Online Competitive Shooters: A Call for Innovation
[03.26.13] - Alec Helwig
[In response to Cory Ward's recent Game Career Guide feature The Blind Leading the Blind, Full Sail University student Alec Helwig argues that a lack of innovation is a central problem plaguing the competitive shooter genre.]
Cory Ward's article approaches the root of a larger problem in the first-person shooter genre, and in the whole of online multiplayer. I disagree with the idea of measuring a player's skill by their KDR (Kill/Death ratio), however, because it isn't always indicative of their tactics, and it may not even relate to the game mode in question, unless it's in a Team Deathmatch scenario.
That said, I think the main problem with online multiplayer in shooters is a lack of innovation.
When we see a problem, it only becomes as significant as the solution to it. That concept may seem a bit backwards, but we don't always need huge problems to overcome in order to be a hero. Sometimes the most simple, effective, and revolutionary changes can be rich, dynamic, and exceedingly inspired solutions to simple problems. If we can look at problems like this more often, I think we can begin to expect more from video games.
In response to Ward's article, I wouldn't say the blind are leading the blind. I would say that those without vision are following those that do. If you think of any given genre, you will think of a game that is the quintessence of that genre, in your experience. Everything else is a copycat. They are "The Next," as I call them: games have been branded as "The Next" Legend of Zelda, Call of Duty, Tetris, and World of Warcraft, among others, but they aren't the inspiration. This is a big topic worth its own feature, but if you can think of a landmark game that all the others are trying to be like, you'll understand where I'm coming from.
I remember playing GoldenEye 007 on my Nintendo 64 in 1997 and trying to get more kills than my friends. Halo had some new ideas, but it usually revolved around killing more than you were killed. There are tons of modern shooter knock-offs that promise the same thing: "pad your KDR, it shows how good you are." We've been doing this dance as the definition of an FPS for a long time. Maybe the problem isn't with the matchmaking; maybe it's a problem with the stagnant and uninspired model of how we play?
Take Splash Damage's 2011 shooter Brink, for example (and whether you liked it or not is irrelevant). I remember loading it up and getting online only to find out that it didn't care how many kills I had. By the game's metrics, if I didn't hack the box, stop the missile, or retrieve my friend, then I really hadn't accomplished much.
This objective-based gameplay wasn't optional. In fact, it was core to the experience, because Brink was story-driven. That concept confounded the mainstream FPS community, despite Brink's defining role as an innovator on many fronts within the game. It's out there, part of video game history now, and that stepping stone away from a stale pattern exists as a testament that there's more to the genre than what's currently being done. Because somebody wasn't afraid of change, afraid of their vision, or afraid of failure, they created something original within a well-established genre.
If we continue to approach these small problems with small solutions, we may never find out what our true potential is. We may miss out on some of our biggest and best ideas because we were afraid of exploring the unknown. Some of the best games out there are about exploring, finding hidden secrets, and becoming a hero from humble beginnings. If we looked at our creative process the same way as heroes surmount their challenges in the very video games we create, we might be able to solve the KDR matchmaking issue with something radically new that changes the way we play.