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The Gamasutra Quantum Leap Awards: First-Person Shooters

As voted by Gamasutra's readership of game industry professionals, we present our results of the Quantum Leap Awards for the first-person shooter genre, honoring the titles which "brought the FPS genre forward" in the biggest ways.

Frank Cifaldi, Contributor

September 1, 2006

22 Min Read

In August 2006, the editors of Gamasutra asked its readership of game industry professionals to chime in and vote for which game in the first-person shooter genre "brought the genre forward" in the biggest way - whether it be an early game that helped define the FPS, or a more recent one which took those core ideas and developed a more rewarding experience than before. Specifically, we asked:

"Which first-person shooter/action title over the entire history of the FPS game do you think has made the biggest 'quantum leap' in the genre, and why?"

On the following pages, we'll first present eight "honorable mentions" - games that, while certainly innovative and important, did not receive enough votes to make it into the top echelon.

Following this, we'll present the top five first-person shooters voted for by our readers, in reverse order, ending with the overall recipient of Gamasutra's first Quantum Leap Award, which received the largest amount of votes from game professionals.

[Please note that while many games received small amounts of votes in this survey, we could not possibly give adequate attention to each of them. 'Honorably mentioned' games also voted on by our readers, but not making it into the top five _or_ receiving detailed commentary alongside the voting included Halo, Star Wars: Dark Forces, FarCry, Tribes, and Quake III.]

Honorable Mention: Doom

Although Wolfenstein 3D basically invented the genre, it lacked variations in height and had no textures. Doom took things to a level where the player was immersed in a believable 3D environment, and added addictive network play to boot. There was nothing as satisfying as blasting your cube-mate with a BFG in the back. As far as I recall, it was also the first use of the term "Deathmatch" in video games as well. Since Doom nothing has been the same.

-Ken Carpenter, Pervasive Media Co.

Doom started the multiplayer frenzy. Of course, if it had not been Doom, it would have been only a question of time before another FPS would take the flag and bring to the audiences the wonderful experience of multiplayer gaming. But in the end, Doom did it, not another game. Duke Nukem 3D? Plenty of weapons, lots of humour, hours of play with friends. Plenty of features, the premises of a real story, mainly through a step by step level design. But no major leap to be found there.

In the end, I'd choose a game which defined the premise of what is now so important to FPSes: the multiplayer. And it's Doom.


Doom. I remember sitting with my friends, motion sick after playing marathon sessions, thinking "Oh my God, this is unbelievable!"


Honorable Mention: System Shock

I would argue that 'pre-Shock', shooters defined a narrow category of player experience more or less unchanged since the days of Wolfenstein 3D. It wasn't until the genre was 'post-Shock' that richer titles - in terms of game mechanics, story design and emergent gameplay - started to appear (notably Half Life and Deus Ex).

In terms of shooter mechanics, System Shock was the first FPS to really attempt to create physical immersion beyond just the camera POV. It introduced a full range of movements (most of which we take for granted now) and avatar hit location to give impact to damage effects. The weapons system, in addition to giving unprecendented levels of customization, also offered greater control modality than had been seen previously. System Shock wove in enough elements borrowed from adventure/RPG to elevate its design beyond the basic shooter tropes. It offered a robust system for the player to upgrade his weapons, equipment and skills; and it integrated a well-realized 'VR' hacking game that gave authenticity to its cyberpunk theme. The fact that so many of these features are now virtually de rigor in modern sci-fi shooters is a testament to the influence exerted by this one game.

-Patrick Redding, Ubisoft

Honorable Mention: Marathon

This is a "dark horse" entry, but I believe that the FPS Marathon by Bungie Studios made the biggest leap. While it clearly owed a great deal to Wolfenstein and Doom, Bungie forked off the path from the iD model of FPS design by giving the player a quiet, almost poetic atmosphere of dread and anticipation and including a backstory and narrative that gave you other reasons to explore besides gore and destruction. Using advanced (for the time) lighting, smart AI and a much slower pace, the game was all about atmosphere; the first few fights you have are among the most intense I've ever experienced. No heavy-metal guitars, no chainsaw, just you and a half-clip of pistol ammo and a dark, utterly foreign alien-ship corridor; the sensation of being truly alone made you yearn for the next data terminal, where you would log in and receive tiny, enigmatic pieces of a story that pointed to a greater whole.

Marathon also innovated in multiplayer to great effect, with King of the Hill and other tactics-inspired combat modes and some truly hilarious physics as a result of grenade or rocket hits. Long before Half-Life 2 allowed me to kill someone with a toilet, Marathon perfected launching opponents into the lava with a well-placed rocket between the feet -- instant comedy gold. The weapon balance was also superb; each weapon's power was balanced out by a negative, such as the intimidating rocket launcher that only held two rockets and had enough of a "kick" to throw off your second shot, should you linger on the fire button.

