Tuesday, October 10, 2006

First-person shooters need more interactive environments.

And here's where you say, "You idiot, they've had interactive environments for years! If you want anything more you're just being a dreamer who isn't willing to face the harsh realities of game limitations!" Well... not quite.

We've made good progress so far, with Half-Life 2. With the Havok engine and the gravity gun, physics have been taken pretty much to their limit as far as interactive environments. Mini-games which require special input, puzzle-solving and the like are pretty much at their limit too. Take a look at something like Prey, or if you're old school something like Marathon. Rigid puzzles have been an example of the interactive environment for a long time.

But these take the avatar out of the picture. There is a strong disconnect between the player's avatar and the environment, one that has become more and more striking as the rest of the genre has fleshed out.

I was inspired to write this because of a preview video I saw of Red Steel. In it, the person trying out the game was peeking out from behind a wooden beam, trying to shoot someone at a distance, when most of the bullets just went into the beam. There was no physical way to get closer to the beam he was shooting. Could you make this kind of mistake in real life? There's a problem here. Curiously enough, the answer has been around for years and years, but everyone figured it was something that could be done a better way, if only games became (impossibly) more advanced.

And so this possibility was left to gather dust and eventually forgotten. There is a certain drive to make everything about a level as dynamic as possible to keep the players immersed. They don't want to see the exact same obvious event happen exactly the same way every single time they try to get through an area, so AI pathing and scripted story/cinematic events are concealed as much as possible, when the developers are unable to do away with them entirely. But there's one scripted thing in the levels of an FPS no one wants to get rid of, and for good reasons: the ladder.

The ladder has never been and will probably never in our lifetimes be completely a dynamic aspect of a game's physical rules except in the most rigid of contexts. In every shooter you've ever played, the ladder has an invisible aspect to it, a cleverly-disguised surface or line which is totally imperceptible to the player, but tells the game, "Treat this area of space, indistinguishable to this dumb game engine from all the space around it, like a ladder, so the player can climb it." This is the solution we've been looking for. I'm not the only one to realize this. Slip Call of Duty 2 into your XBox 360 and walk up to any low ledge away from debris. An icon appears; a button press stalls your action for two seconds as you heave yourself over. The invisible, imperceptible ladder, in horizontal form.

The method is proven; grab a Tony Hawk game and start scoring grinds and lip tricks. Obviously a decent game can be manufactured from these invisible player-environment connectors alone. So I say, next time you give a player a wooden pole, put that pole in the center of an invisible area, a small post, that tells the game, "Treat this area of space like something the player can brace his gun against." Not only will the player not fire into the pole like a retard, but in fact be more accurate and far, far more immersed.

Some say that re-iterative development can only take a genre so far. Some of those even say the FPS is dying. It's not; this is not a plea over what can save the genre. It's a prediction of the future. Like all mechanics, it will be in some popular FPS games and not others, but FPS still has an ace up it's sleeve, and it's not ready to fold just yet.

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