September 07, 2006

Epitaph for the First Person Shooter

by peterb

It's time to stop blaming myself for not liking first person shooters.

"I'm too old," I used to say. "I'm too slow," I used to tell myself. "My gaming machine isn't über enough," I'd say. But the truth is that the genre is creatively dead.

What motivated me to write this article is that I played two first person shooters for the Xbox 360, Perfect Dark Zero and Prey.

Both of these games were well-crafted and carefully planned out.

And both of them bored me to tears.

I'm particularly depressed by Perfect Dark Zero, by one of my favorite developers, Rare. I briefly considered suggesting to them that this was indicative of a curse that they are under, and that the only way to dispell the curse is to create and release Banjo Threeie for the Xbox 360, already. But why kick a man when he's down? Especially when I'm pretty sure he reads this weblog.

In an interview on the Halo 2 making-of film, one of the Bungie designers talks about how they came up with 30 seconds of great gameplay: snipe distant enemies, sneak up and bop one on the head, throw a grenade into a group of others, clean up the stragglers. Then he says something like "the challenge in the game design is how to string together this same 30 seconds of gameplay over and over again for 10 or 15 hours and keep it interesting." Couple that with the solid screenwriting and quality production design of Halo 2 and you have a bestseller, right?

Well, maybe you only have a bestseller if you get the sort of marketing launch that Halo 2 had.

Perfect Dark Zero was visually stunning, with an intricate UI, lots of clever sub-missions, and music by Skunk Anansie. But it lacks a certain ludological center. In Perfect Dark Zero a lot of effort was put into the overall story arc, but — in my opinion — they never really nailed that core 30 seconds of super gameplay. Consequently, I felt pulled in a hundred directions at once. Plot developments and new gameplay mechanics that were supposed to surprise and interest me just served to confuse and upset me. The game designers were trying to throw me off balance through innovation, and they succeeded. But they succeeded before I was able to actually find my balance. So it just felt disorienting. I liked Joanna Dark, and I wanted to know what happened to her. But I didn't actually want to play the game to find out.

Prey was likewise very finely polished. The tactics felt right. The production design was of high quality. The level design was clever. The portals and gravity puzzles were very clever. They even solved the "How do you deal with the player's death" problem in a smart way. But despite all of this, the game left me feeling hollow and empty. I expect that Valve's upcoming Portal will be similarly clever, and that I similarly will have no interest whatsoever in playing it.

My co-writer psu and I agree on many things, but this is one area where our opinions diverge. He thinks that what made Halo 2 — though not the original game — great were the finely tuned mechanics. And I agree that that's part of it. But I think it's impossible to overestimate the importance of a game having a gripping emotional dynamic. What kept me playing Halo 2 was that the level design and story reinforced each other, creating an authentic feeling of panic and urgency. This is what kept me playing every good shooter since the original Doom. The apotheosis of this, for me, is the indescribably fantastic System Shock 2 — which, to my unending bitterness, won't play on Windows XP — where every element of the game combined perfectly. System Shock instilled a constant sense of dread and panic in me so strongly that sometimes I'd have to stop playing because I was shivering too much.

You have to work to create that kind of emotional intensity. You can't just slap together some generic alien models and put them into some generic hallways with crates. You can't then just slap some deathmatch and capture the flag on top of that and expect the online mode to save you. This is especially true since Counterstrike already exists, and is the perfect online shooter in every way.

So this brings us to the current situation, where the best first-person shooter for the Xbox 360 is The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, which combines adequate game mechanics with a world that's more interesting than that in the competing games. And it makes sense: if you build a game whose entire gameplay mechanic is "kill everything you see until you reach the next cutscene," that doesn't leave a lot of room for true drama or narrative surprise. Oblivion works because there are things to do in between the shooting. What was the last shooter you actually finished? When a pastoral, generally lyrical RPG makes for the best shooter experience on a console, then we have to start asking ourselves: Why are these games still being made?

The answer, of course, is habit. The game industry is by and large overly conservative. This is why they leave vast portions of their potentially market not only underserved but completely untapped. So, like a hamster in its exercise wheel, every company in the industry continues to compete for the allowances of the same group of 15 year old boys.

