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Wednesday, August 17, 2005

RoundTable: Innovation In First Person Shooters

Corvus chose a topic rather dear to my heart with this roundtable. When I first moved to Chicago for a job I started to get interested in getting back into modifications and mapping and the like. I even mapped out the office for both Half-Life and Unreal Tournament, the two games we LAN'd frequently at ... er, after work. This was pre-Counter-Strike (well, technically almost the exact same time ... I think I downloaded Beta 3 after a year on the job) and modding was still pretty underground and certainly not any kind of commercial factor.

I partnered up with one of the programmers and we started to work on what we thought would be a decent twist for online gaming. It was going to be a class-based online sci-fi shooter, a kind of humans versus aliens, with the twist that the alien side would win if they "converted" all the humans and the humans would win if they exterminated the alien hive.

We never got past the design phase, but about a year later I decided to go ahead and write Bounty War for Unreal Tournament. Since then, I haven't really been able to play shooters without wanting to tinker with them. It's kind of a curse of modding, once you really get it into the system ... you half expect every game to ship with a few open classes and a compiler.

My personal belief is that the FPS genre is one of the more stagnant out there, and largely it's been mods which have pushed most of the innovation forward. Class-based gameplay? I think that dates back to Future V Fantasy, and definately crystalized in Team Fortress. User Economy? Counter-Strike. Capture the Flag? Threewave. Most of the mainstays of the FPS games we play today came from user modifications which the industry adopted. Heck, I put out Containment way before Epic added Invasion to UT2004 and it was among two or three similar offerings at the time.

Now, however, mods aren't as interested in pushing the envelope. Because most mod teams these days are large and desire to break into the industry, mods have also increasingly started to fall to market demands. Mods have become larger and have much better asset creation than ever before, but they've also become more derivative and less innovative. That's certainly not intended to be a blanket statement, there are some trends worth noting that I'll get to in a moment, but for the most part it seems that first person shooters have lost the majority of the creative spark which mods granted. Fact is, it's a lot easier to be creative when you know you can't make a profit.

Worst thing is ... I'm not sure there is a solution that. The industry has adopted mods as a recruiting tool and as a value-add marketing concept. It would be neat to see something like Epic's Make Something Unreal focus primarily on innovation rather than a "whole package" approach, but I don't foresee that happening soon. Studios want to preview talent, not ideas, these days.

What are gamers missing out on? Where could shooters be going? I haven't skulked around the mod forums much recently, but these were the kinds of things I wish studios would play around with more:

Cooperative Play
Not just in terms of a fancier single player or more people online at once, but real coop mechanics. Use the concepts of team play but focus on the social dynamics of the team. A truly cooperative survival horror is a concept just waiting to be perfected.

Beyond Red Versus Blue
The two team concept of online shooters is rapidly becoming wholly ingrained. Pro-gaming has made it even more desirable so that clear winners are available.

But it's an unfortunate limitation. I wrote Riftwar specifically to test out three team mechanics for the Total Conversion I was working on (that never saw the light of day). Three teams instantly raises the level of chaos for an online game and for a class-based game like Riftwar, it added a another layer of depth and variety.

Even more desirable would be ad hoc teams. Design a game where people are allied on the fly rather than divided equally. Instead of modelling the game after a football field, model it after a city - where players team up to achieve a common goal ... and betray each others just as easily.

Player Customization
Class-based play allows players to choose from a pre-set group of options. Economy based play allows players to pick and choose from select options. There's a next step in this evolution, I think, where players are allowed even more RPG style control over what their avatar can do and how. Deus Ex style augments, stat boosters, whatever ... there's few games out there that really lets you "roll your own".

So much of shooters depend on multiplay for replayability. Once you get done with the "story" you apparently go into the "arena". Story's over, start fragging your friends. Naturally there's a lot of reason for this - but how come nobody has tried to do a non-linear shooter with say, random areas or missions?

Genre Mashup
Natural Selection and Savage proved you could combine RTS and shooter aspects. Deus Ex showed us you could do RPG elements. What else is waiting for someone to try and combine?

Modal Play
I had forgotten about this one. Freehold had a convention called Navi's which allowed people to swap between abilities (the Navi would adjust it's own abilities) and you could also adjust your shield. Shields in Freehold didn't degenerate, they just lowered damage ... but higher shields would slow you down. Most games you have to swap out inventory or swap classes to adjust your play style, whereas modal play allows you to do it on-the-fly, in the middle of the game.

Well, that's the rant. Currently the FPS genre seems mostly interested in making really pretty CG movies that you can blow stuff up in. And I'm all for that. But I also think that there is so much more. Sorry folks, I don't find a new physics engine to be all that innovative (or another gun or TK power that simply uses it), or another kind of rendering, or another trick to hide polygons. Yeah, OK, they are definately important technical achievements - but they won't be pushing the genre forward as an experience nearly as much as someone who expirements with the gameplay itself.

As a fun game, feel free to name a shooter and I'll offer how I'd tinker with it. I haven't played them all, simply most.

Der Roundtable:


Corvus said...

Heh. My first mapping passion was Heretic II, which I bought because the hero and I share the same name, but ended up loving a lot.

I've noticed that a lot of mods these days seem to be uninspired rehashes of the same old type of game play. There are exceptions, like that dirigible mod for UT, but even the less traditional big mods (Alien Swarm, Thievery) are implementing existing game play concepts.

I love the idea of exploring the social dynamics of teams. It'd be interesting to see a mechanic which gave losing a team mate personal impact, not just a tactical one.

Thomas said...

Re: Randomized single-player--the PSP title Coded Arms apparently has that in lieu of an actual scripted single-player campaign. It's been a failure, but I don't think the idea itself is flawed. I think it might be very effective at setting up real-world urban areas, which are often already on a grid and follow "rules" for their layout.

Now you just have to teach the machine to follow the fire code.

Josh said...

Having tried in a couple of different ways to create random maps for the UT2k4 engine, I do gotta say ... it's hard in a 3D world. If you aren't fighting the gameplay, you're fighting the renderer, if you aren't fighting the renderer then you're fighting the AI, etc. and so on.

At one point I had used a process someone had designed for a NetHack style dungeon crawl, where you intersect a square space in ways to make halls and rooms, and then later had random terrain and objects.

Definately hard. But I think the payoff would be there.

Josh said...

Had forgotten about modal play, added it to the list.

Tony said...

"Beyond Red Versus Blue"

I don't know if you're a Halo 2 kinda guy, but the new playlist coming out next month will add this type of game. I think it will be a 3v3v3. (or 3v3v3v3, I don't remember). I haven't played Halo 2 online for a while but I'm planning on checking that one out.

Josh said...

I'm not, but I kinda wish I was. Have had a lot of fun at Halo LAN parties.

3v3v3 (or more, there's been some decent 4 team mods as well) would be great. Hopefully they'll release new maps. Riftwar was objective based, and it's more interesting when it's not just deathmatch.