On First-Person Shooters

The FPS genre is amongst the most popular genres of the present moment, countless titles releasing each year, though more than other genres, development of first-person shooters is largely dominated by larger, AAA studios; small indie studios mostly reject the genre, preferring instead to develop more artistic, creative experiences; a notable rift is in place. The FPS genre’s popularity is very justified, in that the genre is brimming with opportunities for enjoyability, these opportunities largely arising from the diversification of the genre – rather than revolving around simple gunplay, the FPS genre has evolved to encompass multiple subgenres, like the stealth-shooter or the looter-shooter. But the juggernaut of the industry – Call of Duty – mostly clings to more conventional shooter design philosophies, though some tentative efforts at experimentation periodically emerge. But the influence of Call of Duty for the genre and the industry cannot be overstated, the release of Modern Warfare in 2007 being a watershed moment for the industry, altering it and establishing the FPS genre’s position of dominance. It was a fair few years to arrive at this point, of course: the FPS genre existed long before the release of that seminal title, games like the original Doom or Wolfenstein doing much to advance the genre, to establish its central design tenants, and these games’ influences cannot be overstated, even as, when returned to today, their archaicnesss is readily and instantly observable – the games are clunky, unrefined, though it is still possible to derive enjoyment and satisfaction from the games. In these early years, the years where so called “Doom-clones” proliferated, the genre was intimately connected with PCs and PC gamers; the console experience was relatively neglected. And then a shift occurred, FPS games establishing themselves on home consoles, this establishment largely connected to Goldeneye, released for the Nintendo 64 some years after Doom’s own release. Here, the console’s compatibility with the genre was communicated to industry developers and publishers, and as time has progressed, consoles have become immensely important to the genre, some released titles being console exclusive, like the seminal Halo series, Microsoft’s most lauded and influential IP. A certain progression is thus observable, games like Doom leading to Wolfenstein, Wolfenstein then leading to Goldeneye, Perfect Dark, or Halo, which in turn led towards Modern Warfare. This genre generally is defined by progression, diversification of experiences and gameplay mechanics. While this summary is obviously a simplification, it has some merit, for it is important to understand temporality, the haste with which FPS have obtained industry dominance; in the 1990s there was Doom, Unreal Tournament and other similar titles. Now, the genre is indeed somewhat saturated, but given that more and more FPS titles are now being developed, opportunities for greater and greater experiences, more satisfying experiences, have seen a similar escalation.

These older FPS experiences were largely defined by a certain chaotic freneticism, featuring blindingly fast movement, while constant locomotion was a dire necessity – remain in statis for too long, reject bunny-hopping and the overall locomotion freedoms: do these things, these rejections, and death is a certitude. Now, such freneticism has largely been minimized, the modern FPS experience defined by a slower, more prodding pace, largely owing to an increase in protagonist fragility. Now, opposite strategies are required – remain exposed for any excessive duration or underutilize cover and death is likely. In a stroke of brilliant, fortunate greatness, however, these two experiences are permitted to coexist, owing to the genre’s mentioned diversity. Numerically, the arena shooter may see far less publication than a more tactical shooter, though this former subgenre has not seen outright destruction: these mechanics are preserved, just as newer mechanics are introduced. Each individual player naturally has a distinct sense of taste: they may be repelled by one gameplay philosophy, may fiercely cling to another. With the FPS genre’s diversity, though, all players can find something personally appealing and resonant, quite a remarkable achievement. Consider a less diverse genre, like racing games or sports games. With this dearth of diversity comes a dearth in appeal: if a player is indifferent to FIFA or other similar titles, they will always be repelled; there is nothing special to draw in players indifferent to the genre. But the FPS’ genres experimental attributes, the diversity of gameplay experiences, are somewhat minimized, largely owing to titles like those of the Call of Duty series, to use that example again. With yearly releases and a mostly ravenous player base, this series results in a massive amount of profit for Activision – money is consistently accumulating. Some of this profit is inevitably channeled into the development, though some profit is expended in more sordid ways. Still, given the series’ profitable nature, it follows that other studios should seek to replicate the experiences and ambitions characterizing Call of Duty. When this mimicry is especially fierce, an overall sense of stagnation emerges, and newer, more ambitious and original experiences must be released to compensate. But tragically, such releases are mostly sporadic, so the genre is, again, sometimes caught in the mire; Call of Duty is like a plague for the genre, stifling creativity; money matters, absolutely. Should stale Call of Duty be displaced, the genre would see liberation, which would in turn result in advancement. Still, more innovative experiences are present, while some games – consider the recent Wolfenstein games or the Doom reboot – seek to take the mechanics present in the genre’s earliest titles, and modernize those selfsame mechanics. In this regard, these development studios must be praised, in that they are serving a preservationist function, while simultaneously enhancing the genre; reverence for the past combines with regard for the future.

