Genesis of Modern FPS Conventions

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Lots of new shooters come out every year, but game mechanic innovations are rare. When they come, they are often awesome enhancements that make a stagnating genre fun again. I think it’s worth pointing out the innovators, the games that first popularized new mechanics that will get borrowed for years to come. First person shooters have reached a point where the newest iteration of a franchise is expected to borrow features made popular by competing franchises. This feature competition and borrowing is good, and it’s a whole lot better than ending up in a Madden monopoly. Just imagine if a single publisher could own the rights to publishing games about World War II.

Noteworthy Mechanics

It’s hard to call any game mechanic new because it might simply be an enhancement to a feature seen in a game five years ago. What makes a mechanic worth noting is when it is first executed well. The following is a list of the most common game mechanics and what game first did it right.

Cover System

The sound as you crunch up against cover, with dust wisping off its surface, is what makes Gears of War’s cover system the first awesome one. It is made even more awesome by the fact that the cover system was required, and the best way to fight, not simply tacked on for a feature list. The cover system has become so prolific that games without a cover system stand out more for lacking one. There are threads on many Call of Duty message boards asking when it will finally get a cover system. I hope never.

Rebounding Health Meter

The rebounding health meter has become a staple of the Call of Duty games. Implemented just right, by covering the screen in a bloody haze when the player is near death, it ratchets up the anxiety in moments where it is truly needed. A numerical or bar indicator of the player’s health value can’t come close to slow losing the ability to hear and see as the player’s avatar loses consciousness. Other FPSs have adopted it as a lazy way to not include game balance for poorly placed checkpoints. Die three seconds after a checkpoint? That’s fine, just wait for the reload, dive for cover, wait five seconds, and try again.

Single Player Scoring System

Halo 3 made this interesting by showing you the moment you were rewarded points for a kill. This has the same effect as it did in Counter-Strike, letting you know when you’ve killed an enemy. Adding the medals from multiplayer for things like double-kills and grenade sticks added icing to the cake. Games that implement a scoring system need to make the player acutely aware of when they are being rewarded for a kill. Halo: Reach does an awesome job of this, sticking the number of points rewarded for each kill right next to the crosshair.

Replay System

Call of Duty originated the quick replay, and Halo 3 introduced the interactive replay. It’s hard to say which is better, they both serve to temper the feeling of anger that comes with losing a fight. Halo’s replay system allows for extended critiquing of the evolution of a match that was lost; while, COD’s kill cam allows the player to instantly view a replay of how they were bested. Since Halo’s replay system is entirely optional, I give the medal to COD for providing immediately useful information that can help to root out the sniper that keeps killing you.

Leveling Up in Multiplayer

Call of Duty 4 first made this concept work. Having a match you just lost end with a rank up is one of the best ways to keep a player coming back for more. Unlockable and usable items were the true genius of COD4′s leveling system, something even Halo: Reach didn’t figure out. Most players don’t care about the shape of the rectangle on their character’s armor, but they do care about whether their gun is silenced or not.

Sticky Aiming

This felt like a cheat when it was first added to Call of Duty, making it easy to become a Vassili Zaitsev of the battlefield with a few alternations of the left and right triggers. However, after seeing how many enemies you’re expected to kill within a short time frame, it begins to make sense. The rate at which the player can dispose of enemies is also the rate at which they can be thrown at them. Without the ability to quickly deal with swarms of enemies, first person shooters are force to pace themselves more slowly or hand out mega-weapons that kill entire rooms without any care or skill. Halo also implements sticky aiming nicely, making the player’s crosshair slow down when crossing over an enemy.

That’s Just a Few!

What are some of the conventions that you’ve noticed being used widely? What games started them?