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So You Want To: Write A First Person Shooter
First-Person Shooters are, well, games about shooting people. From the first-person point of view. You're seeing through the eyes of a killer, and no, they're not all psychos, and yes, sometimes it's more than justified. You think those zombies are gonna kill themselves?

People play FPS games mainly to blow off steam, or because the game play is really fun. It's a visceral experience that can be gummed up by adding too much of the wrong detail. Specifically: Don't let the story get in the way of the gameplay. As Yahtzee says in his review of Ninja Gaiden 2 (not an FPS, but...):

"This all kicks off a story of some kind... but frankly, fuck you if you want a story. Here's your story: Demons over there, KILL THEY ASS."

Like Zero Punctuation, this page is here to help you cut through the fluff to understand the qualities that can make or break an FPS in the gaming market. Take the advice to heart and you just might wind up making the next (insert coolest FPS here).

Do get over to So You Want To Write A Story to look over similar genres and to get advice that crosses genre barriers.


Necessary Tropes

Well, you're probably going to need some sort of Death Tropes involved. While it's possible to make an FPS without killing anything, it rather defeats the point of the genre. If you have examples to the contrary, please post them down at the bottom of this page under Extra Credit.

One-Man Army: While multiplayer mode is usually the better option, any solo missions come down to One-Man Army. So far, the Artificial Intelligence behind NPC allies is, well, not exactly living up to its name. You could, of course, change all that... down in the Subversions category.

Choices, Choices

FPS works well in a variety of genres and settings, from The Wild West to modern warfare to futuristic Sci-Fi. You could probably make a caveman one where you throw rocks at things. So figure out what sort of feel you want.

Awesome guns are vital to the genre, and the most powerful possibilities come from Sci-Fi and Fantasy. Even if you wanted to do a Wild West shooter, you could borrow elements from Functional Magic or Steam Punk (see Deadlands). Still, modern weaponry is getting pretty powerful, and it's not like firing off a bazooka makes you feel underpowered, so don't discount the possibilities. But, basically, your genre and setting are simply the background for the use of cool guns against various enemies.

Health Bars: Dying from a single bullet = not fun. Realistic damage = not easy to program. Invisible health bars = just one more thing for Yahtzee to complain about. But they're still choices. Consider health powerups, as well as the possibility of conserving hit points as a strategy (not getting hit too much early on in a level). Try to make the game fair yet tough.

Refuge in Audacity: Many modern shooters try to be serious, but really, just because the Media Watchdogs will call it a Murder Simulator doesn't mean that you can't have fun with it, mostly. You've got three basic routes here: standard military combat, sneaky spy missions, and over-the-top superspy / supersoldier empowerment. Because sometimes it's fun to cut loose and not worry about the casualties.

Pacing: How much a player has to stay in cover or keep on moving.
  • Regenerating Health, cover system, majority of weapons being hitscan weapons, decreased weapon accuracy when moving, enemy AI being more realistic and having relatively little health encourage a slower pace and demanding players to stay in cover.
  • On the flipside, numerous enemies but with a simple AI, lack of health regeneration, health pickups scattered everywhere, most of the weapons not being hitscan weapons, presence of bunnyhopping and other such tricks, being on a timed level and other factors encourage the player to be on the move and sometimes even fight out in the open.

Pitfalls

Watch the AI! One of the easiest ways to make players complain about your game is to have horrible AI, be it in allies or enemies. The two biggest offenders in AI are reactions (how they act when, say, someone is shooting at them), and interactions with the player character (running out into your line of fire = a bad thing unless it's an old-school-type shooter).

If you're going to include non-invincible friendlies, make sure you put some time and effort into making them intelligent. You're going to be walking on a cliff, with the chasm of "irritates the player" on the one side and "upstages the player" on the other. It may be best to leave them out altogether. Hint: If the player is ever standing to the side as the NPC's interact without him, you've got a big, big problem.

