Multiplayer and shooters go together like blue shells and broken friendships. For better or for worse, online multiplayer is the focus of the majority of today's AAA FPS and TPS franchises. With daily player counts in the millions, the genre is not going away anytime soon, but for the casual gamer like me, I am bored with today's AAA offerings. If you need proof that others share my sentiment, take a look at how PlayerUnkown's Battlegrounds and Epic Games' Fortnight leveraged the battle royale game mode to take over the online shooter space in 2017. The online shooter community is hungry for new experiences, and as studios hope to cash in on their own battle royale clones, the industry should look ahead to identify the next gap in today's AAA offerings.
What is that gaping, shotgun-blast-to-the-chest sized void in the shooter landscape?
There are no high-action, team focused online multiplayer shooters.
Let me break down those terms and their antitheses:
- Low-action vs. High-action
- L-A: combat is sporadic and methodical
- H-A: combat is constant and chaotic
- Team-focused vs. Player-focused
- T-F: the game is designed to encourage team play
- P-F: the game is designed to encourage solo play
All of today's big-name multiplayer shooters can be described by combining some variation of those two categories, with the two most popular combinations being:
- low-action, team-focused
- high-action, player-focused
Neither combination is inherently better than the other, but their overwhelming prevalence makes it clear that game designers currently treat pace-of-action and teamwork as mutually exclusive factors. Here are some examples of games that fall into each group:
(Combat is sporadic and methodical; game design encourages team play)
- ARMA 3
- Rainbow Six Siege
(Combat is constant and chaotic; game design encourages solo play)
- Call of Duty: WWII
- Battlefield 1
This dichotomy is all well and good, except it has persisted for so many years that most shooters feel like stale re-skins of each other. I believe we've all had the experience of booting up our console and having to choose between a positive team experience with methodical gameplay, or absentee teammates and non-stop carnage. It's time we had a new choice. It's time we had positive team play and non-stop carnage. It's time someone made a high-action, team-focused shooter.
I realize that there are folks in this industry who are much smarter than I am, and earn princely sums to think up the next big multiplayer shooter experience, so it stands to reason that if this gap is so obvious, why has no one filled it. Here are a few reasons:
- If it isn't broken, don't fix it - the past decade has been good to AAA shooter franchises, with FPS and TPS titles routinely topping the console and PC game sales charts. Total unit sales are declining for some franchises, but until the well runs dry, there isn't a lot of incentive or time to explore the development of new IP's.
- Group think - Because studios have spent the last ten years producing shooters that fall into the two categories listed above, it is assumed that online shooters must follow certain design principles to be profitable. These principles are valuable and should not be ignored, but studios shouldn't be afraid to apply them to the development of shooters that are fundamentally different from what we've seen before.
- Technical limitations - The hardware and infrastructure hasn't been available to smoothly and reliably handle the large amount of NPCs required for high-action, team-focused multiplayer shooters (I'll get into this high NPC count later on).
Companies who are willing to experiment, however, are reaping the rewards. Blizzard Entertainment has already shifted towards high-action, team-focused games with Overwatch, which takes the fast-paced action of a Call of Duty and pairs it with the tactical, team-oriented gameplay of a Rainbow Six.
In other words, while games like Call of Duty, Battlefield, and Battlefront compete over players and struggle with identity crises and micro-transaction controversies, Blizzard reigns king in its own unique genre of online shooter. And Blizzard's genre-bending is just the tip of the iceberg. There is still much to explore (and profit from) in the uncharted waters of high-action, team-focused shooters.
For studios looking to take advantage of this fertile space, here are some design principles to keep in mind:
- High-action games have combat that is constant and chaotic. Action is always taking place somewhere on the map. There is minimal downtime between engagements and the scope of combat is typically large, encompassing infantry, armor, and air support.
- Team-focused games have small team sizes and player death has palpable consequences. Coordinated loadout selection and team communication are imperative for success.
- To provide high-action with fewer players per team, use NPCs to fill out the ranks. This ensures the target-rich environment needed for chaotic combat without sacrificing team size. Titanfall 2 is a great example of this concept, and proves that the technical limitations of incorporating large numbers of NPCs into the combat space is not a barrier.
- To encourage team-play, remove all individual-based stats and leveling systems. Instead, implement a modular class-based system that provides all players the same loadout options to choose from.
- Design combat so that team composition has a clear influence on match outcomes and solo-play is not viable.
I hope these principles inspire studios to take the leap and start designing high-action, team focused online shooters. The FPS and TPS community is hungry for fresh experiences, and providing them to the player is simply a matter of combining existing design principles in a new way. If PUBG, Fortnite, and Overwatch are any indication, the potential fiscal return is certainly worth the risk of innovation.
Today's AAA shooters are siloed into two genres: low-action, team-focused; high-action, player-focused. The market does not have a hybrid genre of high-action, team-focused. Gamers would appreciate not having to sacrifice team play for epic battles, while publishers stand to profit from introducing a new type of shooter into a stagnant and overcrowded market.
To create a AAA FPS/TPS online multiplayer experience that offers high levels of spectacle and action while promoting team play, game designers should follow these principles:
- Limit the human players per side to six or less
- Use NPC teammates to fill out the battlefield and create scale
- Have medium to large maps that allow for ranged and close-quarters combat
- Make player death a palpable tactical disadvantage
- Do not display comparisons of player's individual performance statistics
- Do not create rewards for individual achievements
- Design combat such that hero play is not viable