What is the Future of FPS Game Design?

November 10, 2011

When I read review of Modern Warfare 3 and Battlefield 3, both out now, I can't help but wonder where war games are going.

I spent 2 years working for an MMO war game company, a game I played for nearly 10 years and even volunteered for before I got paid. I understand the genre even though our game was not comparable to these AAA titles and never was a jump in a kill stuff game.

The thing I wonder is, other than better technology, what gameplay elements are really new? Both games have single player that you can finish in about 6 hours or so. At $60 per copy you are paying $10 per hour for the privilege of playing essentially the same game as previous versions. You move in a straight line killing stuff, getting some perks or upgrades, and then moving on to kill more stuff. Sure it's an adrenaline rush and has explosions every second and even buildings falling on people, but the gameplay is still exactly the same as any FPS dating back to Castle Wolfenstein. Shoot-kill-grab-move.

Now multiplayer is a little less predictable but other than minor tweaks both games still stick to the same designs as any previous version. There might be a little variation but the end result is running around killing people and being killed with few brain cells required. Given these games are always hacked even before release (I worked on anti-hacking tech some so I know how that works) it wouldn't surprise me if you could code bots that can beat any human player. With all the hacks that make you nearly perfect even the few brain cells required are eliminated: why anyone considers 100% guaranteed kills fun is beyond me.

One of the nice things in World Of Tanks is that hacks are mostly impossible or limited in scope, as the game is light enough to keep everything on the host, something relatively impossible in a man to man killfest kind of game.

Our game (which I won't mention by name but I'm sure you can figure it out) has a small vocal group of players which preferred it as real skill was a hallmark of play. A few scattered hacks exist but mostly they left us alone (and soon even those will be gone). Even with all the issues we have (or had since I don't work there any more) the one thing that made people stick around for so long was the game play was entirely unpredictable. Sometimes nothing much seemed to be happening. All of a sudden a small skirmish would turn into a massive battle that could last days (of real time!) and actually affect the long term result of a campaign. People weren't superheroes and you die a lot. The difference between being a net killer or net victim over a months time was practice and experience and even then no one is immune to death.

Mind you the game had enormous flaws and the company doesn't really understand the depth that attracts people to it (or causes them to leave).

What I found most fascinating was the emergent gameplay that happened. All hell could break loose or little might happen, entirely based on player's input, desire, ideas or even random behavior. It's the aspect of a war game that I think is missed a lot. In World War 2 soldiers averaged something like 2 weeks in actual combat per year. In Vietnam it was more like 30 weeks. The constant rush of kill kill kill in MW3 and BF3 means you rarely ever have any downtime or time to think or even admire the scenery. You enjoy the adrenaline rush but it wears off after a short time. I doubt either game gets played routinely for years. Our game despite its flaws had many players who have played it daily for 10 years.

Yet even that game isn't where I wish people would experiment. Sure MW4 and BF4 won't go there as it would probably cost them sales (most AAA games of this nature sell most of their copies in the first few weeks) but I wish someone would test new gameplay ideas. Everything in these games is always so linear and calculated and probably tested to death that like sugar water they provide quick energy but fail to give any lasting satisfaction. Sure it's a great business model, everyone quickly tires of your game then you make a new one and they have to buy it to get a new fix.

I really want someone to write a FPS type game where you have almost no chance to survive unless you use your brain. Put me in a town full of armed bad guys and give me nothing as a weapon unless I can build it, or steal it, or find a way to survive that even the game author never imagined. I want to learn skill not get upgrades or bonus object or some artificial bauble. Don't give me anything lying around like ammo or free guns. Make me earn anything that exists in the game from the start and belongs in the world that you are creating for me. I don't want to be Superman I want to be me. I don't want Boss battles or have the game point me in the right direction or be conveniently rearmed.

Sure this is much harder to write and probably won't sell billions of copies; but at some point the FPS industry has to find something else to do other than rehash the same games over and over. As John Carmack (id) said, they can't keep taking 6 years to build a new game. To which I would add: that is just like the previous game but with fancy new technology.

Games, especially the first person variety, allow a player the ability to experience a world unlike their own. But artificial worlds can be anything not just explosion per second killfests. It's funny to think that Angry Birds will probably make more money than both BF3 and MW3 together yet it's a pretty simplistic "world" you play in. Minecraft is also such a simple game yet it has attracted a huge audience even with graphics that are primitive and simpleminded gameplay. The world it lets you play in however is amazingly free form and emergent gameplay is expected. If we could ever find some way to get this emergence in a war setting that's a game I would surely like to play.

Maybe some day we will have a holodeck; when that happens I sure hope the choices of play aren't just MW158 and BF191!