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Friday, February 26, 2010

First Person Evolution

I've been playing first person shooters since ... well, there have been first person shooters. Possibly even before, depending on how you define the concept versus the coined genre (I once coded a 3D maze program that was in the back of a computer magazine).

OK, I'm old. Let's move on.

Doom inspired more than a few clones, and Quake practically created the concept of similar games being called a Whatever killer. Quake killer, Half-Life killer, Halo killer (this trend in the media may have died with Haze ... or at least it should have). During this generation, most of the feature changes were similar across titles: level design and weapon design. Duke at least gave us a funny character, which was a step up from the generic marine.

Eventually we got better controls, better AI, a horde of graphical improvements so technical that you'd need a degree in Carmackology to grasp, and well, more improvements to level and weapon design. Valve gave us scripted sequences, and various developers have tacked on new multiplayer modes. Eventually, someone added vehicles.

But for a moment - let's look at what is the same. In Borderlands, I shoot barrels to explode around enemies. I did that in Doom. The zombies in Doom dropped ammo when they were killed ... as did the necromorphs of Dead Space. Bioshock 2 is a landscape devoid of life but full of crates. The E2M2 level of Doom was a crate maze.

Before the crate maze? Lots of barrels. Let's dwell for a moment on the fact that Halo was revolutionary simply because you could only carry two guns. Crazy! And yet it helped give the game immersion, slimmer control requirements and added mechanics about weapon balance. And sure, there have been peaks and valleys of innovation. Deus Ex was earth-shatteringly brilliant, giving us a branching narrative, RPG-like stats and inventory control and a richly interactive world.

And then we had Deus Ex II.

Clearly I'm being intentionally myopic here. Dead Space may have had old school ammo drops and weapon control - but it also had a HUD-less design and really well done third/first person hybrid perspective. Bioshock 2 was not only carrying on traditional design concepts from Deus Ex and System Shock (two of the best shooters ever made), but introduced a highly original world concept and exceptional production design. These aren't things to scoff at, and I haven't even gotten to games like Thief or Mirror's Edge which challenge the very concept of "first person" and "shooter" being a strict relationship.

But this isn't about giving the love, it's about nudging an aging genre that a few pushes in a few directions won't suffice for the future. Borderlands and Bioshock 2 represent the outskirts of acceptablity to me now. I'd like to pose a few challenges to the genre.

Continue to mash with other genres
Some of the most notable examples in FPS gaming have relied on blending in action adventure (like branching narratives) and RPG elements (like upgradeable characters). Even MAG, which is in its heart a straight up military shooter, tracks skill points you can use to enhance your solider.

Great, but the genre could do more. id's upcoming Rage well bring in racing elements. There have been various attempts to bring RTS style action - but I actually think many of these have somewhat failed. The basic mechanics of the shooter have been done, and done, and done again. When I was modding Unreal, I had planned out a partial conversion which would have a static map with specific resources needing control, upgradeable characters (with a dynamic list of team members). It was actually supposed to be a mix of Unreal and X-Com. Like so many projects, I never finished it - only had a core pieces of working code. But that was for UT2004 - so I know the technology is there, it's just that nobody is designing it.

Drop the cliches
I was half-tempted to call these out individually, but let's lump them together: barrels, crates, unrealistic inventory drops, ghostly women whispering in your...

Actually, wait. I'm calling this one out for a moment. I think Halo started the trend, but I'm not entirely sure ... but I'm pretty certain not every game needs an attractive, spectral, female voice commanding the player. That most shooter games rely on messages being broadcasted directly to the player's ear is bad enough, but the majority of them being computerized/ghostly/holographic women brings it close to a bad Monty Python joke.

But continuing on: unrealistic inventory control, "find that key" style map control, monster closets, trap rooms, uberweapons ... need I go on? I'll give Bioshock 2 credit ... it riffs off many of these cliches so effortlessly they don't feel annoying, but not every shooter will be Bioshock 2. Games like GoldenEye and Halo made what were in actuality small mechanical changes to the core gameplay of the shooter, but in doing so have become classics in their own right.

