Official: Games = Art
Round Table Fallout

The Stagnancy of the First Person Shooter

This post is part of the Man Bytes Blog Round Table discussion on the subject of 'Innovation in the FPS Genre', taking part on Thursday 18th August. Like all my posts, it is covered by The Universal Disclaimer.

Ammonite

First Person Shooters are a lot like ammonites. Ammonites are an extinct group of marine animals, related to the modern nautilus. They first appeared about 400 million years ago, and died out around 65 million years ago, along with the dinosaurs, for reasons which are still highly disputed. I used to find hundreds of ammonite fossils in the clay near to where I grew up on the Isle of Wight, and I have on my desk a fossil ammonite with the mother of pearl still intact that I bought in Santa Fe while on my pre-honeymoon with my wife. I have a great fondness for ammonites. But what exactly do First Person Shooters have in common with them?

Although there are many games prior to the 1990s which could be called early FPS games, it is widely agreed that the spread of the modern form was facilitated by the success of Wolfenstein 3D and Doom - and indeed, back in the day the genre was often referred to as 'Doom clones'. In the intervening time, the genre has been subject to some pivotal episodes of refinement, including Goldeneye, which tightened the design of the form and also first proved the tremendous commercial potential of wedding the form to a "realistic" setting, and Halo, which further refined the control mechanism of the console versions, and expanded upon those elements arguably introduced in Goldeneye such as vehicles.

The chief thing that FPS games and ammonites have in common is that despite having been around for quite some time, the overall shape and nature remain largely unchanged. In fact, rather than being a stepping point to diverse and interesting games/species, they seem to represent a comparitively stable and successful niche which for the most part seems to be entirely resistant to change. This is common in biology - it takes quite an upset to unseat a species from a successfully exploited niche, especially when the species in question is comparatively simple.

Simplicity is another thing that ammonites and FPS games have in common. Although their soft body parts generally do not survive, they seem pretty simple in their body plan - a curving spiral of a shell forms the body, and bouyancy could probably be maintained and adjusted through changing the gas distribution inside the chambers of the body. Most ammonites are in fact just a straight line that has been rolled up into a spiral. FPS games are similarly just a straight line, albiet a straight line with some dead ends added such that the player is kept busy "pathfinding".

There's a certain irony in that while FPS games are fundamentally simple in their design and construction, their control mechanisms are incredibly complicated. You probably don't even think about it - because you have likely spent several years acquiring the twin stick control mechanism over the course of playing many different games. But this is the most complex control mechanism currently at use in games, requiring multiple sticks and buttons (or a mouse and multiple clusters of keys) to operate. Only the fact that the control mechanism has remained fundamentally unchanged as the genre has been refined has countered the degree of complexity - but watch new players trying to come to terms with the controls... It's more complex than you might think it is.

FPS games tend to deliver very basic play in two general areas: they deliver agonistic (competitive) challenge, by pitting the player against a horde of generic foes to overcome, usually with very little subtelty. They may also deliver a mimicry payoff (what some would term immersion) by seeming to place the player in a trivially convincing virtual world... a whole new world within which the player may run up and down a straight line (with a few deadends for variety) and shoot things. Or blow them up. But mostly shoot them. Often in the head. The simplicity of their delivery of play is part of their strength - they appeal to a comparatively wide (but largely male) audience because they deliver a very basic, effective play experience. It's the experience of the movie action hero (which is why it sometimes sits rather uncomfortably with the WWII setting - although most players really don't seem to mind) and the linear structure and basic gameplay mean that anyone can work out what they are supposed to do. You shoot everything that moves. Often in the head.

Because the success of the games rests in the simplicity of their form, they are suprisingly resistant to innovation. In fact, it's quite hard to point out succesful innovations in the history of FPS games, unless one uses the term 'innovation' to extend to "micro-innovations", which I would prefer to consider under the banner of refinement. Refinement is not to be undervalued - in some respects, it is just as interesting and valuable as innovation. But when I think of innovation, I think of Mario 64 - a genre defining chunk of innovation, still as copied as Doom, or of innovative commercial failures such as NiGHTS: Into Dreams, or of genre-busting innovators like Animal Crossing. I just don't see anything like this in FPS games.

