A Brief History Of FPS Mechanics; Part 4 – The Dark Age


Where were you when it all ended?

[Part 3]

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.


11 Responses to A Brief History Of FPS Mechanics; Part 4 – The Dark Age

  1. Paul says:

    I would argue that there is still a lot left to explore in this age of FPSs. Homefront and the much maligned MOH:Warfighter did some interesting things with metagame mechanics. The suit powers of Crysis were competently integrated. Mirrors Edge did some great things with movement that were integrated into BF3. Syndicate’s co-op did a good job of encouraging team co-operation while still retaining an element of inteam competition. Though I think one of the biggest dynamics left to explore is destructible environments. Bad Company 2 did the best job so far of integrating destruction into multiplayer that I have played. Collapsing buildings on enemies and mcom stations, creating new paths, and destroying cover all create more dynamic play. It also causes damage to be more consequential in games with regenerating health since good cover is harder obtain and it opens up strategic options to flush out healing players. There is also a lot of potential in grafting appropriate modern mechanics onto older games, Brutal Doom is a good example with reloading, view kick, ADS all of which enhance the game.

  2. The Nihilistic Idealist says:

    I actually liked Bulletstorm. 😦

  3. Gnalvl says:

    I read all 4 articles and they reflect much of my own opinions on FPS. I want to believe that Titanfall could pull us out of the dark ages, due to quotes from the devs which indicate an understanding of goldenage mechanics:


    The problem with most silver age shooters like CS, BF, and COD, is that they are essentially “fake” military shooters. The realistic approach can produce skill-based gameplay, but not if you use it as an excuse to reward hitscan spray-and-pray with easy, quick kills. These games will never be more than a dumbed-down, cinematic on-rails versions of Infiltration and Arma catering to the ultra-casuals.

    I consider Halo to be the biggest failing of the silver age, because they ALMOST created a winning combination of golden age fantasy mechanics with silver age realism mechanics, and then they BLEW it. Everything that was good about the first game (i.e. the Pistol and its semi-auto headshot play, combination of regenerating shields with on-map pickups) only got more watered down with sequels, while everything that was bad (the horrible balance of every other weapon) never really got fixed.

    Here’s what would have saved the series: First off, make the pistol about half as powerful, like in Halo 1’s campaign, so you have weak but decently effective spawn weapon. This increases the resource control aspect, motivating you to pursue increasingly powerful weapons. Next, we need a DMR which functions exactly like the “overpowered” original pistol, but must be picked up off the map. It also needs more discerning locational damage; instead of granting a 3 hit kill in 2 bodyshots + 1 headshot, it should require all 3 hits to be headshots. Even if the enemy has shields up, body shots should do less damage, so if you never hit in the head, it takes 8-9 hits to kill, instead of the HCE Pistol’s measly 5 body shots.

    Then, you just need obvious balance fixes to the other weapons. We need skill-based projectile weapons, so nix the spread of the Plasma Rifle and double the damage – if you can lead properly you deserve to kill at any range. We need a Quake rocket equivalent – something like Halo Reach’s concussion rifle, but with Quake’s damage and rate of fire. Halo’s hitscan spray weapons always did too much damage, with too much spread and too short a magazine. Something with Q3 MG-like spread, ~25 hits to kill, and a 100 round magazine would have worked much better – if you need something more powerful, pick the plasma and use leading skill. Lastly, just make the sniper rifle bolt-action, so it has a CPMA Railgun-like rate of balance, instead of allowing you to skill-lessly spam into people’s bodies for easy kills.

    This kind of approach could have carried on Golden Age mechanics into the modern age, setting a good example for all others to follow. Instead Halo provided a weak example which was easily trumped by COD clones where all you have to do is spray a few full-auto hitscan bullets to kill someone, with no need to control map resources or use any shooting skill. Other developers dropped the ball too – Doom 3 was a weak System Shock imitation instead of a truly modernized iteration of the original. As Paul pointed out – the Brutal Doom mod does a much better job of modernizing Doom’s weapons. Epic gave us GOW and Bulletstorm, while fumbling UT3 into obscurity. It’s like all the design successes of the Golden Age were happy accidents instead of premeditated structures, and no one in charge knows how to do it.

  4. janus says:

    all you talked about was multiplayer.

