Introduction and Part One: Advent and Imitation
Part Two: Serious Realism
Part Three: Xboxification
Part Four: Corporate Warfare and Conclusion
Epilogue: Controller of the Future
Synopsis: Id Software’s landmark titles Wolfenstein 3-D and Doom legitimized the first-person shooter, providing the template for some of the most entertaining and progressive video games ever created. By the mid-to-late nineties, the first-person shooter was the hottest genre in video games. Console video game developers wanted in. After Rare developed Goldeneye 007 and Perfect Dark, console developers found lessons in 1998’s Half-Life and 2000’s Counter-Strike. These lessons could be found in 2001’s Halo: Combat Evolved, which would legitimize the first-person shooter as a viable genre for consoles. When Halo 2 legitimized Xbox Live, those making shooters for computers staged a mutiny, seeking to sell post-release content in this new lucrative market. This led to stagnation in the genre, as most companies adopted what was learned in Halo and Counter-Strike. The lone piece missing was a marketable setting, which turned out to be the urban combat as made famous in 2007’s Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. In conjunction with conservative corporate strategy, a diverse genre with diverse playstyles gave way to military combat on a brown battlefield. Lots of them. The future of this genre (and any future stagnation) will likely depend on the gaming platform of the future, i.e. “the input method it uses”.
Note A: This article was originally titled “Why I Am Sick of Your Tactical Shooters”. After some consideration, I will choose the moniker of “Modern Shooter”. The article has been edited accordingly.
So, you may like Call of Duty. You may like Halo. You may like Gears of War. I’m bored, brother. I’m bored of those games. You hear me, Video Game Overlords™? I’m sick and tired of your modern shooters. They need to go the fuck away.
Coming this November, it will be the tenth anniversary of Halo: Combat Evolved. And if you’re speaking to a gamer under the age of nineteen, you’re better off pretending that Bungie invented the first-person shooter. Trust me, it’s not worth the shouting match. I’ve been there. The people who grew up playing Doom and Quake and Descent and Unreal Tournament still don’t know what the fuck to do. They’re close to sharing beds with the same men and women who grew up on the Golden Age of Arcade Games, shouting into a desolate echo chamber that “The games were pretty good back in the day! We swear!” The video game industry is no longer interested in developing shooters for the mouse and keyboard, because of “software piracy” and “entitled gamers” and a whole carnival of bullshit talking points. Computer gamers haven’t accepted that. They haven’t accepted that Infinity Ward and Epic Games dumped them for a mature community of twelve-year-old racists and their parents’ credit cards. To comfort themselves, computer gamers have taken up the discipline of defiance. They accept that development has successfully assimilated to consoles, but if they hear “competitive” and “Halo” in the same paragraph, somebody dun gonna get flamed. It sounds like this: “I don’t care about your crappy console shooters. Quit telling me they’re any good. They’re not. And if you disagree, get your controller and prove me wrong. I’ll be playing with my mouse and keyboard. Then we’ll see whose opinion is more skilled at video games!”
It’s not healthy stuff, gentlemen. Computer gamers are too angry and too busy bitching about the games to explain their beef; to explain their feelings; to explain what they really mean by “FUCK CALL OF DUTY!!1” To my knowledge, nobody has attempted to articulate how the first-person shooter underwent a simultaneous explosion in popularity as it collapsed upon itself creatively. Nobody has explained what makes Doom more progressive than ninety percent of the shooters in today’s market. Nobody has explained how GoldenEye 007 side-stepped its roots in order to win console gamers. Nobody has explained why computer gamers have an issue with the controller as the popular input device for the genre. Somebody needs to discuss how we got from “Doom clones” to “Half-Life, Deus Ex, System Shock 2, Unreal Tournament, Quake 3: Arena, and Thief: The Dark Project all released in a span of nineteen months” to “thirty-one flavors of urban warfare”, and why it annoys the piss out of long-time gamers. This is going to be a very long story. It’s going to span nearly twenty years of video game history. So I’ll front the disclaimer: If you are a product of that glorious American system of education (that is, “LOL FIVE-HUNDRED WORD’S IM NOT READIGN THAT!!1”), I fully endorse that you close your browser, plant magnets on the top of your hard drive, and burn down your house so the internet may never grow there again. Video games are serious fucking business and I fully intend to prove it. Let’s talk shooters.
