Can You Envision a Casual FPS?

At the Chicago Indie Game Developer Club meeting last Tuesday, Impossible mentioned the idea of making a casual first-person shooter. We both wondered how one would make such a game. What would it be like?

At first, I was just amused at the idea, but then I thought that it might make for a good thought experiment. So I started thinking about it.

Normal FPS
What’s makes a regular, normal first-person shooter? The industry-standard controls involve the use of WASD, although some players prefer the arrow keys. The mouse controls which way you are looking. One button controls shooting. The other can be used for jumping or alternate fire. Those are the basics, although some games allow you to use other keys on the keyboard to control whether you are running, walking, standing, or crawling. Other keys allow you to perform context-sensitive actions. You can switch weapons. You can taunt. You can send messages to everyone or limit them to teammates or enemies. Some keys correspond to launching flares or grenades. Some bring up different aspects of the HUD.

Now, I will admit that it just sounds complex. Most players don’t concentrate on using all the keys, after all. You can play Quake 3 Arena with just WASD/arrows and the mouse, ignoring the crouch key, for example. On the other hand, expert players will utilize whatever they can to play well. From changing the view radius to increasing the speed of mouse movement, they will simply be in a league of their own compared to completely new players. There are people who play often enough to memorize the order of player spawns and take advantage of this knowledge to kill opponents before they have a chance to move. It can be frustrating for regular players, but I can see it discouraging newbies completely.

Casual FPS
What would you change to make an first-person shooter more accessible to non-gamers? For one, change the default controls to the arrow keys. Maybe it is different for foreign keyboards, but I have yet to see a new computer gamer that hasn’t used the arrow keys and wondered why the game wasn’t responding. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets even used WASD! Children are just supposed to pick up on this control scheme? It reminds me of playing games on the Apple II in which every game used IJKM. It took me a little getting used to, especially since the arrow keys were right there and made a heck of a lot more sense.

As for controls, I think simplification can only help. For example, in Alien vs Predator 2, you can turn on the shoulder lamp. The battery would drain, and it would recharge when you turn it off. Well, for a casual version of the game, I think that you would throw out the concept of draining and recharging. Maybe even have the lamp work in a context-sensitive manner or just have it always on. Let the player worry about maneuvering and shooting rather than which key to press to turn on a flashlight. “Oops, I accidentally launched a flare. Wait, that was the key to activate the hacking tool. I’ve almost got it…no, not Gadget Umbrella!” A casual FPS would allow the player to focus on the essential parts of the interface.

I think steps could be taken to prevent veterans from having an advantage over newbies just for knowing more. For example, there is a map in Quake 3 Arena that allows a player to stand in one spot and quickly shoot opponents with the rail gun as they are spawned. Shoot at one point, then aim at the new point and wait for the player to appear. Repeat. New players are still trying to get their bearings, and this specific level is one of the worst to play for the first time. Some people might grind through and try to fight back, but casual players will simply find a new server. I am not saying that veterans shouldn’t play better than newbies. I just think that it can be annoying to play against someone who is winning for no other reason than that you don’t know the level layout as well.

And what about the idea of a shooter in the first place? Does it have to involve guns, blood, and gore? Maybe a casual title might involve construction instead of destruction. Maybe it could feature a capture the flag type of game where the object is to grab resources from a central area and return to your base without dropping them. Cooperation could be encouraged, and it would be more than simply blasting through the campaign levels together.

Hmmm…
While the above are high-level ideas to think about, I know that I am leaving out and/or forgetting many more. What do you think would make a casual FPS?

17 comments to Can You Envision a Casual FPS?

  • Berzerk. Robotron.

    Your post is about casual FPS games, but in fact you are discussing casual first person multiplayer shooters and you didn’t touch on single-player at all.

    There’s a mode for UT called Invasion which allows co-op. The objective is to kill all the enemies on a level and the levels get increasingly difficult. It’s a very simple and old game concept and the co-op aspect is a lot of fun. Great for learning the levels, the weapons, the movement, while having a blast.

  • Actually, I think that except for capture the flag and Q3A parts, most of my post dealt with general things to do to make an FPS accessible to more casual players. Still, you’re right in that I didn’t make a big focus on single-player, which may very well be something that casual players would appreciate: a place to play at their own pace without worrying about other people.

  • Virtua Cop.

    Aiming, shooting, AND moving is a little complex and confusing. Understanding that there’s something “behind you” and not visible on the screen is also confusing to new players who are used to seeing everything they are supposed to see on the television screen.

    The right mouse button (having a second mouse button seems to hurt, but I’d still use it) used to “duck” or “dodge” would work. You could also use it when the fighting is over to have the player point and click to where he’d like to go next. Maybe. If you offer a friendly prompt each time.

    However, I think “Casual” is part of a spectrum, not a completely distinct category separated by some gulf from “hardcore.” So I think you could get a little bit more complex. But you have to be careful. When I worked on Void War, I worked hard to make the game more “accessible” to less hardcore gamers. And then when I sat some people down to play it – people who were used to playing MMORPGs, mind you – they still got confused. I don’t know what I’d do to make it simpler and still retain the game play I was shooting for, but it was an eye-opening experience.