  5. reversefiction says:

    I’m a guy in a unique circumstance. I started on PC in the Doom and Quake, Quake 2, Quake 3 arena world. Then for about 8 years. From 2000 to 2008 I really couldn’t afford to buy a console, or a decent computer to play all the games from the silver age (was more interested in playing guitar in my band, and did some time in the military). I got a PS3 and started playing whatever game came out, when I got a steady job and some money flowing in. Couple years ago was able to afford to get a nice computer. So, I’ve really only been gaming now for about 5 years.

    What’s interesting is, I remember employing all the strategies that you described when I was younger in the Quakes. What was crazy is my next major gaming experience after that was MW2. Wow, imagine a guy with a Quake mindset trying to play a Modern Warfare game. I know people call that generation of gaming the “twitch shooter games,” but there was a method to the madness. I remember when I first started playing the modern console games, I would do things like try to “hold the line.” Which was a tactic my clan employed back in the day on Quake to section off the other team. That completely fails in modern games. You die too quick and just don’t have enough ammo.

    But, that being said. Now that I’m able to afford all of the latest releases (I gave up on anything infinity ward or treyarch related after MW2.) I notice what your talking about. Where the mechanics seem to have gotten stale. And I think your partially right that it’s PC’s are trying to keep at level with the consoles. However, I think one fact your missing is that consoles have about a 6 year cycle. And massive changes happened between the Xbox, PS2 – the Xbox 360, PS3. What will the Xbox One and PS4 bring us?

    I think before the PS3 and Xbox 360 the standards for a game were set by the PC. Now the PC is just seen as “another platform to support.” And also, that platform has a smaller potential user base then the PS or Xbox. Also, the PC market is dying. It’s being killed off by the tablets. In 5 – 10 years towers are going to be relegated to Gamers, and people who need to have multiple harddrives for a SQL cluster or something.

    However, there is one thing promising out of all of this. There still is a thriving mod community, and a thriving indy developer community. At least, game manufactures are smart enough to know that locking down PC modding capabilities would destroy their chances of succeeding in the PC market.

    Too sum it up. The difference before, to the difference now is the 3rd generation consoles really came in and changed everything. Now that the 4th generation is here. What new is going to come out of it? Time will tell.

    • tradamtm says:

      The issues i’m describing aren’t PC-centric, they are input-centric.
      The FPS can not diversify as long as the controller is the primary input method that games are made for. The analog stick can not provide the response and precision a mouse can, therefore mechanics are applied that make FPS games more shallow to compensate for the inadequacy of the input method.
      Motion controls have done little to change this and the next gen consoles have brought nothing to the table to turn the trend.

      A return of verticality isn’t possible at this point for the industry and the developers have forgotten how to do level design that is not planar or relies on the slow responses of the analog stick.

      Design-tropes are being copied wholesale even in indie development and lead us to games that make no sense mechanically. Take a game like Wrack, or the Shadow Warrior remake, these games are supposed to be modeled after oldschool schooters, yet they still posses none of the qualities of those games because the developers do not understand the underlying basics of design.

      They just copy, parrot, certain tropes they think are “oldschool” without understanding their relevancy. There is no understanding of how systems interplay, what they mean, how they should be used and what the challenge or test is even supposed to be.

      It’s just “this element has been in a previous game, therefore we will use it in ours”.

      I have named Part 4 of my analysis “The Dark Age” not because I think it’s funny or edgy, but because I think of the current situation as the literal dark ages, where knowledge and understanding have been lost and replaced with mysticism or copying.

  6. Basuuuuu says:

    Halo used to be a Gold / Silver FPS hybrid, an with Halo Reach and Halo 4 they started throwing MMS stuff in there (unlocks, perks, instant respawn, Killstreaks) so now we have a Gold/Silver/Modern shooter that just doesn’t work

    /my input as a Halo fan

  7. Sitri says:

    I like to think of myself as one who really enjoyed the first Halo, but not really any of the others. I would go as far to say that Halo CE is my favorite game.

