Shooting Games – The Early Years : Home Consoles & Arcade (1970-1993)

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Why First Person Shooters are so popular

When it comes to being influential within the gaming industry, the shooting game genre is second to none. With so many key titles in gaming history like DOOM, Quake and Counter Strike being shooting games, it’s no surprise that the genre is as popular as it is. But fundamentally, what is it about this style of game that draws in so many adoring fans and developers?

Why players love FPS games

For many gamers, what truly pulls them into the world of shooting games is the accessibility and frenetic action. Games like DOOM pride themselves on their breakneck pace, and even slower games like MIDI Maze capture this feeling at times. That rush of adrenaline washes over players, dropping huge boosts of dopamine as you lay havoc on your opponents.

Add to this how anyone can pick up and play a shooting game intuitively, and you’ve got a recipe for success. As long as you understand how to aim and shoot, you’re in the game. A less daunting proposition than most other genres, and one that allows game devs to get a bit more creative with their offerings. It serves as an interesting draw and a challenge however.

The challenges of making FPS games

As a game developer, making a shooter is always an attractive proposition. Unlike many other genres, shooting games have a bigger focus on gunplay over intricate level design.

Developers get to spend more time making their games unique, adding fun gameplay elements to their games. Shooting games are also open-ended in terms of design, meaning your creativity is the limit to what you can do. Character speed, abilities, realistic guns, fictional guns, demon opponents, anything and everything is available to fiddle with.

This does however form a challenge. How exactly do you make your shooting game memorable? Yes, the core gameplay is simple, but setting yourself apart from the dime-a-dozen shooters out there is integral to your game’s success. Many different aspects to think about, and it’s important to not do too much at once or your game becomes unfocused.

The earliest First Person Games

These weren’t things that fettered the making of the very first shooting game however. Maze, from 1973, was a challenge to create at all. The brainchild of highschool students Greg Thompson, Stever Colley and Howard Palmer, it was programmed on Imlac PDS-1 and PDS-4 minicomputers during a NASA work-study program with the original purpose of testing computational fluid dynamics.

The Imlac PDS-1D
Doom 2 for the DOS platform.

While they would slowly add features like shooting and second player functionality, development took off once Thompson took the game to MIT. Here, with help of Zork creator David Lebling, Maze would flourish. 8-player functionality, a map editor, spectator modes, projectiles, scoreboards and bots would all be added, things that are commonplace in today’s shooting games.

With time, the team had unknowingly created the first ever first person shooter, long before the term would come to be coined in the late 90s. From here, more games would follow suit, including Spasim (1974) which would later become Panther, and Atari’s arcade hit Battlezone (1980), which heralded the oncoming onslaught of shooting games into arcades all over the world.

Spasim (1974)

Of course, the term ‘shooting game,’ wasn’t something that existed back then. As a genre, it simply wasn’t established enough to be recognizable. Many developers were throwing their hats into the ring, but the rules of the ring were still being built. Only later in the year 1993 would the genre be properly cemented, but that doesn’t mean that earlier efforts weren’t impressive.

Innovative & Experimental Shooters

Gameplay of MIDI Maze – Atari ST

Many of the most influential and experimental shooters would pop up before the genre existed, including the first ever real home computer FPS, MIDI Maze. Released for the Atari ST in 1987, MIDI Maze wouldn’t be the most impressive game visually. The player takes control of a dot, set in a “Pacman” style maze and trying to shoot other players in it. What’s special about MIDI Maze is how it set up the groundwork for what would eventually become local death-matches. 

Early game engines

Using MIDI ports designed for sound and processing, the game could support 16 players at once locally, making for intense death-matches. While having more than 4 players at once would make the game lag, it was still a monumental achievement. From here, home computers and consoles would get more powerful, and this would be the catalyst for even greater advancements for shooters.

With the increased power, devs could aim for the moon with their visuals and gameplay. The sky was the limit, and if you had an idea, you could make it. It was this idea that led to the creation of blockbuster hit Wolfenstein 3D (1992). Often heralded as the grandfather of the modern shooter, Wolfenstein 3D would rewrite the rules of making a shooter and make advancements that continue to this day.

Gone were the clunky feel of older titles, replaced with a smooth and slick movement system. The labyrinthian map design was still here, but now touched up with brick textures and lighting effects. Many different weapons to choose from, each with a different feel. Secret levels and easter eggs. And most importantly, visceral graphics and sound design everywhere.

The importance Wolfenstein 3D & Doom

Doom 1 on floppy disk – Spread across 4 disks due to space constraints on the respective system.

ID Software, the brains behind Wolfenstein 3D, hit gold, but they weren’t ones to rest on their laurels. The company’s desire to innovate and push things further would persist. With the success of their last title and the creative freedom to do anything, they would make DOOM. 

Wolfenstein 3D for MS-DOS

Now known as the father of the FPS genre, DOOM carries over many of Wolfenstein’s 3D, but polishes them as needed. Even more impressive graphics and environments by virtue of more powerful systems. Even faster gameplay and more deadly weapons. A fascinating world with advanced lighting setting the mood. With even smarter level design, DOOM was a smash hit, one whose impact continues to be felt now.

Unlike developing games for any other genre, shooting game devs had no guidelines to follow other than their predecessors. ID Software and their many competitors had one thing in common. Huge levels of ambition, and the skill to back those ambitions up. With their only option being to iterate and improve on their own blueprints, this evolution of game design is what would come to define the FPS genre you see today.

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