Since the advent of First Person Shooter games on consoles, there have been a number of design trends that have negatively influenced their development. Some of these changes to First Person Shooters were necessary to adapt them to a console setting, while others are arguably arbitrary but have nonetheless become design trends.
In brief, these trends are: regenerating health, iron sights, limited weapon inventory, reduced weapon variety with a greater focus on hitscan weapons, slow pace of movement, low jump height, linear or front-focused level design, enemy homogenization, and high lethality. Each of these are trends that influence and reinforce each other in different ways, and the relationship between these will be covered as this article and series goes on.
Iron Sights, or ADS (Aim Down Sights), is a mechanic possible in many realistic shooters involving the player pressing or holding a button to bring up the sights or scope on the weapon they are holding. This grants a slightly zoomed-in view, more accurate fire, and a slower rate of movement. Games that feature iron sights typically have extremely inaccurate fire outside that mode, also called “hip-fire”.
Bullet spread refers to how guns tend not to fire projectiles directly where your reticule points, but rather to fire randomly within a cone around the reticle. Some games like Counter-Strike have a mostly deterministic pattern for how bullets will spread, each gun following a pattern with a small random variance on where exactly it falls, where most games simply have bullets veer off in any direction. In games with iron sights, hip-fire is the mode where bullet spread is most prevalent, and in iron sights mode it is reduced or completely disabled in favor of recoil. Bullet spread negatively affects even older shooter games where rapid fire weapons like chain guns or machine guns frequently had a variance in their firing trajectory.
Iron Sights were first added to First Person Shooters with Operation Flashpoint. They were added as a measure to make first person shooters more realistic. In real life, weapons have sights on them and those are what is used to aim them accurately at targets. In order to simulate that aiming effect in games the cone of fire for the weapon is widened so as to mimic how difficult it is to aim a weapon in real life if you do not use the sights to aim. In video games, there are crosshairs in the center of the screen; the center of the screen itself serves as an easy point of reference for aiming, making the additional iron sights mode superfluous. Regardless, since the introduction of Iron Sights, many have felt it necessary to make the “hip-fire” of the weapon pointlessly inaccurate in order to contrast it with the more accurate Iron Sights so as to capture this element of realism.
In addition to this, while aiming in Iron Sight mode, the player typically moves more slowly. Many have defended this model as they believe it creates a tradeoff between mobility and accuracy. This is a false dichotomy as only aiming down the sights has enough accuracy, and therefore damage-per-second, to be worthwhile with the accuracy-tuning present in these games. A few stray bullets won’t kill anyone aiming directly at you. The end result of this is that every encounter is a matter of bringing up the sights and shooting first and most accurately, lest you end up with a situation like Gordon Freeman’s M16 or the Halo 1 Assault Rifle, which can empty a whole magazine at mid-range pointing directly at the enemy and still not kill. In shooters that lack iron sights and have low/no bullet spread, winning is a process of both shooting accurately and moving to avoid damage. This problem is further exacerbated by the high lethality of most shooters featuring iron sights, which is reinforced by the Regenerating Health trend. Between these factors, encounters prevent players from moving around in the middle of the shooting or tactically using the terrain as the firefight goes on. Developers want to force players into a situation of either winning/losing the encounter by killing their opponent, or forgetting the encounter happened.
The trouble with iron sights is honestly not their presence itself, but rather the negative effect of randomized bullet spread. Many games such as Killing Floor, Black Mesa, Serious Sam, and Rise of the Triad include iron sights, but keep bullet spread consistent between the firing modes. The issue is developers tend to reduce the accuracy of hip-fire relative to when iron sights are used in order to fit iron sights into the design space. Some shooters included iron sights more as a cosmetic measure than for any useful purpose, and in those game where the hip-fire is equally accurate to sights there is obviously no detrimental effect from their inclusion. Iron sights didn’t ruin games by themselves, developers making space for them did so.
Due to the reduction in speed, where previously FPS games were about both trying to hit your opponent and avoid damage, they have now become a game of damage-per-second. Who can fire first and most accurately? It used to be the case that successful aiming was a product of leading your reticule and predicting your opponent’s movement patterns while yourself moving to dodge their assault, but without a significant capacity to move while aiming, there is no longer a need for this skill set. You get your iron sights up and shoot first, they’re dead. Proponents of ironsights will mention that you can mitigate the negative effects of hip-fire by moving closer, but obviously limiting yourself to close range shooting scenarios is impossible in the long run. If you don’t take the risk of shooting at long range you have a massive efficiency loss relative to the people who do take that risk and you lose out if you ever get caught in a long range shooting scenario. There’s really no point in the accuracy for rate of movement tradeoff besides making the game more random and irritating to play.