Open worlds, sandbox gameplay
There needs to be a better distinction between the concept of open world design and sandbox gameplay - as shooters could do with a dose of both. Open world simply means a non-linear layout, where you aren't forced to wander in between point A and B to progress through the game. Sandbox gameplay means the player isn't required to do a specific task to progress, but can devise their own solution to the problem. Bioshock 2 dipped into the latter, allowing the player to setup their own style of defense for the Little Sisters (or not defend them at all). But again, this is a toe in the water. This was another subject myself and some fellow modders used to toy with. Once concept I never got down was "Unreal City", where all the games took place on the same map, and players would choose objectives from job boards ... including opposing objectives (so you might be tasked to kill player A, while I'm tasked with keeping them alive).

More Social Multiplayer
I frequently avoid online games because I find so many random people online to be total asshats. Whether it's the guy playing his guitar over his mic, or the one complaining endless about how unfair the game is, to griefers and PKers, to the racists and the children ... there's a good subsection of the online population I'd rather not associate with.

But hey, it's there and it might as well be tapped. Recently shooters have trended towards better and better coop play - which is excellent. Also, better squad mechanics are starting to arise, also excellent. But what about truly complicated social interactions? Deathmatch mechanics have pushed towards this at times - but why can't I have a nemesis? Or a sidekick? Roles in shooters are an all or nothing deal.

Another mod concept: One player, unknown to the rest of the server, was a killer. They had enhanced abilities. But, they could could easily be overwhelmed in numbers - so that one player would score for kills, but the rest would score more if they could keep a majority of the people alive before killing the killer. It was a little bit werewolf, little bit The Thing.

Now I know the issue - for more role related play, people need to know their roles. A classic gametype which has gone the way of the dodo is a VP mode where one player was an unarmed VP and the rest of the team had to ferry them forward. Which was an awesome gametype, unless the guy being VP was a moron or simply had never played before. Then it lasted about ten seconds.

Hey, I didn't say it would be easy - that's why it's a challenge. Considering we live in an age where most players don't even crack open

Or even off the game field: better player marketplaces, lobbies, hubs. Sony Home is a moving towards failed experiment area, but doesn't mean it isn't an interesting idea.

Interface with more than a trigger
In many military shooters right now, there is the magic wrench/buffer/sparkle gun/hypo which magically repairs vehicles or people. While this mechanically fits easily with the rest of the game (especially the healing), it does make me want for more. id showed with Doom III that shooters can have richer interfaces (though that was more designed for mouse users, true...) - and yet for the most part we're left with just pointing and pulling the trigger.

Obviously single player could benefit the most out of this, and we've seen this in some instances with the Bioshock and Thief series, for example.

Another point is deeper interactions with the player and the player's inventory itself. Since Deus Ex, there has been a stripping down of this - simpler RPG elements with fewer options. In Deus Ex I could fiddle with my assault rifle until it was a semi-automatic sniper rifle. In Bioshock 2, I can tack a bigger barrel on another barrel, and that is about that.

OK, I think that's enough ranting for the moment. I gotta go find a cat playing a piano to rebalance the internets now.


sterno said...

Actually the ghostly female voice bit is probably the most realistic element of those games. If you presume that in the future there will be automated systems informing you of threats, things that need to be done, etc, it will need a voice and that voice will be female.

There've been studies on the fact that people respond better to a female voice. I'm pretty sure most modern aircraft have voice warnings and they are all female. I recall my Dad talking about the 737's he used to fly and the "whoop whoop pull up" message that it used to say if you were in too steep of a dive (obviously only heard in the simulator). But yup, that voice was female if not quite so sexy as what you get in the average FPS.

That nit picked, I generally agree with you about the ridiculousness of barrels, etc. I do wish game designers would go out to an old abandoned warehouse somewhere and actually physically make a map in real life. Like, imagine for a moment the world is ending, what does your little bunker look like.

I promise you the giant barrels of flammable liquids will be safely out of site and you'll prefer the safety of sandbag bunkers over empty crates. But of course it's easier to construct shooting positions, etc, if you just stack up crates and throw some barrels around the map. '

If I see barrels or crates on a map I should have an obvious reason for it. Oh, I'm in an oil refinery! Right! Oh, I'm fighting in a FedEx distribution hub! All good!

What I have still not seen done that I think would work really well is a space marine tactical shooter. Set things in a very futuristic context and your role would be boarding and taking over ships, etc. Obviously you'd throw a badly written poorly voice acted set of cut scenes on top of this, but that's the gist of it.

