A Brief History Of FPS Mechanics; Part 1 – The Golden Age


From circle strafe to rocket-jump.

The journey of the FPS began far earlier than Wolfenstein or Doom, but its modern roots and mechanics have their beginning in those games and id Software can be credited for their popularity almost exclusively. Aim Down Sights is a staple of almost every FPS nowadays, yet most players have no idea why it exists in the first place and what function it fulfills. I want to highlight some of those mechanics and contextualize them by giving a brief history of FPS mechanics, detailing their evolution.

The Golden Age

In the very beginning FPS games lacked the refined controls of today.

Viewport (camera) control was executed by keyboard alone and did not involve the mouse in any way leading to a slower, less precise and horizontally centered experience (as vertically looking up would cost both resources and present too many axies for a player to intuitively control on the keyboard). Following from this the movement options were limited as to not overwhelm the player with too many keyboard operations.

DOOM – Strafing

Doom switched the scene up in 1993 with strafing and most importantly the first iteration of strafing-centered mechanics, straferunning.

Strafing in FPS means that you can hold your viewport in one direction but still move sideways or diagonally. Strafing is an essential mechanism for dealing damage and avoiding enemy projectiles at the same time. Without strafing your options for enemy engagements would only be forwards or backwards and avoidance would come at the cost of not shooting at the target.


This helped the FPS to become more centered around the coordination of aiming and movement rather than the earlier resource management (health, ammo).

The first player-discovered mechanic that came with strafe was straferunning which was an unintended effect of activating run, forward and strafe, letting the player move faster than any of the separate movements themselves. For the gameplay this meant longer jumps and better avoidance through higher velocity.

Yet there was something missing from even the refined movement and perspective-control of Doom.

Quake – Verticality

Doom, while having multiple layers of height, never let you aim upwards and the gun you held automatically adjusted for enemies above without the player actually aiming for them. Your movement and viewport was largely fixed to the x-axis.

Then, in 1996, Quake came out popularizing accelerated 3D environments and mouse-aim. With it the addition of verticality came to the the FPS. Players now could freely aim in the y-axis as well as ascend the tall environments and so a new layer to movement and combat was created. Levels now featured a more intricate vertical design with jumping playing a larger role and with it came some unintended techniques discovered by players.

The first was “bunnyhopping” (/strafe jumping). A player could continuously jump while moving forward and gain additional momentum not dissimilar to Doom’s strafe-running. This quickly became a staple or, even some would say, a requirement in multiplayer. Since its discovery this unintended mechanic has been refined and integrated into the competitive environment with games like Warsow or Quake Live.

Second was the rocket-jump or grenade-jump in which a player could trade a fraction of health for an increased jump-height by firing an explosive weapon at his feet and jumping simultaneously. Since explosives conveyed a knockback effect the splash-damage would catapult a player in to the air. When mastered the Rocket Jump would subtract only a small amount of health while boosting the player far higher than any normal jump ever could. Additionally the rocket-jump could be used to bounce the player off walls, so a combination of multiple rocket-jumps could make a player “fly” across the map.

These two techniques could be combined of course and quickly became the central way to play Quake games. When id Software learned of these techniques they started designing levels with them in mind where secret areas could only be reached by a skillful application of bunnyhopping,  rocket-jumping or both.

Golden Age Mechanics Analysis

What I call the Golden Age of FPS starts roughly with Wolfenstein/Doom (1992/3) and ends with Quake 3 Arena (1999).

The FPS in that period had their mechanics centered on movement, aiming and resource management with a heavy emphasis on hand-eye coordination, strategic thinking and awareness.

The misconception today is that games like Quake or Unreal belong to the so called “twitch shooter” category where fast reaction times beat every other mechanic. This could not be more wrong.

Weapon damage, enemy health and movement in games from the Golden Age led to what is called a long TTK. TTK is an acronym for Time-To-Kill which is a loose term denoting the average time to kill an opponent. TTK can be calculated theoretically by taking weapon damage per second (DPS) vs enemy health. A long TTK hence means that it takes an ungodly long time to drop an opponent, well, at least compared to todays standards.

Generally weapons from Golden Age games can be classified into two categories: Burst Damage and Sustained Damage.

Burst damage weapons excel at delivering high damage but usually have long reload times, sustained damage weapons create a stream of lower damage over a longer period of time. Statistically both weapons tend to deal almost the same amount of damage over the same amount of time if we take reloading and fire-rate into consideration.

As examples from Quake 3 Arena the Machinegun would be a sustained damage weapon and the Railgun a burst damage weapon.

The Machinegun has a 5 damage hit per bullet and shoots 10 bullets per second with a clip of 200 without reload. This means its DPS is 50.

The Railgun has a 100 damage hit but can fire only once every 1.5 seconds making its DPS 66, barely any improvement over the Machinegun.

If we look at both weapons someone might confuse the Railgun for the “better” weapon as it can kill an un-armored enemy instantly, but mechanically both weapons are balanced and equal. The Railgun is a high-risk high-reward weapon, a missed shot leaves the player unable to fire for 1.5 seconds after all, while the Machinegun can sustain its damage with a 200 bullet clip for 20 seconds straight.

