Epilogue: Controller of the Future
Every other genre worth a damn has become more complex throughout its existence. The fighting game genre found modest roots in 1976’s Heavyweight Champ and popularity in 1984’s Karate Champ before hitting it big with 1991’s Street Fighter II: The World Warrior, eventually transforming into complex juggernauts like 1998’s Guilty Gear and 2000’s Marvel vs. Capcom 2: New Age of Heroes. The shoot ’em up began with the medium itself, starting with 1962’s Spacewar! and becoming a smash hit with 1977’s Space Invaders. As the mainstream grew disinterested in shoot ’em ups, the genre’s most skilled creators countered with a whole mess of intense and sophisticated “bullet hell” shooters. On the other end, the evolution of the first-person shooter is an alternate history where the Romans were piloting airplanes (Doom, Quake, Descent) and the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages was building spaceships (System Shock 2, Deus Ex, Quake III Arena, Unreal Tournament). By the time we got to the present, Western Civilization has been reduced to a bunch of nomadic tribes throwing their shit at each other and claiming it’s Modern Warfare.
Those are the cards that have been dealt to long-time fans of the first-person shooter genre. We now have to ask the question: What can be done about it? Unfortunately, as individuals, not a whole bunch. Cesspools such as GameFAQs are souring on Call of Duty and even the Reddits of the world don’t have the consumer muscle to do anything about it. It’s the unwashed masses that buy these modern shooters, play their Angry Birds, watch Michael Bay movies, and read vampire soap operas. But what can developers and publishers do about the situation? That depends. Most of these companies would be silly to pass on the easy money. Other developers would stand to gain from a shift in the market. It’s a very select group featuring some very powerful figures. That’s where the change lies. Whether they will fulfill that change is the key.
To understand the situation, let’s go back to John Carmack for a second. Along with John Romero, Carmack co-founded a design philosophy that ushered in a decade of fast and complex shooters, as fast and complex as commercial computer technology could handle. One Wolfenstein 3D, two Dooms, a couple of Quakes later, and 2004’s Doom 3 was the most anticipated project in the history of computer video games. Through the course of Doom 3‘s development, more and more news is revealed about the id Tech 4 game engine used to power the game. People discover that the game engine will not allow for the intense firefights that made the franchise and developers famous. Fears abound that Doom 3 will become a repeat of 2003’s hugely-disappointing Deus Ex: Invisible War, best described as “Deus Ex for kiddie console filth”. The fears end up being well-placed; Doom 3 was a survival-horror clusterfuck whose most memorable quirk was a crappy flashlight mechanic. 2005’s Quake 4 turned out to be much of the same forgettable, narrative-driven, one-monster-at-a-time mediocrity. 2011’s Rage commits most of the same mistakes. That’s three goose eggs from one of the most prolific game development studios in the young history of the medium. How the hell does a game designer who built his name on speed give in to a slower pace of combat? How the hell could one of the guys who created Doom decide that slower games represent a superior option?
The answer, of course, is “he didn’t”. Carmack simply went where the money was. He had the chance to make more money and designed his modus operandi for a controller. Pretty simple. But now, you see, there are a ton of people in the same position as Carmack. Epic Games president Mike Capps is one of them. After fans came to the conclusion that 2007’s Unreal Tournament 3 was designed for consoles, Capps pouted that the game sold poorly because of software piracy.* Capps can afford to piss off computer video game fans because the Gears of War franchise sells millions on the Xbox 360. All the while, Activision’s maligned partnership has yielded the most visible and successful video game property that isn’t named World of Warcraft, a developer-publisher partnership that has transformed Call of Duty midnight launches into the kind of carnage typically reserved for Black Friday in the United States. Microsoft is perfectly okay with this. Microsoft pays significant money to display the Xbox 360 logo in commercials for multi-platform shooter releases. In North America, their video game consoles are synonymous with the first-person shooter, and the shooters that make up the majority of the playtime on the Xbox Live gaming service have created a user base of twenty-million paying subscribers.
