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Indies challenge themselves to find innovation in the tired old FPS genre

Indies challenge themselves to find innovation in the tired old FPS genre Exclusive

July 3, 2012 | By Mike Rose

"FPSes are a horribly oversaturated genre, indies can easily do amazing new stuff. Who's up for it?" tweeted Jan Willem Nijman, co-founder of indie studio Vlambeer, back in April. What started out as a random thought quickly snowballed into one of the most interesting indie development jams of recent times.

The 7 Day First Person Shooter Challenge (7DFPS) ran early in June, and aimed to create weird and wonderful first-person shooter concepts in the space of just a week, a genre that independent developers tend to avoid.

"It seemed like indies were avoiding shooters because they view those as the pinnacle of all that is wrong with triple-A," Nijman tells us. "I figured it was time to change that."

After fumbling around with how to get the jam organized, Nijman recruited the help of McPixel developer Sos Sosowski and dev and musician Sven Bergstrom. 7DFPS went on to see hundreds of entries, with the likes of Wolfire and Cryptic Sea taking part.

The issue with the FPS space, says Nijman, is that gamers have no idea of the potential innovation that can occur, and instead choose to throw money at publishers who churn out the same dreary titles over and over again.

"Most players don't know what they want, so we have to give it to them!" he says. "I wish people would look at shooters from the start, where it all started, and work from there instead of iterating on the stuff from two years ago."

"There is so much to do with shooting without going into gimmick territory. That's also what we did with Gun Godz. It's a super straightforward game, reminiscent of Wolfenstein 3D and Doom."

gun godz.pngHe argues, "If you put it next to those games and look closely you'll note that the gameplay is completely different though. I'd love seeing a triple-A game do that."

For the most part, however, FPS developers don't bother exploring potential innovation in the genre because of the big money involved, believes Nijman.

As Epic's Tim Sweeney pointed out earlier this month, Activision invests nearly $100 million each year in its Call of Duty franchise. And where there's big money involved, the number of risks involved needs to be minimal, says the Vlambeer dev.

Industry stagnation

This stagnation is not simply limited to FPS games, argues Wolfire's David Rosen.

"Every genre is converging on its own universal design," he says. "For example, almost every FPS game is a near-future squad shooter with regenerating health, two-gun-swap, offhand grenades, XP-grinding multiplayer, and an on-rails cinematic story about the greyness of morality."

He adds, "Instead of competing efficiently by experimenting with design, FPS games compete in an expensive graphical arms race. I have never worked in triple-A games, so I'm not sure why exactly this happens."

That's not to say that modern-day shooters aren't pushing the envelope at all, however. "One thing I do find exciting about these shooters is how they push technological boundaries," he notes. "For example, the audio of Battlefield 3, the texturing of Rage, the animation of Max Payne 3, and the destruction in Red Faction, to name just a few."

"It can also be inspiring to see the creative uses that the artists find for the technology -- like how the rendering of Gears of War 3 looks much better than most games through exceptional placement of textured lights, emissive billboards, screen-space god rays, and other similar techniques. Those features are used in many UE3 games, but rarely as well. I also still enjoy many multiplayer shooters -- the rules haven't changed much in 20 years, but the network performance and audiovisual presentation have improved greatly."

It's the single-play experience that really grates Rosen, as developers appear to be more interested in putting together a cinematic masterpiece than providing the player with actual entertainment.

"I try to have fun, and the game just makes me feel patronized, bored, and restricted," he adds. "It's like the project leaders never asked themselves 'What does the player do in this game? Is that something that humans enjoy doing? Do humans actually enjoy being bossed around by uncharismatic authority figures in their free time?'"

receiver.png"For new players, I'm sure there is a certain novelty to tilting a thumb-stick and effortlessly moving through the attractive levels, and to pressing the trigger and hearing a loud noise in response. Unfortunately, this wears off quickly without any layered mechanics to provide some interesting context to these actions, or consequences for their results."

