The Stagnancy of the First Person Shooter
Story, Plot & Narrative

Round Table Fallout

Wow. Suddenly, a deluge of comments! I'm not sure I have time to do them justice. This is the first time I've come to the blog and seen more new comments than would fit on the recent comments roll. There are so many, a new post seemed the most appropriate response.

Let me start by saying that I have enjoyed this round table - I wasn't expecting everybody to be arguing that innovation was largely absent from FPS games, otherwise I might have taken a different argument. After all, it's not worth an intelligent person's time to be in the majority (according to GH Hardy, at least). :) It was nice to see everyone's different focus on the subject - narrative, mods, business issues; there was a lot to cover.

Anyway, on with the comments...

Josh:

I do, however, disagree that FPS will advance with new input devices. Well, it may, but only because the industry isn't willing to take the financial risk to explore the other dimensions first.

I completely agree that in principle it wouldn't take new interface devices to bring about advances in FPS games - but in practice...?

Thomas:

But is there really a way to solve this problem without moving back to Doom's dead-ahead camera? Now that I'm used to the mouselook, that control scheme feels just as weird to me on a console. It's a shame, because one of my goals eventually is to build a better library of console FPS games.

You hit the nail on the head here - the complexity has become ingrained, and there are probably only two ways to solve the problem - go back to a fixed camera (like Doom) - but most players wouldn't tolerate this "step backwards", or get a new interface device. I've been wondering if gyroscopic camera controls would work or not... I think I'd have to physically try it to know.

Josh:

GoldenEye, I think, introduced a fine mechanic where the reticle would jump towards the enemy if you got close enough. Not so much autolock, but definately aim assist. Not a bad compromise between DooM and Quake.

I'm glad you mentioned this - I cannot believe that after Goldeneye (1997) the genre of (console) FPS games threw away one of its key elements - that of auto-aiming. EA freely admit to using Goldeneye as the template for their FPS games, and yet they omitted this crucial feature, which didn't come back until Halo (2001).

James:

I still disagree - would you classify Super Mario Sunshine as having simple controls? You have quite a large array of moves at your disposal, and if you've never navigated a 3D world before, even a single-stick interface is daunting.

Mario Sunshine is at the most complex end of platformer controls... it still doesn't come close to the complexity of console FPS. It's not about 3D platformers having simple controls, just *simpler* controls than FPS games.

I have two points of reference for this - one is a model we call dimensionality of control, which would take too long to go into in detail (it's in the book!) but in brief, count 2 dimensional data (a stick) as 2 dimensions of control; count 1 dimensional data (an analogue trigger; two controls that modify one element, such as a throttle) as 1 DOC, count single controls as half a DOC. I hope the logic behind this is clear. The DOC of Mario Sunshine is 4 (not counting Yoshi control) - one stick, plus four atomic controls - the DOC of most FPS games is at least 8 (twin sticks = 4 DOC, weapon select = +1, 6 atomic actions = +3) and on PC it sometimes goes as high as 13 what with leaning and so forth.

The other is direct observation of players. A new player can stumble through the controls for any 3D platformer - but they often cannot even begin to control an FPS. Try it yourself (if you know anyone who doesn't currently play 3D video games!) It really is quite illuminating!

It is the case that many people struggle with jumping in 3D (I still hanker for 2D platform games...), but this is not specifically a control issue... this point isn't about being able to play well, this is about being able to control the game to any degree at all. As I say, we have found very few new players who cannot at least stumble through the controls for a 3D platformer, but we find many players who cannot even begin to operate a twin stick game.

I do heartily agree that navigating a 3D world is daunting to new players, though. Does anyone know (from player studies, or informal observation) if navigating in first person is easier for people to handle than navigating in third person? I know I find third person easier, but I am not often a good general case.

James again:

I think you missed my point - FPS games are not innovative, but neither are RPGs nor platformers nor whatever.

