Please tell me I am not the only one who is sick and tired of every single recent or upcoming arena shooter being a Quake 3 clone (or UT clone). We have Xonotic, Nexuiz, Warsow, Open Arena (though it admits being a Q3 clone), Red Eclipse, Toxikk, and Reflex. Almost all of these rip their weapon sets directly from Quake, about half of them have quake style bunnyhopping, with Toxikk having unreal tournament type movement. Points to Red Eclipse for coming up with some more original movement methods even if it does look a bit janky overall. And of course on the horizon is Quake: Champions, which aims to do the arena thing all over again.
Lets look to the future a bit: FPS games and mouselook shooter games in general are unexplored, they’re practically infants compared to other genres in terms of mechanical development. Sure, we have open worlds, cinematic set pieces, RPG elements, physics puzzles, and so on, but not a lot of games are really considering the more basic interactions, like how people shoot, or how people move, and what they shoot and move in response to. Rather than continually copying Quake 3 like it was god’s gift to FPS games, we should be copying its example and the precedent for what it did right rather than verbatim bringing back the same weapons again. We should also be looking outside the genre for things other games did right that could be replicated in first person.
Not to mention, look at the FPS games that are sitting right next to Quake. I’m honestly not a big fan of Unreal Tournament, but I can totally appreciate its weapon diversity, all the weapons have an alt fire and you have clever things like the shock combo on the shock rifle or the Flak Gun, essentially a shotgun that reflects off walls. Half Life and Half Life 2 both had their own unique weapon set as well, with satchel charges, laser trip mines, cookable grenades, laser guided rockets, snarks, hivehand, the gauss cannon for movement/attacking, the gravity gun, the alt fires of the machine gun and overwatch gun. Half Life really had some weird weapons, which is commendable. We could be leveraging a lot more out of our arena shooters, but we keep ending up with Quake again.
The most essential principle here is making it so every weapon has it’s own niche. Quake did this by having it so higher DPS weapons would become more effective as the opponent got closer. Unreal Tournament had the flak cannon lock down hallways and other tight spaces, while the shock combo could flush out people around corners. The Biorifle in the new Unreal Tournament can not only lock down hallways like the old one, but on touching one part of the slime, all the rest in the area are attracted to the target. Every weapon should be more effective in a certain situation so that players need to press their opponent into a situation where they can deal damage but their opponent cannot. This creates counterplay, where players attempt to counter their opponent’s actions and read the situation rather than simply aiming more accurately. It also ensures that no weapon is better than the others or obsoletes any of the others by giving every weapon its own time to shine.
Rather than just aiming directly at the target and firing, it would pay to have weapons that require aiming somewhere else, like rocket launchers, where the goal is usually to aim at their feet so it will hit the ground exploding up on the target, or falloff weapons where the target needs to be aimed above so the projectile will fall to hit them. Imagine if there was a weapon where you were aiming to the left or right of the target for some reason, or needed to slash across the target (like the lava gun in ratchet and clank) or some other business.
What if the weapon has a weird firing origin? Instead of shooting projectiles out, it pulls them in from the walls? What if bullets appear about 5 feet ahead of you, so they can be shot through thin walls, but you can’t defend yourself from people who are too close. Every attribute of a gun can be used to make it more unique or to attempt to give it a different strategic function.
Think about the terrain on which the weapon would be effective and ineffective, like somehow hitting behind cover, but having such slow startup and unwieldy use that it’s impossible to hit people directly in front of your face. Another possibility is maybe a weapon that fires out in a sine wave, so it can hook around cover at the right distance and angle. Perhaps it deals more damage the further away the target is, but the sine wave in turn gets wider and the periods further apart so it is more difficult to aim?
Think about how weapons could potentially counter each other. Maybe one weapon has projectiles that somehow block the projectiles of another weapon? Or maybe one player’s projectiles are erased if they are hit before those projectiles make contact? There could be a weapon that slashes at the area in front of it, destroying any incoming projectiles, and in the process charging up a shot to be released.
