and that's why we need the developers to add mod support. It's no coincidence FPS gameplay has been stuck in the 90's, that was the golden age of mod support and there was a symbiosis of FPS developers and their mod community.

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Axel Cholewa
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Racial ideas? I guess you meant radical ;)

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Axel Cholewa
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I agree with Kedhrin Gonzalez, exploration is definitely lacking in a lot of FPS. Most people seem to associate Doom with straight shooting, but I especially remember the explorational bits: there where so many hidden doors, it was no easy task finding them all; so many places you saw but didn't know how to reach. This lack has to do the (un)willingness of developers to create content that not every player will see or reach. In RPGs or open world games like GTA a lot of things will be played only by a minority. But you don't find many FPS with hidden places or secret rooms (and I don't mean "there's something on the map so maybe I should go there although no one explicitely told me to" places) which give the player a real advantage in the game or at least the current level.

Mladen Bošnjak made an interesting point, too: FPS is about shooting, and if you add too mroe ways of interacting with the game world, or if you even take away shooting, you might be talking about a different genre. Ultima Underworld, for example, was clearly not a FPS. So as interesting as the interview was, I missed a clear focus here. I do think the FPS genre has a lot of room for innovation. Look at 2D platformers. In germany they're called "jump' n runs", because that's all you do. Still there was more innovation in gameplay, level design and so forth since Mario Bros. than in the FPS genre since Doom. Maybe the first person shooter needs a revitalisation like the 2D platformer saw in recent years in games like DK Country Returns, Rayman Origins, N+, Super Meat Boy and so many other excellent "jump'n runs".

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Craig Page
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Call of Duty has it right, there's no need to re-invent this wheel.

There should be a law against having one button used for taking cover, rolling, opening doors, and reviving team mates.

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John Flush
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Personally the next huge innovation, on the PC that is, should be the use of ESDF instead of WASD. I mean really PC gamers can't even keep their fingers on the home-row?! Or am I suppose to move left with my pinkie finger? Every FPS game I play the first thing I have to do is shift all the keys over one so I don't feel like a moron playing it.

Also, I really think the genre could add in local multiplayer. I mean we have online, just imaging being able to play a game with someone sitting right next to you! Bam! Headshot! I could taunt him (or her) right in their face. That would be an awesome feature if only the developers could figure it out. I mean we have this amazing technology these days, maybe someone out there could figure out how to render two FP views at the same time on the screen? Once we cross that boundary maybe we could even push it to 4! And imagine if we would link together consoles or PC's in a local multiplayer extravaganza! Wow, the amazing would just take right off.

That reminds me, I hope they didn't screw up Borderlands 2...

Scott Woodbury
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Here is what we as gamers need back in our FPS. Freedom, control, and physics. Dev's need to stop spoon feeding and trying to "assit" us. Stop trying to engage us through cinimatics and manipulation mechanics. Make good set pieces, good objectives and provide us with good controls, animations and physics so our actions are accurate, challenging and we impact the game world rather than the game world trying to impact us.

The fun of the game comes from within all of us, not shoved down our throats and force fed to us. I'm choaking on the genre. Games are all trying to look cool but after the cool is gone so is the fun. Just like a cool movie, it's best over in a couple hours. I don't want to play a character in a movie, I want to play a game as me in the game.