Well, it's a question of perspective, as ever. I personally see the innovation in the genres you mention. Innovative platform games include tranquility, the flash game N, the lovely Mischief Makers, and (to a lesser degree) Tak.  Innovative RPG games include Disgaea: Hour of Darkness (admittedly a strat-RPG), our own Heretic Kingdoms: The Inquisition (if only for the elimination of the potion economy) and even the hilariously sarcastic ProgressQuest. Well okay, maybe not ProgressQuest. :)

I would agree with you that there are many, many cookie cutter clone games in the genres you mention, but I still see some innovation in the corners. No matter how hard I look, I don't see the innovation in FPS games. As before, however, it may come down to a subjective decision as to where one chooses to place the boundary between innovation and refinement.

James once more:

Is there a reason you omitted fiero? I would think fiero is one of the main draws to multiplayer, overlapping heavily with agon.

I skipped over this because it was a jump in reference. The categories I had mentioned were from from Caillois' categories of play (Agon, Alea, Ilinx and Mimicry); fiero is an emotion referenced from either Nicole Lazarro's Four Keys (linked to Hard Fun) or linked to our Type 1 Conqueror play style. I appreciate I jump around between different systems and models like Mario on amphetamines, so it's hard to keep everything straight at times. Sorry about that. :(

So yes, FPS games are heavy on the fiero (Type 1 players seem to love FPS games, according to our research) - but I was purposefully avoiding language from audience models, because it didn't seem appropriate in the round table. Even referring to Caillois was a bit of a stretch, but I felt it was at least intuitive what I meant in that context.

My thanks to Corvus for setting up this round table - I look forward to the next one!

Comments

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RE: New interfaces. Well, it would be nice ... but I don't think it's where shooters are really being held back. Yeah, if someone finally made a real whizbang input device, it could definately shake up the industry.

But remember - this is also one dimension that has seen a pretty decent amount of movement. People have long tried to make the better shooter joystick/mouse/ball/glove/hat ... but the key+mouse combo is pretty persistent because it works well.

Re: Goldeneye. Well, auto-aiming has a bit of a stigma outside the non-casual gamer because it's not terribly l33t. But I am surprised that it's not a mechanic used more often in games that should know they aren't going to have a tourney and your example of Medal of Honor is pretty spot on.

"Well, it's a question of perspective, as ever. I personally see the innovation in the genres you mention..."

I must not be articulating myself well on this point. What I'm saying is, you are taking microinnovation in those genres and equating it to macroinnovation. What did Disgaea do that was truly innovative? It was certainly original in it's presentation and direction, but I don't know if there are any new gameplay innovations that redefine the genre. Strategy RPGs are nothing new, dating back to at least Ogre Battle. Was there any innovation in Disgaea that equalled to the innovations in Battlefield 1942? What about Deus Ex? Perhaps Brothers in Arms, or Rainbow Six? There may not be a lot of macro-innovation in those titles, but as I've stated earlier, I believe any truly macro-innovative title will confuse genre definitions and be difficult or impossible to classify in an existing genre (because there is nothing truly like it in current existence.) If it is still easily definable as a genre or perhaps a new subgenre, than it may have microinnovations, perhaps even many microinnovations, but I don't think it would classify as a macroinnovative title.

Let us also demarcate the split between titles that are innovative (Mario 64); and titles that, while creative, original, and artistic, do not bring anything revolutionary to the gameplay table (Ico, Beyond Good & Evil). There are many people who call Ico innovative, which I feel is slightly misguided. Ico is certainly quite unique, but the gameplay elements are almost without exception retreaded ground. That doesn't detract from the uniqueness and originality of it, but it's important to be cognizant of the difference titles that "feel new" and titles that "actually are new."

Oh, and on the fiero bit: I just recently finished Rules of Play, I must have merged the two tables (and given that they are both 4-part tables using foreign words, I'm not too surprised I did.) For a refresher, what is alea?

Alea decribes games of chance, or chance in games. It's an intriguing subject in itself.

What Disgaea did that was truly innovative was that they included so many different ways to play the game, they actually created an entirely new structure - one in which the player really can choose how to play the game, largely without restriction. Although it was a strat RPG, the structure could be used with any RPG game. New game structures are always macro-innovations, in my opinion, as structure is a key (and often overlooked) element in games.