Consider adding a movement element to a weapon, like a shotgun that teleports you 5 steps to the left or right after you fire it, depending on whether you click left or right mouse. Or a weapon, like maybe a rocket launcher that pulls people in when they’re hit by it rather than popping them up. Or maybe one that has you quickly hop backwards every time before its use. Maybe the player themselves could be a projectile, maybe attacking people from the air like a dive kick, or aggressing in a crescent motion forwards. Think about curves, think about acceleration, force. Think about how these effects could synergize with the weapon’s function or with players’ desire to move around the map.
Here are some other weapon ideas I’ve thought up:
A gun that shoots massive projectiles larger than the character’s body that don’t do terribly much damage, move slowly, but can be fired off really quickly on a relatively small magazine so people can area control, but not too effectively. A weapon that spreads its fire from the target to all the entities around the target, dividing the damage, creating a double edged sword of good damage to multiple targets, but less damage to the one you’re specifically targetting (inspired by Mutalisks from Star Craft 1). Deployable nodes or beacons that create an effect around them when you fire at them, or these could be satelites that orbit the character that can be fired at for such an effect. Summoned entities that come out of the ground and attack in a straight path relative to how you aim at different ranges (much like May’s dolphin in Guilty Gear). A hallucination or copy of you could do an attack, perhaps copying the attack you just did or following its own behavior. An attack that hits everyone that’s on the same Z coordinates as you within sight range, like a shockwave through the air that people can avoid by jumping over it, or being beneath you if you’re in the air. A large conic attack that can only be aimed upwards (as a dedicated Anti-air, akin to a shoryuken). A weapon that could spawn deadly pendulums that swing from the ceiling (Or maybe stick to the wall and swing across that, defying the laws of physics). A boomerang projectile that did damage both going to the enemy and coming back, and perhaps doing different/more damage on the return trip. A weapon that sends additional projectiles off its primary target, like maybe a laser dispensing mini bouncing mines from the target on hit. A weapon like Mario’s fireballs, bouncing off the floor and walls, of an appropriate size so it stands a chance of hitting. An explosive that you can drop on top of yourself, damaging the area you dropped it once it hits the ground, but not yourself (thinking of the morph ball bomb or rope molotov from bloodborne). A weapon that generates a pillar of fire on hitting a target, further damaging them, and partially holding them in place (like Ness’s PK fire from Smash). A satellite that can be sent out, then commands issued to it (like Bridget’s Yoyo or Venom’s cue balls from Guilty Gear). Some sort of weapon that is effective at long range combat that isn’t a sniper rifle, like maybe something that triggers an explosion instantly on the point clicked regardless of distance, but cannot be triggered on enemies or players, going straight through them, has a minimum range so it can’t be used up close.
Consider FPS weapons from a perspective of the areas they’re hitting, the areas they’re threatening, and unique projectile behaviors perhaps rather than just their spray pattern, magazine size, reload time and damage per second. There are tons of ideas waiting in other genres or that might exist as plays on these ideas. Maybe a single weapon could have multiple of these functions as primary and alt fire. Maybe they could even be worked together in some way.
Movement has rarely been considered for FPS games in general beyond simple sprinting. Bunnyhopping is an old classic for going fast and clearing gaps, but it generally can’t be used in combat because you need to keep your cursor trained on your opponent. Dodging in Unreal Tournament is more functional, but is a pain for general level movement. Mirror’s Edge was a great experiment in First Person movement, but again, most of the movement techniques are useless in combat, or consume so much time that they’re practically a danger. One game that got a mix of the two right is Gunz: The Duel. In Gunz there was the Butterfly cancel, allowing one to cancel most animations, so you could airdash rapidly through the air and jump off walls as many times as you wanted to, so all walls became scalable and people could practically fly. Add to this that it canceled shotgun fire and the butterfly step became downright deadly.
Obviously the point isn’t to copy what works, but rather to consider movement options that blend a player’s two motivations with any movement technique, to evade their enemy’s attacks, and to get from point A to point B fastest. To that end, there are the tried and true classics that will probably work no matter what game they’re put in, the double jump, air dash, wall run, explosion jump/super jump, glide, and dodge. With movement techniques, really consider how they’ll fit together with the controls. I personally never liked double tapping movement keys in any FPS or TPS game to dodge or dash or the like. Try to keep the amount of snapping to level geometry limited if possible and think of moves that will work differently on different terrain. Tribes with its highly hilly terrain and jetpacks hit the jackpot by running into the Skiing glitch, which happened to perfectly accentuate those aspects. Double Action Boogaloo has the right setup of interspersed cover for its diving and sliding to work perfectly and allow people to take cover during bullettime if they anticipate it coming.