  • Impossible

    A rail shooter (like virtua cop) is not a FPS. FPS implies off-rail movement through the world, not just a first person view. Even a rail shooter with branching isn’t quite what I’d want.

    The game I’m imagining would be exploration focused. Maybe finding and collecting items in the world? In terms of shooting, it wouldn’t be like a standard FPS. It would be more like Luxor or other “casual action” games. Aim would be a focus and there would be low time pressure. Enemies would mostly block your progress rather than outright kill you. This should also fix the problem of being killed or attacked by enemies that are offscreen. I probably wouldn’t put guns in it. I’d rather go with a “magic staff” or something of that nature to make it more kid friendly. It would be atlantis themed :), kind of like an indian jones or tomb raider game. Combat could be simple matching puzzles (use the ice staff on the fire golem, use fire on the ice golem, etc.)

    In terms of movement it would be entirely mouse driven. I’m thinking something like myst meets diablo, where you actually click on floor tiles or objects to move toward them. One of the biggest issues new FPS players have is looking at the floor or ceiling, so there probably wouldn’t be any ability to look up or down. Turning would probably be automatic if your mouse was on the edge of the screen because I imagine people having trouble constantly moving the mouse to turn. The mouse would not be locked to your view, the cursor would move as normal. Shooting and activating objects would be context sensitive, if you click on a enemy you shoot him, if you click on a door you open it, etc.

    The biggest problem… one that might be insurmountable, is disorientation. A lot of people get sick playing FPS games, and even then the casual market will just not be as good at 3D spacial navigation as people that play FPS games. Hopefully the interface modifications would make the standard problems, looking at the floor, getting stuck on walls, etc. go away.

    There we go, casual FPS design doc version 1.0 :). This is kind of an extreme example, trying to make a FPS for people that enjoy Bejeweled and Zuma. There are alternatives, like making a game more like Doom or Wolfenstein, a “back to basics” FPS with more mass market appeal that isn’t as complex as newer games.

    I’d also kind of like to see people doing the same thing with FPS games as they do with shmups now. Weird gimmicky gameplay systems and abstract graphics. Like the Every Extend or Kenta Cho equivalent of FPS games.

  • Subject matter is important. The subject matter of a fps is not something your typical 40yo female is going to care about. Jay mentioned “spectrum” which is true except for a casual game that spectrum contains a significant number of females. I think you have to take away the gun and turn it into something else, say a camera.. oh wait.

    btw. I think in all fps games batteries should last more than 10 seconds. Man.. The fake world sure has a difficult time storing a charge.

  • Actually, I think that Virtua Cop is a good example. No, it may not be an FPS in the general sense, but it is easy to pick up and play.

    On the other hand, Quake 3 Arena with enemies that don’t actually fight back would be another good idea. Enemies would be more like obstacles. Imagine if blue goblins can only be eliminated if you give them food, so now your task is to find food and give it to them in order to pass.

    I agree that blood and guts will probably not be appetizing to casual players, although you could just create an FPS that appeals to gamers who just don’t have the time to invest in learning how to play complicated games. Blood/Guts might be fine for them, but a if your game requires superhuman dexterity, they might pass.

  • What I’m thinking of while reading this is “Wow, Super Mario Bros. with a first person perspective”. πŸ™‚

    Seriously, though, a lot of what you’re describing is no longer a first person shooter, casual or otherwise. It’s an RPG with first person perspective (Wizardry 8?). Not that there’s anything wrong with that mind you, and I happen to like the character-driven portions of single-player FPSes more than the “run into room with 50 enemies and run around shooting until they’re all dead” part. My favorite FPSes have been ones that mix in RPG-ish elements and good story and non-combat gameplay (Elite Force, Jedi Outcast). They’re still first person combat games, though.

    You also need to decide what you mean by casual. At first I thought you meant a game that could be played for 5 minutes and then put down, like Solitaire. Then you’re talking about a game that isn’t so biased in favor of 14 year olds with nothing better to do than memorize spawn points. Which is it? πŸ™‚

    Casual single player or casual multiplayer?

    A lot of the controls learning curve could be solved with just a better tutorial and instructions, or a setup wizard (Do you want to use the arrow keys or WASD to control your movement?).

    And then, where is the first person line? In Jedi Outcast, you spend most of your time in 3rd person perspective (butt cam) with the lightsaber out. It’s neither 1st person nor shooting. Is Tomb Raider (major butt cam) a first person “shooter”? If those are first person shooters, then why isn’t Zelda: Ocarina of Time (That’s the cartoony one, right?) included? Or for that matter, Mario 64 and Donkey Kong Country?

    There’s a lot of different aspects you’re including here to make this “casual” game, and most aren’t specific to FPSes, or else by definition are not an FPS anymore.

