I know Kung-Fu

  By Shamus   Feb 10, 2006   34 comments

Here is an interesting bit from Tales of the Rampant Coyote that talks about “Casual” vs. “Hardcore” games. On the subject of learning to play first-person shooters, the author says this:

Now fast forward to today. Could someone who never played a videogame at all (let alone a First-Person Shooter) handle a game like Unreal Tournament or F.E.A.R.? Not without a heck of a lot of work and frustration. They’ll start with basic questions, like looking at approaching enemies and asking, “So which one of those is me?” The standard control schemes that are second nature to some of us […] are only slowly acquired by this new player. Even after going through the tutorial and starting on “Easy” difficulty, the new player is likely to be intimidated at best, and likely overwhelmed. These games are made with the experienced, veteran gamer in mind – the type of player who would be BORED revisiting basic FPS territory. They are looking for a game that will challenge the skills that they have honed over the course of many months or years and many different games.

I have a LAN at the house and over the years I’ve introduced a lot of people to the world of first-person shooters. I can say with certainty that most gamers fail to grasp just how steep the learning curve is on these games. Jay Barnson, the author of the above, points out that just understanding what they are seeing is a challenge for a true newbie. I rode this curve as it developed, so I never had to go through the brutal initiation that newbies do today. Here is how things evolved for me:

  1. Wolfenstein taught me the basics: Point at stuff and press the fire button. Use the strafe keys to get out of the way of stuff heading for me
  2. When DOOM came along I started using the mouse to aim. This was tricky at first, but allowed for a lot more precision and faster targeting. This led to another skill: Circle strafing, where you run around a foe in a tight circle while shooting them.
  3. Duke Nukem brought vertical combat (looking up and down), jumping.
  4. Quake: This was a major step. Using the mouse to aim up and down. Also, the game featured a more robust array of weapons, including grenades that bounce and can (to the experienced player) be dropped over ledges and angled around corners.
  5. Unreal: An even larger, more varied list of weapons, all of which now have TWO firing modes.
  6. Unreal Tounament: A collection of maps designed for the express purpose of player-vs-player combat. Areas are complex and multilayered. Weapons and items are spread out to encourage players to keep moving. Powerful items are placed in dangerous or hard-to-reach areas. Maps have traps. Tricks. There is a great deal of strategy involved in choosing a weapon based on wherever you happen to be fighting.

I spent about eight years getting from the first item to the last one on the list. The gameplay is now highly refined and very deep. (The practice of calling these games “mindless shooters” comes from people who know nothing about the game, or from people who know the games so well they don’t realize just how much thought is involved in learning to play.) Now I try to imagine what it must be like for a new player to try to absorb all of this at once. Oh yeah: while you’re trying to learn, enemies are killing you repeatedly. Unlike Neo, you can’t just download all of that knowledge into your brain. There is no fast way to learn this. There is no shortcut. If you want to play this game your only choice is to let it slaughter you a few hundred times until moving is more or less second nature to you. THEN you can start learning about how to truly use all these crazy weapons, which will take almost as long. THEN you can start learning the strategy of the game, how to use audio clues to figure out where your foes are, how to monopolize and control key items, and how to force encounters on your own terms. Even with dedication this would take months.

Which makes me wonder: Will these games stagnate in the coming years? Will new players steer clear of Deathmatch and all of its many forms and go for a more accessible experience? I wonder.

I doubt the market for these games would actually shrink, but as the world of electronic gaming grows they may be a smaller and smaller part of it. I don’t have any numbers on this, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn this was happening already.


201434 comments. Hurry up and add yours before it becomes passé.


  1. Mark says:

    Ahh, my first FPS experience was with the glorious Wolfenstein 3D. Only 3 types of guns (and a knife), lots of treasure, and of course, lots of circa 1944 experimental Nazi zombies. This game had everything that Doom had except the graphics and maybe some minor gameplay features (I don’t remember if W3D had strafing). But it was definitely an eye-opening game, revolutionary for its time.