Something to consider is a “Hierarchy” of movement speeds. Having different things give different levels of boosted speed adds variation to a game, but if the fastest form of movement isn’t kept in check somehow, it’ll dominate over the lesser forms of movement. In Mirror’s Edge, the fastest way to move was doing a wallrun kick, then boosting off the air, called the kick glitch. This was limited in that you needed a wall and no ground beneath you as you kicked, only available in some places. When this option wasn’t available, players had to rely on other means dependent on terrain to optimize their movement with the next best thing available at the time. Also consider ways to let players carry over high movement speeds. In Psychonauts and Crusader of Centy it’s possible to get boosts off slopes to go fast, but you can keep your momentum if you can keep doing perfect jumps every time you land. In Ori and the Blind Forest, the Bash skill lets you boost fast off of enemies and projectiles, and by releasing the directional pad and holding glide, you can keep that speed as long as you glide, even through double and triple jumps. Using environmental features as jumping off points for different movement options is a great idea, but try to make it more about reading the geometry rather than using specific environmental fixtures like a boost panel/jump pad or some such. Mirror’s Edge did an excellent job of this, with almost all of its moves working purely from reading the environmental geometry rather than specific things placed in the environment. It’s even possible to springboard jump in places where there isn’t a proper springboard placed.
In the process of making movement abilities consider curves and acceleration, like perhaps a short hop where one boosts forward at the top of the jump. Maybe you can crouch while running to slide like you’re on ice and drift around corners, knocking people over if you run into them. Another possibility could be a move that slowly lifts you up, but allows you to jump off or drop by attacking at any point (inspired by Snake’s Cipher in Smash Bros). Blink was used to great effect in Dishonored, and it could certainly find a place in another FPS game. Like Bridget’s Yoyo, you could launch a satellite out, then cause a temporary attraction to it, functioning like a jump. Grappling hooks are a solid staple as well.
Think a bit about the controls you’re using. One interesting touch to Wolfire’s game The Receiver was having run be bound not to a modifier key, but to mashing your forward movement key, requiring you to mash harder to run faster. This type of direct feedback felt really nice, even though it was uncomfortable to do (and it naturally limited running because who has the endurance to keep that up?). Something fighting games got in a nice way was inputs as a metaphor for what the moves do. If something like that can be integrated, give it a shot. Another way of thinking about this is the mouse movements of the player. Bunny hopping clearly got this right in a big way, and a bunch of mirror’s edge techniques are based on moving the mouse just right.
One movement technique I thought up a long time ago was something I called “Skating.” The idea was that the Q and E keys would boost the player diagonally forwards in the direction corresponding to those, and there would be relatively low friction in this mode, so it would be like you were sliding on ice. Q and E would punish you for pressing either one repeatedly, so to really go fast you had to alternate between them, however they go in different directions, so to get maximum speed going in one direction, you’d have to move your mouse back and forth so your diagonal would line up with the way you were already going, thereby replicating the whiplike motion of bunnyhopping, except on the ground and being a lot easier to perform.
While the above is considered from more of a multiplayer perspective, it’s still worth giving singleplayer a go. A lot of the prior paragraphs carry over fine into singleplayer anyway. The key thing here is Enemy design. Level design is important too, but that tends to be a lot more specific to individual games and I think people have a fairly good handle on it already for First Person Shooters. Where level design has blossomed, enemy design has stagnated regrettably.
Quake 1 serves as a good base model for how to design basic enemies behaviors, every enemy in the game has its own unique function, a place where it’s most effective. They threaten the player in different ways, and when combined with level design and each other, mess up the player’s patterns so they can’t just focus on repeating the same thing to beat the same enemy. One enemy fires projectiles from afar, one launches grenades, one gets in close to slash you, one tries to hop on you, one warns you before shocking you, one launches homing projectiles, one throws mini projectiles and resurrects unless gibbed. Individually, each of these behaviors covers a niche, and one of the weapons you have typically is more effective against that enemy depending on their type and terrain. Modern games meanwhile show us how to code responsive enemies. It’s expected of any enemy in a modern shooter to take cover correctly, to flank, to lay down suppressive fire, use grenades to flush you out, call reinforcements, melee if you’re close, to run away when overrun. Stepping above Quake 1’s level, consider giving enemies multiple attacks that either fit their niche or cover a couple niches.
