M-M-M Monster Kill: The Death of the Arena Shooter
There is always something that fills me with regret when I think on it, and that is the death of a staple of late 90s and early 2000s PC gaming — the Arena Shooter. It was a genre built on adrenaline and speed; bottled lightning as it were. Sadly, this kind of twitch oriented shooter took a backseat in the market due to the success of other titles in the FPS genre such as Half-Life, Halo, and even early Call of Duty games. Compounded with the success of the home console, and an attempt to make E-Sports a thing before the audience existed, ultimately cause the genre to fizzle down into the dim candle we have today.
The genre is on life support, with Quake Live being where growth in this genre’s multiplayer scene has been for the longest time. Modern titles just don’t have the same appeal they did to a niche market, as most players of Arena Shooters are happy playing their older titles and are adverse to taking risks on a new property. Games such as Toxikk and Reflex haven’t had an easy time entering the market, and their audience is disenfranchised, pining for the “good old days.”
I’m not saying that Halo, Half-Life, or even early Call of Duty games are bad. However, they are the main reason why Arena Shooters are a dying breed in my view. Video games, like it or not, are a profit driven industry. Half-Life is a beloved title; a bizarre look into a what-if that is highly praised for it’s plot, pacing, and overall ability to tell a story without watering down the game play too much. It became a gaming staple, and the sales figures from 2008 put Half-Life 1 as having sold over 9.3 Million copies.
One of the big issues to me is that modern titles are built for consoles. With that comes limiting factors of your input methods, and the general under-powered nature of consoles when compared to most mid-priced PC counterparts. This also introduced a need for P2P networking of games as opposed to dedicated servers set up by players, and the limitations this introduces to a games multiplayer environment. Simply put, being console-centric causes games to depend on a networking solution that is erratic; you introduce too many factors to compensate for complicated action with most P2P netcode.
A lot of console-based shooters depend on a mechanic called Hitscan because of the difference in bandwidth and routing errors from client connections. Hitscan is a method by which the game engine draws a straight line from the player shooting to the area their cursor is on. They can have different ranges and effectiveness from game to game too. With Hitscan there’s no dodging, you are essentially firing invisible laser pointers at people with maths applied to approximate things like recoil. The calculation takes place so quick, that the projectile is there “instantly.” This is why Call of Duty’s weapons feel all samey, because they are mostly Hitscan based.
This is only exacerbated by the lack of input methods available to consoles. Analog sticks are inherently less accurate for more precise and agile movements than mice for PCs which are designed for accurate pointing. It’s because of this that you cannot be as accurate or use physics based projectiles as well. This slows down the game play and basically turns it into Whack-a-Mole. This also caused iron sights to be a primary mechanic in these sorts of games. It causes the game to turn into glorified game of Red Light, Green Light in a sense. The first person to get sight of their opponent and pull the trigger usually wins the altercation. It’s this consequence of game design that makes it feel bland and uninspired in all the titles that use these mechanics. This is a direct byproduct of the success of consoles.
But once home consoles took off, it was an inevitable trend. Like we established earlier, success equals money, so the trend toward making console video game experiences is just a smart business decision when they fill so many homes. There was a huge emerging market, with fresh money, and this made PC oriented experiences a less profitable venture. We are seeing this again more recently with mobile gaming, but that is a topic for a different time.
One of the best things about Arena Shooters was the innovation they brought to the FPS genre at the time. Some of the first attempts at adapting a primarily PC based genre to consoles were games like GoldenEye, and Perfect Dark. These games brought what consoles needed: fast paced game play with tight controls. They were revolutionary for their time, and both are still regarded as shining examples of console FPS titles in general. To me, it was because they still demanded the skill that drove innovation in these games.
Something we can thank Arena Shooters for is a game mechanic called Strafe-Jumping. First discovered in the Quake 1, it was an bug in code that was left in as a feature. This “bug” allowed a player to be more agile when they held a bound strafing key (A or D) and moved the camera the same direction at certain angles. This caused the player to accelerate past the walking speed limit, and gave people an option for quick movement which helped up the skill ceiling of the title.
So you get the basic idea.
It was this unique addition to the shooter genre that brought in a sense of ability and challenge. It separated the good players from the bad, and allowed people to do the impossible. Games like Tribes 2 went full on in this need for fast paced, skillful game play. It also utilized the full power of PCs at the time. Tribes 2 supported 32 player games in 2001, allowing for combat on a whole new scale. With PC being the primary platform for these sorts of games, it drove the industry to take FPS games to new places. Twitch reaction and speed oriented game play fueled this desire to be the best, to have unique experiences that were, and mostly still are, only possible due to the freedoms of the PC platform. This in turned help push PC hardware sales.
It’s things like multiplayer free from subscriptions, driven by the community, that caused the genre to get so ingrained in PC gaming, and thus drove the developers to innovate new experiences in the FPS space. The accessibility to multiplayer is what allowed for a what was originally a niche genre to really flourish and thrive as global communities grew around them. It was a good way to maintain a market, and make what the fans wanted. It allowed developers to push themselves to new heights and explore new technical concepts.
With that being said, a lot of modern “made-for-console” shooters focus purely on the story and mass market multiplayer, and not the elements that make a lot of older FPS games games great; game play, mechanics, and user experience. It’s why map design has become little more than straight lines in which you trigger dramatic cut scenes with a C tier Hollywood plot, and then walk in another straight line until the same thing happens again and again until credits roll.
This has caused multiplayer in video games to suffer due to the changes in design needed for mass console releases. Artificial limits cause multiplayer FPS titles feel limited and very sterile. Almost as if the single player experience just had some netcode added to it. It’s not exciting, and doesn’t let you feel as if you really worked for your victory. Just have the right loadout and sneak up on people first, or hope you pull the trigger quick enough to not die. This were only made worse by games such as Gears of War. While it had an interesting third person view, things such as the take downs and the Chainsaw bayonet brought more of the smoke and mirrors of single player to the multiplayer. You saw your character do something badass, but it doesn’t feel as if you really earned it, cheapening your victory even further. It also slows the game play down even more, which makes it boring to watch.
This kind of touches on a consequence of watered down game play . Watching people play these shooters is boring. E-Sports wasn’t much of a thing people took seriously back in the heyday of games like Quake 3: Arena. E-Sports was a bit of a joke when the twitched based shooters were king, and networks such as G4 attempting to force this into being a larger thing too early caused it to burnt out as being a genre people wanted to watch. There wasn’t a market yet for that kind of content. People still regarded video games as a fringe hobby, something losers did in their mom’s basement after downloading porn illegally.
Outside of South Korea, the idea that anybody would want to watch competitive play of what was still regarded as “toys for children” was laughable to most. The early broadcasted “MLG” coverage was cringe worthy because of artificial hype. It left a bad taste in many people’s mouths, and caused the multiplayer scene of Arena Shooters to slowly fade away to what we see today.
The faithful still play on to this day, playing their favorites of the genre, unwilling to risk their money and time on an untested product. It saddens me that this is the way one of my favorite genres died. Not with a bang, nor even a whimper, but isolated in a weird sort of purgatory. I hope some day the genre will go back to being the powerhouse it once was, but sadly the forecast looks grim. I just hope that one day I can go back to being fast and accurate in new ways that challenge myself as a gamer and make me strive to be better.
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