    Since then I’ve progressed much as you have, with a couple of variances: Doom, Doom II, Quake, Hexen, Unreal Torunament, and just for nostalgia’s sake, Return to Castle Wolfenstein (which has one truly kickass multiplayer map that is absolutely brilliant and kept me playing for months – it simulated the D-day amphibious landings and was an excellently structured and balanced level. I wonder if anyone is still running the servers for those multiplayer games… I doubt it, which is a shame…)

    I think FPS has already stagnated a bit, though I have to admit that I haven’t kept up with it. I think the one thing we’ll see more of is the FPS in an already accepted universe. For instance, the Star Wars Battlefront games, while not strictly FPS (you see your character) basically follows the same gameplay (though you can’t pick up other weapons and whatnot…)

    OHHH, how could I forget Bond? For Nintendo 64, there as a James Bond Goldeneye game that had an incredibly addicting multiplayer aspect. Perhaps it was just that I was in college when it came out, but that game was an awesome FPS experience. Some great maps, good variety of weapons (and several different sets of weapons as well) and I’m not sure anything has really compared since then… though that may be more because of my circumstances than anything else…

  2. Shamus says:

    Oh my gosh. How could I have forgotten Wolfie?!? I should have had that as step #1 on my list. There are several other good ones in your list that I’d forgotten and several that I’ve never tried. (Like Bond)

    Great stuff. Thanks for bringing back some great memories. :)

    EDIT: I put wolfie in the list.

  3. Jay Barnson says:

    Great article, Shamus!

    Yeah, I got started on Wolfenstein 3D myself. And Doom. Probably one of those coolest “moments” ever, when I *got* multiplayer gaming, was playing a cooperative mission through the first or second level of episode 2 in Doom – the one with all the piles of crates and tons of imps lurking about.

    Then playing 4-player deathmatch over a LAN in DOOM 2 – I thought it couldn’t get better than that.

    But it’s exactly as you say – it was a simpler game. No jumping, certainly no rocket-jumping, no aiming up and down (the game did it for you, for what limited elevation changes existed), and straightforward weapon selection (get the chaingun and the rocket launcher ASAP). You DID have to consider a lot of factors to be competitive – locations and respawn times for various key pick-ups, for example. It was still a relatively complicated and non-newbie-friendly environment. It was a gamer’s game, but gamers were hungry for it.

    I think it was “Rise of the Triad” that introduced lots of jumping to the FPS genre.

    Duke Nukem 3D introduced some of the fancier, weirder weapons that made weapon selection and strategy a lot more interesting.

    Rainbow Six simplified things in some ways, but dramatically branched off from the genre and added some complexity in other areas.

    But hardcore players would get bored now having to go “back to basics” to start with something as straightforward as just standing in place and shooting moving targets. But a newcomer to the genre may NEED this, and would have a lot of fun just adding one skill at a time. I don’t know how easily you can rectify these different requirements for a “new” crowd and experienced gamers in the same game.

    • Go1988 says:

      Well I’m replying 5 years late but there’s an interesting aspect. You said:

      “But hardcore players would get bored now having to go “back to basics” to start with something as straightforward as just standing in place and shooting moving targets.”

      I consider myself a quite well experience 1st person shooter-gamer but still got blown away by a game where I do just that: stand and shoot at moving targets.

      http://www.kongregate.com/games/ZeroPointSoft/bullseye-interstellar-marines?acomplete=bullseye

      (You may need to download the unity plugin)

      It introduces to the basic aim and shoot principle but it does it in a challenging way. Newcomers to the genre will definitely have a problem with the eye – hand movement coordination.

      I just think it’s funny that you write that hardcore gamers will be bored by going back to the basics while I just experianced that exactly this can be highly entertaining.

  4. Shamus says:

    But a newcomer to the genre may NEED this, and would have a lot of fun just adding one skill at a time.

    Some of them do have a single little tutorial level, but now that you mention it, learning the game one concept at a time sounds like a really fun idea. Something that would start off teaching you how to walk and shoot, and would take you through the concepts until you’re a circle-strafing, dodging, rocket-jumping machine. It could sort of do for deathmatch what Gran Turismo does for driving.

    Heck, I’d play it. Sounds like a blast.

    And you are correct that the tactical shooters are a whole new challenge. I’m fine at UT, but I’m complete rubbish at just about any tactical shooter out there.