Part One: Advent and Imitation
Let’s kick off this war with some background music: During the very early nineties, little-known Texas game developer id Software carved out a development niche. While working at Louisiana software developer Softdisk, game programmer John Carmack discovered a programming nuance that allowed him to create scrolling worlds without taxing the hardware in a personal computer. Yes, it’s true: Computers couldn’t do side-scrollers before Carmack discovered the magic words. Long story short, that discovery led fellow co-worker John Romero (along with co-workers Carmack, Adrian Carmack, and Tom Hall) to develop a pixel-perfect port of Super Mario Brothers 3. The troupe attempted to license the game to Nintendo and the company rejected the project, stunningly stating they were not interested in creating games for the personal computer “at this time”. Dismayed but determined, Romero and company transformed their side-scrolling secret into the Commander Keen franchise. The setting and motif were ridiculous, the story of an eight-year-old boy wonder building a spaceship out of junk and fighting aliens on distant planets. But that game didn’t reflect the crass behavior of Romero and company. Sure, Keen was silly stuff. But much like Super Mario Brothers 3, Keen was designed to embrace a demographic. It was designed to suck in children. Id Software’s second franchise would be much different. It would be in the business of offending the market.*
The finished product was titled Wolfenstein 3-D, and its 1992 release gave birth to the modern first-person shooter. (Yes, “first-person shooters” existed before Wolfenstein, but they didn’t offer the option of mowing down Adolf Hitler with a chaingun. As far as we’re concerned, they never happened.) The game was a blueprint for the future of consumer tastes: The shoot-first, shoot-again Wolfenstein 3-D shared its namesake with a series of slower-paced, stealth-oriented titles created by developer Muse.* Wolfenstein 3-D was what it was: Get guns, waste Nazis, find secret rooms, get a high score. There wasn’t much to it, and the technical issues were evident. Why is every room the same height? Why is every room on the same floor? Why does every room feature the same lighting? Of course, none of this stopped Wolfenstein 3-D from becoming a colossal hit. Nothing like Wolfenstein had ever been created before. And yet, it would never be heard from again. If you’re questioning id Software’s legendary status, I’ll pose the question: Not many companies can say they “changed video games forever”. How many can claim they did it with two games in a row?
If Wolfenstein 3-D was George Mikan, the hulking prelude to the beauty of modern basketball, then 1993’s Doom was Wilt Chamberlain, a force so far ahead of its time that the competition spent half a decade struggling to catch up. Doom would only be convincingly outdone by id Software’s own release of Quake in 1996. Unprecedented graphics, sound, and technology packaged into the incredible achievement of chugging smoothly on a 386 computer processor. Eighteen years later, Doom is derided as “old-school”. People cling to their zombie modes while slamming Doom for its primitive artificial intelligence. They defend scripted single-player campaigns and convince themselves red keys and blue keys are somehow worse. Doom is still one of the greatest video games ever made. And thanks to the passionate fans who rewrote the game engine (with an assist to id Software’s release of the source code), it remains one of the most playable, forward-thinking shooters in the genre.
Why is that? If your brain is still tangled in the concept of colored key cards, you are missing the fucking point. “Secret areas doesn’t count as ‘non-linear’, stupid!” Nope, still wrong. It’s “level design”. All level design, baby. The variables (building layout, items, enemies, triggers) can be customized to create an incredible amount of diversity, a diversity fully reflected in the single-player modes of both Doom and the 1994 sequel. Fans wanted in on the fun. Almost immediately after the release of Doom, players began creating tools to modify the game files. Level editing went mainstream. These level editors (DEU*, DCK*, and later Doom Builder* and DeePsea*) are arguably the most powerful creation tools in the history of the genre. No, don’t confuse what I’m saying. I’m not arguing that those editors can create more robust levels than what you would see in Half-Life or Unreal Tournament. I’m arguing that it requires the least effort. (I’m sure someone wants to rebut that statement with the Forge editor in Halo: Reach. It’s closer to a sandbox than a level designer.) People make a ruckus over the concept of “easy to learn, hard to master”. That almost never applies to first-person shooter level design programs. Even for dedicated fans, these editing tools are usually nightmares. Doom level creation was as accessible as it gets.
Remember, the Doom game engine was an extension of the Wolfenstein 3-D engine. The major addition was the illusion of height. The levels weren’t actually three-dimensional. Doom‘s engine was simply reading a two-dimensional level layout and rendering it into three dimensions. Remember your drafting class? Yup, that’s Doom level design. It meant that players didn’t have to master programming languages to create a Doom level. John Carmack did all the programming when he coded the game engine. Level creators got to focus their creative energies on building worlds that were fun to shoot at. The variables and triggers were robust: Players could alter monsters to ignore sounds and create rooms that drowned out noise (so monsters couldn’t hear the firefight in the adjacent room). Rooms could be edited to block monster pathing (while permitting the free passage of the player). Triggers could be used to adjust lighting, the height of floors and ceilings, create stairs, open and close doors (and manipulate the velocity of these actions), and create switches that would modify all of these variables. You could then combine these triggers with abstract (i.e. non-conforming, non-warehouse, non-urban-warfare) level design and position monsters in a manner that highlighted their strengths. The slow-moving Barons of Hell weren’t so terrifying until you were fighting the freaks in a narrow hallway and the map creator wasn’t interested in loaning you a decent weapon.