Definitely be wary of segments that change the way the game is played. Mainly, we're talking about Vehicle-driving sections. All too often, not enough attention is paid to making sure these control as well as the on-foot action. Players don't appreciate chores, and sloppy and unresponsive driving are certainly considered chores.

Press X to Not Die and cover-based shooting are boring. if a character is encased in six inches of superdense metal, he shouldn't die from two or three shots. Unless they're delivered to the face.

Potential Subversions

First of all, why would you want to subvert these tropes in the first place, you ask? After all, they do often work. And, in and of themselves, Tropes Are Not Bad. However, a well-done subversion will call attention to your game, and people who look at your game will, understandably, be far more willing to buy it.

Again with the AI: Have the enemies react in a realistic manner to bodies lying around, to gunfire, etc. And give all the enemies a reason to be where they are. They're not standing there so you can shoot them. They're standing there to guard the door, or deliver crates to the inventory supply clerk, or to take out the command post, whatever. They have a life apart from their connection to you, the player.

Take it seriously: But run with it, have the players character really be an superhuman psychopath who slaughters hundreds of people. (Hey, it worked for Halo.) Of course, if you paint the player as the villain, you're unlikely to be very popular, so find a constructive use for your superhuman psycho.

Don't include the old standbys: Wait, this isn't a subversion, this is an aversion. Unless you call attention to it (e.g., with finding the standard guns but not using them, or having a gun look standard but act strangely). Anyway. The standard guns are ingrained into the genre; this gives you a golden chance to ignore them and try for unique and gimmicky weaponry. But remember to make them good: People complain about bad gimmicks but almost always praise good gimmicks. For a good example, look at Half-Life 2's gravity gun. Might be hard to do but if you get people to think in weird ways and jump through your silly hoops to use an arsenal of awesome gimmick guns it would be totally worth it. Alternatively, just pump the player character with Plasmids or have them become the host of a demon that likes the shade and have him or her shoot lightning or impale enemies without having to resorting to any type of gun!

Just listen to Yahtzee, in his review of Painkiller:

But any criticism I find is immediately quashed when I remember that one of the guns shoots shurikens and lightning.

Instead of time-warping back to a checkpoint, add some Mook Horror Show. When you're ressurected at a checkpoint, have the group of enemies who killed you panick at the sight of you looting your own corpse for ammo. Bonus points if you're singing an amusing song about murder.

How about not shooting things? It's often useful to let the player walk around without shooting for a bit to let them immerse themselves in the world before they have to start murdering everyone, or to give them a breather between shooting sequences. Half-Life and its sequels did this extremely well, and in general the Black Mesa Commute is a good device for doing this.


Writers' Lounge

Suggested Themes and Aesops

...First-Person Shooters have Aesops?

More seriously: FPS's can have plots, though often the best plot is an Excuse Plot: A plot that is basically there to explain why you're shooting at these guys, and little else. War plots are very appropriate, though possibly overused.

It may be difficult to get the player to sympathize with the main character, more so if the main character is a faceless, nameless psychopath. And even if your main character is not a psychopath, the player may play him like one anyway. Be aware that anti-violence Aesops will probably come pre-broken (and given that the point of the game is to have fun via killing things, it'll be combined with a You Bastard as well).

There's always the chance for an Aesop about appropriate violence. After all, with zombies, robots, StarfishAliens, genetically engineered monstrosities, crazed wild predators, and so forth, you can easily be shooting everything in sight without a hint of Values Dissonance. But what about innocent bystanders, or allies who have fulfilled their role in the game?

Potential Motifs

Killing... things?

More seriously, the main "motif" is going to be the genre/setting. It limits (in a good way) which kinds of guns and enemies you can include.

You should also put some thought into whether your characters can get bloody, muddy, dirty, scraped up, etc. It'll affect the whole feel of your game.


Departments

Set Designer / Location Scout

If you choose to go with an existing war, you're going to have to do some research, but then again, it'll be pretty easy to work out the look and feel of the scenery. Then again again, everybody's already done that.

