The Year Of The Shooter: How The Genre Came To Rule 2016

by Javy Gwaltney on Jan 10, 2017 at 05:50 AM

This article originally appeared in Game Informer issue #285.

For many, 2016 will be remembered as a year filled with turmoil, world-wide anxiety, and grief over the deaths of talented artists. However, in the world of video games, perhaps what would best epitomize this year is the number of quality shooters that have emerged in that short span of time. It’s rare to have a year where this particular genre has this strong of a foothold, the last being 2004, which saw the release of Half-life 2, Halo 2, and Far Cry among other quality first-person shooters.

This year’s releases ran the gamut from colorful, accessible multiplayer-only games to grim, story-driven experiences taking place on the blood-soaked battlegrounds of The Great War.

Here we examine the genre’s presence during this year, its successes as well as its failures, and where it can go from here.

Old Is New Again
Though the majority of 2016’s shooters had strong multiplayer experiences, one of the more interesting trends to witness was EA’s franchises stepping back from the multiplayer-focused agenda of previous years. The last three Battlefield games received criticism from critics and players alike for their tacked-on single-player experiences, while the original Titanfall and 2015’s Star Wars Battlefront lacked compelling single-player modes.

This year marked a reversal of that trend. Not only was Battlefield 1’s campaign a satisfying, singular experience, it also ended up being one of the most enjoyable campaigns of the year thanks to its vignette structure that allowed players to experience the stories of soldiers around the world during the first World War. “Initially, we were looking into the more standard campaign format but something wasn’t sitting right with us in terms of how to execute the game,” says DICE single-player producer Jaime Keen. “We wanted to treat the subject matter with respect, and have a game that felt like it was doing the right job in speaking to how World War I was and how it speaks to people today.”

According to Keen, key members of DICE sat down to revise the structure and ultimately decided to tell a series of short stories connected by the theme of the war. “So we ended up exploring some ideas of having an adventure game of sorts,” he says. Eventually [we] came up with this idea of these vignettes, and I think the prompt for it was the scale of this war. You didn’t have people who went all over the place, so it made sense to tell these individual stories to give a sense at how big the war was and how many people it touched.”

EA’s other big fall release, Titanfall 2, sought to satisfy players unhappy with the original by implementing a single-player campaign. “We wanted a ‘gameplay first’ mindset [for the campaign],” says single-player campaign director Steve Fukuda. “The first question was, ‘Should we do a single-player campaign’ and looking back we definitely had the DNA of it, and it made a lot of sense to do it just on the basis of our talent.”

As a blend of Rambo, Star Wars, and Gundam, Titanfall 2’s seven-hour campaign was a critical success, with praise heaped upon its variety, puzzles, shooting, and humor. Fukuda attributes the success of the campaign to the fact that what the team built focused expliticlly on varied gameplay before worrying about the story: “We arrived at this shorthand formula called 2-1-1, which meant two parts combat, one part platforming, one part puzzling,” he says. “‘More Than Just Shooting’ was our mini-slogan during development. For a long time all we really had was that this was the game about a pilot and a Titan, but we didn’t know who that pilot was or who that Titan was, but that was worked out over the course of the project.”

Id Software’s Doom also took a step back into the past in more ways than one, creating a 12-hour campaign that had little patience for serious storytelling and instead focused on making the player the star of their own bloodthirsty ballet on Mars. The arcadey action and over-the-top violence marks a departure from the survival-horror trappings of Doom 3 by skillfully channeling and polishing the simple elements that made the first game a revolution: speed, gore, guns, and monsters. The multiplayer component’s attempts to bring back the frantic, rocket-launcher powered combat of Quake wasn’t as successful, but still an admirable effort to Doom’s grand attempt to capture the gory glory of its past.

The Proving Grounds
Along with shooters reclaiming the glory of single-player campaigns, a few franchises took creative risks to renew themselves and capture the interest of their audience once again. The Coalition, a studio formed by Microsoft for the explicit purpose of developing Gears of Wars titles, faced a Force Awakens-esque uphill battle, having to pay respect to the original trilogy while also setting out to create a unique story and stand alone on its own merits. “We wanted to build a baseline and show that we knew how to make a Gears game,” says studio head Rod Fergusson, “and that the series is safe in The Coalition’s hands so we could go forward and build upon it for the future.”

Gears of War 4 scales the series back from the epic war story that played out in the original trilogy to focus on a group of people trying to survive the night in an environment filled with monsters that want to kill them, essentially trading Sav ing Private Ryan for The Evil Dead. The grim tone from the previous games was also softened, with a focus on characters exchanging witty banter and growing close to one another in desperate times (though the brutal gameplay – which includes chopping monsters with the Lancer rifle’s chainsaw – remains unchanged). Gears 4 is still Gears, but with a little more heart.

“[During development], I’d use the word ‘tense,’”Fergusson explains, “because we’re not a survival horror game. For us, it was more about trying to bring back tension and sweaty plams and shoulders creeping up to your ears as part of the situation, and that’s really what we wanted to do with the introduction to this one.” While a lot of Gears 4’s success is owed to its relatively small scale, Fergusson admits that it’s probably unavoidable that later games in the series will have to ratchet up the drama and size. “When we did 1, 2, and 3, it was definitely an escalation of scale. It started off as a small group of soldiers behind enemy lines and then into a war, taking-the-fighting-to the-enemies [experience]. And our plan is to learn from that. I think for the future it’s really just a matter of understanding that we’re Gears of War and not Gears of Incursion, so I think you want to have a scale where it feels like you’re at war but at the same time it’s about not losing focus on the intimacy of the story or the characters you care about, that you’re not creating a place where everything feels so understood that you’re playing a World War II game.”

