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Staring Down the Barrel of FPS Evolution

by Tim Turi on Sep 26, 2009 at 02:36 PM

Randy Pitchford, co-founder of Gearbox Software, says genres are blending. When asked about his take on the validity of the term "first-person shooter," he offered insight to the genre-branding of his company's upcoming FPS/RPG hybrid Borderlands. "The marketing guys are like, 'Say RPS! Role-playing shooter, role-playing shooter!,'" explains Pitchford. "On one hand, I think that's a fair statement," he says. "On the other hand, you have to be careful when you make new promises because people sometimes will have a hard time parsing them."

Pitchford is right to choose his words carefully, as dissecting minute details is what game industry people do best. Genres are indeed bending, and first-person shooters are undergoing the most intense metamorphosis of them all. FPSs as we know them are dying. The market has been saturated with shooters, and the only option developers have to stand out from the pack is offering something different. Unlike yesterday's stagnant dinosaurs such as the 2D platformer, the endangered FPS is coping with its demise by evolving. In years past, the need for FPS variation amounted to simple Doom clones with swapped out environments and weapons, but such simple point and shoot affairs no longer scratch gamers' itchy trigger fingers. After all, the same piece of clay can only be remolded so many times before drying out and crumbling.

This is where the transformation of the FPS comes into the picture. In order for the genre to stay relevant and lucrative, it must evolve in tandem with the shifting landscape of video games. Customization, character augmentation, experience-based level progression, and even platforming elements have been increasingly injected into FPSs in recent years. We've taken it upon ourselves to look at what the term FPS means today, what genres FPSs are successfully hybridizing with, and what the future holds for shooters.

What's in a name?

The FPS label has resided in the video-game industry for decades, but is it still a relevant descriptor? The genre's description suggests that we are looking directly through the eyes of the protagonist and shooting stuff. It’s pretty vague. These terms even apply to games like Oblivion, Mirror's Edge, and Portal, yet would you say those games are shooters in the classic sense? On the other end of the spectrum, games such as Gears of War 2 and Uncharted 2 feature a third-person perspective, yet offer a control scheme close to many current FPSs. Other genres such as survival horror and role playing are not outwardly defined by play-perspective—so what sense does it make that first-person games should be pigeonholed any longer?

Richard Ham, creative director at Splash Damage, thinks that the FPS label is a good thing. “It's good for players, myself included, to be able to very easily grok something and to categorize and to understand so that I have a frame of reference that I can start from, so that I can appreciate what's actually different about it,” he says. “I'm not at all averse to saying we're a first-person shooter, and oh by the way here's the interesting stuff we do. It helps get the message across."

Ham raises an interesting point, but his take on FPS genre labeling still leaves analysis up to the consumer post-purchase, rather than the game touting an accurate description on the box. With the term FPS being stretched to its limits, one naturally looks to the genres that are convoluting the once simple point-and-shoot genre. We’ve systematically examined what genres have merged with shooters, and also highlighted specific games that stand as good hybrid examples.

Platforming/ FPS

Do you recall a time when the ability to jump in a first person shooter was an exception rather than the rule? With such limited vertical mobility existing in FPSs early on, it’s hard to believe how far FPSs have come with incorporating platforming elements. From sprinting blindly off ledges in the corridors of Doom to simulated parkour on the rooftops of Mirror’s Edge, FPSs have become a lot more spry..

Jumping from precipice to precipice used to be a tedious, trial and error chore in early FPSs, but games like Metroid Prime manage to break the trend. The Metroid franchise’s leap from 2D sidescrolling to first-person action took many longtime Samus fans by surprise. While the change may have been initially met with skepticism, the end product results in some of the most reliable, painless platforming the intergalactic bounty hunter has ever performed.

The incorporation of platforming elements has been taken to a whole new level with Valve’s Portal. Built from the same engine as Half Life 2, the game utilizes solid physics and a memorable weapon which allowed players to fire portable gateways onto almost any surface. Portal certainly could have been pulled off in third person, but the experience wouldn’t be as immersive as seeing the Aperture Science Labs through the eyes of Cheryl. As an FPS that doesn’t involve firing a single bullet, Portal has gone down as one of the most memorable games in the genre, period.

