The (Over)abundance of Console First-Person Shooters

If you played a console FPS in the late 90s, without a doubt it was Goldeneye. You wrapped your left hand around the N64 controller’s gun-like underside and steered Jimmy Bond through grainy corridors, wonky escort missions, and unprecedented multiplayer madness. Once your friends left you and the credits fell on the main game, you went through the single-player mode again on 007 Agent difficulty.

You had to. Xbox Live wasn’t invented yet.

There’s been a massive production shift since the N64/PS1 era, back when platformers like Mario 64 and RPGs like Final Fantasy VII revolutionized 3D gameplay and story presentation, respectively. Both landmark games gave rise to platformers and RPGs that would dominate the industry. The boom lasted through the late-90s, but around the early 2000s platformers and RPGs took a bow and walked off, leaving FPSs in the spotlight ever since.

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In the 90s, this was the only console FPS you needed. Now you need truckloads of them.

Last week I interacted with GameFAQs users and batted around some ideas on how console FPSs came into prevalence in the past decade. I cited some developments that lead to the outpouring: online multiplayer, the American-made Xbox aimed at American tastes, and the notoriety of violent games. Different users argued or agreed with me; some educated me on the history of the genre; and others dumped their own ideas into the pot. We stirred the topic around for a few days, and here’s what I drew from it:

1) Xbox had almost everything to do with the console FPS boom. Halo 1 set the new standard for console FPSs, then Halo 2 set the standard for online play. Whereas most console FPSs at the time were ported from PC, Bungie focused on designing Halo 1 and 2 for consoles and gave the genre a new identity.

From there, companies took note of the genre’s potential and pumped out their own FPSs. With the help of a multiplayer mode similar to Counter-Strike: Source, Call of Duty swiped the crown from Halo in 2007. Other companies were compelled to follow with their own military-style FPSs.

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Clunky? Oversized? Unsexy? Sure. But the original Xbox’s controller change the FPS market forever.

The aforementioned are obvious landmarks, but what gets overlooked is the Xbox controller’s impact on the rise of the genre. Whereas Dreamcast only had one analog stick and early PS2-game developers underutilized the Dual Shock’s twin sticks, Xbox launched with a controller that could accommodate FPS controls and a killer-app in Halo that could spearhead the genre. Numerous FPSs that followed adopted Halo’s control scheme. With the groundwork laid, it was just a matter of Halo 2 taking advantage of Microsoft’s robust online services. FPSs catapulted into the mainstream.

2) As games became more cinematic, Hollywood action (which involves plenty of gunplay) seeped more and more into games. The FPS genre became preferred among Americans and Europeans, while remaining irrelevant in Japan.

As graphics became more realistic, American audiences continued to crave realism. While many RPGs (Tales of…, etc.), platformers (Mario, etc.), and other genres stuck to their animated/cel-shaded/cartoon-inspired art styles, FPS developers pushed realism that attracted American gamers.

3) While online play was not limited to FPSs, it benefited the FPS genre moreso than others (Fighting, Racing, etc.) in terms of sales and popularity. The competitive aspects of FPS multiplayer coupled with the accessibility of the controls enabled the genre to reach casual audience.

4) Many FPSs run off the same game engine and mechanics, making them easier and cheaper for developers to produce over and over. Add new maps, a new story, some tweaked weapons, updated graphics, and voila.

These are rough ideas outlining the rise of the FPS genre. For now I’m still trying to nail a thesis down for my eventual article based on this info. What I do know now is that the boom’s history isn’t as important as the reasoning behind it. The Xbox controller and Halo’s control scheme set a standard that transformed a PC genre into a console one. I begs the question–are we a controller away from console Real-Time Strategy games becoming mainstream? The Wii-U’s touch screen controller seems like a start, but the idea of managing RTS gameplay on two screens could become taxing, if not disorienting.

Despite the rise in FPS game production, a few users argued with me, saying that the term “overabundance” was unfair. Not the most unbiased word, I’ll admit, but considering that IGN coincidentally unveiled their Top 100 (!) FPSs this week, I more or less called a spade a spade. Remember, IGN listed a hundred quality shooters. They didn’t include the mediocre ones, the Call of Duty knock-offs, and the movie-licensed meltdowns. And nothing adds up like third-rate entries into a gaming genre.

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Fallout reminds us that FPSs need not depend on run-n-gun campaign modes and meaty multiplayer options.

What does the FPS outpouring mean for gamers? On an obvious level, it means we’ll be forcefed FPSs–innovative and generic, quality and crap–until our stomachs burst like the virtual craniums we’ve been blasting for years. Beyond the amount of FPSs for sale, the prevalence is good and bad. It means for cross-genre breeding, something that’s been happening for years with RPG-Shooter franchises like Fallout (Hell, even Banjo-Tooie had FPS segments back in 2001. Banjo-Tooie.). Unfortunately, genres that forego FPS elements and remain “pure” like sword-and-magic J-RPGs will vanish. Don’t believe me? Tell me how long it’s been since the last Suikoden, the last Grandia, the last Breath of Fire. As FPSs persist, secondary RPG/Platformer/etc. franchises will die off. We’ll always have our Final Fantasies and Marios, but would cash-strapped gamers take a chance on Suikoden VI after they just saw the new [Insert CoD clone here] commercial on ESPN?

Love ’em or hate ’em, FPSs reign atop the console gaming world. Understanding how the boom came about can help developers and gamers determine where the next explosion will occur–whether is be on the virtual warfront or in the sales column of a completely different genre.

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