  5. Rick the Wonder algae says:

    Yeah. I noticed the same thing a few years ago. I had played the first “hunter” game which used the dual sticks, one for movement, the other for facing. (which was relatively new at the time*) I couldn’t handle it. I was SO confused at first. I just pushed both sticks in the same direction at all times, making sure I was attacking what I was running towards. Eventually I got pretty good at strafing, circle-strafing, and I could blow away giant hordes of zombies without taking a scratch. Later I picked up some game or the other and as I started playing I realized “Hey! this is the same basic control scheme as “Hunter”! I know this! And it occured to me how many times you refer to a game by scheme, referencing the first game you played with that general control scheme. Of course, every game that comes out innovates a bit and the good innovations are kept by the next game’s designers while the bad ones are forgotten. All genres and control schemes do it, and it’s actually KILLED some genres. The adventure genre, for instance, fell into a trap of relying on inventory puzzles that had to become increasingly complex to remain challenging to fans of the genre, but were too bizzare to make sense to newcomers. Eventually, the genre split into several sub-genres, then more or less disapeared though it continues to influence many current games (and appears to have a resurgence on the PSP and DS).

    *technically, the first game I can think of that used that control scheme was Robotron, then Krull, then maybe smash TV, so the control scheme was 20 years old or so, we had just gone through a long period of time with standardized arcade boxes and home systems without two joysticks.

  6. Dave says:

    I played the original Wolfenstien.. it wasn’t 3d.. it was on an Apple II.. I mean old.. in 1983 or 84.. but then I missed out on a big wave of games … now I can’t get people to know that I once had skills.. sad.

  7. DM T. says:

    HAHAHA, Castle Wolfenstein on the Apple II, showing passes 1-6 and finding officer costumes and ammo in closets…

    Wing Commander –> Ultima Underworld –> Wolf-3D
    Doom II –> Hexen / Heretic –> Quake –> Quake II
    Unreal –> Unreal Tournament –> Quake III –> UT 2004

    The only part I missed out on, was the roller coaster ride that Half-life brought with Counter Strike.

  8. Telas says:

    This is so accurate. I tried to teach my wife to play computer games. She’s (admittedly) uncoordinated and overthinks everything. I can get her to play Quake III on “Easy” with one opponent, but that’s about it.

    I can’t imagine her playing Halo on the Xbox. Dual joysticks… 8O Master Chief looking up, and spinning in circles, and shooting… Oh, the humanity.

  9. Deoxy says:

    a “mindless” shooter is a simple scroller (like Galaga).

    But mostly, what pople mean by “mindless” is “if it moves, shoot it”. When not playing team (and even to a certain extent then), that’s what they are – they are all battle, no “bystanders” or “tough choices”. No diplomacy, no negotiation.

    Now, I see that as a GOOD thing (it’s a great stress reliever – though I play “mindless” fighting games instead of “mindless” shooting games, but effect is similar), but I can see how some people might not see it that way (“KILL EVERYTHING!” – is that the message we want to send our children?!?).

  10. Shamus says:

    (”KILL EVERYTHING!” – is that the message we want to send our children?!?).

    If they are surrounded by hellspawn or squishy alien invaders, then yeah. :)

  11. LongshotSNN says:

    Nice article on the problem FPS neophytes face, Shamus. (as a “by the way”, I stumbled upon your website around last December or so and have been laughing to tears ever since)

    I got my education in FPSs with Quake 3 when I got my first computer in 1998, although I quickly gave up because of my own perceived slow reaction time. Prior to that, it was stuff like MDK and some lousy demo games for which I have already forgotten the titles of. Maybe some MP5 meatshield time on CS, but that’s all.

    Somehow, I don’t think I’ve gone through the same course of FPS progression as you guys, since I only really touched off with UT2004, even as the progression tree outlined by DM.T

  12. LongshotSNN says:

    Also, I’ve started off my 10-yr-old sis with FPSs during my December hols. C&C Renegade first, before CS Source and F.E.A.R. My brothers and I need someone to continue our legacy. ;p

  13. ArchU says:

    But a newcomer to the genre may NEED this, and would have a lot of fun just adding one skill at a time.