While The Coalition still needs to prove it can iterate and expand on the new foundation in meaningful ways, the critical response to Gears of War 4 strongly suggests the series is indeed in good hands.

Infinity Ward also faced a similar struggle, though the studio that birthed Call of Duty has come at the problem from a different vantage. Infinity Ward is a developer with a lot of prestige, having created one of the most popular game franchises ever made, but it’s also a studio with a troubled history. During the development of Modern Warfare 2, Activision fired co-founder Vince Zampella and president Jason West after they were unable to reach an agreement with the publisher over new contracts. The two formed their own studio, Respawn Entertainment, with many of Infinity Ward’s development team talent following the duo to help work on what would become Titanfall. While Sledgehammer Games and Treyarch’s Call of Duty games have been well-received in the years since the dust-up, Infinity Ward’s Ghosts and Modern Warfare 3 are considered by many to be the weakest entries in the series.

This year's bombastic interstellar campaign gave players more tactical freedom than any Call of Duty title to come before, and both the Zombies and competitive multiplayer modes proved to be robust. Infinite Warfare, against sizable odds, has emerged as a fantastic addition to the series, though early sales reports for the title aren’t exactly strong. Though many of the shooters released this year have been drowning in praise, critical acclaim doesn’t necessarily translate into hot sales. The UK sales reports for both Titanfall 2 and Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare are abysmal, with Infinite Warfare currently down 50 percent from Black Ops III’s sales and Titanfall 2 outright being con sidered a flop.

However, Industry analyst Michael Pachter isn’t convinced these numbers are the whole picture. “It’s too early too tell,” he says. “Since we don’t get daily sales data, it seems a bit premature to write off the holiday based on some sales data from the UK.  The UK is maybe 10 percent of the market, so it appears people are making a lot from a little. Titanfall 2 got pushed forward and came between Battlefield and Call of Duty, and although I think that’s kind of confusing especially for the holiday season, I think by March we’re going to settle in the same place we were three years ago. If you look at the sales, Battlefield did 15 million from October to March, Call of Duty: Ghosts did 20 million between its launch in November and March, and Titanfall didn’t do as many in March because it pushed the Xbox 360 version to April but it did six million at least.” Pachter is confident that all three franchises will recover by March 2017. “Yeah, [all three franchises] will sell at least 31 million between them – that’s a lot. And I think more; I think actually they’re all gonna be fine.”

Head to page 2 to read about Overwatch and what shooters on the horizon for 2017.

All In The Family
Perhaps no shooter this year sticks out in people’s minds more than Blizzard Entertainment’s first stab at the genre, Overwatch, a game that takes the hero roster concept from popular MOBAs like League of Legends and Dota 2 and sticks them inside a team-based multiplayer shooter. Despite launching in May, the sheer fandom surrounding the game has kept its player numbers up on both console and PC throughout the year (during an earnings call, Activision revealed that Overwatch was the fastest title to reach 20 million registered players worldwide), with people growing attached to the roster of colorful heroes as well as the deep-but-accessible gameplay.

In the months since its retail release, the game has emerged as a cultural phenomenon, branching out to a general audience as well as drown ing the internet in an endless stream of fanart and alternate reality games. Regardless of what people think about the game play itself, Overwatch has become something that is extremely rare in an industry that ships countless games a year: inescapable.

The success is even more astonishing because it’s multiplayer-only, with no carrot-and-stick progression system outside of cosmetics. As editor Daniel Tack discussed in his review earlier this year, Overwatch’s gameplay modes are simplistic, but polished and fine-tuned to near-perfection. Add that to the varied characters, all memorable with distinct abilities, as well as Blizzard’s consistent and beefy content updates, and you have an unbeatable formula.

Overwatch’s success has led gamers to wonder if we’ll see more developers striving to make first-person shooters in its mold. Pachter says he’s not sure that the Overwatch model is all that appetizing because, “Blizzard still hasn’t done what they’re supposed to do, which is create microtranscations where players get something of value. The problem with lootboxes is that they’re all cosmetic items only.” Pachter says he believes developers will instead embrace the free DLC models associated with Halo 5 and Titanfall 2 because, “players get rewarded for playing,” but people can still buy weap ons and items if they don’t have that much time to invest in the game.

With Overwatch-likes Paladins and Lawbreakers on the way, whether Pachter is right remains to be seen. Regardless, Blizzard’s MOBA-inspired shooter reigned over a jam-packed genre, and everyone is curious to see its influence in the years to come.

Lock And Load
It’s unsurprising given just how great this year was for shooters that 2017 looks…a little bare. Ghost Recon Wildlands, Quake Champions, Destiny 2, the sequel to Star Wars: Battlefront, and Sledgehammer’s next Call of Duty entry are supposedly set to arrive next year, but we know precious little about most of these games. However, the sheer variety of experiences offered by shooters this year is exciting because of the lessons they may impart to both first-person and third-person shooters currently or soon to be in development, like how there is no single path to success when it comes to developing for both single-player and multiplayer or how going back might actually be the way to move forward.

We’ll have to keep our eyes on the horizon for what unannounced shooters are crouching just out of view. In the meantime, there are more than enough demons on Mars in need of shotgunning and payloads to escort to keep us occupied. 

To see what shooters came out on top this year, check out our Game Of The Year awards for the genre.