Good Doom level design was like good writing: Nobody agreed on the best means of getting the job done. Nobody gave a crap how you created a level. Just make sure it plays well and it looks good. Doom level creation was a fitting extension of John Romero’s Dungeons and Dragons passion: The mapmakers were playing dungeon master. They were creating elaborate rooms and settings and traps and rewards. The levels eventually became so complex and the designers so talented that the best began getting jobs from the game industry (most notably Iikka Keränen, who today works for Valve) and developing a God damn metagame within Doom level design; players became so familiar with the design theory that creators would have to anticipate the player’s expectation of what’s behind the next door.
The first single-player mission in Doom 2, rendered in all its two-dimensional glory.
But I’m sure you already knew that.
Not bad for one game mode. None of that even directly touches on that whole “kill your friends in multiplayer deathmatch” thing. Most people probably know the story of the Doom deathmatch phenomenon. But contrary to popular opinion, the game mode was far from perfect. As all-night bloodstorms clogged university LAN parties, Doom was suffering from a problem best compared to the arena warfare in MMO juggernaut World of Warcraft: Doom‘s weapons and mechanics were clearly balanced for player-versus-environment. The Chaingun was designed for suppressive fire. The Rocket Launcher was the crowd control. The BFG9000 was the equivalent of a reset button. The accurate, fast-firing, long-range hitscan weapon (think of Unreal Tournament’s Shock Rifle or Halo’s Sniper Rifle) that would have broken the single-player campaign was nowhere to be found. (I’m not quite sure I can hold that against id Software. Good luck selling anybody on the implementation of a sniper weapon when the native resolution in your game is 320×200.) But surely, the genre would have plenty of time to figure that out! The genre was in its beta phase. It was time to give it some time.
In the following half-decade, the Doom model would dominate the design philosophy of the first-person shooter so thoroughly that the genre was originally labeled as “Doom clones”, in the same way gamers struggle to label Heroes of Newerth and League of Legends as something other than “DotA clones”. The competition adhered to a very similar formula: Heretic (which used the Doom engine), Marathon (developed by Bungie, a company that would never be heard from again), Duke Nukem 3D, and Alien vs. Predator were all different shades of Doom. 1994’s space-shooting Descent was perhaps the most progressive of the destructo-thons, featuring the ability to move a spacecraft in all six directions. Unfortunately, it was condemned to a niche market by the first control scheme in the history of computer video games that was too complicated for the mouse and keyboard. (Descent might as well have been packaged with the Microsoft Sidewinder Joystick that Descent would popularize.) With the exception of 1994’s System Shock and 1996’s sub-par role-playing hybrid Strife, the genre trudged on-course: Kill shit, get keys, beat the level. id Software would affirm their own design model with the 1996 release of Quake, superior to Doom mostly on technical merit.
Quake carried the torch for a gigantic issue that existed since the release of Doom: Fans were frustrated with multiplayer latency issues. The games had not been designed for the internet. The netcode was optimized for LAN play. John Carmack’s coding moxy solved the problem, a post-release multiplayer portal known as QuakeWorld. Client-server technology was included in Duke Nukem 3D, released earlier that year. QuakeWorld helped to popularize it, bringing the masses the incredible achievement of hammering home playable online Quake with your mom’s AOL subscription. By this point, it was clear “online multiplayer” was the next big thing. 1995’s Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness and 1996’s Command and Conquer: Red Alert were making Kali famous. The networking emulator (best compared to Garena*) tricked a number of games into connecting over the internet with either the dial-up or LAN functions. Developers had a great reason to embrace online multiplayer: By tethering the games into the internet, you could stifle software piracy. Connecting to the “online gaming service” could require the use of a legitimate product key. Blizzard Entertainment employed this to fantastic effect with 1998’s Starcraft, featuring multiplayer support on the Battle.net peer-to-peer network. The companies that embraced online play won out big: It became so popular that numerous developers ommitted meaningful single-player modes, culminating with the 1999 releases of Quake III Arena and Unreal Tournament, considered by many to be the high point of the entire first-person shooter genre.