The option to play a FPS without using a firearm has been taken to the extreme with EA DICE’s Mirror’s Edge. Branded as part FPS, part first-person parkour game, the title is largely regarded as an ambitious, gutsy experiment. DICE took a chance that many developers would have cowered from. Ham has nothing but respect for EA DICE's game, saying "They actually put out a new vision. I know not everybody liked all the elements of it, but good on them for bringing new blood to the table. At the end of the day, Mirror's Edge was a parkour simulator and by the way, has a little bit of gunplay." Though Mirror’s Edge isn’t flawless, the game stands as a benchmark for how much freedom players can be given in the context of a first person shooter. Any FPS developer sticking to stiff, fluidless gameplay after Mirror’s Edge simply seems lazy.

 Splash Damage appears to be taking a cue from Mirror’s Edge. Ham is lead designer on Brink, a shooter that promises fluid movement alongside engaging gunplay. By simply holding down the sprint button, the player can leap fences, clamber onto ledges, and cross wide gaps. During a recent gameplay demonstration, the player character is faced with the obstacle of a security laser grid gate. The demonstrator then proceeded to run and slide under the lasers, vault over the construct, or fun along a nearby railing. By keeping the platforming elements of Brink simple, the player can focus on racking up kills while enjoying free, fluid movement.

Open World/ FPS

After the success of Grand Theft Auto 3, open-world games became a popular genre for developers to expand, yet a difficult one to master. With sprawling cities and multiple options for transportation, a third-person perspective seemed like the only option for open-world games.

Plowing through linear levels and claustrophobic corridors has its charms, but there are plenty of players who would love to take their rampage on a tour cross country. Far Cry 2 allows players to hoof it from objective to objective, lending agency to the overall mission at hand. Whether you want to complete story missions, fight your way through random flak on the battlefield, or search for diamonds, the choice is yours. This type of play also opens up opportunities to engage enemies from any tactical angle. Rather than being spoon fed specific weapon sets like in traditional FPSs, players can use sniper rifles to pick off foes from the distance, or charge their jeep straight into the action and unleash the fury of a 12-gauge shotgun.


Fallout 3 also delivers a vast world for players to explore at their own pace. Literally any area is open from the start, with only beefy baddies barring you from trailblazing too brazenly. Roving raiders and mutant marauders meander across the wastelands, ensuring that no matter where you travel, there will be something to do or someone to kill. From shortly after Fallout 3’s launch right up until now, Bethesda has been offering downloadable content which expands the irradiated wastelands bit by bit, offering players an unparalleled feeling of fresh discovery that is a far cry from the canned, level-based FPSs of yesterday.

Id’s upcoming Rage also makes use of this open world gameplay structure. Players traverse a post-apocalyptic wasteland via a customizable vehicle, attacking each objective as they please. The game also features a dynamic day and night cycle, letting the player feel the passage of time better than if they were aboard a derelict space station. The game also exploits the combination of vehicles and open terrain to incorporate racing elements into the gameplay, which adds yet another fold of complexity to the genre-blending.


Though elements of role-playing games have crept into a plethora of video games in general, RPGs melding with FPSs is arguably the most common genre crosspollination occurring today. From RPGs with light shooter elements to shooters with light RPG elements, the hybridization between the two genres varies greatly from title to title. There are plenty of titles out there that are primarily shooters but sprinkle in elements of RPGs. It’s the way these games incorporate RPG elements that truly makes them stand out. A popular way shooters are adopting staples of the role playing genres can be found in a very unexpected place; multiplayer.

