Keeping Things in Perspective: First Person Shooters Vs. Platform Games

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Author: David Torre
Editing: Bill Loguidice and Matt Barton
Online Layout: David Torre
Screenshots of Games: David Torre

Perhaps the single most popular type of game in the history of PC gaming is the First Person Shooter (FPS). A First Person Shooter is a game that takes place from a first person perspective, essentially putting the player in the shoes of the character. The player rarely sees the character being played; the player sees exactly as his or her character sees. Universally known for an emphasis on multiplayer network combat, First Person Shooters were some of the first types of games to be played on the Internet. Most people will acknowledge that Id Software’s Doom (1993) started the First Person Shooter craze, others point to Id’s Wolfenstein 3D (1992). For me, there were two games released around the same time that practically guaranteed the domination of First Person Shooters: 3D Realms’ Duke Nukem 3D and Id’s Quake, both released in 1996. It was during this time that the mouselook control scheme was invented, which would soon become the standard control scheme for just about every PC game. Eventually First Person Shooters would dominate PC gaming. New games like Half Life (Valve, 1998), Quake 2 (Id Software, 1997), and Unreal (Epic, 1998) continued to push the graphical envelope, and, being the most popular games around, were often used as benchmarks for the latest three-dimensional (3D) graphics cards. Adventure games and other genres would soon sink into obscurity, while others like Real Time Strategy (RTS) games and Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPG) would eventually provide some competition for First Person Shooters, but overall, FPS games took over.

Now, enter 2004. First Person Shooters are still some of the most popular PC games. Out of Amazon.com’s top ten best-selling PC games, four (a majority) are First Person Shooters. There have been some variations on the popular FPS formula (as accentuated by the success of Doom and Quake), such as having vehicles in games like Starsiege Tribes (Dynamix, 1998) and Battlefield 1942 (Digital Illusions, 2002), and games that attempt to simulate World War II combat like Medal of Honor (DreamWorks Interactive, 1999), Call of Duty (Infinity Ward, 2003), and Return to Castle Wolfenstein (Gray Matter Studios, 2001). Further, two heavily hyped FPS games are expected to release this year: Id Software’s Doom 3, and Valve’s Half Life 2.

Four different perspectives used in Nintendo's The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. In a rotating third person perspective focused on Link's right side, Link swings his sword at a giant spider. In a third person perspective with the camera focused behind Link, Link sprints through Kokiri Forest. In third person perspective with the camera focused on the front of Link, Link plays his Ocarina. Finally, in first person perspective, Link aims his slingshot at a smaller spider.
Various perspectives from
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (N64)

Many gamers like me have expressed their discontent about the current state of PC Gaming and the dominance of the First Person Shooter. Many of us have switched to consoles to get our gaming fix. This is because unlike PC games, one would be hard pressed to find a single genre that dominates console games. In addition, many console games tend to take place from a variety of perspectives, the most successful games utilizing multiple perspectives as needed. This can be best typified by Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998) for the Nintendo 64. In this game, the player navigates dungeons with the camera behind the character, fences with enemies in a rotating perspective, plays a musical instrument with the camera looking at the front of the character and occasionally switches to first person perspective to look around or aim a precision weapon such as the slingshot.

When I share my sentiment concerning First Person Shooters with most hardcore PC gamers, I am met with a variety of analogies. The most prominent analogy is that having a lot of First Person Shooters today is no different than when we had a lot of two-dimensional (2D) platform games in the late 1980s and early 1990s. By platform game, I define it as a game in which the player controls a character that moves from one obstacle to the next, usually by running or jumping.

I don't find it to be the case that the FPS dominance of today is anything like the 2D platform craze of yesterday. In fact, I find a fundamental flaw with all First Person Shooters that I feel constrains the gameplay to an overly simplistic process of repeatedly dodging and shooting.