There is one gigantic, hugely important thing to remember about this evolution of the first-person shooter: Wolfenstein 3-D and Doom were only half a decade removed from the obvious decision to go “point-and-click” with the adventure game genre. The friendship between the mouse, the keyboard, and the shooter was host to significant growing pains. Wolfenstein 3-D and Doom featured a default control scheme that was optimized for the keyboard. Not the mouse and keyboard, not the mouse, just the keyboard. Yeah, you could use the mouse. Just not to “mouselook”. That was introduced in Marathon. Doom and Wolfenstein were configured for tank controls: Left and right arrow keys to turn, up and down arrow keys to move forward and backward, with the Alt key as a modifier for strafing. If you played 2002’s Metroid Prime and complained about that control scheme, you know what Doom came with out of the box. The WASD control scheme was popularized during the Quake days and retrofitted into Doom through the fan-created overhauls of the game engine. But see, Romero and Carmack didn’t give a flying crap if the game was too fast. They didn’t give a flying crap if “casuals couldn’t handle it”. Their stated goal was to create a pair of shooters that played as fast as they possibly could.*
That’s why Wolfenstein 3-D didn’t render floor and ceiling textures. That’s why Wolfenstein 3-D’s stealth elements were omitted early in development. Why bother? That’s processing power that could be spent on making the game more frenetic. So then, what do you think happened when players got their head around today’s preferred WASD control method? What do you think happened when the players got better at the games, where John Romero was stunned that players could complete Doom‘s Nightmare! difficulty level, designing it with the belief that it would be impossible to complete? The developers made the games more complex and they made the games even faster, that’s what. They created rule sets to satisfy their best players and didn’t give a crap if the genre got “too complicated”. Because honestly, there’s nothing complicated about “point the gun at what you want to die”. That requires movement keys and a fire button. 1977’s Space Invaders had those. As the controls got better, the players got better. And as the players got better, the games got better. Simple stuff, kids.
Just in case you didn’t want to believe anything I just said, the Wolfenstein 3-D manual will vouch.*
The first-person shooter rode its evolution to the top. It became the most popular gaming format on the personal computer, usurping a market dominated by role-playing games and adventure games. And if history held ground, it was inevitable that Sony and Nintendo were going to look for a piece of the meat. With the exception of the side-scrolling platformer, consoles have drawn their precedent and inspiration from computers during the last twenty-five years. Computer role-playing had been around as long as the microprocessor, beginning with men (and pretty much only men) trying to emulate the then-recent phenomenon of Dungeons and Dragons. As the genre stewed around and American developers figured things out, the Japanese embraced the number-crunching portion of role-playing and built some of the most beloved games for the Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis, and Sony PlayStation. It was now the first-person shooter’s turn. Now cue the obvious problem: The dungeon crawler could play well with a controller. Since Wolfenstein 3-D, the first-person shooter was built around precision and execution. How could console developers build a genre around a controller that wasn’t guaranteed to handle it?
Mouse and keyboard shooters were developed for the mouse and keyboard. When those games were ported from the personal computer to a console, they typically flopped. Nobody remembers Medal of Honor for the PlayStation. Nobody remembers the six-hundred versions of Doom for any reason other than “Doom was so popular they ported it to six-hundred consoles”. Nobody remembers Rainbow Six for the Nintendo 64 or the PlayStation or the Dreamcast. Long-time shooter fans declared the controller an unsatisfactory input method and newcomers were hampered by the pace of the game. To make the controller work, console developers would have to scale back the emphasis on twitch shooting. There’s an important rule in video games that can be best explained with the hardcore fan’s response to StarCraft II: If you remove something, you add something back. StarCraft II players were critical of Blizzard’s decision to remove interface crutches that increased the amount of mechanical skill required to play StarCraft: Brood War. After those crutches were removed, the player base dismissed any change (i.e. any addition) to the formula as “ruining StarCraft” or “fuck Blizzard”. This left Blizzard with “same game, less mechanical skill”. That is, “a game for noobs”. To make the transition to consoles, the industry would have to “add something back” into the first-person shooter.
The Nintendo 64 was a very easy answer to that question. Nintendo was probably scratching their heads and wondering why nobody built four-player functionality straight into the console. (Of course, 1976’s Bally Astrocade had four-player functionality. You do not know what the Bally Astrocade is, so it doesn’t exist. Fair?) Most previous devices required an adaptor or ignored the concept. Originally, the three-player-plus console scene was dominated by Bomberman, which became a killer app for the Super Nintendo Multi-Tap and was subsequent built for a ten-player adaptor (!!) in a version released for the Sega Saturn. But hey, history only happens when the casual consumer brings it home from the store, am I right? The additional two controller slots became the Nintendo 64’s lone trump card against the ass-kicking it received from the Sony PlayStation. 1996’s Mario Kart 64 confirmed to a very large group of people that “four-player party action” was worth it. The following year, Nintendo developer Rare released GoldenEye 007. One of the most unlikely candidates for “gargantuan smash hit” in the history of the medium (another one of those “video game based on a movie” scenarios), the first-person shooter had found a home in the console video game market. Remove “twitch shooting”, add “I WAS DRUKN WIT MY FRIENDS AND OH MY GODS THIS IS AWSUM!” So far, so good.