I have already agreed with you about Ico - it has a wonderful artistry, but it is held back by very old school core game design.

I also agree that major innovations tend to define new genres... Rainbow Six is an interesting case not mentioned in this discussion before, because it is innovative, albiet nearly unplayable for many players. :) Deus Ex also had some innovations... but it's such a mess. As a hybrid RPG-FPS-Stealth game, I personally feel it is wrong to consider it primarily an FPS, as it has so little in common with the form, and so much more in common with RPGs.

We cannot truly demarcate between truly innovative titles, and original/creative games, because there is no objective way to demarcate - subjective value choices always dominate. But in terms of the original theme - that of the stagnancy of FPS games - perhaps the measure is the mean drift of the game design between instances. This is far lower in FPS games collectively than it is in the other genres... Even platformers have to come up with a different set of features on a case by case basis - but an FPS game just has to rename the practically predefined weapon set! Our digression into single instances of games somewhat blurred this issue, which was my point. The plus side? When you've learned to play one FPS, you've learned to play them all.

"Rainbow Six is an interesting case not mentioned in this discussion before, because it is innovative, albiet nearly unplayable for many players."

I would think that goes to show how innovative it is - it is so different that while it appears to be related to genre x, the audience that enjoys it is very different.

"As a hybrid RPG-FPS-Stealth game, I personally feel it is wrong to consider it primarily an FPS, as it has so little in common with the form, and so much more in common with RPGs."

To me, the definition of RPG seems so ramshackle that I am loathe to define most nonstandard RPGs as actual RPGs; rather, I prefer to call them a game with RPG elements. What is an RPG? Is an inventory, skill point system, and dialouge tree all that it takes to qualify? The core gameplay elements of Deus Ex are walking around in the first person and (though it depends on the playstyle of the given player) shooting things. While it certainly borrows many traditional RPG elements, I would say it is still primarily a FPS at heart.

"We cannot truly demarcate between truly innovative titles, and original/creative games, because there is no objective way to demarcate - subjective value choices always dominate."

Sure we can - but I have a seperate defition for 'original' and 'innovative.' Games can certainly fall into both categories. In my definition, innovation refers more to game play elements and how it changes the playspace, while originality applies more to artistic/narrative presentation. Katamari was both due to its radical new gameplay elements and its very unorthodox presentation, whereas The Mark of Kri (or God of War for a more recent example) was not a huge break from traditional action games, but it featured a fresh art style and presentation that helped make it feel different than other 3rd person actioners while largely keeping the same gameplay elements. Half-Life 2 might be another example - the only really new gameplay elements it brought to FPS was from the gravity gun and integration of physics into simple puzzles. However, the way it presentated an oppressive dictatorship in a near future dystopia made the game seem newer than it really was.

"The plus side? When you've learned to play one FPS, you've learned to play them all."

And platformers, and Final Fantasies, etc...I disagree that this is unique to the FPS genre. The RPG genre has really not changed since the mid 80s Final Fantasy; the only really way they have changed is by occasionally hybridizing with other genres. While each individual game always has its own idiosyncracies for the player to learn, all games within a single genre share a particular framework of play that enables an almost unified control set - that's why they are still in the same genre.

"What Disgaea did that was truly innovative was that they included so many different ways to play the game, they actually created an entirely new structure - one in which the player really can choose how to play the game, largely without restriction."

I must admit I haven't played it myself (and given how hard it is to find, I wonder if I ever will), so all I've heard about it comes from wildly enthusiastic friends who have played it. However, from what I can gather from them and from online reviews, it sounds like it doesn't stray particularily far from the gameplay established in Final Fantasy Tactics. Now the narrative treatment certainly sounds unique; but the gameplay itself (as near as I can ascertain) seems to be in the same vein as titles before.

I'm getting the impression you don't play many platformers or CRPG games, James... It really is not the case that when you've learned to play one that you have learned to play them all.

The learning curve for platform games extends along the spine of the game, making it easy to take onboard - but each game has its own set of elements to learn. They tend to be easy to learn, but not always. Tak in particular offered quite a diverse set of game elements to learn - very different from other platform games - while keeping the core play elements. Move on a single stick plus jump is the only common element - and even in this regard, the jump functionality diversifies significantly across the platform genre. The commonalities are largely in structure (copied from Mario 64, generally).

