From Doom to Dishonored, considering the firstperson shooter’s various waveforms

Over the past several years, I’ve spent much of my professional life working on firstperson shooters in different capacities, and have spent a good deal of my gaming time playing them. In striving to better understand the FPS, I have tried to develop some formal tools to allow me and the teams I work with to discuss and compare different aspects of various shooters. One of the tools I’ve used in the past is a lens for examining the experiential curve – or waveform – of an FPS.

Abstractly, we can consider that any FPS – Doom, Dishonored, Far Cry 2, Fallout 3, COD: Black Ops – exhibits a characteristic waveform. In these waveforms, the peaks and troughs of amplitude define the highest and lowest limits of the intensity of the play experience, and the wavelength defines the frequency with which the experience alternates between those peaks over time. We can also consider that each waveform has a characteristic baseline, which may be higher or lower than others; high-baseline FPSes are on average more intense than low ones.

I define peak amplitude as when the player is required to make many critical decisions rapidly; when a large percentage of these decisions are pushed on the player (for instance, they’re reactive decisions she is forced to make); and when an increasing number of the decisions are made at the lowest (closest to input) level of gameplay.

An example of a peak amplitude experience would be when the player needs to manage reloading a half-empty weapon while turning off her night vision, needing to abort a dash to cover because a grenade has just landed there, and deciding whether to aim down her sights or fire from the hip on the enemy that’s just entered the room beside her. Negative peak amplitude is when the player has lots of time and no pressure to pull any of several noncritical decisions into play, often from the higher levels of gameplay.

An example of this experience would be when the player wonders whether she should head towards town to sell some scavenged loot for shotgun ammo, and then perhaps take another mission that would increase her standing with one faction or another, or whether she should instead look for a cave entrance she’s heard is nearby.

Doom has a characteristic waveform with a moderate amplitude and a moderate frequency. In fact, Doom’s waveform is sine-like enough that we could use it as a standard for comparison. Peak amplitude in Doom was when you would retreat from an area because you were low on ammo only to trigger a trap that would turn out the lights, open a bunch of hidden walls, and force you to engage a dangerous wave of many different types of monsters while trying to get the most out of your diminishing health and ammo supply. Negative peak amplitude came when you had cleared a large section of a level and were looping back looking for secret areas and gathering all the remaining pick-ups so you could go into the next section or level fully equipped.

A Doom level might take about 15-20 minutes to complete, and you might go from peak to peak two or three times, giving it a frequency of about seven minutes. Numbers for a playthrough vary tremendously, of course. The point is not to argue specific numbers but to try to abstract entire games so they can be compared to similar games.

Over the decade or so after Doom, developers experimented with ways to modulate the FPS waveform. The arena shooters of the late ’90s, such as Quake III, had lower amplitudes and higher frequencies (shorter wavelengths). The immersive sims of the same era, as exemplified by Deus Ex, gave us the opposite: higher amplitude experiences with lower frequencies.

More recently, the FPS has undergone a transformation. Developers have experimented with techniques to raise the baseline: deathstreaks and perks unlocked for time spent are examples of designs that increase the intensity at peak negative amplitude, raising the overall baseline. Raising the baseline in a low-amplitude, high-frequency FPS makes for an exhilarating experience, but this ‘compression towards noise’ approach risks making the experience overwhelming, even exhausting. To combat this, designers have invented level-transforming killstreak rewards that begin to describe a kind of synthetic waveform.

A triggered killstreak reward acts as a kind of vertical bar that slashes through the waveform, and synthesises high-amplitude peaks in the experience (or troughs for those sent to respawn by your AC-130 bombardment). As more players gain access to them over the course of the match, a new synthetic frequency that increases over time becomes the defining frequency of the match.

The birth (and rapid iteration) of the synthetic waveform may be the force that ultimately allows the FPS to branch into its many subgenres. This will hopefully allow more classic competitive shooters and immersive sims to exist alongside their teenaged offspring by staying true to their proven waveforms, without feeling the need to compete directly by incorporating the synthesising features that overpower their form. At least until the classic FPS comes to its mid-life crisis