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Why You Should Never Make a First Person Shooter [Gamer by Design]

First of all, what is a First Person Shooter? It is a game in first person (as in, you are the camera, like in a movie where you see a shot of someone running through the forest from their POV), and it involves them shooting. So you have a camera POV and usually a gun is in that view somewhere.

Oh and one more thing: Because the core audience of FPS games are young boys who grow up to make more games for their childhood selves, the top sellers are almost always about aliens and/or space marines. Some day we will look back nostalgically at the alien/space marine era of subject matter in the way film people look back at the day when you went to the theatre to see a train coming at the screen. But we’re not at that day yet. You may see a flying car first.

That being said, at our current level of technology, FPS’s are a very fun, proven game type that we’ve gotten really good at making. That is tempting to a lot of game designers to want to join the fray. But I’m about to rant a little bit about why you may not want to do that, if you want to succeed. So here we go…Take my mostly unresearched stats with a grain of salt.

Here's your old buddy the Space Marine. You control him to save the earth once a year, or until the next franch

Your 1.0 can’t compete with their 3.1
A lot of us game developers have worked at studios that had goals of competing with Halo and beating it. Here’s why this is a bad idea:

1.  Game schedules are notoriously unrealistic, even if you had a crap load of money. The only way you can compete with the polish, the fun, and the scope of a Call of Duty or Halo, is to take your time and finish the thing about 10 months before it ships, then user test it for fun and intuitive interface before you even QA test it. So for you non gamers, the usability test is for the purposes of improving the product itself: how you control it, what is fun about it, how it communicates its message, etc. The QA (quality assurance) test is fixing all the little broken details. So my point is that the usability testing will make the product a 95% rated game, while the QA tests make it shippable and bug free. A great professor of mine at grad school, Randy Pausch, spent a great deal of energy preaching this to us. And then I went out into the world and worked on projects that never had time to do it. I’m not bad-mouthing those processes; we were victims of the game under-scheduling virus and just had to finish the games. That’s the nature of having a publisher.  We all need to make money, but the thing a lot of publishers won’t do is wait 4-5 extra months to polish the living crap out of a game. It’s ironic, because in the FPS market, the quality bar of the hit games is so high, that it’s way more important to release an excellent product than it is to be 4 months early. In fact, waiting past the Christmas season that publishers usually shoot for may help your game. Why compete with the big boys and get lost, when you could take 4 extra months and have an excellent game, all by itself, in February?

My point is, unless you have a very patient publisher, you cannot beat Halo at being Halo. They had a very polished product with Halo 1, and they’ve had several subsequent products in which they never re-invent the wheel, but they perfect and add to the product. In that manner, Halo is the Apple of game studios. iPhones are evolutions of the previous iPhone, and each one is more excellent. In this post I talked about the software aspect of making a game, and they are doing this very well.

2.  You’re probably trying to build an engine and a game at the same time (for non-gamers, the engine is the framework that runs the game, and it usually contains an editor that lets designers makes levels and such). This is not not not an easy thing to do!  Here’s what happens in this situation:

a. Design department is in brainstorm mode, thinking of gameplay ideas and such, while programmers are making the engine.
b.  You’re supposed to come out of brainstorm mode and into prototype mode (experimenting with fun, trying things in the actual game, but not making the final levels). The problem is that the engine is still being built, so you can’t make all the core parts of the gameplay in a complete enough way to test them for fun factor.
c. Since you have a publisher, you have to start making the levels of the game before the core gameplay parts are done. Well the problem is, the reason for the prototype time is to see what’s fun and what isn’t before it’s put in the main game. So you get to the point where the levels are all basically made, and the core game-play gets done after this, and you realize it’s not super fun yet. Well now you’re screwed, because you have six months to ship the game. And you have to retool these core parts, fix all your levels, QA test the thing, then ship it at a sub-par level. Know who got kicked out of the party? Yeah you got it…usability/fun testing.

3. Your idea isn’t weird enough to stand out. How many of us have seen (or worked on) games that do the standard same space marine or alien content? How many times have you heard the conversation:

“How was [insert generic FPS title here]?”

