Jun 27, 2016

DOOM, And How To (Not) Ruin Your Arcade FPS

So DOOM (4) is out, and it has accomplished the seemingly impossible - it's a triple-A shooter in 2016 that actually does the franchise justice, and even improves on the old classics in some respects. In light of this new triumph, I'd like us to focus on all the things DOOM doesn't do, that make it such a great successor to the FPS legacy of old.

The reason DOOM is such a big deal, at least to me, is that, out of all the FPS games in recent memory that have claimed to try and bring back that lost, classic, brutal run-and-gun gameplay, DOOM is the first one that actually fully did it, with no asterisks necessary. The ones that came before: Bulletstorm, Wolfenstein: TNO, Shadow Warrior, Serious Sam 3, while pretty good games in their own right, have all managed to shoot themselves in the foot in one respect or another. Where did they fail? Well, let's take a look.

Ways to ruin your arcade FPS (by Timmy, age 5)

1. Reload mechanics

Now this is a major one that gets most developers. It's like FPS devs just put that mechanic in without thinking about how it will affect the flow of the game, or why it is even necessary, by sheer reflex or because it's in every shooter so it has to be in our shooter too, right? Wrong.

What are the reload mechanics in the new Doom? Nonexistent, is what they are. Id knew there was no place for them in the type of game they are making - an oldschool arcade shooter. The original Doom didn't have reloading, not because no-one had thought to include it at the time, but because it wouldn't gel with the rest of the game.

Reload mechanics belong in games like Arma, Counter-Strike, SWAT and others that put a heavy emphasis on realistic gun handling, reloading is a natural part of that. They also fit fine in semi-realistic shooters, like Half-Life and all the games it inspired: you can take a missile to the face, walk over a medkit and feel fine, but there is still a major emphasis on using cover, shooting, handling recoil and timing your bursts and your reloads.

Now, the thing about arcade shooters is that, if you think about it, they're not really about the shooting, or, at least, not about the gun handling. The primary gameplay concern in a proper oldschool shooter is movement. Dodging enemy projectiles. Weaving through melee guys trying to rip and tear your guts. Walking over medkits and ammo mid-battle to give yourself a needed boost. That's the real meat of the gameplay. Within that paradigm, the actual shooting of the guns is mostly secondary.

Bonus points for including total ammo counters, which the new DOOM forgot
Not pictured: goddamn mag size
Think back to the original Doom. That game didn't even have mouseaim, the aiming and gun handling component boiled down to making sure the enemy was on the screen and pressing the "fire" button, the game would just aim the gun for you. No aiming, no reloading, ammo was just spent from the general pool. Now, maybe this was due to technological limitations of the time, keyboards being the default input device for everything and mice still being a novelty. But even then, the overall core design of the arcade shooter, as laid down in Doom, is built around movement being king, and gun-related gameplay being secondary, straightforward and not getting in the way of movement. Messing with this proportion screws up the whole formula.

If we throw in reload mechanics, what do we get? More gun variety, I guess. I'd still argue that this is a non-issue in arcade shooters: because of their total disregard of realism, they can differentiate guns in other, more drastic and spectacular ways. Differentiating by reload is important in games that feature real guns, which function more-or-less the same way and do largely the same damage. Doesn't matter in arcade shooters - you want to make Gun1 different from Gun2, make Gun1 fire a giant lazer beam that freezes things and Gun2 deploy exploding velociraptors that ricochet around the room. Can't do that with an M4.

Now, what do you lose? Flow. Most importantly of all, in a good arcade shooter, you don't stop until everyone else in the room is dead. Always keep moving, strafing, dodging, tracking enemies and projectiles. The brain is occupied entirely with that, and the shooting happens autonomously in the background - you hold down the button and enemies die, the most effort you contribute here is occasionally switching to another weapon. That is how the game maintains flow.

Add reload mechanics, and what happens? You have to take a huge chunk of mental space away from the movement and toward solving annoying problems like:
  • Is it time to reload now?
  • Do I have enough bullets left in the mag to kill this enemy, or should I take cover and reload?
  • Should I reload or switch weapons?
  • Are my other weapons loaded?
and so on. It takes attention away from the important things, reduces the amount of kills per second of play, dragging down pace and promoting the use of cover and stop-and-go rhythm of realistic shooters, which is a very bad thing for an arcade romp.

And most games don't even have the courtesy of reloading the guns in your backpack, so there's an extra period of downtime after every fight where you have to check and reload every. Single. Gun. And god help you if you forget one, that'll be fun to discover during a desperate shootout.

2. Enemies with hitscan attacks

Have fun dodging this
This is another major stumbling block, and I can only assume it comes from a misguided adherence to realism. "We can't make bullets fly slowly, that's now how bullets work!", say the developers, afraid that players will not be convinced by the physics of their setting. And yes, it is hard to sell firearms with projectiles moving slowly enough to be visible.  But what of gameplay?

