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The Anatomy of an FPS

by David Trammell - August 8, 2001, 2:42 am EDT

With such games as Metroid Prime and Turok Evolution on the GameCube horizon, I thought it would be appropriate to take a detailed look at a couple of problems that plague most first person shooters.

What is an FPS? For the uninitiated, an FPS is a first person shooter; a genre of game whereby you take on the role of a character and look through his (or her) eyes for the duration of the game's play (did any body really need me to explain that). Of course, it wouldn't be a shooter without some serious weaponry to go along with it. But what is an FPS really? What makes them tick? What makes some good, and some bad? Since the number of bad and mediocre FPSs exceeds the number of good ones (as with most genres), I'm going to concentrate on a few problems that I think most FPSs suffer from. With such notable franchises as Turok and Metroid coming to GameCube as first person shooters, maybe I can provide a few good ideas for the benefit of developers and gamers alike.

My experience with FPSs ranges from old to new, and from PC to console. I've played everything from the PC's original Wolfenstein 3D (God bless Id Software) to Rare's masterful Perfect Dark. I've played Half-Life, TFC, Quake 3, Goldeneye, The World is not Enough (TWINE), the Turok series, waaay too much Doom, the PS2's new Red Faction and even that hideous South Park FPS that shared the 1998 Christmas season with Zelda OoT. Speaking of the N64, Nintendo's first 3D console played host to over 10 shooters and I bought more than half of them. The sad thing is that all of these console FPSs with the exception of Rare's games, and EA's TWINE had at least one serious problem: a severely flawed control scheme. Allow me to explain further...

The problem is that developers try to force a control scheme that was designed to work with a PC's keyboard and mouse into working with a console's analog stick. I know what a lot of you are thinking. "Just provide keyboard and mouse support, then everything will be ok!" To that I say the following. First, why pay extra money for a keyboard and mouse if you don't need one? Second, where do you plan on putting this keyboard and mouse? I don't know about you, but I'd like to relax in a big easy chair when I'm playing my console games. Third, although a mouse increases your accuracy, it's still very unrealistic. Something's wrong when you can shoot the snot out of your enemies nose with a Glock at 300 feet while running backwards. Finally, only hardcore gamers are going to use a keyboard and mouse with a console. It's important to provide a good control scheme for everyone else too.

With that out of the way, let's take a look at the first 3D FPS to grace the N64, Turok: Dinosaur Hunter. Iguana tried their best to fit the PC control style onto the N64 controller, and they did an excellent job. Considering that the game has only a single large "kill zone" for each enemy, the control scheme works well enough. Iguana's control style (known as the "Turok scheme" from here forward) requires you to press the N64's C-buttons (analogous to the right analog stick of current consoles) to move your character, while the left analog stick allows you to turn, look around and aim your weapon. This scheme provides the best method of aiming while moving, but due to the nature of analog sticks, it leaves much to be desired. Enter Rare.

I imagine that when Rare was developing Goldeneye for the N64, they realized that this control scheme would be a problem for their game. For one, it was a bit difficult for the average gamer to control basic movement with their right thumb instead of the traditional left thumb stance. Worse still, even for serious gamers careful aiming can be very difficult with the "Turok scheme". To fix this, they made two changes. First, they made their default control scheme so that the left stick causes you to turn when moved horizontally, while it causes you to move forward and backwards instead of aiming up and down. This is just like classic Doom controls, and it makes the game much easier for casual gamers to pick up and play. However, if you really want to master those games, I recommend the 1.2 control style since it's just like the "Turok scheme" except it includes the fix for the second problem I mentioned.

Rare's solution to the problem of fine aiming should have revolutionized the FPS genre, but for reasons I can't fathom, it's not often copied. For the benefit of the few who haven't played Goldeneye or Perfect Dark, the second problem that Rare surely noticed was that there is no decent way to shoot very small targets (like an ememy's head). So in addition to normal shooting which you can still do at anytime, they added a floating aimer. It's active whenever you hold down a certain button (usually "R") and the aimer temporarily takes over the left analog stick allowing you to carefully place your shots on a static background. This system has many benefits over the old "Turok scheme". For one, it's more realistic. If you want to make the most accurate shots, you're going to have to stop moving and really aim your weapon, yet there's nothing stopping you from making wild shots as you run either. As a bonus of sorts, it also allows casual gamers to set up the analog stick for easier movement without comprimising their ability to stop and make careful shots.