Perhaps the closest to innovation that the FPS genre has offered is what we might call the Spook House form of story telling, perhaps originated (or at least perfected) with Half-Life. The linear path that FPS games have come to be built upon (after the relative commercial failure of more complicated structures, such as the explorable world used in Turok 2) lends itself to the Spook House approach: the player triggers events as they move along the line. It's like the unconvincing ghost which swings along a wire as you ride the ghost train. Still, it's fun in its own way. But it strikes me as just a refinement from triggering static cut scenes at fixed places in the straight line.

Metroid Prime is worth a mention, since it isn't built upon the linear structure at all, but rather the old Metroid structure (which in fact is basically Zelda structure). I enjoyed it - apart from the tediously difficult bosses at the end - but I can't really consider it to be innovative. The structure has been seen many times before, after all, it just hadn't been used in FPS games. Similarly, Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction can hardly be considered innovative for taking the structure of GTA and wedding it to the FPS. At least Metroid Prime had a go and restructuring the control mechanism into something more interesting (and possibly easier to learn to use).

Then there's the multi-player dimension. Angela Sutherland, one of my bosses when I worked in house at Perfect Entertainment, was intrigued by the programmers' obsession with FPS games such as Quake. Having watched them play at some length (and playing herself on occassion) she concluded that the games were basically just virtual "It" (or "Tag"). And I have to say, I completely agree. The play experience of most multi-player FPS games is an almost complete analogue of the playground game of It or Tag - pure agon (competition) with very few rules or subtleties (doubtless part of the appeal). Counter-Strike may have improved the compexity of the experience by offering roles, but still, the sophistication of play is low. I'm not saying this is inherently a bad thing, mind you. But it is so simple, it's hard to be innovative.

Ammonites probably died out because the successful biological strategy which had served them so well for so long started to unravel when the environment underwent a dramatic change. We may see the same with FPS games at some point in the future. I expect we will, as one of the key draws of the genre is the illusion of "realism", but key play activities - in particular circle straffing - are highly contrived with no basis in reality, as any soldier (or paintball player) can attest. FPS games just don't do a good job of simulating firearm combat in any shape or form... they are instead a highly esoteric game style which we are fooled into believing is "realistic" by tricks of mimicry.

When the innovation comes - and it may come with new interface devices rather than with design advances - FPS games in the form we have come to know and love/tolerate/endure* (Delete as applicable) will probably go the way of the ammonite, driven to the brink of extinction - but still hanging on as a curiosity, like the nautilus, the last survivor of a once hugely successful group of animals.

Comments

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"There's a certain irony in that while FPS games are fundamentally simple in their design and construction, their control mechanisms are incredibly complicated..."

True. I'd argue the same to many genres though - platformers, adventure games, even RPGs (the leveling mechanics.) I don't think this is unique to the FPS, nor do I think the FPS has this particularily bad relative to other genres.

"Because the success of the games rests in the simplicity of their form, they are suprisingly resistant to innovation."

Two things - one, simple form and innovation are not opposing forces. Katamari had a simplistic, even barebones form, yet was very innovative. I think your fallacy is complaining that games slotted to an existing genre do not define new genres. Of course a new FPS won't redefine play - if it did that, it wouldn't be termed an FPS; it would not be so easily categorized. Again, games like Katamari, which DO enhance the global play space of games, are either genre-founders or genre-unclassifiables. Mario64 was innovative because it defined the 3D platformer/collector. All subsequent games of that ilk haven't been innovative by definition - if they were very innovative, a new term would be made for them. I think you are faulting refinement games for not providing innovation - if they were innovative, they would be entirely different games.

"FPS games tend to deliver very basic play in two general areas: agon, mimicry."

I'd say they provide all four forms of play - fiero, in that defeating an online opponent (or tough boss) of equal or greater skill is certainly a triumph over adversity. Illinx is, in my belief, a natural consequence of the first person perspective in 3D - seeing through your own eyes that aren't; seeing an unusual perspective/field of view; and moving in unusual and extraordinary ways (the run speed of Quake was estimated at 80MPH in "Masters of Doom" if I recall correctly, bunny hopping, being able to whip your vision around instantly, etc.)

