Call of Duty is making us dumb: how modern shooters are robbing us of skill
The problem with modern competitive first-person shooters, and I’m willing to accept debate about whether this is a problem, is that they’re aimed squarely at the mass market. It can be difficult to jump into a game like Call of Duty or Halo and to enjoy yourself as a new player. If you’re one of the generation of gamers who grew up playing games like Quake or Unreal Tournament, that was part of the joy. Each level was a chess board, and we all began with the same skills. You could pick up power-ups, and find the best weapons, but those upgrades were available to everyone, and we all knew where they were located. In fact, controlling those areas, and using them to predict the movements of your opponent, were incredibly important skills. You could get into their heads, know that they were going after the quad damage power up or the rocket launcher, and use that knowledge to move into position to take them out. The problem is that modern shooter design isn't used to increase your skill, but to make it easier to draw in new players, and to keep them playing. That's not a bad thing, but we're all losing our mechanical edge these days.
How shooters used to be played
Watch this video of an old match between Rapha and Cooller, and start at 2:45 if you want to skip to the game play. Listen to the player explain what he’s doing and why, and pay attention to how well he understands the movements and reactions of his opponent. This isn’t the sort of first-person shooting we’re used to in modern days, it’s much closer to a duel, or a game of chess. The analysis of the play is amazing, and that sort of strategy simply isn’t possible in modern games to the extent that you saw in Quake.These days, that ability to read a map and out-shoot other players has been consumed by perks, leveling systems, weapons with splash damage, air drops, loadouts, armor abilities, you name it. All of these systems are designed to keep the play fair, while smoothing out skill levels so that a wide variety of players can pick up the game and enjoy it. Everyone is made to feel powerful at all times. There is always a way to get a kill, and players grind out levels and perfect their loadouts. “One of the things that Call of Duty does, and it’s smart business, to a degree, is they compress the skill gap. And the way you compress the skill gap as a designer is you add a whole bunch of randomness,” Tripwire President John Gibson said in an interview with PC Gamer. “A whole bunch of weaponry that doesn’t require any skill to get kills. Random spawns, massive cone fire on your weapons. Lots of devices that can get kills with zero skill at all, and you know, it’s kind of smart to compress your skill gap to a degree,” he continued. “You don’t want the elite players to destroy the new players so bad that new players can never get into the game and enjoy it.” Gibson brought up something that I’ve heard from many people in the industry: the way that newer games reward the clever use of abilities and the time spent earning them over pure skill. “These guys, when I actually watch them play, they’re actually very poor FPS players. And I don’t think it’s because they’re incapable of getting good, I think it’s because they never had to get good. They get enough kills in Call of Duty to feel like they’re awesome, but they never really had to develop their FPS skills beyond that,” he stated. The entire interview is worth reading, and is a fascinating look at someone who loves the classics, dealing with what people expect out of modern first-person shooters.
Quake would be rotten for microtransactions
As I said, this may not be a problem. More players than ever are buying first-person shooters, and they’re enjoying them. The Call of Duty series is filled with fun games, and the Halo series remains enjoyable. We’ve traded our skill away for this sort of level playing field, however, and that’s hard to take if you grew up valuing your abilities with a rail gun. The other aspect of this shift in first-person shooters is that it would be very hard to monetize Quake and Unreal Tournament. The levels were designed to be fair, the weapons balanced, and the power-ups added strategy to play, and they always existed in the same amounts in the same places. The only thing you’d gain after playing for ten hours was skill due to your practice. There were no levels to gain or powers that gave you an inherent advantage over others. This limits what you can sell a player. Publishers have long used bonus XP, weapons, abilities, and aesthetics to push more expensive collector’s editions of games, and of course microstransactions in free-to-play games allow you to unlock weapons and abilities instantly instead of earning them through player. Compressing the skill gap is enormously profitable, and it’s something we’ve come to expect. Anyone who designs a game like Quake is leaving money on the table. What's clear is that we're losing much of our mechanical skill at shooters. You simply don't have to be as quick, as precise, or as disciplined to excel at modern shooters. The best players are kept away from the new players anyway, and intricate matching systems make sure you're always somewhere in the middle of the pack. I won't even bring up the fact that most modern FPS titles are played on the console, with both a controller and varying amounts of aim assist so the player can hit their targets to begin at all. You still have to practice and learn the maps to excel, but the core skills are less important than they ever were. We're not as good as we used to be. This is something I hear from many in the competitive gaming world, and it's one of the major reasons first-person shooters simply aren't as interesting in a modern competitive setting. “Some people would argue that these games are twitch and not talent,” MLG CEO Sundance DiGiovanni told me as reminisced about classic shooters, “but I’d argue that twitch is talent.” I'd agree, and that talent is being eroded in the interests of a wider audience, more welcoming learning curve, and a bigger market.