Unlike id Software and their commitment to keyboard-only control schemes, Rare had incredible foresight to use the Nintendo 64 controller’s C-buttons as a substitute for a second thumbstick (although you had to dig through the options to find a control scheme with “mouselook” and it wasn’t particularly accurate.) But no matter how hard Rare tried, GoldenEye was not going to be Quake. It never had a chance to be Quake. But yet, GoldenEye turned out to be pretty fun. What was it doing right? What was being added to the game mechanics? The game was covering for its control scheme. The method of input limited the player’s ability to interact with the enemy during a gunfight. In the computer deathmatch games, interaction with the enemy was “gonna dodge you, and you, and I’m gonna shoot you in the head, switch to the Rocket Launcher and turn the asshole behind me into bacon”. In GoldenEye, every weapon only featured a single method of fire. Switching to another weapon wasn’t much of an option when the bullets were raining down. Under optimal circumstances, GoldenEye is “headshot or bust”.
Rare covered for this by focusing on variety. The single-player campaign was a refreshing step back into the days of difficulty levels that added monsters and scrambled the location of items, featuring additional mission objectives in each subsequent difficulty level. In multiplayer, Rare took the emphasis off of the gunfight. They provided interesting and easy ways to configure the game rules, subsequently granting players more individually-interesting ways to kill their opponent. So one game could be all about Moonraker Lasers. The next game could be a battle of Proximity Mines. Then the next game could be a war of Golden Guns. Each of these weapons introduced a different playstyle and emphasized different skills. Compare this to Quake, where each weapon was a small portion of a complete playstyle. And thus, all those thousands of childhood GoldenEye nostalgia stories were born. 2000’s Perfect Dark was an extension of the philosophy, upping the ante with more broken weapons, such as the Farsight XR-20, a sniper rifle with infrared autotracking that could shoot through walls. This actually happened. More missions, more maps, more unlockables, more stats. Remove “twitch shooting”, add “six-hundred game options”. Check and mate.
Rare used a library of easy-to-customize game variables to keep the focus off of the actual shooting element. Console developers could not do that forever. They would have to find a more appealing control scheme. Or rather, find a combat system that could emulate the computer gaming experience. They would also have to find the theme or motif that could win the public’s money. In pursuit of these lands, the first-person shooter had a gigantic plus-side going for it: The genre isn’t defined by its weapons or its settings or its game mechanics. It’s distinguished by camera placement. That’s the fundamental difference between a first-person shooter and a third-person shooter and a top-down shooter. Nothing is preventing these genres from branching out, in the way that traditional survival horror games have moved closer to becoming typical action-adventure titles. Through 1998, the genre had focused on a lack of realism. Naturally, that is not a bad thing. Gameplay always comes before realism. But sometimes, realism can make a game more fun. It can make a game more engrossing. It can force the player to master uncomfortable skill sets. But most importantly, it allowed developers to indirectly compete with id Software and the established monsters.
Very few companies had the talent or the money to assume the risk of competing with Quake at their own game. Epic Games was one of the few companies that competed with Quake and lived to tell about it. The rest of the industry went in sprawling directions. And boy, was it glorious. The thirty-six months from 1998 to 2000 perhaps oversaw the most success and innovation of any genre in the entire history of this medium. 1998’s Thief: The Dark Project introduced computer gamers to stealth-action the same year that Metal Gear Solid was popularizing it. Later that year, Starsiege: Tribes boasted a multiplayer-oriented, objective-based shooter with incredible amounts of customization. In 1999, System Shock 2 won Game of the Year awards in two separate years when it was later stripped down and reimagined as 2007’s Bioshock. As mentioned earlier, 1999 was also the year that Quake III: Arena and Unreal Tournament hit the market. And in 2000, Deus Ex drew from stealth, action, and role-playing to become a damn good argument for the greatest video game ever made.
From this short three-year era of incredible shooters, console developers would find the golden box. Inside this box would be two games. Or rather, two powder kegs. All somebody would have to do is provide the lighter.
Continue to Part Two: Serious Realism