THE HIS­TORY of the First Per­son Shooter


PC GAMER (US) - - FEATURE - By Ed­win Evans-Thirl­well

Writ­ers of videogame his­to­ries often think in terms of in­di­vid­u­als and pe­ri­ods—great in­no­va­tors and clear-cut ‘epochs’ in de­sign, typ­i­cally book­ended by tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vances. Events or peo­ple who con­tra­dict those ac­counts have a ten­dency to get writ­ten out of the tale. Ac­cord­ing to one pop­u­lar ver­sion of the medium’s evo­lu­tion, the first-per­son shooter was for­mally es­tab­lished in 1992 with id Soft­ware’s Wolfen­stein 3D, a lean, thug­gish ex­plo­ration of a tex­ture-mapped Nazi ci­tadel, and pop­u­lar­ized in 1993 by heavy metal odyssey Doom, which sold a then­lu­di­crous mil­lion copies world­wide at re­lease. The com­pany’s later shooter, Quake, mean­while, is often held up as the first ‘true’ 3D polyg­o­nal shooter.

Founded in 1991 by for­mer em­ploy­ees of soft­ware com­pany Soft­disk, id’s con­tri­bu­tions to what we now call the FPS is un­doubt­edly im­mense. Be­tween them, Wolfen­stein3D and Doom brought a dis­tinct tempo, sav­agery and blood­lust to first-per­son gam­ing, and pro­gram­mer John Car­mack’s en­gine tech­nol­ogy would power many a land­mark FPS in the decade fol­low­ing Doom’s re­lease. But we shouldn’t view that con­tri­bu­tion too nar­rowly, as sim­ply one step along the road to a game such as CallofDuty:WorldWarII. And nor should we ne­glect the games—be­fore, dur­ing, and af­ter id’s breakthrough—that took many of the same con­cepts and tech­niques in dif­fer­ent and equally valu­able di­rec­tions.

To think about the shooter’s ori­gins is to think about labyrinths. Among the ear­li­est pi­o­neers of first-per­son videogam­ing is 1973’s Maze, a game cob­bled to­gether by high school stu­dents Greg Thomp­son, Steve Col­ley and Howard Palmer dur­ing a NASA work-study pro­gram, us­ing Im­lac PDS-1 and PDS-4 mini­com­put­ers. The three had been car­ry­ing out re­search into com­pu­ta­tional fluid dy­nam­ics for fu­ture space­craft de­signs, an early show of what would be­come a prob­lem­atic re­la­tion­ship be­tween the com­mer­cial games busi­ness and the US mil­i­taryin­dus­trial com­plex. Ini­tially a sin­gle-plane, 16x32 tile wire­frame en­vi­ron­ment for one player in which you’d turn by 90-de­gree in­cre­ments, Maze grew to in­clude shoot­ing, sup­port for a sec­ond player via se­rial cable, a cor­ner-peek­ing func­tion­al­ity, and in­di­ca­tors for which way the other player is fac­ing.

Af­ter com­plet­ing his spell at NASA, Thomp­son took the game with him to the Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy. With ac­cess to a more pow­er­ful main­frame, and the aid of David Le­bling—who would go on to cre­ate the leg­endary text ad­ven­ture Zork, and found In­fo­com— he added eight-player sup­port over the US de­fence depart­ment-run ARPANET, a map edi­tor, pro­jec­tile graph­ics, score­boards, a spec­ta­tor mode, and ‘bots with dy­namic dif­fi­culty’, all fea­tures that would resur­face in

mass-mar­ket shoot­ers many years later. MazeWar was very pop­u­lar on cam­pus—it used up so much com­put­ing re­sources that the MIT au­thor­i­ties created a ‘dae­mon’ pro­gram to find and shut down ses­sions. In one of its later forms, the maze ex­tended along the ver­ti­cal axis, and play­ers could fly, shoot, and take cover in any di­rec­tion.