Iron sights also exist, or at least were popularized, as a concession to console shooters. In free aim mode, the camera pans very rapidly and it can be difficult to aim. Iron Sights zoom in and slow the cursor, allowing for more precise aiming due to it panning a more fine area. Additionally, it serves as a means of controlling the pace; bringing up sights takes time, either by an animation or simple finger speed. By creating another barrier between the player and shooting, players can be bottle-necked to avoid uncontrollably fast shooting situations, like the Quake Arena Arcade XBLA port.
Putting this whole issue in the most simple way possible, there’s absolutely no reason why any shooter should ever have randomized bullet spread or randomized recoil. If these factors didn’t exist then Iron Sights wouldn’t have . Iron sights didn’t have to be a negative force. They could have simply been a form of zoom-in or slower zoomed in aiming mode as a concession to unskilled or console players who need it. They didn’t even have to limit rate of movement. Iron sights are tolerable in so far as they don’t slow the game down or their use is not required. The real trouble with them is how bullet spread was forced into the default firing mode to make room for iron sights.
The most common argument in favor of bullet spread or bullet cones is they limit the effectiveness of a weapon at a range, which is true, but this is accomplished much more easily and deterministically by simply having a damage falloff over range, so players can deal consistent rates of damage instead of getting an inconsistent damage spread. It’s true that damage cones also communicate the effective range of the gun rather well, but that could be kept by either outright lying to the player and having the visual effect still look like a cone of bullets. It’s unlikely players would notice the cone not being accurate because they’re pointing the reticule at the center anyway, and a lot more ridiculous hitboxes are gotten away with in a similar fashion, or players even find them natural. Or an alternative is to have the projectile’s visual effect appear to slow down or lose vibrancy as it approaches the target.
The ultimate effect of randomness in all games is a decreased emphasis on player skill. Randomness, by its nature, cannot be compensated for or predicted: it can only have its effect limited or removed. For example; coming so close to a target that the bullets spread at their widest distribution are still within the bounds of the target, hitting them with every shot, or by picking a more accurate gun so as not to deal with the effects of randomness. As a result, Iron Sights have indirectly introduced a large amount of statistical noise into games, making it so that frequently winning is less about correct aim or strategy than before, and merely a roll of the dice. Very few shooters have static bullet spray patterns like Counter Strike, so with the wider bullet sprays, players unwilling to aim down the sights are subject to the whims of the random number generator as to whether they will kill or be killed. In many such shooters, random pressures are even applied to the Iron Sights, such as random recoil patterns.
The product of randomness and greater statistical noise is that players will perform closer to an average level of consistency. Although a player may perform better than another, they may lose by simple chance. In a single player campaign, two players with exactly identical inputs could both have different win/loss results due to random chance. Random chance deprives players of a portion of ownership over their losses and wins. It feels unfair that even if they do everything right, they can still lose out or that they can win by something they did not earn. Better players will still triumph over worse ones on average due to the law of large numbers evening out statistical noise across many matches, but this has less effect in proportion to how random the game is. A completely random game, like a coin flip or dice roll, wouldn’t favor anyone.
From another perspective, iron sights and bullet spread are arguably justifiable as an element of simulation. In real life, aiming a weapon from the hip makes it difficult to impossible to fire accurately and nobody can hit the same place twice, but where simulation may sometimes be the inspiration for deeper mechanics here it only limits first person shooters by destroying the primary means players have of interacting with the world. If this is the price of realism, then it’s not worth the sacrifice. Simulation can be valuable to increasing the depth of a game. Reality is complex and can serve as the inspiration of a number of mechanics; however, all elements that seek to simulate reality should do so as long as they create tactical possibilities instead of destroy them.
The separation between tactical and twitch shooters is that once all the twitch elements have been removed from a game only the barest levels of tactics are left. As in many genres of competitive game, many aspects of the strategy rely on the execution requirement. With iron sights, shooting well or avoiding damage no longer matters as much as squad formations and positioning, which mattered in the more twitch shooters prior, but twitch shooters had additional skills that the players could master and demonstrate in addition to positioning that made their strategy more complex. The overall shift is that tactical shooters now emphasize the tactics of the team as a whole rather than the skill of the individual. This is not because it has better team tactics than the old twitch shooters, but simply because that is all tactical shooters have when the most tactical thing players can do is choose where they will be on the map and whether to engage.
Between these factors, iron sights and bullet spread in combination have contributed to a more rigid and slow method of play, closer to a shooting gallery than the exercises in avoiding fire while still aiming accurately that exist in other first-person-shooters. The overall increase in uncontrollable randomness has hampered a player’s ability to be rewarded for playing well or correctly or to earn all their victories. Even on the basis of simulation, they nonetheless have lead to a decline in quality for first person shooters.
You can yell at Chris Wagar for his opinions on video games on Twitter @aGrimVale.