Hello everyone and welcome to a new column I’ve entitled “Critical Aspects,” where I’ll be discussing what I believe is the single most important thing for a developer to get right in a given genre in order to create a successful and fun game. I’d also like to hear your opinions on it, so be sure to drop by the comments after you’ve read through to give me your feedback! Now, without further ado, let’s jump right in.
The genre I’ll be examining today is the FPS/TPS genre, and while there are some key differences in playstyle, my belief is that the single most important aspect of the genre is universal. Now, this may seem like a difficult genre to make a single choice for – after all, so much goes into making the game play well. A variety of interesting and balanced weapons will take a shooter a long way, as will any interesting mechanical twists beyond the traditional “use gun on man” - Team Fortress 2 has proved that to us, having popularized and made mainstream things like lock-on healing beam weapons, rocket jumping as a feature that a class is balanced around rather than an advanced trick, and the charge-up sniper rifle to prevent good snipers from having complete dominance. It may not have been the first game to do these things, but it did them so well that it’s maintained a huge following for many years.
Having a low barrier to entry with a high skill ceiling is another valuable aspect for developers to get right – players need to be able to drop in and play without getting frustrated, but continued play has to be rewarded with a steady increase in skill or players will quickly grow bored and give up. This is something that’s also important in fighting games (even more so, really), and yet it still is not the single defining aspect of a good FPS/TPS in my humble opinion.
No, the most important aspect is hands down a fluid and intuitive movement system. Think about it – bad controls cripple so many games. Fighters, platformers, action games. Some genres are more forgiving than others – RPGs, for instance, usually won’t punish a player too much if the inputs aren’t as perfect as they could be. But in no genre is a bad control scheme more punishing and more frustrating than in an FPS. If you can’t move exactly how you want to, you’re in big, big trouble. If the game starts to confuse inputs because of a bad control scheme, you as a player are more likely to die than to recover from that screw up. One of the biggest issues in Red Orchestra 2 at the time of release was that cover and bandage were bound to the same key. This may not seem like that big of an issue – after all, the rest of the game was beautifully executed, and was well deserving of the “Shooter of the Year” award it garnered from PC Gamer. But when you were behind cover, you couldn’t bandage half the time. The sticky cover system and overlapping key commands confused the game engine to no end, and was the cause of endless frustration for players. The forums were alive with complaints, and while there were differing opinions on many of the design decisions Tripwire had made, one complaint was universal: cover and bandage needed to be bound to separate keys.
Games like the aforementioned TF2 have done beautifully well by keeping the controls simple – there’s very little that can be screwed up, so if a control error is made, it’s on the player, not the control scheme. But not every game plays like TF2, and thus not every game can share its simple control scheme. A game that tried something different – and in my opinion succeeded beautifully, despite other flaws that cause it to have a less-than-stellar lifetime – was BRINK. Say what you will about the rest of the gameplay, BRINK’s movement system was excellent. Once you spent a bit of time adjusting to the fact that you could jump to and climb over practically anything on the maps (especially if you used a Light body type), the control scheme was not only intuitive but incredibly freeing. No longer did map artifacts artificially restrict your positioning or pathing. Everything could be circumvented with a little thought, and the maps ended up being far more interesting and open as a result. In addition, despite the SMART movement system all being bound to a single key (the same key as Sprint), the game never did anything I didn’t want it to. Based purely on where I centered my mouse, my character always moved precisely how I wanted him to and expected him to, which is quite a feat of design to manage with only a single key binding.
While I loved BRINK (probably more than most people), it no longer holds the position of “most fluid controls in a shooter” in my mind. That award goes to a new game, one still in beta – in fact, it was this game that inspired me to write this article (and hopefully this column), based simply on how well the controls function. That game is one I’ve previously written a preview article for - Ghost Recon Online. Every time I load it up, I’m amazed at how fluid everything I want to do is. If I want to slide into cover, I can do it easily. If I want to vault carefully over cover, it’s simple. If I want to do a running leap over cover – still simple and responsive. Diving into prone to crawl under some pipes? Yep, easy as pie. There are so many different maneuvers available to players (par for the course for a Tom Clancy game), but the amazing thing is that each and every one is simple and easy to use. There are a lot of buttons to get used to, yes, but once you’ve spent a bit of time playing with the control scheme, everything simply feels natural. It’s a wonderful feeling, having so much control over my character – I never have to worry about a certain maneuver being either unavailable or unreliable with the game’s controls. They just work. And really, that’s the best thing about the game, and is the single aspect that will make it a success when it released to the public. Everything else is fun as well, but the controls are so wonderful and responsive that everyone, even players who aren’t usually Tom Clancy fans, will find it easy to get into the game and try it out – for the low price of nothing, as well!
So there you have it – I believe that if a game developer can get only one thing right in any shooter they make, it should be fluid and responsive controls. If you start with that as a foundation, the rest of the game can have some issues, but it will be playable simply because players will be able to make their avatars do exactly what they want, not rely on the grace of the gaming gods to keep them safe. Now, what’s your opinion? Do you agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments! In addition, if there’s a particular genre you want me to examine, let me know that as well! If there are a lot of votes for a certain type of game, I’ll be sure to focus on it in the next outing.
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