First-person shooters put under the microscope

QuakeCon 2011: Julien Roby, Mackey McCandlish, Drew Murray, and Tim Willits talk about the past, present, and future of the first-person shooter genre.

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Who was there: In attendance for this QuakeCon 2011 panel on the state of the first-person genre were Julien Roby from Arkane Studios, Mackey McCandlish from Respawn Entertainment, Drew Murray from Insomniac Games, and Tim Willits from id Software. Daniel Kayser from GameTrailers moderated the discussion.

See? Not all of id's games have players lost in corridors.
See? Not all of id's games have players lost in corridors.

What they talked about: Kayser opened the discussion by asking the panelists how they determined if they had achieved their creative goals for a game. Roby attributed success with recognition. When people see an image from Dishonored, they should be able to instantly recognize what game it is because it's so unique, he said.

Willits admitted that "it's very hard to nail down what the id feel is." He elaborated by saying that, with Rage, an interesting challenge has been overcoming certain expectations--such as Rage needing to be a corridor shoot with lots of brown and no lights--and really analyzing what makes a game uniquely id at its core.

Murray discussed how with Resistance 3, the team at Insomniac tried to create a more personal story compared to its previous games. A lot of the team had kids during the development of this game, he said, and the studio was all reading The Road as well, so they drew inspiration from those experiences.

McCandlish had to be careful with his responses throughout the panel since his game hasn't been officially announced yet. However, he did mention that at the start of development, he and the team got together in a big circle and talked about their favorite games and biggest gaming disappointments.

The next talking point was about casual consumers and finding a balance between supporting gaming newcomers and veterans. "I think some people believe that accessibility comes at the cost of depth, but you can have both," Roby said. "It's all about making sure your game is presented in a sensible way so that it builds up your player gradually."

Murray echoed this sentiment about having good pacing with an anecdote from the development of Resistance. Having a primary and secondary fire on all the weapons really confused a lot of people, he said, and whether or not people liked the game depended heavily on whether they understood the weapons. The lesson learned was that developers can have complex systems in their game so long as they assist players in understanding them.

Kayser asked about the importance of multiplayer next and how, predominately, the success of a game is based on the multiplayer experience. Willits was quick to admit that not having a classic deathmatch mode in Rage freaked a lot of people out. "In every game I've worked on, people have told us we're crazy about halfway," he added. All kidding aside, he went on to say that games need single-player components and that these components are what draw new players in.

"In this console generation, it's become a winner-take-all situation," McCandlish said. He then elaborated by saying a lot of people flock to "that game" since they know that's what their friends will be playing.

The panelists were then asked what was going to evolve the first-person shooter genre. Without missing a beat, Murray brought up cooperative play. "I don't always want the stress of having to compete with people when playing in multiplayer," he said, before praising Gears of War 2's Horde mode and the asymmetrical co-op missions in Modern Warfare 2. Willits took this a step further by imagining a game that doesn't have a defined ending when it is released. Instead, the conclusion would be compiled from thousands of individual player choices all feeding into one shared experience.

Before opening the floor up for Q&A, the topic of motion gaming was brought up and what its future in the genre might be. "It would be silly of us not to let people play the way they want to play," Murray said. "I like the controller, but there are a lot of fans out there who really like playing with alternative methods."

McCandlish added that it's important to note that for a lot of kids today, touch technology, such as on a smartphone or tablet, is their first exposure to games. The idea of using a controller could be foreign to them, which may lead to a shift in expectations for the first-person genre.

One of the early questions from the audience was about developing a sense of the body in a first-person game and how developers can improve the feeling of being in control of a person rather than a camera. "There are always some new guys who say we need feet in our games," Willits said, adding that in the end, it never works out. He went on to explain that your field of view in an FPS is much more limited than in real life. To help simulate this, sometimes members of the design team will cut a small square out of a box and wear it over their head.

When asked whether 3D technology will be the future of the first-person genre, Willits polled the audience to see who actually preferred playing a first-person shooter in 3D. Only one person raised his hand, and the topic was closed.

Quote: "Resistance actually started out as a time-traveling, high-science fiction game."--Drew Murray, on the development of the Resistance series.

"If I made a game where, when you beat the game, you get a hot girlfriend, I'd be rich."--Tim Willits, on finding new ways to reward the player.

Takeaway: Despite the success of certain casual games and multiplayer-focused shooters, all four developers are still committed to making the types of games that appeal to them. And while they were quick to dismiss the potential of 3D technology, it remains to be seen how this and other new technologies will impact the first-person shooter genre.

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