“It was ok, it was an FPS. (shrug)”

If you are gonna compete in this space, you need to be different or be a juggernaut. I’m not sure why smaller publishers don’t get this, but it has something to do with the next section:

The vicious cycle of nervous money and unoriginal content
If you were gonna hire a dude to cut your grass, and one guy comes over with a lawn mower, and another with a crazy new rotating laser weed wacker, who would you hire (assuming the coolness of lasers isn’t a factor)?  I’d hire the lawnmower. Cause it’s proven. He’d charge me 40 bucks and be done. The laser thing probably wouldn’t work, and then I’d have to do it myself or call lawnmower dude.

Well that’s FPS funding. Publishers know that Call of Duty soldiers and Halo space guys and Gears of War gore make money. They have since Doom.

Us little doom disks hereby bequeath you shalt always love Space Marines.

But as we mentioned earlier, the gamer is aging and though it doesn’t feel like it, game content is evolving; this is obvious by the reception of the Duke Nukem game, which was the game equivalent of how out-of-place Stallone was in the future when he got unfrozen in Demolition Man.

Dont do a muder death kill!

So there’s the rub. It’s tough to make money in this business, and publishers have to try sure bets. We understand that. But as we also mentioned earlier, there is a huge untapped audience. We’re not even talking elderly or other audiences that are far from the “traditional” game demographic. But what about people who grew up playing games… the Nintendo NES fans, the Mario Bros players, the Doom players are all 30-40 years old now! They grew up with consoles and still play them. But they’re educated perhaps (that doesn’t mean they’re snobs, it just means they’ve learned about a lot of other fictions and subject matter), or they’re too busy to play games all night, or a lot of them are suffering from what I call “space marine fatigue” after 20 years of the same content.

The answer to a lot of those questions is … Indie. With game engine technology improving, indie developers can make smaller-scoped first person shooters with original content. Then these sometimes make money, publishers see that, and then they enter that original space. And we’ve innovated. Or the two guys in a garage make a prototype of a large scope FPS (we’re talking like one level as a proof of a concept that no one would guy unless they actually see it), show that fun prototype to a publisher, and the publisher is convinced and then funds it. The difference here is that the publisher didn’t foot the prototype bill. Which as we said above, is not easy with a rushed schedule. Aaaand we’ve innovated.

A good example of this is Portal, which is so cool that it’s hardly even an FPS, genre-wise. It was built in the educational space, then picked up by Valve.

Occupy FPS
What is the real percentage of FPS games made per year that actually make money?

If you are a game fan, you’ll answer that one really fast.  You know that Occupy Wall Street idea that 1%  of the people make all the money?  That’s how FPS games are. Every year, about 4 juggernaut games come out around Oct/Nov, along with a slew of about 20 “also-rans.” And the 4 big ones are guaranteed  to make money. A lot of it. There is no way possible that the next Call of Duty will lose money. At the time of writing this, the top ten FPS sellers of all time contained, and this is just my google research:

  • 3 Halo Games
  • 4 Call of Duty Games
  • Half Life 2 (large indie studio, the exception here)
  • Goldeneye for N64

This phenomenon is because FPS games are the equivalent of summer blockbuster movies. They’re expensive to make, they are marketed to a broad audience, and they have big marketing budgets. So just a couple make all the money. And you’re audience of indie fans…people that play Limbo, iPhone puzzle games, they just aren’t even interested at all. So the blockbuster FPS games dominate their core audience, and they are targeted at that hardcore gamer audience. The audience is very quality-sensitive. If your targeting system doesn’t feel perfect, if you have any lag for online play, or your multi-player is not perfectly balanced, they will not play the game. Why? Because they are players of high skill that play games almost like sports. Just like a track sprinter wants a good, even surface to run on and some good shoes, hardcore gamers want an even playing field that is only unbalanced by skill.

Sincere ending
Ok, so now that we’re all done, I think you can tell that I still like FPS games. I hope you understand that through my jokes, what I really mean is: don’t fall into these traps. Don’t make games that can’t succeed. A lot of these things were lessons I’ve learned from my years in the biz, but everything I said here is common knowledge to the game makers in the trenches at big studios. Especially the ones in the trenches. Ask any veteran artist or designer at the water cooler, and they’ll rant until your ears bleed. We love what we do in this industry. That’s why we can’t wait for it to get through its growing pains. Keep shootin’.

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