    Your idea on changing the Pistol simply wouldn’t work with how the game functions at a high level. Part of what made Halo unique was that players already have a character able to succeed and defend himself right from the moment he spawns. Halo is not meant to have the sort of escalating advantage that other arena-style shooters like Quake and Warsow are designed upon.
    Players should always have an all-purpose weapon that allows them to compete in any situation(but not be the hands-down best, mind you) due to the fact that players can only carry 2 weapons at a time. This creates situations where players have to choose how they want to specialize based on what is on the map. A player can also take the risk of picking up a pair of weapons that excel in a specific niche, sacrificing his versatility.
    Decisions and scenarios like this simply don’t exist in the Golden-Age shooters as everyone can potentially have an entire arsenal in their back pocket, with a near instant swap time. Not to say either system is the “right” one for every game, but as you said in the article, you can’t just add any mechanics to a game and expect it to function properly.

  8. Hanzolo says:

    I loved your article because there is not many people writing about the life-span of ego shooters with such a love for detail. Thank you for that. I started with Quake and gamed ever since. I am also talking a lot with my brother about the changes fps games have gone through. I wouldnt say devs are unaware of mechanics, most of them are enthusiastic gamers themselves. But in the end they are pressured to create successful games and that effects changing the mechanics. The biggest threat for modern fps games imho are two major changes in the industry which you also pointed out in that great article: consol input and mainstream success. Nowadays fps are designed for consol input and the masses leading to (at least if you know the difference) sloppy feel and unbeloved rpg elements which try to glue you to your account. Money also effects gameplay decisions too much. I read an article about how small the skill gap became because they need to satisfy experienced and new gamers alike. I love the golden and silver age of fps games where pc freaks designed for pc gamers and it was a niche instead of major studios designing AAA titles for the masses. I can’t talk about mechanics without realizing what big changes in the industry must have lead to these decisions. I am just glad I was around before the shit hit the fan. It used to be so precise, so accurate, so skill-intensive, so clear… it used to be wonderful

  9. polarka says:

    I liked this series of articles. I couldn’t find any articles by you on GYP – I was looking for the name ‘Adam’.

    I would recommend a topic to the history of fps mechanics, that is team play and means of it (how it was achievable, for what kind of objectives – that is how you could beat the other team). If I know it correctly, in Quake there was a mod called ‘Team fortress’ which introduced classes that are widely used nowadays.

    Personally, I have played Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory for years which was an open source f2p game having the good parts from golden age and silver age fps games at the same time. I couldn’t stand CS or CoD and any fps that became popular after them because of their slow pace. Since it was open source if there was any feature you and others were not satisfied with, some enthusiasts just modded it. You could create and mod the maps and eventually those maps and mods became the most popular. Movement-mechanic wise, you had fast movement and repositioning, bunnyhoping. If you wanted to be very accurate, you had to crouch or prone making you stationary, but you could close the distance fast enough in order to utilize fast moving and dodging in close range fights. Long TTK, unless you could aim precisely on the head, you had to track the enemy’s head, because you had to deal 3-4 HS for a kill, thus less likely to kill someone just because of being lucky. 30s respawns at most, 10-15s on average so both teams had plenty of chances to come back. You could gib dying enemies on the floor, so they couldnt be revived anymore. There were some high risk, high reward weapons (RL, artillery, airstrike), which you could dodge or just kill the RL guy before he hit you. It had a charge up mechanic, so you had time to deal 3HS before he could shoot, if you were fast enough or you could sacrifice yourself to protect your team from it. There were versatile objectives and at least 2 stages of fights per map…
    That game really worth taking a look at if you have missed it, its predecessor was Return To Castle Wolfenstein. I have never met someone who actually tried that game and didn’t like it. However it wasnt as main stream as CS or BF at its time (no adverts, because it was f2p? I don’t know.) and surprisingly it didn’t affect the later FPS games despite its popularity.

    Nowadays I play PS2 only because thats the closest game to W:ET, but I dislike many of its mechanics that makes it slow. I just couldn’t find better. In my opinion, Quake Live worth mentioning as well. I like that too, but I have never been interested in the old 1on1 quake matches, I find that way more boring than playing team vs team.

  10. polarka says:

    A remark:
    In W:ET, ADS-ing was present in the form of using a script to change the FoV, the MS penalty came from that you wanted to crouch or prone when you were shooting from a long range to reduce your CoF.
    In PS2, the CoF is so big that you need to ADS even for short-mid ranges and on long ranges its almost impossible to hit an enemy who tries to dodge because of the time the bullets need to arrive to the target. But if he fires back, you both have a chance to kill each other.

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