On the other hand, if you choose to delve into a timeframe or location not already well represented in the market, you'll have the chance for a whole new look and feel, but you'll have to come up with a lot of stuff on your own.

Or you can follow God Hand's path and make the background dull, ugly and minimalist. No one will care if the game is filled with sufficient Awesome.

Props Department

Ah, the guns. There are, of course, the old standbys, but always consider ways to mix things up. You should put as much loving care into the design of the guns as you would a main character in any other game. Because let's be honest, in a First Person Shooter, especially one with a faceless protagonist, the guns are the real stars.

Other than guns (or weapons in general), there are secondary items to consider such as medikits, jet packs and such. These things should of course be useful (i.e., help you kill stuff), but they don't directly kill stuff, so there isn't a huge list of possibilities... but there are a good number of cool things you can do with items. These are of course completely optional, but expected by now.

You should also consider how many weapons and items the character can carry at once. Many games severely limit the inventory; while this adds a level of strategy, the more stuff the player can have at a time (and that you give him), the more options available to him, and the faster he can lay out the enemies. Depending on sub-genre, the speed at which the player can mow down enemies may be a very big factor in the amount of fun he has. Also, most of the shooters of the past decade have used a two gun limit, with maybe a pistol as a third (Halo, Call of Duty, FEAR, etc...). It could be fun to allow players to carry around a whole arsenal for a change, assuming you are willing to part with a bit of realism.

Another idea is to inject a little more realism, even to the standard weapons. Many weapons tend to follow certain tropes that aren't entirely accurate to how the weapon acts or is used in real life. You can inject some new life into the weapon(s)

  • Flamethrowers - Most games tend to show them as basically giant aerosol cans with a flame in front. Powerful, but only goes out about ten feet if you're lucky. Real flamethrowers spew burning liquid over a hundred feet away. Seems overpowered, but they're big and heavy (and thus harder to move around with), and three guesses what can happen if you shoot that big tank of jellied gasoline on their back...
  • Shotguns - Most games only have them use buckshot shells. Try adding solid slugs to the mix, perhaps as a secondary fire mode.
  • Gatling guns - Let's just say gatling guns don't rat-a-tat-tat. It's more like a buzzsaw with their rate of fire.

Costume Designer

Military outfits make everyone look the same, but may make it easier to tell who to shoot and who to spare (unless people start ignoring the Geneva Convention and putting on the wrong clothes and all).

However, colorful and interesting enemies are.... more interesting. Consider each enemy type as its own character and design it as such, with an interesting look that compliments its attacks and purpose.

Casting Director

Um... guys who like to shoot things. Guys who like to blow things up.

No, seriously, unless you're going to go with an AFGNCAAP, then you'll need to have a character who's at least willing to kill people he's never met, even if under duress. And that's still a wide range of characterizations.

Alternately, you can not have a person willing to kill people he's never met. At least at first. Explore what happens to a person forced to do so anyway, and maybe even give the player a chance to not kill anyone.

Also, you can always make a female hero. How many FPS's have those? (No One Lives Forever, Medal Of Honor Underground, Mirror's Edge, Perfect Dark, Metroid Prime, and Clive Barker's Jericho (technically). Deus Ex: Invisible War also has a female main character as an option.)

Enemy-wise, you can have Nazis, aliens, zombies, lots of stuff. And since most enemies are going to be onscreen for all of three seconds, they should be distinct, colorful, and interesting.

Stunt Department

Besides people dying and Stuff Blowing Up, consider the game effect of falling from a high location, and whether or not characters recover their health over time if they get a breather.