    Whilst not quite a FPS, “Thief: The Dark Project” has some nifty tutorial stages that teach the player progressively to move, to sneak and to fight. Even “Thief: Deadly Shadows” has a reasonable tutorial – although it would still need more simplicity for an inexperienced player but at least there are no lethal threats to impede learning.

  14. BucketMouse says:

    My first FPS?

    Gameboy: Faceball

    Then came Faceball for SNES

    and much later the DOOM for Atari Jaguar

    …yes, I have a very warped view of FPS’s

    And I strongly feel that an FPS would have SAVED the virtual boy – THINK OF IT!

  15. GuardianLurker says:

    Heh. It’s already happened to me. I played Wolfenstein, Doom, Heretic and Doom II. Had a good time blowing up the monsters. I never was into Deathmatch.

    I tried (many years ago now) to play Quake III: Deathmatch.

    And received one of the largest doses of negative reinforcement I’ve ever had the displeasure of receiving. I literally couldn’t learn the game; I died too quickly. Your “hundreds” would have been more like thousands of times.

    I gave up. I haven’t touched an FPS since then, and I doubt I ever will. I *certainly* won’t touch one that doesn’t allow for solo play.

  16. Cheesemaster says:

    Being a young ‘un (OK, so 18 really isn’t young, but over-protective Catholic parents meant I never played computer games until I was 11), I missed out on a lot of these originals. My introduction was GoldenEye – which in hindsight was still a prtty big development. It also took me several yonks to try and figure out how to cope with seperate view and movement controls. I downloaded Doom last year to see what it would be like as a change from all the modern FPSs I’d been playing, and it took me just as long to try and go back to the old-school kind of gaming. So much stuff we take for granted wasn’t there, so much of a limit – in fact, it was actually quite challenging for a while trying to survive with the limited tools I had.

    (”KILL EVERYTHING!” – is that the message we want to send our children?!?).

    If they are surrounded by hellspawn or squishy alien invaders, then yeah.

    WIN

  17. Where do the Star Wars: Dark Forces PC games fit into the curve?

    How would the last 007 PC FPS port (“Nightfire”) fit?

    How do console FPS games fit at all?

  18. LeRoy says:

    I remember playing Wolfenstien on my dads old DOS computer. And I’ve played most of those other games as I’ve grown up. Goldeneye was one of those games I’ll always remember as being one of the best ever, but it’s too strange to try to play now. There is no quick way to look up and down, which is completely odd to me now, between using a mouse and the double analoge sticks on the consoles.

    Me and my girlfriend got together with another couple one night and the girls decided they wanted to play Halo, and me and the other guy thought we had it made. Then came the questions about how to turn around which seemed so strange that We had a hard time explaining it. At that point there were two ways to go about it, do what he did and just smack the girls in the back with an instant kill melee strike (His girlfriend eventually left the room sobbing) or do what I did. Slowy explain it, over the course of almost an hour and above all, go really really easy on the newbie. This is a hobby of mine that I treasure and I wanted to impart that feeling onto my girlfriend. So I let her kill me a few times, let her get used to the idea of the whole thing. The first time I killed her without her at least seeing me pretty much spelled the end though.

    Thats the one thing you didn’t mention, while you were on the learning curve you were on the frustration curve to. I’ve been playing for years and I still get aggrivated when I get killed, but you get used to it because you know how good it feels to do that to someone else, and a newbie just doesn’t know how good that can get.

  19. Rob says:

    Christopher J. Arndt:
    >Where do the Star Wars: Dark Forces PC games fit into the >curve?

    I’d say Dark Forces was a Doom clone that had one major improvement: true 3d level design. It wasn’t until Dark Forces 2: Jedi Knight that it broke the mold (melee weapons with blocking abilities and two different attacks, several weapons with truly varied alt-fire, and keeping track of your weapons, an inventory, and your force powers at the same time kept the curve very steep online) But DF2 was the first FPS I got above ‘casual player’ on, so I might be a bit biased.