"The play experience of most multi-player FPS games is an almost complete analogue of the playground game of It or Tag - pure agon (competition) with very few rules or subtleties..."

The tag metaphor is certainly apt - it's just computerized laser tag. However, I think you sell the genre short by saying it lacks subtleties - certainly that is true with regard to storytelling; but I defy you to play a round of Counterstrike or Operation:Flashpoint, and clean house the first round. There are lots of gameplay mechanics and weapon specifics that require subtlety and practice - for example, the first bullet accuracy of the AK-47 and subsequent wild inaccuracy requires, in my view, some rather subtle handling; versus something like the FAMAS or M4 which have different handling capabilities due to their burst or suppressed capabilities.

"FPS games in the form we have come to know and love/tolerate/endure* (Delete as applicable) will probably go the way of the ammonite, driven to the brink of extinction..."

To me this sounds like sour grapes. While FPSes will probably not be the dominant genre for ever and ever, saying that they will eventually fade away seems to me like saying Hollywood action Bruckheimer blockbusters will fade away. They may one day fall to a smaller niche (like fighting games) but I doubt we will see an extinction. After all, the FPS isn't just about action but about playing the first-person. They may evolve someday, but it sounds shortsighted to me to say they will vanish.

Some interesting comments.

Your first point is off base though - platformers, RPGs etc do not have very complicated control mechanisms. I'm talking about the *controls*, not the game mechanics - only first person shooters go off the scale in the complexity of the control mechanism. (Platformers, in fact, tend to have relatively simple control mechanisms). It's the twin sticks (or mouse and keyboard in parallel) which renders them difficult for new players to master.

You're right that simple form and innovation are not opposing forces - but my argument is because FPS games have achieved wide scale commercial success in a simple form, this makes them resistant to innovation. I stand by this point. Any game which achieves widespread commercial success from simplicity is likely to be resistant to innovation... In fact, there may be an argument that the most interesting innovations are those that simplify.

I agree that FPS games probably evoke ilinx.

"After all, the FPS isn't just about action but about playing the first-person"

Well I don't really agree. When I talk about FPS games, I'm only talking about FPS games, I'm not talking about first person games that aren't shooters. Discussion about games in first person that aren't shooters would be a totally different discussion...

As for my claim for the future extinction of FPS games, I don't think I'm being short-sighted - I think I'm being far-sighted. The interface device I postulate isn't on the cards any time soon, but when it comes, I believe we will lose the gameplay which is inherent to what we currently call an FPS. Of course, the world may choose to trace lineage from the new games back to the FPS games... That's harder to tell. :)

But we agree on the 'smaller niche' point - that was my point with the nautilus. We didn't lose the ammonites completely - they just became a smaller niche.

Chris, check the second account you've e-mailed me from for the solution to the IFRAME color issue (as well as how to make it show the rest of our posts).

Elegant metaphor in play in this post and a great joy to read.

I think that we will continue to produce fossilized FPS's, as it's a crystalized form that's easy to recreate (although, perhaps, difficult to recreate exceptionally) and doesn't require re-educating your audience as to its play.

Perhaps, with where I'm taking this, a shell would be a more apt metaphor. As a developer gains experience and pushes the envelope, the innovation moves them out of the FPS shell, leaving a game or two behind for us to marvel at its simple beauty.

It occurs to me that I should point out that I love ammonites, and by comparing FPS games to them, I am not attempting to be negative. I play and enjoy FPS games, from time to time (although they are all a bit similar so I can't play too often).

That they are resistant to innovation is coupled with the fact they are a relatively stable market - and the industry needs these to keep cashflow. It's nice that we have a genre that can do this, otherwise we'd be overdependent on licenses.

Just in case it's easier for you to check here, edit the IFRAME code and replace MMYY with 0805 and CCC with FFF and you'll have your drop down prettier and functional.

