The Virginal Experience

We all remember our first time, for anything substantial that happens after early childhood. I see this more and more often in the realm of games. We attribute the benefits of a genre to the first game that we play in that genre, and we attribute the gains of a technology to the first game that we play which uses it, and if it is our first game for either, we were generally unaware of the substantial gains already made in those areas by prior releases.

Typically these things happen in waves with adoption of other technology or hardware, demographic activities, infrastructure rollouts. So games which release in a timely manner around these events are poised to be received by a whole host of new customers who don’t know their genre or the technologies they use. Many of my favorite games saw the benefits of this, and I will be attempting to list a few examples of this below to illustrate my point. I will be focusing on the first person shooter genre, as it is my genre of choice.

Doom (1993)
Doom brought the world not the initial first person shooter experience, but the first refined, fluid, and dynamic one. With non-orthogonal walls, varying light levels and styles, shifting floors and ceilings, and unparalleled performance at the time it was a milestone in illusory entertainment. Architecture firms would contact id software about licensing the technology to demo structures to customers without the costs of building, as they had been pulled in by the game’s clever level design to not realize that it was still a 2D-world. This immersion provided the fertile ground for player investment in themselves as a participant in the world. Almost as significant, it landed on the market in a time when computers were beginning to go beyond research laboratories and enthusiast basements, and reach both homes, and college computer labs. Machines capable of showing off this universe became much more available to anyone with a passing interest, and thus Doom caught many more eyes than it would have previously.

Quake (1996)
Quake was Doom all over again but in full 3D with TCP/IP multiplayer, setting the standard for today and establishing norms we still use. The experience of playing against 15 other humans (31 others with QuakeWorld later as well) via LAN or the internet bridged colleges, communities, and continents. For many people, it was a first as it caught another spike of PC ownership and the beginning of substantial home internet connections.

GoldenEye 007 (1997)
GoldenEye had a simple obstacle to overcome – not be as bad as other first person experiences on console. As most first person titles on a console at that time were ports of PC games that were simply not designed for a gamepad and the weaker processing power, or shoddy attempts at the genre without considering the platform, GoldenEye had but to only serve up mediocrity and exclusivity to stand out. GoldenEye offered the first Console FPS experience where it lacked the feeling of being a hand-me-down release. For this, the poor level design and gameplay imbalances were overlooked and the game was credited for the immersion of the genre itself.

Half-Life (1998)
Half-Life brought the storyline of Doom and BlakeStone: Aliens of Gold to the Quake engine and tread in the footsteps of Unreal and Jedi Knight, but released in the now highly prized window of November. Facing weak competition from Blood 2 and SiN, Half-Life was poised to be the relatively best bang for your buck of recent releases, with the powerhouses of Quake 2 and Unreal having been out long enough to be “old”. This created an ideal environment for Half-Life to shine among its release-date peers for all the families getting their first PCs and thus PC games that Christmas.

Halo: Combat Evolved (2001)
Halo took the recipe of GoldenEye and applied it with a more even keel on a new console platform, but with a fresh IP allowing for much better player-identification, and then coupled this with game design and AI built around the weaknesses of the gamepad. Regenerating shields, slow to attack and slow to move enemies kept things at a manageable pace for gamepad users without sacrificing monster counts so as to maintain a degree of intensity. Skillfully masking the hand holding with scifi themes and the monsters waiting for the player through taunt animations, Halo provided console players with an FPS experience that appeared unadulterated and was brilliantly tied in with the platform. A new generation of players got to experience FPS at a gentle grade as the introduction to their latest present, and thus attributed the virtues of the genre to the world of Halo.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (2007)
Modern Warfare wasn’t the first Call of Duty, but it could have been. Riding strong on the widespread acceptance of TCP/IP multiplayer on consoles, it quickly became The Game to play among the console generation. Learning well from Halo and GoldenEye, it took a slowed down FPS experience and wrapped it in mechanics friendly to players. Despite the glaring balance issues, the multiplayer took off in a brand new population of players which continues to this day.

This is not to say that any of these games are necessarily bad, but they do benefit from a mixture of great timing, and luck. All games stand on the shoulders of earlier games, but if you catch a demographic wave in the right way, you can appear to be the first of your kind to a large enough population that you will skyrocket in position.

Always bear in mind that games never pop up out of nowhere, they are made by people who are inspired by other games, other technology, and will use those as a basis. For first person shooters, you can see most elements of the entire genre by playing DoomBlakeStone: Aliens of GoldRise of the Triad, Duke Nukem 3dBlood, and Unreal. Beyond those, you enter genre blending and thus other influences.