I suspect the submissions for this QOW will be inundated by Half-Life and Halo nominations, but Marathon players such as myself can smirk quietly knowing that Bungie's Marathon was the proving grounds in which they tested almost every element that made Halo what it is today (vehicles excepted, of course) and innovated in storytelling and atmosphere long before Gordon dodged his first headcrab. You had to be initiated into the cult of Macintosh to play, but that's what makes Marathon such a rare pleasure.

-Michael Eilers, University of Advancing Technology

Honorable Mention: Deus Ex

Deus Ex was more than just a first person shooter. It made you part of a believable future where conspiracies lay hidden around every corner waiting to be uncovered. Deus Ex made big strides not technologically, but more from a design point of view.

It gave birth to emergent gameplay, it changed the way at least the way I think games should be designed. It puts the player in a situation and the player should act as they please, but they will also have to accept the consequences of their actions. Deus Ex isn't like Half-Life or some other boring first person shooters because there's not one way (there's infinite solutions to problems, like in real life), you don't play the game as the designer intended you to play it, the designers encourage you to play the game with your own style, and the skill points and augmentations are used as tools to reach this goal. I think Deus Ex is a quantum leap from the likes of DOOM, and Half-Life, because it is believable, fun to play, it gives you variety, and it has a great epic story tying it all together.


Honorable Mention: Koronis Rift

OK, I'm going to indulge in some self-promotion here, but when did we first see a game use a first-person POV where you roam around a 3D landscape of mountains and valleys, fighting enemies with increasingly powerful weapons, and gathering your own weapons and defenses from the remains of past foes? Koronis Rift, 1985... Not exactly a FPS, but certainly a lot of the same basic elements.

-Noah Falstein, The Inspiracy

Honorable Mention: Alien Vs. Predator

Alien Vs. Predator was the reason gamers bought the Jaguar, and it introduced a stack of gameplay innovations that we now take for granted. It was the first fully-texture mapped FPS on any console anywhere. It was the first game that allowed you to play three totally different and competing characters - Alien, Predator and Marine. It was the first game with vision modes. It was the first game based on a film licence that actually added to the licence, rather than just cashing in on it.


Aliens was the first game where gamers (playing as aliens) could run on walls and ceilings - something the marketing for Prey has recently made much of (seven years later!) Not only that but the AI aliens could run on the walls and ceilings too - making formidable targets. The damage system was amazing too. You could shoot off any alien's arms, even shoot off individual fingers! If you shot off an alien's leg, it would still crawl at you and try to attack you! There was never any respite from the aliens. Uniquely in any game, the aliens would track you down intelligently, so you could never afford to stay in one place for long.

It was the first FPS to have characters with emotions and different facial expressions. As the Predator, you could literally peg an enemy's head to the wall, and fire the homing disk which you'd have to retrieve if it got stuck in a wall. It was the first game to introduce three very different characters in multiplayer games - with a beautifully-balanced paper-scissors-stone gameplay.

The intensity was increased as you never quite knew what you'd find in a room before you entered it. No chance to play through using quicksave, die and reload techniques. You had to be a real gamer! One of my favorite special effects ever was the beautiful volume filling explosions - throw a grenade down a coridoor and watch the orange flameball whoosh out! I also loved the slow motion gameplay effects with accompanying doppler effect sound frequency shifting. All this well before Max Payne built a whole game on slow motion effects. A giant, multi-leap forward for the FPS genre!


Honorable Mention: Descent

Descent was the first example of an FPS-style action title which divorced itself away from the sprite and raycasting approach of games prior. People often think of Quake as the first polygonal 3D FPS, but Descent predated it by a year, and more importantly, really shifted the gameplay mechanics (something Quake cannot really claim per se).

Beyond simply giving you a genuine 3D environment, it also fully exercised the 6DOF freedom of movement afforded by using a 3D environment, and escaped a lot of the limitations of games that preceded it (and even a few that followed). Which makes it both an interesting gameplay case study as well as a challenging game to play. It has stood the test of time in that it still sees mods to this day, and yet it is unique enough that it hasn't been duplicated as heavily as many others.

-Parashar Krishnamachari, Crystal Dynamics

Honorable Mention: Tribes

Tribes was one of the first titles that saw the popularization of teamplay and the 'capture the flag' scenario as a critical game element. It also introduced the first seamless multiple player roles, team communications like waypoints, a unique quickchat system, indoor-outdoor rendering engine, higher player count than ever before, and unique 3-dimensional gameplay with the addition of player jetpacks. It consistently ranks in the top 40 games played online still today, almost 8 years after its release.