As we've established, the core of the classic FPS gameplay is movement. The question that ultimately separates a proper arcade shooter from a Half-Life style arcade-ish cover shooter is: can you just run into the middle of the room and kill everyone. And the answer depends heavily on whether or not there are enemies who instantly do damage if there isn't a solid piece of geometry between you and them (much like in real life!).

Even if you try and be clever, and include a wide random spread on enemy guns, it doesn't fix the problem: the optimal strategy for avoiding one hundred percent of incoming damage is still hiding behind cover, occasionally popping out to shoot.

This sacrifices dodging, a core strategy and an integral part of the run-and-gun equation. Enemy projectiles must serve as additional obstacles in the maze of damage the player plots a course through, not an instant punishment for daring to step out of cover. 

And the variety of enemy types and attacks you can get out of proper projectiles is huge, all you need to do is rearrange the pattern of the outgoing bullets to make the player move in a specific way to avoid them: delayed hits, leading hits, low spread for jumping over, high spread for crouching under... there are as many combinations as there are points in 3D space! This is a lot to sacrifice on the altar of thematic consistency.

3. Regenerating health/poorly designed pickups

I challenge you to find the pickups in this picture
At this point, everyone has talked about why regenerating health sucks: it's a crutch for encounter designers to not have to worry about the players playing themselves into a corner and having to go into the next fight with 5 hp left. It encourages sitting passively in cover doing nothing, over charging out into the fray, guns blazing. It ditches the whole concept of health management as an interactive mechanic.

I'd like to focus more on the other issue games often have with health management, when they avoid regenerating health and stick with good old health pickups. 

Games that commit to pickups often bafflingly insist on making those pickups hard to see and, well, pick up. 
In a fast-paced game where you're constantly moving and looking around, where stopping for one second can mean instant death, you want two things out of a good medkit: that it be easy to clearly see, at any distance and any speed, you must be able to recognize a medkit from a flash of color in your peripheral vision, as you sprint past it fighting for dear life. And, you should be able to pick it up without stopping, because of the above. You should not have to align yourself with medkit, jump into it or do other things that require finer control than "walk somewhere in this general area". You especially should not have to stop dead in your tracks, carefully aim at it and then press the "use" key, for crying out loud! While you're doing all that, you're liable to take more damage than you healed!

The same goes for all kinds of combat pickups: weapons, ammo, armor. Make each a huge, bright, glowing 3d model that floats, rotates, contrasts with the environment and can be seen from space. Don't put it in some stupid corner where the players will have to search a bunch of tables and lockers to grab it, they should be able to get it and leave without stopping, like a highway exit. Otherwise, picking things up in combat will be too risky to be worth it, and players will only do it after the fight, removing those exciting situations where a timely grab of a medkit makes the difference between life and death.

4. Arbitrary limits on the numbers of carried weapons

This is all your fault, Trials-Man
I'm not even sure why this is a thing. Halo popularized it back in the day, trying to make player weapon choices more tactical? Maybe they had more guns than they thought they could fit into the UI, so they only let you carry two at a time.

Whatever the reason may be, if you limit the number of problem-solving tools the player has, you also limit the variety of problems you can throw at him. Everything becomes more bland, as every gun has to be able to work decently in any situation, and each enemy type has to die fairly easily to every gun. 

This is not the oldschool shooter way, while there is a much lesser emphasis of managing your guns, some gun-related combat decisions still have to be made, otherwise it's less of a shooter and more of a first person platformer. Switching weapons to an appropriate one mid-combat is both tactical and mentally trivial enough to not disrupt the all-important movement and dodging, and if you must balance the player's total damage capacity at a given time, do it through the available ammo (granted, this is a lot harder to achieve).

5. Poorly thought out progression mechanics

Should I get +1 to rip, or +5% chance to tear?
Now, I'm not one of those people who just hates progression mechanics because they are new and fashionable. Everyone loves progression, that's why they put it in every game now! 

But with FPS specifically, you have to tread very carefully to incorporate it without breaking things.
Progression tends to be incremental, making numbers go up slowly over time. In order to make it meaningful, games often devolve into a competition of numbers: the player must start out killing a basic enemy in five hits, so there's room to let him upgrade his damage by 20% five times.

This tends to be very bad for basic game feel, because when you blast something in the face in a shooter, you don't want it to be fine the first four times you do it, and then, finally, allow you to kill it. You want it to die the first time you shoot it, otherwise your guns don't feel powerful. It's funny how devs strive to make sure the bullets move at appropriate, realistic speeds, but then forget the part where they also kill people.

I think the new DOOM manages to avoid pretty much all of these problems, which is why it's such a major breakthrough. Here's where the others fall short:

Especially in RPGs, Adventure and Sports games
On the other hand, a kick attack should be in every videogame

This was marketed as the oldschool-inspired answer to all those stuffy, semi-realistic shooters that dominated the scene back in 2011. But I guess Gearbox just has their own (fundamentally wrong) vision of what constitutes a good action-packed, run-and-gun experience, because Bulletstorm is saddled with all the deadly sins that take the mindless shooting fun out of a game: hitscan enemies instead of projectile throwers, regenerating health, an arbitrary weapon limit and, of course, reload mechanics. I really liked that game, but I liked it despite those things, and I feel like it could have been a way stronger shooter without them.