  20. Fuloydo says:

    I have many fond memories of playing single player DOOM with the lights out in my Dorm room. I still have the t-shirt that came with the game when you ordered the full version. (Though I can’t fit into it anymore….about 30lbs difference between then and now. *sigh*)

    I actually bought a 60 foot null modem cable special order so I could play deathmatch with a friend who lived down the hall. We poked the cable out the windows (2nd floor) of my room and ran it down the outside of our building.

    My favorite memories of DOOM have to do with the ease of modifying the game. Want a custom map? Easy. Want a fully automatic rocket launcher? Here ya go. (ahhh…the rocket hose, as we fondly referred to it)

    Good times.

  21. GamerCow says:

    Call me the post necromancer, because I’m at it again. Your question about the future of FPS games is being answered in many ways. The genre is changing and mutating, like month-old casserole. I see First Person Shooters travelling in three directions. Please note that all of these games that I use as examples are for the XBox 360, the gaming console of choice for FPS games.

    1)Great increase in graphics. The gameplay isn’t all that different(kill everything) but the graphics are outstanding, even compared with other games for that system. this can be seen with games like Gears of War and Halo 3, which I think have poor stories, but incredible graphics.

    2)Different styles of gameplay. More games are going to the “Kill things together” mode of co-op play where you can team up against the AI as part of a team. Again, Gears of War and Halo 2/3 did this reasonably well, but other games such as Army of Two do it better. Then you’ve got games like Rainbow Six, where you are outnumbered by a LOT, and must hunt down AI baddies that have incredible aim to make up for their lack of intelligence. Add to this new variables in adversarial play, such as VIP, capture the flag, attack and defend, and King of the Hill, which make “Kill Everyone” into something that needs more strategy.

    3)Better stories. Some new games have incredibly deep and meaningful stories, for games. Mass Effect has an hours-long epic story that will suck you in, and the game is basically a shooter-RPG hybrid. The other shooter that I can think of that has an outstanding story is Bioshock, which also scores well on the first point in this post, the graphics and style section.

    So, in short, the first person shooter games aren’t fading, they’re just changing, and they’re changing for the better, I think. I hate “killemall” games, Unreal bored me, Quake bored me, Counterstrike I completely avoided. New players can come into the story-heavy shooters, or the hybrid rpg shooters and feel comfortable with those before moving on to the more challenging fare.

  22. Stu says:

    With the exception of goldeneye I never really ‘got’ console FPS at all. I think it’s the controls to be fair – One thumb looks and rotates while another thumb moves and strafes? Sorry, my thumbs tend not to work together like that :-P

    Your post brought back some nice memories :-)
    (I’m in a slightly younger generation so Doom was my first FPS, I’ll get burned for this but I found Wolfenstein rather ‘old fashioned!’ ;) )

  23. the_JJ says:

    I find this especially interseting because the first shooter I played was Halo. On the Xbox. And I can’t the way the shooter controls get spread out on the PC. I can aim fine, but heaven forbid I should try to jump, I’d be far more likely to hit myself in the face with a grenade.

  24. Lunafysh says:

    With regards to tutorials, I’d have to say that Half-life had one of the best “this is how you walk/run/couch” “this is how you use a crowbar” “this is how you shoot various weapons using primary and secondary functions” and even “this is how you use the experimental evo-jump that you won’t get until the last level” (which btw messed me up the first time there was a long jump and I though, well, I’ll just use the evo-jump…aaaaauuuugghghhh *splat*)

  25. […] Here’s a nerdy post about why modern video games are even harder than they look. […]

  26. Mike says:

    Yeah, that makes perfect sense in theory, and then you sit down with a young kid and watch him pick up all the minutiae of game play with lightning speed. Never underestimate the younger generation’s ability to adapt and mimic, it’s what human beings are designed to do.

  27. aapjes says:

    Ah, so thats why people that are older than me are better at games (in general) than me and others of my age.
    That said, if I’d go hardcore on 1 game (which I never will, too boring), I’d probably beat them at it.