A recent trend within FPS games is the mentioned genre-hybridization, simple shooting splintering off into many compelling directions; most modern studios reject the perception that shooting and shooting alone should dominate the gameplay experience, while the assimilation of other genre’s gameplay mechanics only serves to broaden the appeal of any given developed title. This hybridization can take on many forms, such as an emphasis on vehicular gameplay or the inclusion of profound role-playing mechanics, though the most prominent hybridization rests in the wedding of shooting and stealth, two things which are perfectly compatible. With their fusing, then, comes an escalation of enjoyability. Certain developers strive for a more vaccinationist approach, the player presented with a conventional combat sequence one moment, presented with a slower, more plodding stealth experience the next. This precise approach results in continued gameplay freshness, the overall rejection of repetitive staleness, such staleness being a tangible possibility whenever shooting constitutes the entirety of an FPS title. The cleverest and most compelling gameplay systems, though, arise whenever a more organic approach to gameplay is incentivized. In one scenario, for instance, the player may advance into a combat arena undetected, and may set out to dispatch the hostile NPCs in a stealthy fashion; one by one do the bodies fall, and thus the player grows closer and closer to success. This quieter approach can be quite exhilarating, uniquely exhilarating, the sensations evoked here being departures from more bombastic combat’s evoked sensations. But with the justly lauded organicness, the player of such a hybrid FPS could resort to open combat upon detection, and could triumph in that combat, in that in many FPS games a sharp sense of empowerment is in place, this empowerment mostly absent from a conventional stealth experience. So, the FPS player can rely upon one approach – the quiet approach – or can rely upon a secondary approach – a loud one. But both approaches will likely be wielded in turn, and this precise hybridization is defined by a certain complexity, at odds with the conventional FPS experience which prioritizes open gunfire from the first to the last. Here, with these more conventional and barebones FPS experiences, not only will simplicity see evocation, but tedium must inevitably see similar evocation; hybridization is empowering.   

Other genre hybrids exist, too, amongst the most commonplace being the fusion of shooting mechanics with open-world game design, the Far Cry series exceling most strongly within this marriage, the third installment – released in 2012 – serving an advancing function not dissimilar to Modern Warfare’s own industry advancement. Exploring that title’s open world – or the open worlds of its successors, which oftentimes featured even more depth, showing that Ubisoft listen to fans and know how to implement their demands – is richly rewarding, the gameplay experience being wonderfully diverse – simple shooting is complemented by stealth sequences, driving and a general exploratory impulse, an impulse of course lacking in a more conventional, less diverse and linear FPS title, like Call of Duty. It is rather difficult, though, to execute this precise marriage effectively, meaning that Ubisoft largely stand alone. An instance of similar aspirations is discoverable within Homefront: The Revolution, an immensely flawed and repetitive experience, one which does execute some experimentation in terms of weapon design and weapon flexibility, but an experience mostly lacking the spark of life so central to any effective video game experience; the developers attempted mimicry here and largely failed. But still other genre-hybridizations exist, and the Borderlands series must be mentioned. Here, conventional shooting is wedded to RPG mechanics, with major emphasis placed upon player progression, each title featuring increasingly elaborate skill trees, which enable player flexibility, self-expression, while the seemingly infinite number of weapons, class mods, and shields bolsters enjoyability, while this precise series often display a certain endlessness – hundreds upon hundreds of hours could be poured into any given game in this series, and as was the case with Far Cry 3, industry advancements were made with Borderlands’ release in 2009. Here, again, comes a certain inimitability – no developer has been able to replicate the successes so deftly and wonderfully achieved here, and this series is thus one of lasting and total innovation. Some titles have sought to implement role-playing mechanics with first-person gameplay, such as Dead Island or Dying Light, though these cannot necessarily be considered as a conventional FPS, even as firearms see inclusion. It is critical to understand, though, that not all FPS games need these progression systems, for if they are implemented lazily or half-heartedly, the results can be disastrous – or at least painfully dull. One hopes, then, that successful games in the Borderlands mold will see release, but that these games will exist alongside conventional shooters, or other examples of genre-hybridity, like that observable within open-ended, genre-melding Far Cry.