    An actually first-person Zelda- or Mario-like game? Count me in. πŸ™‚

  • Larry: Well, third-person perspective isn’t first-person by definition. Tomb Raider was never considered an FPS so much as a third-person platformer. And you’re thinking of Wind Waker, not Ocarina of Time, as the cartoony one. B-)

    I don’t believe casual necessarily means that you can play it for five minutes, although it would be nice if a game could load that quickly. B-)

    That said, I think casual simply means that you don’t need to learn how to play by attrition. That is, you aren’t expected to fail over and over until you “get it”. Many mainstream (and indie) game titles make use of mechanics and controls that everyone knows…that is, everyone who has been playing games for the past couple of decades. It leaves everyone else out, so when you start shooting barrels and crates to get health or ammo, new players will say, “Well, how the heck was I supposed to know that health was in a crate?! What would lead me to even think to look in a barrel for tank shells?!?”

    Memorized spawn points, one-shot kills, manual dexterity, and any number of things turn a game into a battle based on time logged rather than fun for most people. It’s kind of like MMORPGs in that sense in that you get rewarded for grinding through the game, while casual players will either be turned off by the grind or get turned off by the fact that without grinding, he/she is at a disadvantage.

    I think Nintendo’s new controller is a good indication of the kinds of things that are fundamentally needed. Using a keyboard and mouse to control everything is intimidating for someone who is used to console controllers, let alone someone who has never played games before. Nintendo’s controller is presumably as intuitive to use as an escalator. You just KNOW how it will work.

  • Impossible

    I was thinking about a game that captures some of the “essence” of first person shooters, especially the exploration and shooting parts, but follows all of the standard casual game rules. It wouldn’t be a RPG or even an adventure game, although you might be able to call it a puzzle game. It would be much easier to control than standard FPS games and wouldn’t require insane reflexes. It would only use the mouse and have levels that can be played in 5-10 minute chunks. It would still involve shooting (lots of shooting) and it would be single player only.

    Part of the reason the idea interests me is because first person shooters are seen as the most hardcore of the hardcore genres, and to most people trying to make an FPS that appeals to the casual audience is an oxymoron. Depending on your personality you either think the idea is stupid or an interesting design challenge.

    Speaking of first person Mario-like games, there is a PS1 game called Jumping Flash that is one of the few (the only?) first person platformers. Something like that might work as a casual first person game.

  • […] Gianfranco Berardi at GBGames’ Blog asks if Can You Envision a Casual FPS? […]

  • There’s so much that could be done with FPS matches to make them more accessible. Metroid: Hunters goes a long way with simple controls, simple maps and great matchmaking.

    I wrote a mod for UT called Bounty War that later became part of my Freehold mod. The idea was that getting frags increased your worth to other players. This served to keep vets on their toes against newbies, because a newbie could make up a lot of score by fragging a vet.

    Other aspects, like removing weapon pickups and powerups, should focus on not making map memory a key aspect of winning the match. It’s a large factor that lends a large advantage to people well versed in the game.

  • Speaking only of the multiplayer aspect, I think it’s nigh impossible to have a FPS that plays as well for casual as it does for the hardcore. This is because with any FPS there are rules. I think of it in terms of the Matrix. Neo was a relative newbie to the Matrix. He didn’t yet understand the limitations of the system, and how to exploit them or break them to his advantage. He was a casual player in the Matrix. Morpheus and the other free humans were undoubtedly hardcore. They had spent the time and training necessary to take advantage of the system’s limitations.

    A more concrete example can be seen with Counter-Strike. I think it was around the time of Beta 5 (before 5.2) when Half-Life 1.1 was released and really made “bunny-hopping” an important tactic. Basically, you could move faster simply by repeatedly crouch-jumping as you move. This also made you harder to hit, while affecting your own firing accuracy very little. Naturally, the game was patched so that jumping slowed you down, somewhat, and drastically reduced the accuracy of firing while jumping.

    But this is an example of how no FPS engine will be perfect, and there will always be people willing and able to explore and find the limits of the FPS, which will inevitably give them greater advantage over the casual player.

  • Josh: Those are some interesting ideas. I think I need to play Bounty War with my friends the next time we get a game going.

    Finster: While it may be that some players will always game the system, there should be ways to give casual players a way to have an unbalanced experience. Josh’s idea of making expert players worth more is a good example. Newbie players and casual players can get a big jump by going after the experts. Experts won’t want to waste time going after newbies except as griefers. Maybe penalizing such kills would make it less appealing?

  • cw

    Wow, you make it sound like you want noobs to be able to pick up a game and be good at it, that’s bullshit. The more you play a game the better you should become at it, not the other way around. Hardcore gamers will always dominate new gamers, no matter what simplifications a developer puts on them.

  • cw: Actually, I don’t think that newbie players should be experts at the game. That isn’t possible since you have to practice for many hours before you can be considered an expert.

    The idea behind “casual” is that you don’t have to be an expert to play. Requiring the hours of practice to become an expert in order to have fun would probably be the very opposite of casual. Yes, hardcore, dedicated gamers will always be experts compared to casual players; however, a casual game shouldn’t make a gamer feel like he/she needs to put in the time to deserve to have fun.

    Besides, there are obviously some game design elements that reduce the advantage experts would have on newbies. If a game’s design doesn’t give advantages to those things that an experienced player would know or do, then the casual player won’t feel like he/she is missing much.

  • Aaron

    Why would you take out the shooting part? I mean, its a First Person //Shooter//?

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