-Alex Swanson, GarageGames, Inc.

5. System Shock 2

System Shock 2 reached a level of immersion and involvement with your environment that has never been matched before or since. Some people might disqualify it from the genre of strict FPS, since the action is less frantic and has a more cerebral slant than games in the traditions of id or Valve or Bungie or Epic, but if the first person perspective's great strength is its ability to transport the player into the role of the hero, to put you in their place, then no game does this better than SS2.

The ground breaking sound design plays a big part in this, as well as the carefully paced moments of intense emotion that the game seems to be able to turn on and off like a tap. The timing of events and engineering of your every situation is so well planned, so carefully arranged that your natural explorations and progression through the haunted ship advance the narrative in a totally transparent manor. Playing it feels like you've been cast in an excellent horror film where each scene has a specific purpose and the result is so engaging that you find yourself unable to stop playing. That's why System Shock 2 was and remains the most progressive, ground breaking title in the FPS genre.

-Tom Murray, Spartek Systems

System Shock 1 was probably a bigger leap, but in System Shock 2 the elements were more smootly entwined. It had a good story and narrative to drive you by, it had multiple possible tactics (PSI were such a change of palette) and it had the right atmosphere to it. And the minigames, I loved them. Notably, up to date SS2 is still one of my favourite FPS, topped only by F.E.A.R.

-Luca Franchini

4. Wolfenstein 3D

Wolfenstein 3d made FPS games into a main event. Not only was the game polished, but it was fun, and is STILL fun today.

-Matt Ribkoff, IDK

It really was a technological leap over the games that preceded it. Though graphics may improve, and features are added, the mechanics of the FPS are fundamentally now still based on the gameplay that was created in 1992.

-Tony Lozano, TSTC

Wolfenstein 3D - because it was the first.

-Ondrej Spanel, Bohemia Interactive Studio

When I compare today's games with [Wolfenstein 3D] I find only a few differences.

-Kent Simon, Kush Games

Wolfenstein 3D: The greatest 3D shooter untill Doom came along.

-Caleb Doughty

3. GoldenEye 007

Goldeneye proved that it was possible to create a fun FPS experience on a console, in both single-player and deathmatch game modes. It served to popularize the genre to a much larger audience that had experienced it before and was probably one of the most significant titles that allowed the N64 to remain competitive with the PlayStation.

-Benjamin Hoyt

I couldnt tell you how many hours I logged in multi-player on that game. Today's FPS games are still based on styles that came from GoldenEye. And while there are many games out since then that have helped revolutionize the industry and genre, none have changed things as radically as GoldenEye.

-Micah Hymer, Reverie Entertainment

GoldenEye was the first game to really put you in to a 3D environment with (somewhat) realistic situations. Enemies could see and hear you, they could also hit alarms, security cameras could catch you on tape, allies could run with you, you could shoot locks off of doors, destroy parts of environments for fun and to solve missions, all while breaking through an intricate story; it was an immersive experience that almost required you to think and behave like you were there. The industry at its best.

-Sterling Reames

This was the first big console FPS that truly got it right. The gameplay was solid and multi-player is so good I still have my 64 so that I can play this game with friends.

-Keith Schaffer, Ferris State

No other FPS suddenly opened the genre to such a large pool of new gamers as much as Goldeneye did. Goldeneye was the first viable and well done console FPS, one that could compete with its PC cousins not only in terms of gameplay, but also in terms of multiplayer. This game started the influx of console-based shooters we see nowadays, when only several years ago, the FPS was a genre for PC gamers only. While other shooters may have made bigger innovations that changed the genre as a whole, Goldeneye 007 opened the genre to a completely new market.

-Andrew Fort

Goldeneye was the first great success of a FPS on a console, and its multiplayer mode really added something to the game that is truly exclusive to console games. Being able to play against your friends while sitting on the same couch brings another kind of experience for the players. The command system took great advantage of the N64 controler, and with something very different from a mouse and a keyboard, suitied the genre's requirements (especially being able to aim precisely) like no other game did before. Games such as Halo could only have been done thanks to Goldeneye.

-Wyler Hugo

2. Quake

Id Software's Quake brought true three dimensional polygons into the development realm and explored the online play space above and beyond any other game available, even according to today's standards.

-Christopher James, EA Montreal

I believe it was Quake that defined how the genre would move forward, with the fully realised 3D environment and and the lightning gameplay. Although Doom brought the genre to the fore, Quake refined the idea into the prince that would one day be king.

-Sean McCafferty, Instinct Technology

Quake simply re-invented the idea of a FPS, with it's online deathmatch, the "big-bang" of FPS modification community, and also starting the graphic card add-on for the PC hardware market as well.