Halo, Call of Duty, Gears of War, and all of their sequels and imitators are the cornerstone of the Xbox business strategy. And right now, all those sequels, all that “stay the course” game design, and all that focus-testing has played the most damning role in the shooter’s state of mediocrity. (There’s actually innovation and solid games to be found…so long as the camera is shifted to a third-person perspective. Look at the third-person vehicle mechanics in 2001’s Halo: Combat Evolved and the third-person cover system popularized in 2006’s Gears of War, the latter taken to its logical ends in 2010’s spectacular Vanquish. Unfortunately, first-person shooters sell better, and that genre has had its “lean” mechanics scrapped because there aren’t enough buttons on a controller, or because “the game is not balanced for lean”, or some dumb crap that Mackey McCandish should have never said.*) Ultimately, the Microsoft business strategy has played a hand in the failures of the console video game market. The retail market that finances console video game development is drying up. In response, developers and publishers are looking to sever the distributor and the retailer from any cut of revenues. If you’re a company interested in that cut of the revenues and you’re a company making large, complex video games, your best option is to go digital. Easiest place to do that? Go back to the personal computer and build your own digital distribution service. Go back to the mouse and keyboard that built the archetypes for the first-person shooter.
So now, you know the problem. Microsoft built the Xbox and focused on the Xbox. In doing so, they ceded a now-lucrative digital distribution market to Valve and a smattering of smaller distributors. If Infinity Ward or Epic Games choose to focus development back on the personal computer, they will have to appear in a court of gamer opinion that will make Nuremberg look like a probation hearing. (Don’t think so? A year ago, I wouldn’t have believed it either. Then Michael Pachter stated that the digital rights management policies of Ubisoft resulted in a ninety percent drop for their computer video game sales.* Computer video game fans now have communities that can be mobilized. Epic Games lead designer Cliff Bleszinski will go to gamer jail and he will use the shower and someone will introduce him to their rocket launcher.) If the market shifts back to personal computers, these companies will stand to lose billions of dollars. These companies will do everything in their power to prevent that from happening.
Woah, relax there. That isn’t as terrifying as it sounds. Microsoft and Epic Games will merely continue to do what they’ve been doing for the last half-decade: Ignore the personal computer. Microsoft will continue to take games in development for personal computers (Halo: Combat Evolved, Alan Wake) and use them to flesh out the Xbox Gaming Experience™. Microsoft’s “We Love PC Gaming!” shenanigans have been so half-assed (See: Games For Windows Live) that they feel like a self-sabotage effort to harm computer video games. Meanwhile, the personal computer version of the Epic Games-published Bulletstorm not only featured the usual symptoms of console-first development (fixed framerates, complete absence of a programming console), but the files that defined and changed critical game variables such as the framerate and the field of view were encrypted. These hand-me-down versions of games developed for consoles will continue to suck. Casual consumers will say “Forget this, I’ll buy the console version instead.” From a business point of view, those companies are perfectly okay with that. One more man or woman that can venture into the carny scams that are the Xbox Live and PlayStation Network marketplaces.
None of these companies are going to toy with the thought of meaningful cross-platform play. (And I stress here that the keyword is “meaningful”.) These companies know they’re programming their games for a stunted input device. When the Dreamcast version of Quake III Arena was configured for cross-platform play (Checkbox Number 874 in the list of places where the Sega Dreamcast was way, way ahead of its time), the Dreamcast players got the absolute shit kicked out of them. When 2007’s Shadowrun was backed by Microsoft and designed for cross-platform play between the Xbox 360 and the personal computer, FASA Interactive had to handicap mouse-and-keyboard players to the point where the two platforms were playing fundamentally different games. (For instance, twitch turns with the mouse would distort the player’s reticule, inhibiting his or her ability to aim.) Of course, all of this information came to fruition after the game’s release. Not before the release phase, where the bought-and-paid Mainstream Video Game Journlolists™ tried desperately to convince everybody that the two platforms were on equal footing.** In July of 2010, VoodooPC founder Rahul Sood published a blog entry concerning a rumored Microsoft initiative that was designed to provide cross-platform compatibility for most of their major shooter franchises. As word has it, it was scrapped when the department conducting the tests found that the console players couldn’t stop getting their asses kicked. Sood speculated the initiative was never revealed because the initiative would have embarrassed the department that conducted it.
