Shot in the Foot: Why First Person Shooters are Destined for a Fall

If you’ve played one you’ve played them all.”

Of all the disparaging comments made within the gaming community, this is probably one of the most common. For the most part, it is fairly insipid. Yes, most games within a genre are going to share distinct similarities. That’s what places them under the same category. But to say that every RPG, every action, puzzle and sports game is the same is to disregard the various subtleties, the small diversities that help to make individual titles special.

Except maybe with first person shooters.

Allow me a moment of elaboration before you open the floodgates of hate. For what it’s worth I love a good FPS. There’s something cathartic about the simple concept of “point, shoot, splat.” On the one hand it’s an annoyance that the FPS games are so overwhelmingly prominent this generation. On the other, it’s no wonder why.

That said, even as shooters are flying high with the success of all the Halos and Call of Duty’s there is an undeniable sense that the current model for the genre may be reaching a breaking point. As excited as some were when Halo: Reach and Call of Duty: Black Ops were announced there were also more than a few people rolling their eyes. I have no doubt that Black Ops will entertaining game. But it’s probably not going to be anything we haven’t seen before. A brief, single player campaign and an entertaining multiplayer game, all of which will immediately be overshadowed by the promise of the game to follow. The reviewers will call it a rollercoaster ride. It will be fun in the moment, but as with real roller coasters the second you get off you’ll be looking at the next one. Why keep playing one game when another does it better?

Sports games have suffered from this syndrome literally since the big franchises were first developed and FPS games are in turn starting to trod down the same path. People don’t buy a sixty dollar game for a six hour first person experience. But then, single player games aren’t all the important when it comes to shooters nowadays. It’s all about the multiplayer, and at best most shooters don’t do much more than improve slightly on the game that came before.

While some new tweaks might be enough to entice some, as the library of good shooters expands there are going to be more gamers who won’t see the sense in replacing something they already have for something that’s barely better. Point in case, when I feel like a bit of quick fragging I go to Killzone 2. It’s not like there aren’t better experiences available. I really enjoyed Bad Company 2 when the multiplayer demo was still available. That said, at the end of the day when the demo expired it wasn’t so much better that I went rushing out to buy a copy of the game. The same with MAG. I had the opportunity to play the beta and enjoyed it. But in the end the promised “massive” battles weren’t enough to convert me to its particular take on shooter scripture. The hard truth of the matter is that when it comes to online shooters, you really only need the one.

And yet there’s nary a release nowadays that doesn’t shoehorn at least some token online mode that in all likelihood will be ignored by gamers already enthralled in the latest big thing (read: Call of Duty). In devoting time and resources into multiplayer games that are all but destined to fail, many developers are shortchanging the one thing that might actually help to make an FPS game stand out: a good single player experience.

“But Stew, there have been solid single player FPS games this generation!”

To a point. Resistance: Fall of Man, The Darkness, Bioshock, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, the various Halo games; these were all top tear FPS games, but even amongst these and others there are irreparable flaws. The ultimate value of Modern Warfare was totally dependent on you liking and wanting to play its multiplayer portion. I enjoyed its single player game to be sure, but I experiences its multiplayer after its initial heyday. With Killzone 2 ably filling that void, I just felt no need to outright purchase it. People criticized Heavenly Sword when it first came out for being too short and too expensive. Remove the multiplayer component and titles like Modern Warfare are in the same boat. The developers are essentially building games that need a strong player community to stay valuable, and then just as quickly are redirecting that community to something new.

“It’s quite rare to find an FPS today that is solely devoted to a single player campaign even though games like Bioshock have proven it is possible for to succeed without multiplayer. Granted that success is on a smaller scale but as long as something makes a profit can you really put it down as a failure? Some do. The PS3 has been home to many superior exclusives that many gamers have dubbed flops on account of their not achieving a super seller status. That said several have still sold in the millions and made a profit.

Granted, the shooter market is not the friendliest place to break into right now. The big name franchises cast huge shadows that smaller titles are hard pressed to step out of. But if there’s one thing I’m sure of it’s that just imitating the competition is not going to get anyone anywhere. What we need is for those big name publishers with the clout to successfully launch new franchises to actually have the guts to do so. The likelihood of this is slim. I will grant EA credit as they’ve helped to establish several new IPs this generation, but Activision I’ll throw to the wind. New IPs are risky, and right now they’re making millions off of the tried and true. They have little reason to take chances as long as the gravy train continues. But it can’t go on forever.

Back in the 90s, space flight sims were all the rage. The market was soon overflowing with games featuring shiny space ships blowing things up. The genre peaked and then collapsed so totally that it is nearly nonexistent in today’s market. I doubt that the FPS genre will ever suffer a fate quite as dire. Shooters have been around too long and are intertwined with gaming as a whole to totally go away. That said, one has to wonder what the breaking point will be. With Bungie moving on to new pastures Halo may have already passed the apex of its quality, and while Activision may be rolling in Uncle Scrooge amounts of cash at the moment, even they have to know they can’t keep it up forever. Black Ops in the horizon. What lies beyond it only time may tell.

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