The only way for the industry to push past this same old, same old within the FPS space is to create rapid prototypes and then expand on those which appear to work. Valve, for example, uses this tried-and-tested formula constantly, building on successful mods or prototypes for each of its games.

"The 7DFPS challenge seems like a great event for creating this kind of experimental game prototype," notes Rosen. "If any large company divided into teams and participated in it, they would end up with more design ideas than they know what to do with, along with immediate evidence of which ones work and which ones don't."

Wolfire itself knows this first-hand, as it released its 7DFPS game, Receiver, as a paid game after the jam had ended. Receiver explores gun handling mechanics, randomized levels, and unordered storytelling as the player attempts to uncover a variety of secrets in a dangerous building complex.

"We decided to try a new development technique this time where we split the development very cleanly to minimize bottlenecks," says Rosen of Receiver. "I worked on the coding and gameplay design, Aubrey [Serr] focused on the thematic content of the game (such as voice recording, art direction and execution), Anton [Riehl] composed layered music tracks, and Tapio [Liukkonen] recorded sound effects. In this case this technique worked pretty well -- it minimized bottlenecks and conflicts, so we achieved nearly 100 percent parallelization of development time, allowing us to complete the 7DFPS challenge fairly close to the deadline."

When it came to Receiver's design, Rosen asked himself what the very first principles of first-person shooters should be. Why are we so interested in guns and shooting? How is guplay interesting for a first-person perspective?

"I've always found guns to be fascinating in their simplicity, in contrast to their world-changing power, so a key design motif of Receiver is a focus on machines that are simple but deadly," he continues. "We expressed this by exposing every single component of each machine to the player. For example, there's a key for every possible function of the gun, from the safety to the slide lock, and players can independently disable every component of the enemy robots."

The first-person perspective, he says, is the only viewpoint that provides an unobstructed, close-up view of the player's surroundings, hence he built Receiver such that players needed careful consideration of surroundings.

"Turrets and taser-bots tend hide in corners and blind spots, so players are encouraged to carefully clear each room using 'pie slicing' tactics, and search every hiding place for loose bullets and audio-tapes," he notes.

Multiplayer advancements

Cryptic Sea's Alex Austin took a different approach to him 7DFPS entry. In Sub Rosa, two online teams look to swap cash for important documents, while a third team, armed with guns and cars, wants to roll in and cause a stir, taking both the documents and cash in the process.

After watching lots of Arma II and Day Z videos on YouTube, Austin realized that the most entertaining experiences were those which didn't involve as much shooting, and instead were all about negotiations and chatter -- from this, the concept for Sub Rosa was born.

Austin agrees with Nijman that first-person shooters have fallen into stagnant times because of the money involved. "To make a triple-A FPS is going to cost hundreds of millions, and for indies the technical challenge and art asset requirements are usually too high," he notes. "There's not very many developers in that middle-ground anymore, where they have the resources to make an FPS but can still experiment."

sub rosa.jpgHowever, he also stands by Rosen's points that there are still some interesting approaches to the genre happening here and there. "I think Arma II and Day Z both create some really interesting scenarios. What's bad about most FPS games is the same thing that's bad about most games in general: single-player is a linear story the player doesn't affect except for unpausing, and multiplayer is standard team deathmatch where you get upgrades by grinding."

He continues, "What needs to happen is gamers need to support games that try something new. Day Z's popularity and increase in Arma II sales show that players are looking for new experiences -- even though it's a mod for a fairly obtuse game, it's been the best selling game on Steam."

His own Sub Rosa has proved popular too, with a constantly near-full server. This, believes Austin, is down to the fact that the game lets players choose and tell their own story. "There's definitely potential for FPS games to tap into that desire of players to make choices," he adds.

So where does 7DFPS go from here? Will the success of the game jam show indie developers that there is room for innovation in the FPS space?

"I hope so!" answers organiser Nijman. "I must say shooters are damned hard to make, and I guess a lot of people didn't get where they wanted to be in a week.

"Hopefully it got them thinking... I hope indies will make more shooters."

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