In CRPGs, the variation is even more extreme. Every one has its own set of mechanics, which must be learned. Even the Final Fantasies have completely different mechanics - during the case studies for DGD1, one FF fan made a point of saying that what she enjoyed most about the games was learning the mechanics of each one, and when they were too simplified (she cited a particular FF - I forget which one) she felt cheated.

There is also considerable structural variation, control scheme variation, and core mechanic variety. Compare Record of the Lodoss War, Skies of Arcadia and Grandia II, for instance (three contemporaneous games for the same platform). The only thing they have in common is a level system, and even that is geared differently in each case.

FPS games are one of a very small set of genres which do not generally present the player with new mechanics to learn on a game by game basis... In fact, I'm trying to remember the last time an FPS had to teach me something - other than showing me the way forward in a mini-cut scene.

As to what defines an CRPG, well, as a family resemblence category it's very clearly defined... but perhaps only players of tabletop RPGs have the necessary mental conception to apply this category. :) An attempt to provide a logical category is on our website somewhere, but I'm not sure how successful it was.

As for Disgaea, your discussion above focuses on the game mechanics, which (throwing aside!) are merely polished strat-RPG fodder - but as I say above, what makes Disgaea so different is its *structure*. This is hard to appreciate from talking to players, as most players do not consciously comprehend the structure of a game - but structure is a key issue in game design. Structure is, for instance, one of the reasons the GTA games have succeeded while the Driver games flounder.

"I'm getting the impression you don't play many platformers or CRPG games, James... It really is not the case that when

you've learned to play one that you have learned to play them all."

Actually, I play quite a lot of those - my criticism comes from the fact that these are sacred cows to most gamers,

whereas the FPS is an easy target for criticism. Many people say, where is the innovation in Doom 3, which is perfectly

reasonable; however, I ask in turn, where is the innovation in Final Fantasy #?

And in the case of control similarity, I have yet to play a platformer that really changed the way I play platformers,

since Mario 64. Many have certainly added new features, like the time rewind of PoP; but having already 'grok'ed the

controls for Mario 64 I have never had to take more than 2 minutes to get acquainted with this or that 3D

platformer/collectathon. Then again I am a 'core' gamer so I can't speak for the 'mainstream,' whoever that is.

"In CRPGs, the variation is even more extreme. Every one has its own set of mechanics, which must be learned."

I'm gonna have to give a big ol' yawn here - the only FF that was innovative was #1. Materia? Saw that already, that was

espers in 6. Junctioning? OK, so now spells are the new equipment. The Sphere grid? Clever, but it looks more complex than

it really is; by the time you can really change the character template its the endgame already. Now, mechanics have

changed, but the core gameplay is the same battle system we first saw 20 years ago - line up left, line up right; red

rover, red rover, let Tidus come over. My big complaint here is that there is zero skill required in it - the game does

not ask much playskill from its players, merely patience is required. When I play (random FPS x), I can't 'powerlevel'

myself for three hours. My adversaries do not have some absurd health or damage advantage built in (disregarding

singleplayer here, strictly talking about multiplayer.) It's skill vs. skill in most well designed FPS games; that's where

you get depth.

Now, I will admit some RPGs do break the mold - Xenogears/Saga and Chrono Cross had an interesting system that required

slightly more thought on the part of the player, albiet not much. Valkyrie Profile had a superficial resemblence to a

fighting game in mechanics, and was certainly exciting and visceral (though it still came down to hitting the face buttons

quickly and simultaneously.) The Shadow Heart and Mario RPG series of games are the only ones I can think of that really

require player skill - in this case, button timing. It's a small thing, but it opens up a good risk/reward scenario

(especially in Shadow Hearts, as the judgement ring mechanic is very customizable and flexible.) Unfortunately though, it

seems many RPGs follow the tired and true mechanics of the ATB/Turn based battle (one reason I refuse to play MMOs and why

I can't get through Bioware RPGS - 80 hours of such basic combat steals away my soul. Maybe Jade Empire, but no KoToR or

NWN for me.)

