A Brief History Of FPS Mechanics; Part 4 – The Dark Age
May 3, 2013 11 Comments
Where were you when it all ended?
Part 4 will be a bit different from the other parts of my retrospective, I have no more mechanics left to analyze.
This entry of the series is essentially what everything has been building up to: The analysis of the current state of the FPS.
The subtitle might have tipped you off that I am not looking favorably at todays manifestations of the genre, but I do so not because I am clamoring to a return to the past, or because I hate Activision (although I do blame them). I am looking unfavorably at the FPS because the genre has ground to a shrieking halt in 2007 and has sat there, content, ever since.
The genre and industry has started to replicate itself, continuously, through a sort of genetic inbreeding of ideas and content, losing more of its definition after every copy. Games and mechanics are not designed but rather lifted whole from past successes and transplanted into new IPs or sequels without thought.
How else do you explain a game like Planetside 2, that features jetpacks, jump-pads, vertical movement and arena map design in the style of Quake, but combined with the weapons handling and penalties of Battlefield 2, the movement restrictions of Call Of Duty and regenerating shields from Halo?
It incorporates mechanics from all three ages, mechanics never designed to work together in unison, mechanics tailored to specific gameplay styles that do not work without the other mechanics to support them.
Planetside 2 is also a good example because we have Planetside 1 to compare it to, a game released during the Silver Age.
Planetside 1 was the very first MMOFPS true of that namesake, thousands of players shared a world and hundreds could engage in massive warfare and battles at any given time. The FPS mechanics and the engine was very oldschool, it had fast movement (with movement implants even faster), vertical movement with jumpjets, TTK was rather long and there was no ADS. It added RPG mechanics like implants, inventories as well as combined arms warfare with vehicles.
It was designed so the FPS mechanics fit it to reflect the gameplay it was going for.
Another example is Bulletstorm, a game that marketed itself as a throwback, an exciting FPS breaking the mold of current gen FPS in 2011 (it even released a mock-game to make fun off the MMS genre). So when it released, imagine how surprised I was to find all the same tropes and mechanics of any current-gen game present, except now you had a gimmick (the Leash) that was then promptly invalidated by half the enemies that could dodge it.
There wasn’t even a jump in the game and you could vault over obstacles only with a context command, yet you could slide forward at insane speeds (fun).
Why did this happen? Because consoles.
Calm down, I’m not hating here, it’s just a fact that having a 3D movement-system would have not been possible with a controller in hand. The pace of the game would have prevented the aiming with an analog stick in all possible direction, and the game -had to- be released on consoles because thats where the money is, or so we are told, repeatedly.
What you ended up with is a modern shooter with ADS, cover and regenerating health, essentially Modern Warfare with a gimmick and a forward slide attack.
Similarly the recent Bioshock Infinite, or in fact the whole Bioshock series, has mechanics that do not make sense. Why would weapons need aim down sights in a game where your engagements are in cramped environments of an underwater city? ADS is there to confer superior accuracy with a trade-off: moving slower and having restricted peripheral vision.
And this works great for long to medium range gun-fights, where accuracy is of importance, where a headshot will drop an enemy and your first strike can take out enemies before they can react and start shooting you. In Bioshock however the environments are short range and you can set traps in different ways, granting a first strike with your Plasmids or turrets, there simply is no need for ADS at all. Not to mention most enemies have far too high health to make locational damage count properly (the mechanic you need for precise aiming to make sense).
Bioshock Infinite “tightened up” this discrepancy but added a new mode of movement, the Skylines, which propelled you around the level at high speeds. It was clearly an attempt to introduce the vertical element and high pace without the player having to -actually- perform the motions. In effect when you were on the Skyline, you might have been moving fast, but on a -rail-, making the aiming largely planar and slow.
Where do we go from here?
The Golden Age explored movement mechanics and map control, the Silver and Modern Ages explored the weapon mechanics of FPS games and now we are in this peculiar spot where we have little to nothing left to explore.
Indies are bathing in retro fanfare creating games like Wrack, clamoring for the return of the Golden Age, while AAA developers can’t let the console mechanics go. And in between the two some add powers, rpg mechanics, cinematics or upgrades on top of the core gameplay.
The current environment in the industry doesn’t let the genre progress, we have essentially designed ourselves into a corner by having explored as far as the different control methods and mechanics let us take the genre (or so we think).
Not helping is the trend in attitude of both gamers and young developers that categorically refuse to even look at the FPS genre anymore, out of fear the next game just becoming another Battlefield/Call Of Duty with some kind of cherry on top. This doesn’t mean that the genre is dying, far from it, its one of the most popular genres around, it means that the genre has stagnated mechanically.
If we are to continue with the evolution metaphor, what we need is a beneficial random mutation. We need more than just replication because every copy turns out worse than before, there isn’t anything to iterate on anymore, nothing more to enhance. We have reached a point where Weapon Mechanics can and are as realistic as they can be (culminating in games like Receiver, essentially gun-porn) we have explored all of the movement, even zero gravity (Shattered Horizon).
Either we need to take the next step, or we need to start utilizing the experience we gathered in the past to create adequately designed games.
Unfortunately the discrepancy between console controls and PC controls will always be a limiting factor to creating certain types of games. If the marketing is always focused on console, we can’t have games with extravagant movement and targeting systems.
The FPS is the most input and control reliant genre because the method is what enables a certain playstyle. A platformer doesn’t have the problem of translating from a more precise method to a less precise one, an analog input is the most precise way to control movement, but not perspective. Mouse adapters for console have continuously been a disappointment because the games are not made to utilize them and the input is only translated, leading to strange behavior like over-compensation and sluggish turning.
Maybe a clear split between FPS on PC and Console would benefit the development, freeing devs from the constraints of balancing for both input methods and providing significantly different gameplay for both systems.