First Person Shooters: What’s in it for me?

So in an effort to keep this new blog updated (maybe every week or two) I’m going to put my best foot forward and try to hit the ground running. Not sure how well two foot-related metaphors work together, but we’re going to go with it anyway.

I’ve been playing First Person Shooters for a long time, starting way back with Wolfenstein 3D and later on with America’s Army for the online multiplayer. I also had my console FPS phase, playing hundreds of hours of Goldeneye and Perfect Dark, and spending some time on Xbox Live with Halo 2 and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. First Person Shooters are a genre I thoroughly enjoy. Before you get the wrong idea and start avoiding eye contact with me, it isn’t about the violence. It’s about the strategy and overall control you have over yourself, your weapon, and how your survival largely depends on your individual skill.

Now this entry isn’t going to be about the games I’ve played over the years and what I liked about them, that’s been done to death. Instead, I want to dive into some of the reasons why we play First Person Shooters, more specifically, what drives us to play again and again. I’ve played a large number of shooters over the years, and I’ve noticed different reasons to keep coming back and booting up games time and time again. The first game I want to look at is a Half Life modification, a game created by the modding community and delivered for free to the loyal Half Life fans.

The first Half Life mod I played extensively was a little game called “The Specialists”. Basically this game was a built around pure “Deathmatch” mechanics where players were pitted against each other to get as many kills as possible. The Specialists was heavily influenced by the movie “The Matrix”, including concepts like bullet time, stunt dives, massive kung-fu fights, becoming “The One”, and even a map modeled after the Lobby scene from the film.  The Specialists was a great game to play both alone and with a group of friends. It didn’t include any leveling systems, experience rewards or character upgrades; it was centered on the pure enjoyment of the mechanics. Dive off a ledge, slow down time, shoot two bad guys in the face, pick up their weapons and wall jump up to another building. Sound awesome? Yeah, it was. The reward in the Specialists was the enjoyment of the gameplay, getting to the top of the scoreboard and pulling off the best stunts and kills. Having other players fear you when you joined a server, that was the reward. I played this game for years, and my enjoyment of it never faltered. I didn’t need a reward system, a level attached to my character or weapon unlocks to keep me coming back for more. I was addicted to the gameplay, not a reward system. Would a game like The Specialists thrive today? I’m not entirely sure.

The Specialists Gameplay

The reward system is a more modern / recent addition to FPS’s, in some respects. Older games that I’ve played had stat tracking and real basic rewards… like the “honor system” in America’s Army. You know, numbers attached to your name that didn’t really make much of a difference to the gameplay, they just added some prestige to your account (showed how little of a life you had). I might be slightly encouraged to play to get that number higher, but generally I was drawn to the game for the gameplay itself, playing was the reward. I don’t really consider things like kill/death ratios and level systems a reward, not when compared to what is included in more modern games.

America’s Army Honor System


Speaking of modern games, I’ve been playing a lot of Call of Duty Black Ops 2 recently. Before you close out of my blog immediately, hear me out. The game is actually good. Yeah, I said it. Try to look past the AAA title and the fact that every year brings us a new Call of Duty game, this one is actually an enjoyable and well-crafted experience when it comes to online multiplayer. One of the reasons it’s well-crafted, at least in my opinion, is that it doesn’t rely completely on a reward system to keep bringing players back; it builds upon the foundation of solid gameplay. Playing a round of Kill Confirmed or Domination is an enjoyable experience at early levels with limited load outs as well as late levels with more weapons and skills unlocked; the gameplay is made to be enjoyable throughout the entire experience. The rewards just help the player come back, knowing that next level unlocks a perk you can’t wait to use, or in two levels a new weapon will be at your fingertips. Most modern shooters that I’ve played or that I see advertised have adopted this type of reward system, a system that is attempting to reward the player with the feeling of progression, a return on their investment of time if you will. Personally, I think it’s a great idea to reward players to keep them coming back, but have we been spoiled by these systems? When we play games without these rewards, games like “The Specialists”, do we enjoy them as much? Do we get as invested, do we spend nearly as much time playing these games as more modern titles with rewards? I’m not so sure anymore, and I may have a good example as to why…


Black Ops 2 Class Customization


A game called “Natural Selection 2” came out somewhat recently, an Indie title that managed to finally come to market after a roller-coaster ride of development. NS2 is the sequel to the original Half-Life mod Natural Selection, a game where Aliens and Marines battle each other in a genre crossover between FPS and RTS. It’s an excellent game, an interesting and unique experience with an incredibly high skill cap that rewards players who put in the time and dedication to learn the ropes. But one thing the game doesn’t have is a modern reward system. NS2 is modeled after the games of old, like its predecessor Natural Selection-original flavor. Now this doesn’t mean that NS2 isn’t enjoyable, quite the contrary. It’s just a different type of enjoyment, a different reward than what modern titles bring to the table. I started realizing this after a late night of playing NS2 with a good friend of mine.

We had started off as marines and operated as a two-man unit. We slowly made our way through dimly lit hallways with assault rifles drawn, ready to take out any alien in our path as we tried to find resources for our commander. With precision fire and good communication (and an assload of luck most likely) we were unstoppable. After taking out 10 aliens a piece and controlling an important resource quadrant, we felt like an integral part of the team. The rest of the 50 minute round was filled with highs and lows, tense moments where our individual contributions swayed the tide of battle. One more death could have spelt disaster for our team, but we held the frontlines and overcame the alien scourge! Ahem. It was a hard fought and hard earned victory, a victory that took almost an entire hour to accomplish. At that very moment there was a large feeling of accomplishment, a feeling of pride and reward that came along with our names at the top of the score sheet. We knew that our contributions lead our team to victory. It was a feeling greater than those I receive when playing and winning rounds of Black Ops 2. But then something happened… a new round started. The server loaded a new level, and there we were as lowly grunts at the bottom of the score sheet with nothing to show for our efforts in a previous battle.


Natural Selection 2 Gameplay


At that moment I knew I had been spoiled by more modern games. I knew that 5, maybe 6 years ago this would have been just fine. But because of games like Call of Duty and Borderlands, I wanted a reward. I wanted character progression; I wanted some sort of unlock… character experience… a new shiny and more powerful weapon! A return on my investment of time and energy. Does this make me a bad gamer? I don’t know, maybe. But I’ve been trained by these modern games to play a certain way, I’ve grown accustomed to this new structure and it’s difficult to go back. This feeling made me wonder if a game like Natural Selection 2 should include some character progression. Should it become a bit more modern with its structure, should it reward players to keep playing? The answer is a definite maybe. The community seems to be a bit split too; there are purists on the forums that believe the game is perfect as is. On the other hand, there are newer players that love the game but are left wanting more, they need more reasons to come back. Neither group is wrong per se, both have valid points.

As a game designer, these are some of the things I like to think about. I tend to design my games around purely fun mechanics, focusing mostly on gameplay above all else. But I also know that I need players to keep coming back. In order to draw them in for another gaming session, I might need to rely on a little bit more than an enjoyable experience.

I’d love to hear other opinions though, what do you think about the state of modern shooters? Do you think we’ve been spoiled by rewards in games? Are we just bratty little children waiting for a handout, or are their legitimate (and psychological) reasons to change the way we design games and enhance replay-ability?