Out of all the stagnating aspects of the FPS design, I really kinda like the electronic spookhouse.

I prefer it, though, to be a real spookhouse, and not just roadside attractions. Doom 3 really, really, tried to scare people - and in some ways succeeding - but FPS gamers aren't really well known for dropping their suspension of disbelief. Scaring people is hard. I consider horror, real horror, to be a pretty difficult genre to write for unless you're aiming for the choir, so to speak. Horror fans like anything in the genre, non-horror fans like almost nothing within it.

I bring this up because while it's fun to talk mechanics, I think FPS games have a chance at making a real emotional impact in storytelling which feels like it is currently on a treadmill of debate between cutscenes and jumping puzzles.

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.

The amount of complexity for FPS controls really seems to have taken a hit when they became more believably 3D. I've been using mouselook forever, so it feels natural, but when I move to a console I really see your point--it's tough for me to get the dual sticks coordinated, and I at least have the conceptual framework down. Compared to 3D plaformers, which basically represent movement in 2D with one stick, it's very complex.

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.

I'm repeating myself a bit from Mile Zero, but I suppose that's bound to happen at a table of this shape.

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.

The tag metaphor is certainly apt - it's just computerized laser tag. However, I think you sell the genre short by saying it lacks subtleties

Having spent an afternoon learning an impact jump for TFC, I would have to agree. The tag metaphor works fine for some of the core gameplay, but there's complexities beyond that.

First thing I ever did when working on a new mod was worry about the deathmatch mechanics first. Re-invent tag, then work forward, essentially.

"Your first point is off base though - platformers, RPGs etc do not have very complicated control mechanisms."

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. Prince of Persia: Sands of Time is similarily complex, especially in coordinating a string of wall runs/jumps/shimmys in a short timeframe. Platformer/action/etc games are generally increasing in complexity over time, whereas many FPS games have the same controls that Quake introduced, often with little in the way of new additions (on the control front, anyhow). If you can manage a stick + multibutton interface standard in most 3rd person games, then learning FPS controls is fairly trivial - they will take time to master, of course, but it is fairly easy to get going and exploring with WASD + mouse. I will concede somewhat on the console twin-sticks bit, but only because of the lack of precision afforded by twin thumbsticks compared to two fully utilized hands on the PC.

"Any game which achieves widespread commercial success from simplicity is likely to be resistant to innovation."

I think you missed my point - FPS games are not innovative, but neither are RPGs nor platformers nor whatever. Any game that is easily slotted into one of these existing genres is by definition not innovative on a macro level. What was the biggest innovation since Mario 64? The answer is, there has been no macro innovation for platformers. If there had been, the macroinnovator would coin a new genre or would be one of those impossible to classify games like Katamari (which can only be described as a third-person object-aggregation simulator.)

"I agree that FPS games probably evoke ilinx."

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

""After all, the FPS isn't just about action but about playing the first-person"

Well I don't really agree. When I talk about FPS games, I'm only talking about FPS games, I'm not talking about first person games that aren't shooters. Discussion about games in first person that aren't shooters would be a totally different discussion..."

I swear I had a point when I was writing this, but I can't entirely recall it, nor do I think I could articulate it coherently if I could remember. My point basically went along the line that first person games lend themselves readily to games that require a high degree of precision in their controls, but don't neccessarily need a semi/omniscient field of view and aren't terribly injured by diminshed depth perception. I think this does in some way neccessarily limit what kind of games can be made well in the first person. Mario can't be first person, because you can't see your feet and the next platform simultaneously. A fighter like Soul Calibur would be challenging because judging range and distance is much harder. While I'm not saying all FP games must be FPSes, I think the FP lends itself to shooters very well, moreso than than the third person, and this proficiency will ensure the continued survival of the genre. I think, maybe.

Definately agree that, say platformers, have equally complicated controls. One reason they aren't my favorite genre.

Dunno about the lack of evolution though. Sims, for instance, has it's ancestry in strategy/RTS, platformers have evolved into more non-linear, branching forms of gameplay, RPGs have spawned MMORPGs and a wide variety of gameplay from action RPGs to social RPGs.

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