Extra Credit

The Greats

  • BioShock: Being a spiritual successor to the popular System Shock 2, BioShock makes use of similar gameplay that allows the player to utilize guns as well as customizable superpowers to defeat enemies. Although not new to video games, the game featured multiple endings but required the player to attain them in a very unorthodox way by deciding whether the player should save little mutant girls or kill them for more power.
  • Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare: Takes the basics of Half-Life's first-person narrative and combines it with a War Is Hell story, creating an atmospheric and believable narrative, with bits of horror here and there. Also has an epic multiplayer.
  • Doom 1-2: Popularized the first-person shooter genre. Still widely played, modded, and enjoyed to this day. The weapons, enemies, and levels are iconic, influential, and endlessly imitated. Generic sound effects and the genre itself have been permanently associated with this game—for a while, games set in its preexisting genre were called Doom clones! A must-play for any FPS student. Look up Masters of Doom for the complete lowdown on its creation and design.
  • Doom 3: Just as Doom 1 and 2 defined the FPS, Doom 3 exemplified the changes in the genre over the years. The weapons are subdued, the enemies are more individually dangerous and attack in small groups, the levels make a pass at realism, and there's an honest-to-god story—excuse plot it may be. Still a polarizing game, even id Software is discarding much of Doom 3 while they're working on Doom 4. Still, it's a good contrast with the first two games.
  • System Shock could be called the first modern FPS innovating things now taken for granted, such as a physics engine, complex texture mapping, a full 3D engine, relatively complex AI, an immersive, semi-realistic world, and advanced mechanics like leaning around corners, crouching, jumping, and overall a huge amount of ahead-of-its-time technology and innovations that make many of its contemporaries look downright primitive. Perhaps most importantly, it essentially created the story-driven shooter (predating Half Life by several years), as well as the RPG-shooter hybrid. Unfortunately, it sold so poorly that it rarely gets the credit it deserves, with many of it's innovations being attributed to Half Life, Bioshock, or its direct sequel.
  • GoldenEye N64: Called the first great console FPS (some still insist it's the only good console FPS). Goldeneye was a happy accident and a miracle for the early N64. Some of its innovations, like multiple objectives depending on mission difficulty, still haven't seen wide replication.
  • Half-Life series: The most influential FPSes since Doom. Besides innovating storytelling, they also added an enormous injection of realism into gameplay. Reviewers marveled at how guns didn't float in mid-air, and powerups were placed logically within a seemingly-real setting. Half-Life had an enormous but functional arsenal, too. Half-Life 2 gutted the array of available weapons, which some critics still harp on it for, but nobody would trade the Gravity Gun for more traditional weaponry. Like Doom, these are must-plays, and perfect compliments to each other: Doom for pure arcade-style "gamist" shoot-'em-up action, level design, and difficulty, and Half-Life for an innovative, "narrativist" approach and immersion.
  • Halo: While reviewer and internet opinions are split, Halo is one of the bestselling video game series ever. Even if you don't like the standard-issue (but well-written) sci-fi plot, Halo popularized a few odd game elements—limited weapons, seamless vehicle transition, a grenade button, and recharging health—in a massively entertaining package. If you scoff at Halo being innovative, recall that Half-Life 2 borrowed seamless vehicle transition from Halo—and nearly had "only two weapons + gravgun and crowbar" as its weapon inventory.
  • Marathon: The first game to use mouselook properly, Marathon took the FPS genre into daring new story-based directions. Rather than an excuse plot or bare sketch—did you know Quake's story was written as an afterthought while composing the manual?—Marathon's story is the heart of the game, and it's no slouch. An affecting, truly epic science fiction adventure that still sports a sense of flippant black and self-mocking humor.
  • Medal of Honor: The game that popularized the WWII-themed FPS. Asides from its realism, it also popularized the dual-analog control scheme in console FPSes. Spawned an enduring series.
  • Perfect Dark: The only game to use the exact same engine as GoldenEye. A Spiritual Successor that introduced several improvements (including an improved version of Goldeneye's multiplayer mode, several new multiplayer modes, secondary fire modes for almost all the guns and some very unique weapons) while still playing more or less the same as Goldeneye, and was almost universally praised, though it failed to sell as well as it's counterpart.
  • Quake: One of the most important, entertaining, and outlandish shooters in history. Doom popularized the FPS genre - Quake is what popularized multiplayer in shooters. It set a benchmark in pure atmosphere (helped along by Trent Reznor), and had some of the most grim, scary, and best levels and monsters ever designed. The gameplay was fast and engaging. To this day, there is a large community for modding, speedrunning, and playing Quake.
  • Star Trek: Elite Force: One of the best examples of how to use the game genre as an adaptation of another property like a series like Star Trek: Voyager.
  • Team Fortress 2: Not a huge innovator, but rather an example of what you get when you crank the standard FPS tropes Up to Eleven. An insane, over-the-top thrill ride with a perfect Excuse Plot that does nothing other than justify a bunch of quirky psychopaths brutalizing each other. The PCs are absurd parodies of stock FPS characters, but still rounded out and endearing. The game's humor is at least as important as the action.