One of the primary flaws of the first person perspective can be illustrated by using the classic platform fighting game, Technos’ Double Dragon (1988) for the NES, as an example. In Double Dragon, the character gained more and more abilities as the player progressed (a hair-pull kick, a spinning kick, and an uppercut). Naturally, most of the fun of the game was being able to see a variety of these attacks being performed. However, in a first person perspective, this same game concept is difficult to accomplish. It would be disorienting (and perhaps nauseating) if the player's viewpoint spun around while performing a spinning kick. Instead of changing the game's perspective and allowing some interesting attacks, most FPS game programmers don't even bother, limiting one’s movement only to the simplest running and shooting. In fact, most FPS shooters that do include melee combat do so in the form of a one-two punch, the Double Dragon equivalent of hitting the B button twice. Imagine if Double Dragon was programmed like this, limiting one’s moves only to the most basic attacks. Sure, the game had a variety of weapons, but without the repertoire of attacks, I'd imagine the game would be pretty dull.

Side scrolling perspective from Megaman X2 where X is on a futuristic motorcycle flying off a ramp
Megaman X2 (SNES)
Side scrolling perspective from Super Metroid; Samus is running extremely fast, breaking through a wall
Super Metroid (SNES)
Side Scrolling perspective from Contra 3 showing Mad Dog hanging from a rail over a pit of fire while firing the heat-seeking missile launcher
Contra III: The Alien Wars (SNES)
Side scrolling perspective from Bionic Commando where the player is using his bionic arm to swing from a lamppost away from an enemy
Bionic Commando (NES)



Take these four examples of platform games. In order to easily contrast these to First Person Shooters, I've chosen to include platform games that involve heavy shooting. These images are from Megaman X2, Super Metroid, Contra 3, and Bionic Commando. The scene from Megaman X2 involves X riding a futuristic motorcycle while dodging and shooting enemies. In Super Metroid, Samus is using the Speed Boots to run extremely fast and break through walls. In Contra 3, we see Mad Dog hanging from a rail while shooting. Finally, in Bionic Commando, we see the character dodging an enemy by using his bionic arm to swing from a lamppost. Although all of these games are based on shooting, they play vastly different. Megaman and Metroid share some similar elements, but the former is more action based and the latter more exploration based. Contra is a pure action shooting platformer, but contains some scenes that would be difficult to pull off in a First Person Shooter, as is obvious from the picture. Bionic Commando wouldn't easily fall into the jump-and-shoot category since it is impossible to jump in Bionic Commando.

One could say that the main problem with First Person Shooters is focus. In a First Person Shooter, the player can only focus on one thing at a time, namely a target. First Person Shooters are limited in the sense that the player cannot creatively interact with the environment and shoot at the same time. In a 2D third person perspective platformer, the player can see everything that is going on. If an enemy is running towards the player from behind, one can often do a back flip over the enemy’s head and shoot the enemy in the back. Such an action is impossible in modern First Person Shooters. It's a shame too, because it's darn fun to watch.

The limitations of a first person perspective are even more obvious when considering a successful 2D platform to first person translation. The game I speak of, of course, is Nintendo’s Metroid Prime (2002) for the Nintendo Gamecube. In order to successfully translate the traditional 2D adventure platformer elements of Metroid, many aspects of the game were sacrificed. Samus' signature "Screw Attack" (a flipping attack) was removed, along with the Speed Boots. In Super Metroid, there was a wall jump that allowed Samus to scale even the steepest chasms with ease. Sadly, it was necessary to remove this ability in Metroid Prime as well.

This is not to say that Metroid Prime is not a good game. It's a fantastic experience that aside from its limitations, admittedly felt like a Metroid game. My point is simply that something is lost when a game is translated into a first person perspective. Whether it's hanging from the side of a cliff, holding on with one hand and shooting at what's behind the player (Contra 3), or rolling around like a ball (Metroid), the capability in the first person is lost. The only way to keep these capabilities is to temporarily switch away from first person. There have been several games that have done this, including LucasArts’ Jedi Knight (PC, 1997) and the aforementioned Metroid Prime. Unfortunately, the majority of First Person Shooters either do not include a third person view, or include it only as a novelty that adds nothing to the gameplay experience.