  28. Elton Borges Mesquita says:

    Learn how to play by the manual. Hey, this is one good old DRM trick, kind of at least. Since unoffical games did not have the manuals, certain aspects need to be discovered by luck or other experienced player.
    FPS are like almost every great game genre: Look simple to play, but it´s hard to master.
    I really missed this reunions to play games, even more the shooters. Since I´m a console user, FPS´s are kind of rare. But since N64 things get really good to us, classics like 007 Goldeneye, Timesplitters, Black, the Fantastic ports of Unreal Tournament and Quake 3 to the Dreamcast(any good FPS for consoles NEED to have 4-players offline built-in).
    And about the Deathmatch question, well, people just want more CO-OP now. They are tired to see the better one win, they changed that a bit to: Everyone wins or everyone dies. Maybe not that much dramatically, but this is it.
    Games are getting less punishing, more checkpoints, infinite tries, players are losing the sense of lost in games. Good or bad, I really don´t know. I´m almost always a bad player, but I love to play.
    Sorry for the english, in Brazil we speak portuguese ehhe.
    And Congratulations, I would love if more people from the artistic gaming industry could build more sites with the passion you have. More minds thinking always ands in more thinking and, maybe, explosions.

  29. Chamale says:

    I started rather late with FPSes – the first I played was Rainbow Six, on the N64. I had been playing third-person games for a while at this point, though – mostly Nanosaur. From Rainbow Six I moved on to Battlefield 1942, Timesplitters 2, and then Left 4 Dead. I didn’t experience the same learning curve as you.

  30. Tachi says:

    My first FPS was DOOM II, yeah, I’m a bit younger than most of you. I’ve stayed with it though. F.E.A.R., Army of TWO, Resistance 1 & 2, Ghost Recons, Black, Urban Chaos, Killzone 1 & 2, Rainbow Six franchise, Call of Duty (all), Mercenaries (TPS or Third-Person Shooter), HALO, Modern Warfare 1 & 2 (my current favorites). I actually prefer FPSs over most other games. I play online, offline, whatever. I can actually run through most offline champaigns with ease on the hardest setting even if it’s my first play through. I more than hold my own in nearly any game mode or map, and my learning curve is… fairly high. I like tactical shooters and pure shooters both. I’ve been plagued for years by people who say FPSs are “mindless”, yet those same people usually don’t last more than a few seconds. I think it’s mostly a case of ridiculing what you can’t do in order to diminish it. I don’t think FPSs will ever die.

    BTW: I’ve heard good things about the Unreal franchise, but never had a chance to play… I may have to fix that.

  31. Alighieri says:

    well, the point is that the ones who dont know anything about 1st person shooters could pick an easier game to start with… there still are loads of those, and lets face it, who who was born after 1995 hasnt played a 1st person shooter yet? (not including the people who dont work with comps altogether ofc)

    and the ones who are new to FPS will prob learn quikly, since its kinda “kill or bite the dust within a min after spawning” these days

  32. swenson says:

    Your Moving Day post got me to read this one, which somehow I’d never read before, so here’s my thoughts several years late:

    I don’t actually remember a problem when I started playing FPSes. I was sixteen and I hadn’t played many games before (some flash games, mostly tower defense or click-to-move type third person shooters, and some of those educational type games when I was younger… I guess a few other things, but nothing big), but I got Portal and just got into it really easily. Portal was probably a good first choice–it’s relatively simple, with no weapons to switch between and no combat (or, indeed, any danger) for quite awhile. And a fairly gentle learning curve. From there, I went to Half-Life 2, which also has a pretty easy learning curve, considering how long you’re walking and climbing and jumping and moving stuff before you have to use a weapon.

    Now that I think about it, though, I guess I did have a couple of first-person games when I was really young… or one, at least. I used to play Fury3 endlessly (it came free with our computer in 1995… wow, that was really eighteen years ago?!), and I always played in first-person mode. So maybe that’s what helped me later? Fun game, by the way. It probably hasn’t aged well, though. :)

    I dunno, one of the modern shooters where you’re thrown right into it might be difficult for a newbie, but something that lets you fiddle with the controls for awhile seems like it’d be all right even if it later got very complex, so long as it introduced concepts slowly enough.

  33. […] was re-reading this post from Twenty Sided and it got me thinking.  I’ve been playing video games for over 20 years, […]

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  1. […] Here’s a nerdy post about why modern video games are even harder than they look. […]

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