-Johnny Oh, Electronic Arts

Wolfenstein may have started the FPS genre but Quake defined it and made it the intense perspective driven experience that it is today.

-Michael Neth, NeXT

1. Half-Life

Making a quantum leap in a genre is a pretty hard thing to do. The FPS genre has been full of significant technological accomplishments, but these have come to be expected by each iteration of the game. Either you build on top of a game engine or you develop technology. With that being said, I think the game that supplied the biggest leap forward in the genre is without question, Half-Life. While still built with existing tech, the gameplay and more importantly the story set the game apart from any other like it before it. Half life utilized the first person perspective to drive it forward from just mindless killing and allowed it to become mindless killing with a story context. Given the lineage of FPS games before it, I'd say that's a pretty big push forward.

-Dustin Clingman, Zeitgeist Games, Inc.

Half-life was monumental in its story telling and first-person cinematography.


Half Life was such a great leap forward in game design that games are still being made today that have yet to catch up. Notable innovations:

  • Non enemy characters (as opposed to if it moves, you must kill it)

  • Seamless area transitions (as opposed to end-the-level-buttons or areas)

  • Things to interact with besides doors, leading to great problem solving levels

  • A story that was experienced in play rather than told to you

  • A sense of immersion that still seems hard to match today

  • A very user friendly online multiplayer interface (what? I don't have to enter an IP address? wow!)

The graphics are the only thing this game might lack versus another FPS launched today. Gameplay wise, it stands with anything I've seen released recently.


For me, Half Life made the biggest 'quantum leap' in the FPS genre with its inclusion of story-driven gameplay, which was executed superbly.

-Jools Watsham, KingsIsle Entertainment, Inc.

Before Valve's Marc Laidlaw introduced us to Gordon Freeman, the genre remained mired in the same "no plot to get in the way of the story" that marked the genre since Wolfenstein 3D and Doom. Half-Life drew us in with characters that fascinated, leaving us begging for a sequel -- not just for more great gameplay, but for a continuation of the story. No preceeding FPS had that, and the influence of that innovation can be seen in current titles like Prey and F.E.A.R..

-Christopher Dellario, WhatIF Productions LLC

By folding in story and adventure elements, [Half-Life] created a much deeper, more immersive experience than the pure shoot-em-ups that preceded it, a you-are-there action/horror experience that pulled as much from Aliens and Day of the Dead as it did Doom and Wolfenstein. And in doing so, it set a template for almost every FPS title in the future, from Deus Ex to Halo.

-Jordan Itkowitz, Rainbow Studios

[Half-Life] is the first time I can ever recall a 3rd/1st person view game where the cutscene unfolds "around" the player rather than infront of them as most games do. It also obviously was using fully realtime ingame scenes (using the game engine) rather than pre-rendered video. Even today many of the biggest titles still do not do either of these, which is a shame as the level of immersion is way beyond that of mere pre-rendered cut scenes, that are non-interactive.

Think of the intro of Half-Life, being in the train/cart, able to look around as much as you want, while being "moved" to your starting position. It is a image I'll never forget. Half-Life 2 carries on the legacy (introduction unfolds around you at the train station) but it can not compete against the impression that Half-Life gave me! BINK video and similar has served games well, but it is time for the game engines to do what they do best, immerse the player into the game world. Half-Life did this 8 years ago (which is like 40 years in gaming years), so in my eyes that makes it a pioneer in story telling for FPS games (as well as 3rd person view games).

-Roger Hågenseni

Half-life, mainly beacuse of its movie-like atmosphere and the fact that you are just an ordinary scientist (albeit, Rambo-like!). The engine also provided way for ordinary people to create different and beautiful mods such as Counter-Strike, which became a game on its own, They Hunger, etc. Although they are not related to Half-life (they are just mods), the fact that anyone with a little programming skill could write total conversions created a large modding community and a large user base who continued to buy Half-life years after the game had been released.

-Toni Petrina, Cyprox Studios

Although it may have not been the first title to do so, Half Life certainly was one of the best examples of narrative in a FPS. By not breaking the perspective with cutscenes, Valve crafted a game where I, at least, really felt some involvement within the story, which didn't feel like some excuse to run down a corridor to shoot enemies. Even FPS games today that rely heavily on that run and gun type of gameplay (Prey, Black) would seem primitive now without some form interactive narative or experience during gameplay.

-Blaine Toderian, Veda Games

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About the Author(s)

Frank Cifaldi


Frank Cifaldi is a freelance writer and contributing news editor at Gamasutra. His past credentials include being senior editor at 1UP.com, editorial director and community manager for Turner Broadcasting's GameTap games-on-demand service, and a contributing author to publications that include Edge, Wired, Nintendo Official Magazine UK and GamesIndustry.biz, among others. He can be reached at [email protected].

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