How cool would it be to have battles where some of it was in low-g or even zero-g (though controls for zero-g are obviously prolematic)? Battles where if you shoot the indiscriminately placed barrels, the wall of the ship explodes and you go flying into space. That would be a lot of fun. Certainly I've seen games with battles in space, or big ships (Killzone 2, etc) but never seen one really take advantage of it.

Hell there's a missed opportunity for the AVP developers. I mean come on? They are SPACE MARINES you knucleheads!

As to your comments on multiplayer, that's what I miss about PlanetSide is that it was a genuinely social endeavor. Sure on MAG I play as SVER and fight Raven and Valor, but I have no real sense of anything that exists outside of the battle in front of me. The outcome of a battle might shift who gets what contract, but I don't see this on a map. I don't see me taking a position leading to the securing of a base leading to the collapse of a nation. That would be cool.

I think part of the problem is that a lot of the things that would make the multiplayer elements more engrossing also tend to expand the scale and expense of the games. A video game is a risky endeavor as it is (Haze). So I think there's a resistance to going too far out there on the risk that it may not be popular and you'll have wasted all that much more money.

Winkyboy said...

@sterno - it would indeed be amazing if there were an objective in some AVP levels where the marines could turn off gravity, thus giving them an advantage with jetpacks.

@Cathode - excellent article. I remember your mod, and still would love to see something like that in the future. (gotta see if I can still dig up my old plan... sigh...)

Josh said...

Yeah, the ghostly female voice isn't a bad mechanic, it's just becoming an overused one. Borderlands I think put it over the edge for me, because the ghostly female is so tacked on to everything else that it's a bit of a head-scratcher.

Josh said...

Winkyboy, thanks. I can't say there aren't some times when I don't miss the mod scene.

Not to keep patting myself on the back, but I'm also surprised nobody has picked up a Bounty War style mechanic. If I'm a Level 2 and I kill a Level 55, that should be more heavily rewarded than killing a Level 1.

But in general, the scene played with some interesting ideas which I think are still on the table.

Though (a la @sterno), the problem is still the same. Gaming is a risk avoiding cultural, for the most part. Shooters have better guns, prettier graphics and servers that don't crash is a stable formula. It has also made it highly competitive. Can only hope that makes it a good time for change.

sterno said...

Yeah I think that FPS games are going to be forced to evolve more than they have been. Take, for example, Battlefield BC2 and Modern Warfare 2. I defy you to tell me what the difference is between these games. Stories might be a bit different, certain game modes might be different, but at their core they are the same.

I really do wish Sony would give PlanetSide or something like it another try. While it wasn't all that successful it got a lot of things right. It was persistent in a way that no FPS game is. The battles were no more massive than what you see in MAG, but they felt more massive because of persistence.

Rather than a 30 minute battle for one base you had multi-hour battles for whole continents. People would come and go from battles, and strategies were always fluid. You might be making solid progress only to have another faction begin stealing bases from behind you. It has this organic dynamic vibe that I've yet to see replicated. It's the only game where I felt like I had a tangible connection to the results of my work. When the whole planet went purple I felt great even if ultimately it was only for a few hours.

Btw, no exploding barrels in planetside :)

But PlanetSide also points to why the game companies are risk averse. PlanetSide was largely a flop. I mean it had a good number of people playing for a couple years but it never really achieved the critical mass necessary to make it a real money maker. It probably provided SOE a lot of good knowledge about how to build game server farms, etc, but in and of itself, not that successful.

Unknown said...

Some of the most fun I've ever had playing a FPS was that silly flag-carrying mode of GoldenEye over at your apartment. Just the sound of you sitting next to me on the couch swearing under your breath when I'd 180 pass you was enough to make the evening. I think it's interesting that more games don't have those modes anymore.

Your werewolf idea is pretty cool, and is definitely something I'd like to see.

Oh, and here's your cat:

Cat Playing Piano (SLYT)

Josh said...

@kiyote23, It's a de-evolution there I think, less couch play, less LAN play these days. Having a random person cuss you out over the Internet simply isn't the same :)

Unknown said...

I was actually more thinking of alternate modes of play- your werewolf concept for example. Listening to you cuss me out was just a side benefit, and yeah, was funny because it was you, not some random stranger.