"FPS games are one of a very small set of genres which do not generally present the player with new mechanics to learn on

a game by game basis... In fact, I'm trying to remember the last time an FPS had to teach me something - other than

showing me the way forward in a mini-cut scene."

OK, now you're willfully forgetting titles (or just haven't played certain ones.) If you consider slightly altered level-

up mechanics or a few new stats to aggregate as new material, FPS games have added as much. The squad control system

demonstrated in Brothers in Arms certainly required new strategies - the four Fs (find-fix-flank-finish), just as per

contemporary US military doctrine. Players could be the base of fire or the flanker, but they certainly could not the

Rambo anymore. Or perhaps the integration of vehicles in titles like Battlefield 1942, which greatly expanded the

possibility space of the game. There is the physics gameplay in Half-life 2, which while criminally underutilized,

demonstrates how much new ground there is to explore. The primary "new feature" of an FPS typically is the AI - Far Cry

and Half-life (and possibly the demo-only FEAR) are well known for much more intelligent behavior. Not a tangible feature,

but certainly a new situation to deal with. Now, to be fair, these titles are the exception and not the rule. For every

FPS with a novel new feature like above, there will be scads of titles that at best ape what Carmack and Romero did 15

years ago. I don't dispute that. However, to paint a picture of FPSes being the only genre to suffer from this drought of

innovation is patently unfair. For every Beyond Good and Evil are a horde of mindless collectathons like Donkey Kong 64

that only bored 12 year olds can possibly hope to finish.

"As to what defines an CRPG, well, as a family resemblence category it's very clearly defined... but perhaps only players

of tabletop RPGs have the necessary mental conception to apply this category. "

I have played p&p RPGs (just D&D) and these are the main defining mechanics I can extract (at a glance):

1) Emphasis on narrative
2) Stat accrual over time, enhancing player prowess
3) Inventory
4) Random chance

Most of these mechanics (except for #4) are present in such a wide variety of games that, to me, the RPG genre is highly

diluted. What really defines an RPG? Is merely a turn based or ATB battle system sufficient? I don't know; this is just

food for thought.

I tend to classify games as RPGs at a secondary or tertiary level. For example, I call Kingdom Hearts a 3D action

platformer with RPG elements; not an RPG with 3D action platformer elements. Deus Ex is an FPS with RPG elements. Disgaea

is a tactical game with RPG elements. The core definition of the RPG is not strong enough for me to really say what is and

what is not an RPG. The only things I am "sure" are RPGs are the games the mirror the D&D mold (FF, Dragon Quest et al.)

"As for Disgaea, your discussion above focuses on the game mechanics, which (throwing aside!) are merely polished strat-

RPG fodder - but as I say above, what makes Disgaea so different is its *structure*."

Well, I would really need more than simply saying it has that je ne sai quois to evaluate it. To me, as a baptized and

confirmed ludologist, the mechanics are the most crucial part of the game and what seperates games from other media. The

narrative certainly sounds interesting from what I've read, but the gameplay sounds none too new - not neccessarily a bad

thing, since from all reports the execution is superb. I just dispute the idea that it is very innovative if there are no

new or unusual game mechanics - to me, game mechanics are the definition of what is and is not innovative. A new narrative

twist is not innovative to me, though it may be original. It may be an innovation in narrative, but it is not an

innovation in the game itself.

Primarily, I'm just tired of how things like platformers, RPGs, and point/click adventure games are held on this high

pedestal where even minor changes are hailed as genre redefining innovations. I can bet you some good money that if a new

Monkey Island game was released, it would be hailed as new and innovative, even if the gameplay was the same as it ever

has been. There is a much more sensitive perception of innovation in these genres compared to the FPS. Even if a new FPS

was released that could cure cancer, it would be derided by the gaming press as "merely another ho-hum Doom clone, yawn." It's considered socially acceptable to call FPSes bland and samey but not acceptable to say the same of RPGs and platformers. It's not that many FPSes are innovative - I certainly agree that many (most) are lowest common denominator fare. It's just that there is an uneven perception in this genre versus others.

