The first person shooter is one of the world’s most popular video game genres, with the likes of Halo and Call of Duty dominating the charts. Christopher Dring investigates the sector and talks to the experts on the past, present and future of the FPS...
Believe it or not, the first person shooter is one of gaming’s oldest genres.
It first arrived in 1974 when Steve Colley – a future NASA engineer – created Maze War, a game that boasted network play, wireframe graphics and the ability to turn and move in two directions.
But it took almost 20 years before the FPS reached the mainstream, with id Software’s 1992 hit Wolfenstein 3D. The Nazi-based blaster is seen as the daddy of the modern day first person shooter and laid the groundwork for 1993’s smash hit Doom.
At the time the FPS’ home was on the PC, with fans insistent that the genre simply couldn’t work without a mouse and keyboard. And then in 1997 British developer Rare launched GoldenEye, the N64 game that went on to sell eight million units worldwide.
“The final product was a more traditional FPS than we’d first planned – it’s well-documented that the original design was all on-rails,” says Rare’s head of studio Mark Betteridge
“As the work progressed we realised that it made sense to shift development in that direction, both as a game and as a potential asset for Nintendo. It turned out to be a great tool for attracting a different type of gamer to the N64. Up to that point the consoles had never been able to field many serious competitors to the PC FPS market.”
In the years that followed GoldenEye the FPS grew to become one of the world’s most successful genres. Today Halo and Call of Duty are two of the biggest franchises in games, while four of the top five most played titles on Xbox Live are first person shooters.
So what has been the secret to the category’s continued success?
Valve’s marketing boss Doug Lombardi explains: “When
done correctly, it’s hard to argue that there is another genre that allows you to feel like ‘I did that.’
“Using our own games as examples, Portal was a puzzle game that managed to make you feel smart and emotionally attached to a crate with a heart painted on the side of it. Meanwhile Left 4 Dead allows you to feel like you’re part of a team, and there are distinct outcomes based upon your teamplay.”
Valve is a great example of how the first person shooter remains such a dominant force in gaming. The developer is responsible for some of the most innovative shooters on the market, from its first game (1998’s Half-Life), past Counter-Strike, Team Fortress, Portal and last year’s zombie-infested Left 4 Dead. And the firm says that trying something new is key to growing the genre.
“For Valve, innovation has been everything,” adds Lombardi.
“That was Half-Life’s mission statement – innovate. Since then we’ve managed to take a pretty different approach to every game – from taking a little multiplayer-only MOD called Counter-Strike to retail in 2000 to doing an FPS puzzler in 2007 with Portal to our latest attempts to bring new things to the genre through co-op play in Left 4 Dead.”
The first person shooters of today are vastly different to the experiences pioneered by Doom in the ‘90s. Over the years the humble FPS has come to incorporate rival genres into its framework, introducing puzzles, racing sections and even RPG elements into the final product.
“We look at everything when we are making a game,” says Infinity Ward’s creative strategist Robert Bowling.
“I think it is important to appreciate the work everybody is doing, no matter what the genre. Really, when making Call of Duty we look at all genres such as racing games and RPGs, and incorporate elements of all of them.
“We will play an RPG and go: ‘This xp, ranking and perk ability is awesome’ and that inspires decisions in our games. And that is why we are moving away from being a first person shooter to creating a first person action game.”
Kikizo director Adam Doree, who has just launched FPSgamer.com, adds: “You can’t understate the contribution survival horror games like Resident Evil and Silent Hill have made to the shooters’ transformation from B-movie fare to something capable of real atmospheric nuance and narrative sophistication.
"Also significant on this front – as broader cultural influences – are Stephen Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and the Alien films.”
Indeed, today’s shooters are a far cry from the FPS of yesteryear, so much so that some titles – such as 2K’s latest Borderlands and Nintendo’s Metroid Prime series – have looked to drop the first person shooter moniker altogether.
“We have developed Metroid Prime Trilogy with a viewpoint to seeing how Metroid – a 2D game – would change in 3D by utilising a FPS platform,” explains Kensuke Tanabe, who oversaw the Prime series as manager of production group No.3 at Nintendo’s Software Planning Development Division.
“So it’s important to understand that the idea is based on pursuing a better Metroid on a FPS platform, rather than a better FPS title that utilises the Metroid franchise. In that sense, we adopted a unique categorisation for our game — the first person adventure.”
LEFT FOR DEAD
First person shooters may be the world’s leading video game genre, but breaking into the sector can be a tough task.
For every BioShock or Far Cry that cuts through, there is a Haze, Turning Point or XIII that falls aside. In 2007, Midway put millions behind the launch of Blacksite: Area 51 even telling MCV that it expected the title to top the charts. But the game failed to even impact the Top 40.
The latest publisher attempting to crack the tough FPS market is SouthPeak, with its multiplayer-based Section 8 – which launched last month.
“It’s been tough, especially for a company the size of SouthPeak, to bring through games that compete on a similar level with established brands such as Halo and Operation Flashpoint; let alone the behemoth that is Modern Warfare,” comments SouthPeak’s European marketing director Ed Blincoe.
“Bringing new, innovative features and gameplay with you doesn’t guarantee interest or visibility with the consumers and you have to fight hard to make sure your voice is heard over the shouts of others.”
Looking ahead there are plenty of new first person shooters on the horizon vying for attention. This year gamers will be enjoying Left 4 Dead 2, Modern Warfare 2 and Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising, while 2010 boasts even more sequels, including BioShock 2, Ghost Recon: Predator and Red Steel 2.
There’s new IP coming too, in the form of Activision’s promising Singularity and 2K’s Borderlands, while Sega is looking to crack the FPS market with the classic Aliens vs Predator licence.
“The Alien and Predator are amongst the most iconic film characters in the history of Sci-Fi ,” says Sega’s senior product manager Ben Walker.
“The Colonial Marine has pretty much been the blueprint for futuristic FPS characters in recent times; and all of this affords us with incredible awareness and familiarity, which is a rarity in the genre.”
And what can we expect after 2010 – especially with the launch of Project Natal and Sony’s motion controller?
Rare’s Betteridge concludes: “It’s still a booming business, you only have to look at the success of the Halo series to see that. And we’re obviously very happy about the excitement over Perfect Dark coming back to Xbox Live Arcade.
“Right now our sights are trained on Natal, which is a great opportunity to break new ground with content and gameplay, It’s also an opportunity to exercise some genre evolution, so hopefully we’ll be able to develop something on that front.”