First person perspective from Call of Duty, aiming a gun through a vast meadow
Call of Duty (PC)
First person perspective from Return to Castle Wolfenstein, a soldier with a gun blazing marching up a beach at night under enemy fire
Return to Castle Wolfenstein (PC)
First person perspective from Battlefield 1942 showing a man aiming a gun through a snow-filled forest at an enemy soldier
Battlefield 1942 (PC)

Look at some of these First Person Shooters. These screenshots are from Call of Duty, Return to Castle Wolfenstein, and Battlefield 1942, all for the PC. Keep in mind each one of these was a commercially successful game. Yes, I'm aware that Battlefield 1942 is a hybrid game that is centered on using different vehicles in combat, but the player does spend a lot of time on foot, so I include it here. It can be argued that each game has subtle differences in gameplay, but the screenshots make it obvious that all the games have the same basic play mechanics. In these games, a player usually has access to an assortment of guns and usually one melee weapon. Often this means a knife, a pistol, a rifle, some grenades, a machine gun, a bazooka, a sniper rifle, and some sort of gimmick weapon. It is uncommon to have more than one weapon of the same type. The player usually moves with the W, A, S, D keyboard keys and aims and shoots with the mouse. Most games also have jump, crouch and crawl commands that can be used to dodge enemy fire. In a single-player mode, one sneaks around, avoiding or killing guards, while attempting to find some item or get through the area to complete a level. In multiplayer mode, there are almost always several gameplay types -- the big ones are team play, deathmatch (a free-for-all), and capture the flag. The standardization of controls, basic play mechanics, and game modes are part of the reason why most First Person Shooters play alike.

Some advocates of the first person perspective say that it's better to look through a character's eyes than look at the back of a person because it adds to the reality—the player is the character. I don't find this to be the case. Although first person games attempt to simulate being the character, most ignore things like peripheral vision and equilibrium. In real life, one can see out of the corner of one's eye, and usually sense when someone is sneaking up on them. In addition, in most of these games, limbs and body parts are not visible (except for the hand holding a weapon). If the player is climbing a ladder, hands are not visible; if the player looks down, one doesn’t see the tip of one’s nose, or one’s feet. Essentially, the reality of the game is lost when it is impossible to see the player’s own feet–creating the illusion that the player is nothing more than a floating head with a hand holding a gun.

Do platform games have a lot in common? Sure. Earlier in this article I cited examples of platform games, and reflected on the diversity of games within the sub genre of shooting platform games alone; however, shooting isn't the only sub genre of platform games. There are street fighting games, like Double Dragon. There are also games where one can kill enemies by hopping on their heads (Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros. (NES, 1985), Hudson’s Bonk’s Adventure (TurboGrafx-16, 1990), Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog (Sega Genesis, 1990)). There are games that grant the player a sword or whip and have one gain abilities and fight off monsters RPG style (Konami’s Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest (NES, 1988), Nintendo’s Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (NES, 1988)). Most notably, at the time that platform games were at their prime, there were a variety of other popular types of games. There were games that took place from an overhead view (Hudson’s Bomberman (NES, 1985), Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda (NES, 1987)), others that gave the player an isometric view (CSG Imagesoft’s Solstice (NES, 1990), Rare Ltd’s Snake, Rattle and Roll (Sega Genesis, NES, 1990)), games that provided a third person 3D view (Square’s Rad Racer (NES, 1987), Sega’s Space Harrier (Arcade, 1985) and Nintendo's Pilotwings (SNES, 1990)), and even some that used a first person perspective (Kemco’s Shadowgate (Various, 1989) and Déjà Vu (Various, 1988)).

Essentially, when the two are put in context, having many platform games is nothing like having lots of FPS games today. It's time for a new genre of games on the PC that provide a legitimate alternative to First Person Shooters. If not, the little that's left of the PC gaming crowd will eventually seek alternatives, perhaps on other systems. There are graphics cards capable of displaying millions of polygons, adding unbelievable detail to environments, and the only games out there that take advantage of this power are First Person Shooters. It's time for change. It's time to experiment with different perspectives and try some new game ideas, or reinvent some old ones. The market is ripe for originality right now, and some publisher has to take a risk or the market will shrivel up.

Comments

Anonymous (not verified)
FPS's definately needs some improvement!

