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.
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.