The first-person shooter had its heyday, once upon a time, because the technology made it possible. And now we've all played that game, and we don't need to play it anymore. Trying to produce something brilliant and innovative in the FPS genre sounds, to me, like trying to cook and serve a gourmet meal while wearing bondage leathers and gimp mask. Possible, yes, but not exactly appetizing.

I realize that to some extent I am describing a problem, and not presenting a solution. For that, I am sorry. But I can't help comparing these games to Shadow of the Colossus.

Perfect Dark Zero and Prey had brilliant graphics, clever design, and responsive gameplay mechanics, and i just couldn't bring myself to play them. Shadow of the Colossus had hateful graphics quality, hateful controls, and hateful pacing, and I was absolutely compelled to play it every night for a month until I finished it.

What I"m trying to get at here, clumsily, is the idea that perhaps game publishers need to start thinking about technology last instead of first. There was a time in Hollywood's history when a film pitch might have begun "We've got this great idea: we're going to shoot a film, and it's going to be in color." But make a pitch along strictly technological lines today, and you'll get thrown out of the Universal lot faster than you can say "Bruce Willis."

I think we've reached that point in game design. Don't focus on giving me a first person shooter, or an RPG, or an adventure game. Focus on making characters as evocative as the horse in Shadow of the Colossus. Focus on scaring me as well as System Shock 2 (or, using another example of a game with great atmosphere and lousy game mechanics, Fatal Frame 2) did.

I want you to make videogames. I even want you to make money doing it.

Just make sure you write the game before you start writing any code.

Posted by peterb at September 7, 2006 08:14 PM | Bookmark This

Hmm, your gamercard makes it look like you stopped playing Prey right before I found it really picks up and gets interesting.

I rented it and like it so far; it's got enough of that "keep introducing new things" element that keeps me into games, and I'm just glad to be playing a FPS that doesn't have Nazis or terrorists. And I actually felt a sense of elation at the first boss battle that I hadn't felt since figuring out some of the secrets to the Shadow of Colossus battles - and the one in Prey has such a satisfying ending.

It's not perfect, and I found the online play horrible and full of lag. But I'm not bored with it yet.
(And for a sense of my tastes, I found the Half-Life games to be overrated and a bit dull. About the only FPS games I can remember finishing single-player are NOLF2 and Jedi Knight 2.)

Posted by Adam Rixey at September 7, 2006 04:29 PM

Pete, have you ever played the Second Life MMORPG? IMHO, it's far better than anything The Sims Online or any traditional MMORPG has. The point is to build and explore and make money, rather than kill and complete missions and quests.

I'd like to know what you think of it. Signup is free, and all the paid options are superfluous, so all you need is a nice box with plenty of RAM and a good net connection.

I'm a total addict. My job is suffering because of it. I keep telling myself I can quit any time, but I know it's a lie.

Posted by Susan at September 7, 2006 04:30 PM

Hmm, that's funny. I could have sworn I was playing system shock 2 on my brand new athlon with xp installed a few years ago...

Posted by rmitz at September 7, 2006 08:51 PM

I find the continuing success of FPS games to be quite interesting, in commercial and audience terms.

I am coming to the conclusion that these games function like fancy Spookhouses - the player enters the linear path and walks down it, triggering spooks and excitement along the way. Now granted, there's considerably more play in the FPS than in most haunted houses, but the principle of the experience seems to be similar.

The player is getting an experience delivered to them as they "move through the house". This is all well and good for those who enjoy it, but anyone looking for new play (a minority concern, alas) is unlikely to find it inside most FPS games which have become extremely codified.

The strength of the form appears to be in their very linearity, which allows a wider audience to play them without getting stuck being unsure what to do next (often an issue outside of linear structure).

At least, that's how I currently see it. :)

Best wishes!

Posted by Chris at September 7, 2006 10:33 PM

Play Half Life 2 and tell me the FPS is dead.

Play Kameo and tell me Rare is under a curse - alright, it's still not the best game ever but it's better than PDZ.

Posted by Andy P at September 8, 2006 01:03 AM

Actually, although I didn't use it as an example here, I thought Half-Life 2 was pretty strenuously boring.

Perhaps it is just me?

Posted by peterb at September 8, 2006 02:01 AM

I did very much like Half Life 2.