This is an old discussion but I have to say, the FPS genera has not really moved beyond Half Life 1 and Doom 2. New technology of course, but the feel of those two games was waaaaaaaaaay more alive and immersive than others that I've played. (I know it saves memory, but I wish creatures and bodies could hang around a level and stalk you/you stalk them. How many hundereds of millions would that cost? Lol!) Nothing was more dissappointing than seeing 16 distinctly different types of enemy in Doom 2, each with its own character and death scene, only to have every game since do a pituful attempt to live up to it. Doom 3 had good graphics but it took out the piles of bodies that stay around in order to save memory. This also meant that the Arch Vile could not revive anything by touching the dead body. He only summons Imps now. Blah Fing Blah! There go two of the most iconic bells and whistles that Doom 2 was so good at slipping in. That's a heartbreaking dissapointment!

I want a vast managerie of enemies when I go out hunting in a virutal world. I want them fierce and distinct from each other. Frightening and thick as grass, like Doom and Doom 2 when played on Ultra Violence or Nightmare. I want to play the role of the Superman who really can do it alone, if he trys like hell and learns a few tricks. That is FPSing at it's best.

Half Life 1 loses some points for low creature variety (compared to Doom 2), but makes up for it in a big way by having an impressive world to explore that includes bright sunlight, lonely cavernous areas, very well designed levels and unique weapons. A jaw dropper in the real sense, it well deserved the game of the year award it recieved.

Kudo (not verified)
You're quite right about

You're quite right about everything you've said, however, you didn't mention why first person games are so popular. Do you know why racing games and shooters are so popular and well-sold? Those are two of the few genres that really work in 3d, and it's thanks to their first person perspective.

I've owned a NES, a GBA, a PS2, and now I have a gaming PC. The NES and GBA were great, and the PC is quite alright, but the PS2 however, very disappointing. Prior to owning that system I had thought I would really enjoy 3d platformers and action games, but I didn't. The problem is lock-on/ automatic targeting. Rather than that you direct your character to your target, the computer does it for you. This is what has ruined countless games.

Now, that's where first person games are different, those games require that you aim and direct your character to your target yourself, there is no auto-aim to help you out. (not on the PC, that is)

But I agree that it's time for change, first person games should change, but console games too. As long as the lock-on feature does not go away, I won't play console games anymore. And I'm not the only one who thinks like that. Automatic targeting has made games easy, childish in fact. In the 90's games were hard, nowadays they're easy because of features like auto-aim and saves.

But the lack of originality and things you can do in first person shooters really needs to be extended also, just as you explained. It's not that it isn't possible in such games, it's that developers are lazy/ have a lack of originality. FPS needs that kind of change, but console games need a new control scheme.

The very worst thing however, is definitely the Wii. That horrible device is killing the game industry with it's 'video game console for non-games' attitude. Games already were too easy, and now the fetishes of the Japanese come in game-form all over the world. The Japanese did a great job in the 80's and 90's, but it's really gone downhill.

forcefield58
Offline
Joined: 05/19/2006
I've already made the change.....and I suspect other have too!!!

Great post!!!!

I made the switch to console gaming about a year ago and have tried going back to the PC for various FPS sessions only to be bored out of my skull. I used to play online for hours at a time. I think part of the reason is all the "cheating" that's going on. It really doesn't make much sense to cheat in a FPS, only I guess what's going on is there are those out there that have to highest kill total, and thus the cheating aspect.

The other part that used to drive me crazy was all the foul language while online, and mostly from little kids!!!! It got so you couldn't have a decent, clean game (of killing, pretty good!!!!). I tried to introduce my dad to online FPS gaming and I've never heard him utter even a "damn" before. After 20 minutes of Call of Duty on the PC he got an ear full of stuff.

Now, I still play FPS games on my Xbox and PSII, but rarely go online, mainly for the same reasons as on the PC.

You can't beat games like "Fable", "Jade Empire" and "Star Wars, KOTOR" on the console. I love the Halo's and the Half Life's too, but I agree that there needs to be a change both on the PC and the console.

We've discussed this before on AA, regarding platform games being few and far between. There has been renewed excitement now that Nintendo released "Super Mario World" for the DS. I love these type of games and is the main reason I'm setting up the old Sega Genesis and Sega CD, just to play "Sonic" again, the old fashioned way!!!

My PC isn't used for much anymore besides surfing the web, which isn't all bad, not when I've go the console(s) sitting right next to me, luring me away...

n/a

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