Egads, that came out of Notepad rather butchered. My apologies for its unreadibility.

I feel that you have taken my comments and run in a completely different direction with them... Although I recognise your complaints, I don't disagree with you on many points so continuing to discuss them would be fruitless. :)

Can I clarify that I think most platformers and CRPGs are badly designed and badly implemented - but they generally show more variety than FPS games in terms of their mechanical and control content. FPS games largely follow a very stable template - but this can be an advantage in that it frees the player who enjoys the FPS template to focus on what they like about that gameplay, rather than learning new mechanics et al.

However, I have to complain again at your dismissive approach to Disgaea. When I talk of structure, this is *absolutely not* narrative structure - I'm sorry if I have not already made this clear. There is nothing interesting in Disgaea's narrative.

When I talk of structure, I am talking about how the gameplay is structured. If you do not currently consider this as part of game design, your definition of game design is much too narrow and needs revising.

Briefly, in an attempt to clarify, Disgaea uses parallel mechanisms for delivering content - a linear narrative segment, a randomly generated hack-style dungeon section, a progressive and dynamic class and level system (which is a game in itself), and a political subsystem that can be played in multiple different ways, and which in turn modifies the rest of the content. The net result is that each Disgaea player can play the game in an entirely different manner, according to their particular tastes, supporting very diverse play - within the single context of a strat-RPG, of course.

Now I didn't particularly enjoy Disgaea, but I have a great deal of respect for what Nippon Ichi achieved in the structure of the game, which is worth studying by anyone with an interest in game design. It's one of very few games which gives the player unprecedented freedom to arrange their play experience how they wish. Very few games support such diverse play needs within a single structure.

Oh, and doesn't Brothers in Arms descend from squad simulators rather than FPS games, i.e. from Full Spectrum Warrior? I don't think it's an example of FPS innovation, but another instance of genre hybridisation.

Can I also reiterate that I'm not saying that there are no innovations within FPS games, nor that FPS genres are somehow deficient in any way, nor that there is anything wrong in liking FPS games, playing FPS games or making them.

I am merely saying that - commercially speaking - the genre is resistant to innovation, because it has found a stable form which appeals to a wide audience. The same is arguably true of platformers.

I also don't want to continue this particular discussion for much longer, as I am spending so much time responding to your comments that I haven't had time to make a new post! :)

"I am merely saying that - commercially speaking - the genre is resistant to innovation, because it has found a stable form which appeals to a wide audience."

And my argument is that this is true of all genres - the FPS does not have any particularly bad case of this compared to other genres. This is an industry-wide, not genre-wide, crisis. It's just that the FPS is an easy target for this criticism because of the glut of FPS titles. If there is such a thing as per-capita innovation, I don't have any particular reason to believe the FPS is especially lacking - the FPS genre has more lackluster titles because more FPSes in general are made. Painting FPS as the primary source of me-too games is, to me, merely a sleight of hand that distracts the public eye from all the mediocre games of other genres. While the criticisms are not untrue, they are not balanced either.

"Oh, and doesn't Brothers in Arms descend from squad simulators rather than FPS games, i.e. from Full Spectrum Warrior? "

That's the closest analougus title. Of course this raises the question, where is the line drawn between hybridization and innovation? Is hybridization itself innovative or potluck game design? Where would Disgaea fall in here?

"Briefly, in an attempt to clarify, Disgaea uses parallel mechanisms for delivering content..."

I hadn't heard of the political system before, but the other elements sound part and parcel of the tactical RPG genre. Structure here is a very ambiguous term to me here that I'll need your definition of.

Regarding structure, this has to be a discussion for another time - it's just too big a subject. :)

Boundary between hybridisation and innovation? That's a tricky one. Clearly hybrid games can be innovative... but they can also be derivative. Perhaps there is a judgement call for individuals to make here...

This has been the trouble all along in talking about innovation - it resists objective analysis, so provokes a lot of subjective arguments. Also, people are probably more sensitive to innovation in genres they play more of... It's the same in music. Genres of music one doesn't listen to tend to "sound all the same".

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