Monday, 15 October 2012

State of the FPS

I'm a big fan of shooters. A significant portion of my favourite games are first-person shooters: Metro 2033, the Half-Life series, Team Fortress 2, Metroid Prime, etc. Some of the worst games I've ever played are also FPS games. There are entire sub-genres I hate with a passion, and plenty of games that miss the point entirely.

In my opinion, the best FPS games are the ones that understand the strength of the first-person camera. A well-built first-person game is one of the most immersive entertainment experiences you can have - one that can make you feel the most like you're actually part of another world, rather than looking in or playing the puppet master.

Before I go any further I think there's an important distinction to be made here. It's absolutely possible to make a great FPS game that doesn't really bother with immersion, or focuses on other elements. Borderlands and Bulletstorm, for example, are games that gave me a great time and plenty of laughs, but I don't find them to be as memorable as the ones that really make an effort to get you into the world.

Essentially what I'm saying is that to make a truly great and memorable FPS game, you need to build a consistent, believable world with a compelling history and story. That sounds like it should apply to everything, but I honestly feel it's more important to an FPS game than any other genre because of the camera angle. 

If you look at the top-rated FPS games of all time on Metacritic, you'll find titles like Half-Life, Bioshock, Metroid Prime, Portal, Perfect Dark, and Halo. I actually know very little about Perfect Dark and I should probably play it, but those other games all have very strongly realized settings and characters that you interact with in a meaningful way.

Now of course there are plenty of games a bit farther down the list that are insanely popular and have had profound influence over gaming history. But I would argue that many of these games - Quake, Unreal Tournament, Call of Duty - are popular and memorable for different reasons than the games at the very top, and the first-person camera is not as intrinsic to the experience as it is for the top-rated games. You'll notice that those slightly lower-rated games are played primarily for their multiplayer experience, not for the single-player mode - immersion isn't really a focus in multiplayer.

In terms of the lower-rated games you don't see on top 10 lists, a lot of the time their stories are nothing more than an excuse to shoot lots of things. I loved Metro for its willingness to run you through entire chapters where you don't have to shoot anything, or even more impressively, levels where there's nothing to shoot at all. When a game's story is "here's the bad guy, shoot him and his minions!" that's not good enough for me - as a D&D player and dungeon master I prefer efficiency and dislike encounters that have no narrative purpose, so of course when I see too much of that in a video game it turns me off a bit.

There's no real unifying theme in the FPS "genre" other than shooting things from a first-person perspective. But focusing on the experience that perspective can provide is the best way to tell a memorable story in a FPS game.

So here's what I'd like to see when you're developing a first-person shooter: think about why your game is first-person and not third-person. One of the elements that earned Half-Life its place as one of the top-rated games of all time is its dedication to the first-person perspective, something it shares with one of my other favourites, Metro 2033. There are no cutscenes and camera control is never taken away from you. Metroid Prime goes to third-person to show you things that would be really awkward in first-person - like the morph ball mode and certain cutscenes - but while you're in first-person all the information presented to you is actually a part of Samus' in-helmet heads-up display, and when you encounter bright flashes of light, you can see her face reflected back at you in the visor.

If your game doesn't really have a reason for the first-person perspective, it's probably worth considering either some additions or a change of camera.

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