If MazeWar sounds like a fully-fea­tured FPS in hind­sight, it’s im­por­tant to note that the cat­e­gory ‘first-per­son shooter’ is of much more re­cent in­cep­tion— ac­cord­ing to a 2014 study by the aca­demic Carl Ther­rien, it only en­tered pop­u­lar dis­cus­sion around videogames in the late ’90s. Many stu­dios, in­clud­ing id, pre­ferred terms and slo­gans like ‘3-D ad­ven­ture’, ‘vir­tual re­al­ity’ and ‘the feel­ing of be­ing there’ when de­scrib­ing games that are played from a first-per­son view­point. Nor was the per­spec­tive ex­clu­sively, or even pre­dom­i­nantly, as­so­ci­ated with on-foot gun­play. There were racing games, such as Atari’s 8-bit ar­cade of­fer­ing Night Rider, which treated the player to a dash­board view of a road made up of shift­ing white rec­tan­gles. There were cock­pit sim­u­la­tors such as 1974’s Spasim (often granted dual hon­ors with MazeWar as the first-per­son shooter’s old­est an­ces­tor), a 32-player space com­bat game in which un­of­fi­cial ap­prox­i­ma­tions of Star Trek ves­sels wage war at a mighty one frame per sec­ond.

There were dungeon-crawlers such as Richard Gar­riot’s Akal­a­beth in 1976, which com­bined a top-down

Many stu­dios, in­clud­ing id, pre­ferred terms and slo­gans like ‘3-D ad­ven­ture’

world map with first-per­son dungeon seg­ments fea­tur­ing col­ored wire­frame graph­ics. MazeWar spawned a num­ber of se­quels and im­i­ta­tors, at­trac­tively billed as ‘rat’s-eye view’ ex­pe­ri­ences by a 1981 is­sue of Com­puter & Video Games mag­a­zine. The first-per­son shooter genre as we un­der­stand it to­day arose from the artis­tic fric­tion be­tween these ap­proaches, shap­ing and be­ing shaped by them in turn.

Nat­u­rally, method­olo­gies shifted as new tech­nol­ogy be­came avail­able. Among MazeWar’s more in­trigu­ing de­scen­dants is Paul Allen Edel­stein’s WayOut, re­leased for the Atari 8-bit in 1982. It made use of a ren­der­ing tech­nique known as ray cast­ing, whereby a 3D en­vi­ron­ment is gen­er­ated from a 2D lay­out by send­ing out beams from the player avatar’s eye­ball and draw­ing a pixel where they in­ter­sect with an ob­ject’s co­or­di­nates. Where light in re­al­ity bounces off many sur­faces be­fore en­ter­ing the eye, ray cast­ing sim­u­lates a ray’s col­li­sion with an ob­ject only once. While in­ca­pable of nu­anced ef­fects such as re­frac­tion, it was also much less re­source in­ten­sive than other 3D pro­jec­tion tech­niques, which al­lowed for faster per­for­mance on the hard­ware of the day. If WayOut was a po­tent demon­stra­tion of ray cast­ing’s util­ity, it is also worth re­mem­ber­ing for its ec­cen­tric, non-com­bat premise. You play a clown trapped in a maze with a spin­ning, sin­is­ter ‘Clep­tan­gle’ that will steal your map and com­pass on con­tact. A wind blows through the level, its di­rec­tion in­di­cated by float­ing fire­flies. This in­ter­feres with move­ment, but also helps you get your bear­ings should you lose your map.

Cock­pit sim­u­la­tions were es­pe­cially pop­u­lar dur­ing the ’80s, be­gin­ning with Atari and Ed Rot­berg’s ar­cade game Bat­tle­zone, a tank sim fea­tur­ing wire­frame vec­tor graph­ics that came with a novel ‘periscope’ viewfinder (the US Army would later try, and fail, to con­vert the