Online multiplayer has traditionally been about balls-out, kill-fest action. It hasn’t been until recently that these brutish battles began tracking more than how many foes you smeared with a rocket launcher. Games such as Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, Killzone 2, and Resistance 2 have all incorporated an experience-based leveling system.  In CoD 4, for example, players receive points for everything from simple kills to becoming proficient with a new weapon. As the player levels up, they unlock new weapons, customizable attachments, and perks. Perks allow for an RPG-esque custom character tailoring, such as increased health, accuracy, or bullet damage. The plasmid customization in BioShock is another example of light RPG customization aspects being infused into shooters, but in the single player arena. The visible progression and sense of accomplishment that comes with gaining experience and leveling enhances shooters in a more profound way than a simple kill count ever can.


On the other side of the fence, there are single-player RPGs that incorporate elements of FPSs. Fallout 3 is a great example of a game which, at first glance, looks like a standard FPS. Though you could play the game like an FPS, the nuts and bolts of the title lie in the VATS targeting system, which boils the game down to more of a turn-based RPG. In Fallout 3, your character level influences behind the scenes calculations, which makes the game stat based instead of twitch-skill based. When it comes down to it, Fallout 3 easily could have used other view perspectives and still been a massive hit, but by utilizing the FPS style, it was able to pull in longtime fans of the series as well as fans of shooters.

Another game that creep into this category is Oblivion. Oblivion is a traditional fantasy RPG that utilized the first person perspective to stand out from the pack. Though there is a heavy emphasis on swordplay and close quarters combat, there is also the option to cast spells and shoot arrows. Players line up projectile shots like in any FPS, by lining a reticule up with their target,and pushing a button. Oblivion is like Fallout 3 in that it incorporates dice rolls, which influence damage dealt by a magic missile or arrow, but the player is still required to use some basic FPS skill to line up shots. Oblivion is a game which breaks two molds simultaneously; it challenges conventional views of how a fantasy game can be played, and puts everyone's first-person navigation skills to use in a setting without Nazis or aliens.

We've seen FPSs that dabble in elements of RPGs and vice versa, but we've not yet seen a game which aims to perfectly combine the two genres. Gearbox's Borderlands is a game touted as having equal parts RPG and FPS. Borderlands takes the questing and multiplayer elements forged in the Diablo series and seamlessly integrates it with the first person perspective. The game contains millions of randomly generated weapons, loot drops from enemies, experience-based level progression, and damage counters which tick away above enemies' heads. Unlike Fallout 3 and Oblivion, however, hitting your target is entirely dependent on your FPS skill, with only the damage dealt being dictated by character level. Borderlands has lofty expectations to meet, but the game represents a huge step towards fully marrying the RPG/FPS genres.

Moving Forward

Platformers, RPGs, and open world may be significant genres for FPSs to meld with, but there are other major genres that are on the hybridization horizon. The FPS's birthplace was the PC, but over the years the genre moved primarily onto consoles. Where the FPS jumped ship from the computer, the RTS and MMORPG genres have remained almost exclusively on PC. Despite the years of separation, the RTS and MMORPG are about to reunite with shooters in a big way.

Developer Atomic Motion made an attempt at the combination of FPS/RTS with its new title Raven Squad. Players jump between the two playstyles on the fly, choosing whichever best suits their strategy. However, the game struggles to smoothly merge the two game types, as certain rules attached to the RTS aspect adversely affect the FPS play. For example, because units cannot fire through wildlife such as trees and bushes in the RTS mode, you are unable to shoot through them in FPS mode, despite being able to clearly see an enemy through the brush. The game holds a metacritic score of 34, with buggy AI and poor gameplay to blame. Despite the shortcomings, Raven Squad represents a step in the right direction for FPS genre hybridization.

FPS (Final Parting Statement)

The first-person shooter is an absolute beast of a game genre. Its all-encompassing gameplay style is matched only by its success in the market. These games are in high demand, but as players experience more FPSs they expect a deeper experience as time goes on. Developers are pulling out all the stops in order to create worthwhile FPSs, taking elements from nearly every other genre in order to find the right formula. Though plenty of terrific shooters have released over the years, the genre is not finished growing. We as gamers have the distinct privilage of watching and playing FPSs as they mature beyond the scope of their genre label. With so much creative juice from other game types being pumped into shooters, it's only a matter of time before we witness the birth of new, unfathomable genres.