M‑M-M Monster Kill: The Death of the Arena Shooter

Killer Tofu offers his thoughts on how and why the Arena Shooter genre shrunk to a pea in the last decade.

Monster header

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.

Monster insert 1
Blah blah blah … Mr. Freeman

Developers of Arena Shooters took no­tice of this mar­ket shift. id Software and Epic both adopt­ed to a fo­cus on sto­ry in lat­er ti­tles. Sales equals suc­cess, and it’s no longer about one’s vi­sion and how that ties into game play when a game starts to reach a wider mar­ket. A good ex­am­ple of this prob­lem that I like to point to is Halo: Combat Evolved. It in­tro­duced the con­ven­tion of “2 Weapons, 8 grenades” that we find com­mon in a lot of mod­ern shoot­ers. By lim­it­ing a player’s in­ven­to­ry and their choice of weapon­ry, you do them a dis­ser­vice. This ar­ti­fi­cial lim­it caus­es the game to slow down, and makes you to think about what weapons you’re car­ry­ing. While this is good for telling a sto­ry, and pac­ing your play­ers so that your ex­pe­ri­ence is tai­lored, it also makes your mul­ti­play­er com­po­nent suf­fer. In a game fo­cused on skill and aim, lim­it­ing the play­er in how they in­ter­act with the game is a bad de­sign choice. Titles such as Quake 3: Arena and Unreal Tournament 2004 are a good ex­am­ple of how to do mul­ti­play­er games right. Give the play­er freedom.

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.

It’s fun­ny be­cause it’s not far from the truth.

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.

Monster insert 2
This is what peo­ple think gamers used to live like then. Apparently.

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.

The fol­low­ing two tabs change con­tent below.
Killer Tofu is the only ac­cept­able form of tofu out there. When not writ­ing about games and in­ter­net cul­ture he en­joys long walks on the beach with your mom. But he won’t call her afterwards.

Latest posts by Killer Tofu (see all)

Scroll to top