The Epic Fails

Study the ones people mock or complain about in order to see what not to do. And these include...

  • Call of Juarez: The Cartel has two lessons to teach. First, if you're going to write a story about current events, do plenty of research, carefully consider what messages you're sending, intentionally or not, and treat the topic with the respect it deserves. This is important in the FPS genre because it often involves gunning down loads of Faceless Goons without a second thought, which can easily raise some Unfortunate Implications if said goons are based on real groups of people. Second, don't skimp on teammate AI. It's fine to optimize for multiplayer, but any and all AI helpers should be up to the task. Nobody wants to end up with an Escort Mission due to poor programming.
  • Cyber-Cop: One of the shittiest games ever made. Navigating and targeting enemies are nearly impossible, enemies can sneak up to the character and hurt him without alerting the player and many other horrendous design choices. Pure shit poured into a Genesis cartridge.
  • Cyborgs: Invented mouselook but had terrible controls that essentially, required four hands. Somewhat entertaining but extremely difficult to play. One of Origin's few mistakes before E.A's takeover. Play the Crusader series instead. Though a third person shooter, it succeeded where this game failed.
  • Daikatana: The first name in "bad FPS," and, like Trespasser, tried to bite off more than it could chew. In this case, the touted selling points—an RPG-like advancement system, sidekicks, and enormous variety of weapons and enemies—all worked against it, with useless character stats, sidekicks that got you killed, and enormously redundant weapons that hurt you more than the enemies, along with a host of bugs (literal and metaphorical), stupid enemy design, and a teeth-gratingly dumb storyline. A harrowing study in everything going wrong that could go wrong.
  • Ethnic Cleansing is an excellent argument against political works in general. Content aside, it is one of the laziest and most incompetent things ever made. Whether the player agrees with the message or disagrees and likes how pathetic it makes its viewpoint look, the only way this game can be enjoyed is through Confirmation Bias.
  • Hour of Victory: Released when the popularity of WWII-era shooters was beginning to wane, this game pretty drove that genre of shooter into the ground. The game was hobbled by dysfunctional AI, mediocre graphics, and a bare-bones multiplayer.
  • Jurassic Park: Trespasser: A stern warning against folk who would innovate beyond the limits of current technology. One of the first, if not the first, FPS to make extensive use of semi-realistic physics, the game was buggy to hell and back, crashing for enormously arbitrary reasons. The game's innovations conflicted with each other in a violent way, resulting in most of the selling points being crippled, removed, or dumbed down enormously to get a semblance of playability.
  • Legendary: The Box takes an interesting premise and completely wastes it. The player battles mythical beasts, but these enemies are distinguished by gimmicks that only serve to annoy the player rather than keep them on their feet. Non-interactive set-pieces substitute for exciting gameplay, and these get old fast. The player can collect and use magic from slain monsters, but it is only used in healing and some scenario objectives, nothing else. Much of this stems from the developers refusing to listen to the testers, so be sure to take QA's feedback to heart. You worked hard on the project so far, yes, but the testers are making sure that effort doesn't go to waste. You're all on the same team here.

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