I've never been able to explain exactly why the "Turok scheme" makes aiming so difficult, but I'm starting to get some ideas. Since you move the entire screen to aim, you have to take into account the enemies movement, and your characters movement at the same time. It's like shooting a moving target from a moving vehicle: a very difficult task, as I'm sure any guns buff would tell you. On the other hand, a floating aimer is very similar to the way you would fire a gun in real life. You turn towards a target, and then you aim and shoot. Imagine that someone taped your eyes so that they couldn't rotate in their sockets. Then he put a neck brace on you preventing you from turning your head independently of your body. Finally, he gives you a shotgun and informs you that a mob of angry mutant chickens is coming to rend you limb from limb. I'd imagine that you'd be a bit scared. So... why do game developers subject their customers to this? The Holy Grail of FPS control, as our Senior Editor Jonathan Metts put it, is definitely a combination of the original "Turok Scheme" and Rare's innovative aiming system. Every developer should try to include this setup as an option in their games, and every gamer should get angry at them when they don't. The latest FPS I played is called Red Faction (PS2). Much to my surprise, they actually included a floating aimer. Unfortunately, it was entirely useless because it wasn't self-centering (which is an integral part of the floating aimer). So close, yet so far.

The final issue with control schemes (and Rare even succumbed to this) is the lack of customization. There are a LOT of different FPSs and many people have their own idea as to how they should be played. To accommodate everyone, a game should have a few default or recommended control schemes, and the ability to completely customize the controls. Eurocom (TWINE) committed the ultimate sin in this respect by copying two of Goldeneye's schemes almost exactly, while leaving out the other two! That was a brilliant way to alienate a large portion of Goldeneye's audience (including my brother who uses the 1.3 scheme, Kissy). So if any developers are reading this, in short: provide an optional self-centering fine aimer, and provide complete control customization! It's as simple as that, and it can't be that difficult. I may have spent a lot of words on the issue of control, but you have to understand that a game's control scheme is arguably the most important part of its gameplay. If Mario had sloppy unresponsive controls, would anyone have enjoyed Mario 64? Would Zelda OoT have been half as good without the Z Targeting and auto jump features? So, with this out of the way, let's move on to one other problem I've noticed.

The problem is with enemy response. In the first FPSs, (Wolfenstien and Doom) your attacks had no effect on the enemies until you fired the killing shot. This worked fine 50 years ago when the genre was new, but it's time for a bit more. I'm not sure where it happened first, but eventually some brilliant person realized that enemies should react to your attacks before they die! Most importantly, when you hit them, they should show it. I'm tired of enemies that take a painful shot to the gut and then run away at top speed as if nothing happened, or worse, they stand there and continue to shoot at you. The player should be rewarded for each successful shot! In Red Faction, I often found myself filling enemy body armor full of countless bullets while they sat there as if nothing was happening. Body armor may prevent a lethal shot, but by all accounts it hurts almost as much as actually getting shot. If enemies don't react to your attacks, not only does it destroy any immersion you may have been experiencing, it also puts the enemies at an unfair advantage over you making the game difficult in a bad way. With Red Faction's poor handling of this matter and its flawed controls, I was ultimately forced to use the auto-aim feature just to survive (on medium mode since I rarely play easy) and this took half the fun out of the game. Even with the cool Geo-Mod technology, I just wasn't having much fun with the enemies. At least the stealth sequences were cool since it didn't involve shooting anyone.

The other flaws in most FPSs are rather sporadic and vary greatly from game to game. The original Turok had too little variety in graphics and too many jumping puzzles (when's someone going to put the Zelda auto jump in an FPS?), Turok 2 had a lack of save points, Quake 3 had a lacking single player mode, Soldier of Fortune had a cookie cutter storyline with mediocre voice acting and so on. Many developers have overcome these problems, and I think it only takes an eye for detail and a little talent and patience to fix these issues. The key to a good gaming experience in any genre is a good control scheme, and for FPSs I demand the best. For those developers and publishers who are responsible for the forthcoming GameCube shooters I say this: You've been warned...

If anyone has any comments on this editorial, post them in our forums on this thread or send them directly to me at: David@PlanetGameCube.com.

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