The key is to think up really distinct and obvious traits that threaten the player in a specific way they can counter. Have the enemy do that thing in response to a specific obvious situation. Then mix together enemies with different responses to situations. Having an enemy look like they’re smart is entirely a matter of having them exercise behaviors that the player can recognize. Having an enemy be fun is a matter of having each of those behaviors open up a weakness of the enemy in some way, so that while they are making the player’s lives more difficult, the player can take joy in turning that enemy’s strengths against them. Key places to take inspiration from are Shmups, and 3d action games, both have enemies that can be responsive and varied in their means of attacking the player. On a very simple level, even if an enemy is throwing out a completely static bullet pattern, it can still be tricky to avoid. Especially if there is another enemy doing something else there with them.
For responsiveness it can be worth considering different possible behavior sets and motivations for every enemy. One enemy might prefer to stay away if at all possible and harass with ranged attacks from afar to give a simple behavior. One might switch between a melee approach and a ranged approach every time it’s hit, or on a 20 second cycle. One enemy might appear passive, but attack if it ever gets behind your vision. Others might actively move to get out of the direction you’re facing. Some might draw your fire while they shield so others can flank around you to pin you down, then pull out the big guns. It doesn’t matter if the strategy sounds silly or unrealistic. What matters is that players can recognize it and play around it. An enemy with a good strategy will stick with them as a story they remember. Consider on what cycle they shift behaviors, like low health, getting hit, time, distance. Consider different behaviors they can have based on all the variables you have available to you, like perhaps they do something different when the player is above or below them, at low health or high, lots of ammo or none.
Boss fights in First Person Shooter games have usually been on the weaker side, relying on borderline puzzle-based gimmicks over play that stressed the FPS genre fundamentals of directing fire and avoiding fire. For example, Shub-Niggurath and Cthon from Quake, the Icon of Evil from Doom, Nearly every boss from the Half-Life games, Gargantua, The Pit Worm, Gene Worm, Gonarch, Combine Gunship, Hunter Chopper, and Breen, all the bosses in Deus Ex Human Revolution, the final boss of Crysis, the Siren from Bioshock Infinite, and the final boss of Borderlands. Games like Vanquish, though not a first person shooter, show that compelling bosses are possible, as well as more stand-out enemies like Shamblers, the Race X enemies in HL Opposing Force, the nanosuit enemies from Crysis, as well as the large aliens in Crysis Warhead, and the Romanovs in Vanquish again. Consider how bosses can generate targets for the player to shoot, force the player to move around, themselves be mobile and threaten the player in different ways, such as shockwaves and low or high attacks that can be crouched under or jumped over, projectiles that can be shot down, movement that allows the player to bait and lure the boss, weak points that bait the player into putting themselves at risk in order to get close, defenses they can put up temporarily to route the player around them or force the player to bust through them, anything better than activating environmental triggers and/or unloading a ton of ammo when the boss enters a stunned phase.
Like with weapon design, a key factor in designing enemy behaviors is considering what area they threaten and what area they are vulnerable to. Like the Ogres in Quake can drop grenades from up high, but on even footing their grenades are a lot less deadly. Barnacles in Half Life can be dangerous in tight spaces or when you’re being pushed back into them by dangerous forces on the other side, but when encountered individually are mostly harmless. Houndeyes in Half Life want to get up close to you before hitting you with a shockwave. Ranged enemies in nearly every game try to shoot you from afar while closer ranged allies occupy your focus up close.
Game Modes and Level Design
The most significant development we saw recently in terms of game modes for FPS games was Payload from TF2, which Blizzard thought was good enough to rip off for Overwatch. Another good idea that isn’t exactly new is Gun Game. More recently we got Splatoon, a shooter based on area cover rather than kills. A number of other games have experimented with alternate game modes like, Halo 3 onward, Gmod, Left 4 Dead, and the classic Unreal Tournament mutators.