Some recent genre trends revolve around health systems and weapon carrying capacities. Regarding the former, a general push towards regenerating health is in place, such regenerating health marking a radical departure from earlier experiences which relied upon medkits or other such objects for health replenishment. These earlier titles were thus defined by excessive, wonderful tension, tension which is mostly lessened within titles employing regenerating health. With these games, the player can simply retreat to cover, wait a few seconds and then promptly return to the fray, engaging with the enemies, completely rejuvenated. Once the player is suitably overwhelmed, then they can repeat this same cycle, a cycle completed dozens and dozens of times throughout the campaign of any conventional FPS title. With med-kits and non-regenerating health, meanwhile, a more cautious approach must be adopted, for health is mostly finite, necessitating vastly different tactics, resulting in a vastly different experience. To again mention the need for coexistence, ideally these two approaches to health shall persist, shall remain harmonious. Such harmony and coexistence, though, seem only difficultly won, given the total dominance of regenerating health, a dominance which is certainly understandable, in that regenerating health oftentimes lessens potential frustrations. If a player elects to play such an FPS on a higher difficulty, then frustration has the tendency to swell. Given that most players play simply for escapism and enjoyability, naturally they should reject frustration. And so many games in the genre reject regenerating health. Another marked – and painfully limiting – change revolves around the mentioned carrying capacity. In earlier games of the genre, the player was permitted to wield all acquired items simultaneously. Now, however, many titles restrict the number of equipable weapons, many permitting the wielding of but two, the comparatively generous allowing the player to wield four weapons. Why this trend has caught on is baffling indeed, for with a reduction of carrying capacity comes a reduction in flexibility, the accessibility to different tactic types. True, this decision forces the player to execute greater foresight, while in games with unrestricted carrying capacity such foresight is unnecessary, but this necessity does not diminish the frustrations accompanying weapon restrictiveness. Indeed, many players will circumvent these restrictions, oftentimes relying upon more generally useful weapons, like assault rifles, which can perform excellently at a myriad different ranges. This also results in lessened experimentation, in that shotguns, for instance, being highly situational, will perhaps never see implementation – assault rifles will be wielded always. True, the player may experiment with different assault rifle models, but the limitations on experimentation remain painfully in place. And there is nothing more frustrating than beginning a combat scenario equipped with inappropriate weaponry, like walking into a long-range engagement without a sniper rifle, or being presented with a stealth sequence while carrying no suppressed weapons. Restricted carrying capacity must absolutely be reckoned a failure, and games which permit the carrying of all weapons concurrently – consider again the Doom reboot or even the much earlier original Bioshock – must be championed.

Certain players may be repelled by FPS games, such players gravitating towards the oftentimes slower paced role-playing-game, simulators, or even sports titles; freneticism is not for everyone. And yet, FPSs are no longer defined by the freneticism which dominated in their earlier years; diversity is immense, and thus it is logical – wise – to recommend FPS games towards those players who generally show genre indifference, for they will inevitably find something personally resonant. Experimentation may be lessened dramatically in the present moment, progress halted owing to the dominance of Call of Duty and the somewhat-waning Battlefield, though a lack of experimentation does not instantly equate to a lack of enjoyability – far from it. And developers do engage in some basic experimentation, much of it revolving around environmental direction and world-building, the genre exploring such diverse concepts and environments as World War I – consider Battlefield 1 – and worlds some hundreds of years removed from the present – consider Halo. The FPS genre can thus serve a transportive function, taking players into uniquely historical or imagined places, oftentimes vastly removed from the present moment. This creativity might dimmish the impactfulness of FPS games set in modern times, these narratives lacking the imaginative spark, though the appeal of modernity is easily understood, and modern-set installments must be nurtured, must coexist alongside historical or scientific shooters. And that is the word of greatest import when considering the modern FPS – coexistence. The genre has of course swollen in diversity in recent years, as more and more disparate ideas are pursued, some of them going nowhere, being failures, others having spectacular, lasting effects. If one approach to world-building and game design suddenly disappeared – say, if Halo’s world-building, everything it represents – then appeal would lessen, as would experimentation. All of these various approaches must persist. The pace of progress in the genre, meanwhile, has been constant, sometimes rapid – consider even the growth of Call of Duty. While it is easy to deride and despise the franchise – as this writing sometimes communicates – the series is of immense consequence, and the leap in quality from 2007 to the today of 2023 has been dramatic indeed, showing what can be accomplished with a seemingly unbounded budget. Playing Warzone or the Modern Warfare reboot for any extended duration can make a return to earlier FPS games painful, certainly, a painful admission yet a true one, a logical one, owing to the extent of progress achieved. But even if something like Call of Duty were dethroned, even if the RPG genre, for instance, should grow towards industry dominance, the FPS genre will always be consequential, will always have its own intimate place. Some would delight in that displacement, certainly, while others might lament it, and this theoretical clash of emotions points towards the divided nature present within gamers.

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