The gameplay itself was good, it was *brilliant* fun taking down the striders, flying along at pace in the two veichle sections (crazy controls aside, it WAS fun), getting to fight, then have on your side the Antlions... it was all brilliant, I loved every second of it.

I pirated it, I have to say. Completed it, then BOUGHT it (and got Ep 1 on steam). Yes, I suffer through owning an legitimate copy and dealing with Steam because I like it that much!

Halo... I can see why people disliked it, ESPECIALLY people who like RPGs. Halo, here's the thing, you need to take at a run. Do Not Kill Every Baddie. Just blaze through the levels at a run, don't stop - it's very hard to die, and the game is a lot more fun. Repetitive corridors? Not if you run through them! Just blast at what you can on the way. It's an arcade shooter with an epic storyline.

Prey... I have that for the PC and something about games with the Doom 3 engine bug me... they just have this weighty feel to them that I can't get over. It feels like the game is sets entirely under water. I couldn't finish it, despite the awesomeness of the gravity "puzzles".

Posted by Will at September 8, 2006 02:10 AM

I played through Half-Life 2 and had a bit of fun. I didn't think it was the be-all though. Too many stupid vehicles and physics puzzles, not enough crossbow sniping and ninja babes. Overall the game seemed too enamored of its engine and "narrative", and didn't pay enough attention to ya know, the shooting parts.

Resident Evil 4 is a great recent shooter to go along with Halo, IMHO.

Posted by psu at September 8, 2006 02:16 AM

How to run/install SS2 under Windows XP. I may play through it again this weekend. Man, that game was fantastic.

Posted by Brett Douville at September 8, 2006 02:24 AM

Let me know if it works for you. I've tried just about everything in that thread and had no luck.

Posted by peterb at September 8, 2006 02:35 AM

So I just went and installed my copy of system shock 2 (which came as part of a bundle, not the original copy). It seems to be installed and is running just fine on my copy of XP SP2 running on the Mac Mini.

Where does a problem happen?

Posted by rmitz at September 8, 2006 03:59 AM

I've got SS2 running on Windows 2000 where it wouldn't run before. The difference seems to be the soundcards in the laptops are different. Games based on the Thief engine seem really sensitive to hardware. You might try a different machine.

Some people just don't go for FPS, and I think it's a very individual taste. I thought HL2 was brilliant, partially because I felt like it kept switching genres on me. On the other hand, I only made it through Halo because of the story--the actual game was often clumsy and frustrating.

Posted by Thomas at September 8, 2006 05:35 AM

I keep reading that Half-Life 2 switches genres, but I don't see it, other than "zombie movie area" and "argh heck vehicle driving sections."

Can I get a breakdown?

Posted by Adam V. at September 8, 2006 06:04 AM

Perhaps saying genres is too strong a term, although survival horror/crazy scooter/squad tactics/platform puzzle/phsyics puzzle were all there. But they do keep changing up the combat in a way that didn't happen in Halo--taking out snipers, adding the ant lions, placing turrets... blah blah blah.

It felt more varied than other games did, and the tone changed with those sections. Maybe that's why the word genre came to mind.

Posted by Thomas at September 8, 2006 07:19 AM

I gave it another shot today and managed to get System Shock 2 working on Windows XP on my MacBook. But I had to sacrifice a goat.

It's exactly as good as I remember it being.

Posted by peterb at September 9, 2006 05:02 AM

Oh, c'mon. The FPS genre kicks out decent games at exactly the same rate now as it did when it first started -- somewhere around one a year (maybe one every two years). There's no halcyon days of yore when all these games were good.

I just finished up HL2:1, the maddeningly named perfect condensation of the Half Life experience. HL captures my attention in a way Halo never did, but I'm not going to pretend one is inherently better than the other -- I think it's just a taste issue. For me, HL2 perfectly captures that sense of pacing that -- for psu -- Halo does. And both are vastly superior to, say, Doom 3.

The commenter who refers to them as spookhouses has it correctly -- you're walking down a convoluted but ultimately linear hallway. It's the pulls that keep you walking down the hallway that matter, which is some mystical melange of story elements, gameplay, and level design.

Posted by Eric Tilton at September 10, 2006 12:02 AM

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