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December 10, 2013

Filed under: gaming»design

Policing Procedurals

Even if I'm sticking with Steam for most of my gaming, our new PS4 did get me interested in Warframe, the free-to-play shooter that's available on Playstation and PC. I don't normally care for free-to-play, if only because I feel guilty for never buying anything, but I liked the central conceit of Warframe: procedurally-generated levels and highly-mobile Mass Effect-style combat. In retrospect, I probably should have been more skeptical. To understand why, we have to look back at how shooters have been built over the last twenty years.

There was a time, way before Halo and before franchises like Battlefield ran the earth, when one of the main selling points of a first-person shooter was the quantity of unique weapons that it brought to the table--an actual arms race, peaking with Duke3D which (for all its flaws) had some clever joke guns to go with the ubiquitous pistol/shotgun/chaingun trio. I'm not saying this was a better time, or that they were better games, but there was definitely a sense that the genre was about creative destruction, in the same way that fighting games are about combo systems and special attacks.

Then id Software built a monster for competitive deathmatch: Quake and its successors had an incredibly bland set of weapons, because in "serious" multiplayer the goal is to streamline everything except moving and shooting. This was the second refinement of shooter design, and it focused on the levels themselves, but as topology instead of as setting. Players concentrated on learning the levels so that they could plot a path that would keep them supplied, while denying pickups to the other players. A good Quake or Unreal Tournament player knew the game's weapons and how to aim, but more importantly they knew where to go, and when. Navigation became the mark of quality for a deathmatch bot.

Since then, these tendencies have mellowed as the possibility of more complex interactions and narratives has become available. Environments are built more for realism and story, weapons are more traditional and not usually why you buy the game. Which brings us to Warframe, which has basically none of these things. There's hardly any story, the "levels" are randomly generated from a series of tilesets, and the weapons are part of the free-to-play grind: either buy a new gun with real money, or spend a lot of time crafting one within the game's economy. Unlike the Mass Effect and Gears of War titles it resembles, there's no explicit cover system, but players do have a much wider range of movement options than a typical shooter: there are slides, flips, and wall runs available through various key combos.

If Warframe's computer-generated levels were any good, this would be a different post. Good levels would give players a way to put their acrobatic movement skills to good use, rewarding people who have learned the parkour system and can improvise in response to new environments. But the random generator mostly builds long, boring hallways connecting wide-open, pre-designed rooms, none of which require any particular skill outside of strafing and taking cover behind walls. Since players can't learn the levels and their flow, they can't optimize or get better at moving through them. And since new weapons require an investment of serious cash or time, almost everyone's using the same rifle and the same melee weapon, which means you never see anything that makes you want to spend any money or time in the first place.

The irony of this problem is that someone already got the formula right for doing procedural FPS games, and they did it by almost exactly reversing Warframe's formula. Borderlands has hand-built levels and enemy placement, combined with randomized weapon generation: each gun consists of components assembled onto a set of base bodies, which vary by "manufacturer" with certain preset tendencies and aesthetics. For example, Mariwan guns always inflict status effects (poison, fire, etc), while Jacobs weapons are Western-themed and can often fire as fast as the player can mash the button. Within those simple parameters, however, the results when you pull the trigger can vary wildly.

The result is a game that combines the two old-school driving forces of FPS design — clever level design and weapon variety — with the collector's urge that powers massive multiplayer games (Borderlands even borrows the color-coded quality markings from World of Warcraft, making it easy to evaluate a weapon drop in an instant). The innovation is not proceduralism — games like Diablo have long offered that — but figuring out how to balance it with the formula for a replayable and rewarding shooter. As someone who almost totally lacks a collection instinct, but loves the classic FPS genre, Borderlands 2 hits the sweet spot with remarkably few missteps (it's also surprisingly smart and funny, which is a welcome change).

I don't think procedural generation is impossible for first-person games — indeed, I think it's likely to have a bright future, particularly as web games mature and optimize for delivery size — but it illustrates just how difficult the challenge is likely to be for anyone who attempts it. For all that people talk about the genre as if it's just a collection of bro-heavy manshooters, there is undeniably a huge amount of craft that goes into the fundamental mechanics. As Kevin Cloud notes in Dan Pinchbeck's analysis of Doom (now 20 years old!),

Every genre has its real strengths, but in a shooter... if running and shooting is not fun, doesn’t feel natural, doesn’t feel visceral and powerful, then I think you are going to lose out.
Movement in FPS games is not just about how the player transitions from point A to point B, but about all the obstacles and decisions that make up that route. As such, building procedural content is not impossible, but it needs to provide good options for cover, paths for moving between pickups, and unexpected chances to either ambush enemies or be ambushed. Warframe may do this one day, but right now it's failing miserably. In the process, it's showing how little the developers have really thought about how the game they're building fits into the traditions of its genre.

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