First Person Shooter Game Design Secrets

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How to Design a First Person Shooter Game

Every game genre requires its own approach to shooter game design. There is no universal recipe for designing a first person shooter or any other genre. But we have thousands of good and bad examples and can clearly see what to do and not to do to improve a game.

In this article we will tell you about most popular FPS game design methods, cliches and gameplay components which you can use to make your game better.

The Components of a First Person Shooter Game Design: Puzzles and Actions

Concept of every game consists of two things: puzzles and actions. An action is any gameplay mechanic available for the player, even the smallest one like ability to cover behind the wall or limited ammo. A puzzle is any situation where a player has to do something to go further.

Let’s talk about the puzzles first. A typical FPS puzzle means “Kill them before they kill you”. This basic mechanic will quickly get boring because there is no variety of methods.

For example, there is a genre called Light Gun Shooter: a player points a light gun on the screen and shoots enemies. This puzzle is very simple: to kill all enemies on the screen. And there is only one solution: to point and shoot.

In real FPS the player has more choices: flank, throw grenades, finish the strongest enemy first, find better weapon, break through the enemy lines or carefully shot while being in cover. The player may choose what suits him the best and come out as a good choice in current situation.

How does the player know that he made a good choice? Well, the “goodness” can be measured in two values: time needed for solving a puzzle and resources left. If the player has spent all of his ammunition and has one foot in the grave he clearly did something wrong. In the worst case he’ve lost and must restart from the checkpoint.

And how will the player know what decision is right? By trying and learning the consequences. A good puzzle must teach the player about the game: what abilities do enemies have, what are their weak points, how do they behave in battle, etc. Also the player will learn about his abilities and what he can do.

After a few rounds of “teaching” the player will not act thoughtlessly but rather predict the best solution for the current puzzle based on his previous experience.

How to Help the Player to Get Experience with Shooter Game Design

Gamers and game journalists often say that the game provides some experience. They talk about the gameplay mechanics that players can enjoy using. But sometimes the player does not want to change his favorite playstyle for something he doesn’t like so much. Shooter game designers have one great solution: to force the player to use particular actions to solve one or two puzzles.

For example, every good FPS has few cliched levels:

  • breakthrough or storm;
  • defend the point;
  • stealth;
  • precision shooting.

These levels force the player to use only one gameplay style and set of equipment. But they do help the player to see the game from a different angle. The Pripyat level in CoD MW1 forrces the player to be stealthy instead of running and gunning.

Old FPS games such as Doom, Quake and Unreal had many different puzzles and way too many actions available to the player. As a result, a typical player would stick with his favourite weapon and change it only when there is no ammo left.

Modern FPS such as Call of Duty and Doom Eternal limit the player with the number of actions or uses. For example, the Doom Slayer in Doom Eternal carries only 20 shotgun rounds and there is almost no ammo laying around. The player can shoot a few demons point blank and then he must swap to a machine gun or plasma rifle because ammo is gone. Or he can use a unique mechanic — rip the demon with chainsaw to refill his shotgun.

But how to teach the player to use different weapons and tactics and get that mystical experience? There is only one way: to create bright puzzles.

The bright puzzle is a game situation that will be very difficult to solve without proper tactics and abilities. To create them game designers can change the level geometry and design the enemies in a specific way. For example, the Pinky in Doom has an armored head. A player can shoot five rockets into his head or shoot one to his tail — the choice is obvious. But the Pinky can charge into a player and he rarely shows his back, so a player must jump over him, lure him into a wall or stun him with a grenade. This is an example of a bright puzzle.

If you haven’t played Doom Eternal you probably don’t know that there are 40 different enemies, each with their own weapon, weak points and behavior. The player, in contrast, has 11 weapons and 9 of them have two secondary modes. In terms of game design the player has 30 actions only to kill enemies, and we don’t include traps, grenades and flamethrower. Every fight in Doom Eternal is a bright puzzle with hundreds way to solve and it’s the player’s choice how he will solve it.

It is hard to develop various weapons for a modern FPS, most game studios come with typical rifles, pistols and grenades. But they still can make every weapon unique in terms of damage, accuracy, recoil and available accessories.

It’s even harder to make unique enemies for a FPS settled in some historical event because you can’t just add demons and aliens. But still you can give the shotguns to some soldiers, sniper rifle to others and command them to maintain the best distance from the player.

So How to Design a Good FPS?

As we said, there is no universal recipe for game design. If you take any shooter and throw off the cutscenes and graphics, you’ll get only puzzles and actions left — the gameplay.

While designing a FPS you need to think about gameplay features and puzzles that the player will solve. Imagine what actions the player will have in his arsenal and how he can use them in combat. Will they be useful? Will there be enemies vulnerable to them? Will it be obvious to use them against particular enemies?

Here’s example task: to design a useful sci-fi pistol. Many players think of a pistol as an accessory with no real use. Let’s change their mind with our Night Crawler 9000. The main feature is a silenced shots and glow in the dark sights for a sneaky operations. The second feature is that the NC9000 has two types of ammunition: regular bullets and needles of crystalized poison. The third feature is a built-in laser capable of cutting a tiny hole in thick armor.

pistol design for a shooter

Why would the player use the NC9000? For example, the player has to infiltrate an enemy base. The base is guarded by a few ordinary guards and one guy in power armor. To shot him down you need a grenade launcher which isn’t quiet at all. But remember: we have NC9000. We can sneak behind the back of that powerful guy, cut a tiny hole on his leg plate and fire a crystalized needle through the hole. And then just wait for the poison effect and neutralize guards left.

Remember, that FPS are not meant to be realistic and boring. In Doom we have a shotgun which can be used as a grenade launcher and close-combat minigun, in Borderlands we have a gun that shoots guns and a gun with explosive magazines, in Titanfall 2 we have a pistol with auto-aim feature. And to make something cool and rememberable you must come up with such as crazy concepts as described above.


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