Wolfenstein: The New Order
Yeah, yeah, I know. They're both ripping of Jin-Roh
Way to rip off the Helghast, you guys
Now I'm a bit ambivalent about this one.

On the one hand, the way Wolfenstein has evolved as a series probably puts it closer to the Half-Life style of shooter than the Doom style. On the other hand, the developers of TNO were really pushing the oldschool arcade shooter angle, with realism-annihilating features like overcharging health by eating food, or building an armor vest out of enemy helmets and fallen robot debris.

The game's pseudo-historic premise kind of requires it to represent realistic weapons, like tommyguns, MP40s and other iconic WW2 hardware, and giving infinite ammo to those might seem idiosyncratic. At the same time, TNO in particular ditches historic stuff straight away in favor of lasers and assault rifles with underslung rockets. Assault rifles which you can dual-wield, so why is that okay but adding bottomless magazines is just taking it too far?

TNO is an odd beast, caught somewhere between a full arcade run-and-gun and semi-realistic cover shooter. It has overchargeable health, but all enemy weapons are hitscan, taking your health down to red as soon as you try to abandon cover and gun people down out in the open. It lets you dual-wield shotguns and survive rocket hits, but you can't stay mobile because pickups are hard to see at a glance, and require you to stop, look at them and press the "use" button to grab them. I do like TNO, but with an asterisk: due to some odd design choices regarding progression, you can get more health and armor capacity from finding special collectibles. Once you do, you stop instantly being killed as soon as you step out of cover, and the game becomes the balls-out shooter it was always meant to be. At which point, it is only marred by reload mechanics.

Shadow Warrior (2013)
More like First Person Slasher
And here's another game that touted a return to the good old days of mindless fun with no concern for realism. And for the most part, it does pretty well: no hitscan enemies, no weapon capacity limits, no regenerating health (replaced by a similar but much better mechanic)... So why, oh why, did they decide to add reload mechanics? The original Shadow Warrior didn't have any of that, so they couldn't have been trying to stay faithful. Even more damning, the game has an even greater focus on movement than most, with the dash mechanic and the prominent use of the sword. Oh, the sword! You can really tell the dev team wanted to make it a major element of the game, and not just a gimmick or a generic fallback weapon. And they succeeded, so much so that they inadvertently made most of the guns useless! The sword is so strong, using anything else is becomes a liability. All of the other weapons range from highly situational to near-useless, and reload mechanics only exacerbate that! The smg was already weaker than the sword, why did they need to limit the ammo capacity as well? Why turn the shotgun into a weapon you spend more time reloading than firing, it's not even that good to begin with!

To add insult to injury, this was made by Flying Wild Hog, the makers of Painkiller and Hard Reset (both of which avoided the pitfall of reload mechanics) who should have known better.

Serious Sam 3
Who needs to see enemies when you can see REALISTIC DUST!
Croteam! You were the chosen ones! WHY?

The usual story with this game: shooters are too stuffy now, time for a return to form, blah-blah-blah. I really wish these arcade shooters would stop being so rare that this kind of fanfare is necessary whenever one comes along.

But this is Croteam. It's Serious Sam. Surely, if anyone remembers how to make a legit run-and-gun masterpiece in the modern era it's those guys!

Well, they got it half-right. The classic Sam staples are, thankfully, untouched: melee and projectile monsters for enemies; rocket launcher, double-barreled shottie, minigun and the laser gun all have proper bottomless mag shooting. But then, they had to go and shit up the other half of the arsenal; the pistol is saddled with annoying tiny mag size and reloads (granted, the revolvers were the only weapon that had reloads in the original Sam, and it was a bad idea there too), the auto-shottie is also ruined.

The worst example is the assault rifle. This weapon breaks the formula by being the gun best suited to most situations, eliminating the need for other guns, and with easily available ammo (which was how the first Sam balanced the old hitscan tommygun). It also features ironsights (sic!), that slow you down when you look down them (!!!) and, of course, mag size and reload mechanics. Mechanics, which aren't enough to stop it from being the best all-round gun, but enough to make the gun you use 90% of the time annoying. Who could ever imagine having to spend half their time in Serious Sam reloading, while staring impotently at the advancing wall of enemies. How the mighty have fallen.

In summary: reload mechanics break the flow of arcade shooters without offering anything in return, don't put them in your game just for the sake of having them. Downtime between shots should be enough of a balancing factor and extra differentiation between weapons, you don't need to add mag management (note, that Doom's shotgun downtime, while technically a "reload", involves no mag and is mechanically the same as the timeout between shots for the chaingun, the rocket launcher or any other gun).

It just goes to show that you can't add features willy-nilly, even if they seem harmless, "all the other games have it" or "why not throw in an extra thing". Videogames, being the intricate systems that they are, end up shifting in unexpected ways, due to the tiniest of changes or additions. Accouting for them can be extremely difficult, but such is the duty of a game designer. And if you can't do it, at least don't try to fix what isn't broke.

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