One thing to consider is perhaps changing the nature of how weapons affect the other players, in a manner similar to how Smash Bros changed the way fighting games work. One idea to consider is FPS Billiards where you shoot people to push them away and try to knock them into hazards or into pits and can direct your fire to be like english on a ball (hit them low to pop them up, at their sides to send them the opposite way you hit them, etc). Shunting other players around in this way could even mess up their aim, rotating them in the corresponding direction like top spin on a ball.
Another idea is a mode based on shooting people to stun them so you can get in close enough to actually kill with melee attacks, where different weapons could have different stun values and knockback, or mode based on a deathball that can be shunted around by player’s attacks and used to kill other players (much like the new Metroid Prime Blastball I suppose).
Key things to consider for game modes are are: What variables are open to be manipulated about the players? Like animation state, velocity, position, or any number of score-keeping variables. What environmental objects can be tied into the action? how can those be affected and affect players? How many players per side? How are abilities divvied up between different players/teams/areas/powerups/player modes/time periods? What objectives follow from one another, how strictly enforced are intermediary objectives? How many different objectives allow for victory or passing on to new objectives?
I think level design is for the most part sane and reasonable at the time being. There isn’t a deficit in good level design to my knowledge, and people don’t seem to be poorly informed on how to make good levels, at worst there are just a few too many bland hallways, though that arguably comes from poor mechanical design more than poor level designers.
Some level design ideas would include: Maps featuring moving components (battle on top of cars, trucks, trains, planes, colossi), a skydive map that wraps around on the top and bottom (with no fall damage and weapons + ammo scattered on debris in the air), maps that morph over time to the beat of a song, a map where combat is conducted entirely by landing on different jump pads, a completely flat grid of a map where shooting squares on the grid causes pillars to pop out providing cover, vantage, and allowing one to boost up off the ground if triggered beneath them, and a level where gravity is very slight, making it easy to aescend, but difficult to descend, leaving people who fall as sitting ducks (gravity is high close to the top of jump arcs, but slows after that, so it’s still easy to make it up onto higher platforms) descent relies on ladders, ramps, elevators, and possibly a teleport from the top to the bottom.
Key things to consider about level design include: What areas of the map can see each other? What areas can access each other? Does the player need to expend resources (keys, ammo, health) to access areas (like a rocket jump, expends health and ammo)? Is there a more efficient manner of accessing areas that has lower affordance than the default route? How many ways can the player pass through the level? How varied are these means of traversal? What objects within the level can be manipulated by the players, how do those relate to the surrounding level design? What geometry can be used as cover? How can the player’s tools alter the layout of the level (build, destroy, or move), how does the level change on its own? how much can the player affect the level changing on its own? What properties do different surfaces in the level have (like wood that can be shot through)? How much do different parts of the level overlap on themselves or make use of the Z axis? How close together are the players? How much does the level design prevent the player from escaping engagements? How does the level design allow for flanking? How long does it take to get from one area to another, how much is going on during that time?
Level Design is dependent on the game mode and mechanics, and a good answer for one game won’t make sense in another. As mechanics improve, level design is likely to improve as well in correspondence. Games with good mechanics allow for good level design that plays on those mechanics.
There are a lot of angles and possibilities that have yet to be considered or realized with first person games. On the whole I think we’re still thinking on a very elementary level, trying to copy aspects of real life shooting in many cases, and even our sci-fi shooters aren’t trying to push the boundaries of what’s possible. Fantasy shooters are nearly out of the picture completely. Is it for demographic appeal, fear of risk, or lack of imagination? I can’t say, but there’s a lot of room out there for things we’ve never imagined before.
A lot of these ideas are possible without much technological innovation. A lot of these have been possible for the past decade. There are a lot of ways to use currently existing technology to enable new gameplay. Deep complex games aren’t built on the back of technological innovation alone, they come from people using the materials they have to the best of their ability. There is a lot still possible left undone because no one has tried.
If you want to “save” arena shooters, don’t make another damn Quake Arena or Unreal Tournament clone. Quake is dead, long live Quake.