The misconception of calling Quake a “twitch shooter” comes from the understanding that if there exists a weapon that can kill with one shot, the game is only about having the right reflexes to land that shot. However this is not accurate as this ignores resource management and movement.

Golden Age games feature health and armor and armor absorbs damage on top of health. A player does not spawn with armor but can obtain it by picking it up, usually in the form of one whole armor pickup or multiple smaller armor-shards. Health upgrades are also a staple of this time where a player could have more than 100 health at any given time. In Quake a player effectively could have 200 health and 200 armor, and hence a OHK is highly unlikely, not only that but armor respawns on the map based on a timer mechanic and can be replenished continuously, even while fighting, through strategic movement and map-awareness.

Rather, the central mechanic when it comes to aiming in Golden Age games is not quick reaction times but tracking the enemy, anticipation of movement and evasion, as those are the best ways of damage-mitigation. The illusion of “twitch” comes from the speed and verticality of movement in these games (jump-pads, bunnyhopping, rocket-jump, wall-jump) as the player blazes around at high speeds.

Games like Quake provide an environment with a high skill-ceiling but low entry level as the weapon-mechanics themselves are primitive (no recoil, no cone of fire, no bullet drop or travel-time) but techniques for high level play can be very cerebral and engaging on a strategic level due to necessary resource management and map-control.

As an example this video features commentary of an ESL Q3A finals match.

The amount of tactical and strategic thinking illustrates how the Golden Age FPS allowed for a high skill-ceiling.

/end of part 1

[EDIT] The terminology and usage of bunnyhopping and strafe-jumping is very muddy and has changed over the years. Bunnyhopping nowadays is more associated with using erratic movement patterns to make targeting harder rather than movement-speed increase. Techniques for a movement increase by jumping vary from game to game and a technique that works for games like Quake might not be usable in games like Counter Strike. I’m using bunnyhopping/strafe-jumping here as a catch-all term for all these techniques that deal with increased movement speed, but -not- erratic movement patterns such as crouch-jumping (this I will discuss in part 2 when we get to Counter Strike).


11 Responses to A Brief History Of FPS Mechanics; Part 1 – The Golden Age

  1. And so we begin our descent into what modern fps games have become… ;_;

  2. Pingback: A Brief History Of FPS Mechanics; Part 2 – The Silver Age | liveware.problem

  3. Evilagram says:

    Railgun doesn’t have reload times. no weapon in quake had reload times. It’s refire time. Also, bad distinction, many weapons were meaningfully distinct on the basis of firing a projectile or being hitscan.

    And I’m pretty sure that’s not the actual origin of the term twitch. It’s called Twitch as opposed to Tactical, coming from the natural misunderstanding that faster games are more based on reflexes than thought, when in reality tactical shooters are only tactical because with all the other elements stripped that’s all they have left.

  4. Evilagram says:

    “Bunnyhopping nowadays is more associated with using erratic movement patterns to make targeting harder rather than movement-speed increase.”

    It is?

    Also, bunnyhopping is typically used for source engine games and strafejumping/circle jumping is typically used for quake 3 and derivatives. Bunnyhopping is the general category.

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  6. Gnalvl says:

    As someone else alluded to, you left out the aspect of hitscan vs. projectile weapons. The Q3 MG and Rail hit instantaneously, but have relatively low damage at 50-66 DPS. The Rocket Launcher and Plasma Gun fire slow projectiles which require heavy prediction and leading to land a hit, but they deal higher damage, at 125-200 DPS, and they have modest AOE.

    This is important because the concept has been totally lost in modern shooters. You never have to predict the opponent and lead your shots in a modern shooter, because everything is either hitscan or real bullet velocity (600-3000 feet per second). MAYBE in the more realistic games, you might have to lead with a sniper rifle when shooting across a mountain at 1000 meters. Some military shooters have grenades, 40mm, and RPG’s, but the kill radius is so wide that prediction, leading, and aiming is largely a moot point.

    Because of the higher DPS of low velocity ordnance in Doom, Quake and UT, along with the minimal splash damage (no mini-nukes), those games have a dodgeball dynamic. In real life units, a Q3/UT rocket travels around 80 feet per second, while a plasma bolt travels around 160fps. It’s a unique experience because nothing in real life travels like that – even paintballs are at least twice the speed. There a lot of mindgames, and a lot of drawn-out, fighting game-like face offs.

    Without weapons like this, I don’t know how a scifi/fantasy game can call itself scifi/fantasy, let along can a competitive game call itself skill-based.

    • tradamtm says:

      Yes I left some things out, its a “brief history” of FPS mechanics, the posts are already pushing the character limit for what should constitute an article and not a small novel.

      If I ever re-do the series for GYP I will structure it differently and create more parts with more detail.

      • Gnalvl says:

        I hear you. Part of the reason I quit my own blog is it became almost impossible to say anything meaningful about mechanics going into “novel” territory. I do however feel the projectile dynamic would have been worth at least a couple sentences…that’s all.

  7. Nathan Stiles says:

    This is an absolutely great analysis, very informative, so thank you. I do some of my own game writing, though I focus primarily on RPGs, so thank you very much for this entertaining and intelligent read.

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