Those of us who have been in the gaming business for over a decade know the real deal. You simply don’t get the same level of detail or control as you do with a PC over a console. It’s a real shame that Microsoft killed this — because had they kept it alive it might have actually increased the desire of game developers and gamers alike to continue developing and playing rich experiences on the PC which would trickle down to the console as it has in the past.*
Rahul Sood, “Console Gamers Get Killed against PC Gamers”, published on July 21, 2010
A mouse-and-keyboard setup can do things that are physically impossible on a controller, and those things have been applied and demonstrated at an exceptionally high level of play in tournaments and speedruns for Doom, Quake, Counter-Strike, Unreal Tournament, Team Fortress, and so forth. So, what’s the big deal? One audience plays with controllers and the other plays with keyboards. You don’t have to play with a keyboard. The option is simply there. The very second that you provide cross-platform input in an arena that does not discriminate against a controller or a keyboard, you create a massive divide. The best first-person shooter players using a controller are the best at their craft for a reason. They strive to get every conceivable legal advantage they can. With cross-platform input, one of three things will happen: The best players will stop playing the games entirely (citing the unfairness of the situation), continue playing with a controller against impossible odds (and diving into obscurity), or migrate to a mouse-and-keyboard setup. The osmosis begins. And with that osmosis, computer video game developers chip away at the market for console video games, sucking players away from the online subscription fees and overpriced map-packs that have become the foundation for both online content in console video games and the business strategies of massive publishers.
Valve is hedging their strategy on this and Sony is so far behind in the market for first-and-third-person shooters that they are willing to take the risk. Valve now provides Steam integration for games on the PlayStation and will provide mouse-and-keyboard support for 2012’s Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. Player matchmaking will be determined by skill level, regardless of player input. Obviously, Valve stands to gain the most from any exodus to the personal computer, controlling two-thirds of the digital distribution market for computer video games. It is in their best interest to introduce console video game players to the mouse and keyboard. Electronic Arts also stands to gain a lot. Their two most important releases of 2011 (Battlefield 3 and Star Wars: The Old Republic) are designed for the personal computer and full use of those products requires their Origin digital distribution service. Speculation exists that CCP’s massively-multiplayer first-person shooter Dust 514, a game that will interact with the in-game economy of personal computer MMORPG Eve Online, will feature support for the mouse and keyboard.
That’s the key. The difference between the console and computer video game markets is where the money goes. When loud and expensive console video games sell millions, it strangles the market. Retail console video game hardware and software sales have contracted by twenty percent in the last three years. Meanwhile, the sales of Call of Duty games have nearly doubled in the last four years. Figureheads are not generating sales for everyone else. When Steam generates revenue, it opens a market for small-to-mid-sized developers. And with Electronic Arts and Valve attracting interest back to the personal computer, that is where any revival of the first-person shooter begins. It may seem superficial and simplistic to say “good first-person shooter development begins back where it started”, but that’s the case. Niche developers can use the stability of Steam to develop niche games. Niche developers can push the limits of the mouse-and-keyboard input scheme knowing that passionate fans are willing to take up a challenge. Independent developers such as Flying Wild Hog can gain modest success with Hard Reset. Croteam can take a chance on Serious Sam 3: BFE without having to worry that their game will not appeal to console video game fans.
All of these games would never have a chance on the consoles and they’re the games that shake up genres. Their future depends on the future of console video games. If console video game sales continue to decline, interest in computer video game development will expand. And with it, the shooters will come. It’s that simple. Now go find a shooter you enjoy and play the hell out of it. Give it a year or two and I’m sure the free market will have something you’ll be interested in. No sense in writing long, winding, abrasive rants about the state of the genre. It’s harmful for your health. Enjoy what you have.