game into a Bradley tank train­ing sim­u­la­tion). In 1987, In­cen­tive Soft­ware re­leased Driller: Space Sta­tion Obliv­ion— the first game to run on its pro­pri­etary Freescape en­gine, which al­lowed for com­plex 3D en­vi­ron­ments dot­ted with sim­ple geo­met­ric ob­jects. The game as­signed a size­able chunk of the dis­play to your of­f­world rover’s dash­board, a fat slab of but­tons and in­di­ca­tors. In part, the preva­lence of cock­pit games re­flected the in­flu­ence of Star Wars, with its lav­ishly re­al­ized starfighter dash­board dis­plays. But it also arose from at­tempts to make often-un­wieldy sim­u­la­tion tech­nol­ogy more con­vinc­ing by rep­re­sent­ing play­ers at the helm of a lum­ber­ing ve­hi­cle. Among id’s sub­se­quent achieve­ments was to nar­row the gap be­tween the player’s body and that of the avatar, thus help­ing to open a space in which ‘first-per­son’ de­notes not merely a per­spec­tive, but a nar­ra­tive in which the player is pro­tag­o­nist.

id’s ca­reer as a first-per­son de­vel­oper be­gan with Hover­tank3D in 1991. A cock­pit sim brought to life with ray cast­ing and fea­tur­ing an­i­mated 2D sprites, it fea­tured play­ers search­ing for civil­ians to res­cue, and ten­tac­u­lar UFOs to blow up. It was fol­lowed by Cat­a­comb3-D— id’s first crack at a first-per­son char­ac­ter-led ac­tion game, with a vis­i­ble avatar hand and por­trait. Cat­a­comb also fea­tured tex­ture maps, flat im­ages at­tached to sur­faces to cre­ate the il­lu­sion of cracked stone walls and drip­ping moss. In this re­spect, id had been strongly in­flu­enced by

id’s ca­reer as a first-per­son de­vel­oper be­gan with Hover­tank3D in 1991

Blue Sky Pro­duc­tions’ breath­tak­ing Ul­ti­maUn­der­world: TheS­ty­gianAbyss, often cited as the first ‘im­mer­sive sim­u­la­tion’, which of­fered 3D, tex­ture-mapped en­vi­ron­ments fea­tur­ing sloped sur­faces, rudi­men­tary real-time physics and the abil­ity to look up and down.

Wolfen­stein3D and Doom— both de­vel­oped af­ter John Car­mack glimpsed Ul­tima in ac­tion at a 1990 expo—can be con­sid­ered com­bat­ive re­sponses to Ul­tima’s rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the pos­si­bil­i­ties of first-per­son 3D, es­chew­ing the lat­ter’s more com­plex ge­om­e­try and gi­gan­tic ar­ray of vari­ables in fa­vor of pace and im­me­di­acy. Though busier with or­na­ments than Cat­a­comb3-D’s lev­els, Wolfen­stein’s en­vi­ron­ments are de­signed to run at speed—de­signer John Romero once planned to let play­ers carry and hide bod­ies, but dropped the idea to avoid bog­ging play­ers down. Where Ul­tima set out to make play­ers feel part of its world via deep, con­sis­tent sys­tems and a wealth of lore, Wolfen­stein dealt in sim­pler, vis­ceral ef­fects—the sag of your avatar’s body when you take a step for­ward, gore spray­ing from the pix­e­lated torso of a slain Nazi. If the game pushed vi­o­lence and po­lit­i­cally charged im­agery to the fore, it also harkened back to the maze games of pre­vi­ous decades, with se­cret rooms to dis­cover be­hind slid­ing partitions.

This em­pha­sis on the avatar’s bod­ily pres­ence would set the tone for many shoot­ers—notably Call of Duty, with its blood spat­ter dam­age fil­ter—as would id’s sense that player par­tic­i­pa­tion should take pri­or­ity over nar­ra­tive el­e­ments. When it came to Doom, there was dis­agree­ment be­tween Car­mack, Romero, and id’s cre­ative di­rec­tor Tom Hall over how much plot and back­story to weave into the game. Hall had planned some­thing akin to Ul­tima, with large, nat­u­ral­is­tic lev­els built around a hub area and a mul­ti­tude of ar­cane props. “Story in a game is like story in a porn movie,” was Car­mack’s in­fa­mous re­but­tal. “It’s ex­pected to be there, but it’s not im­por­tant.” Hall re­signed in 1993. In his ab­sence, the team stripped out a num­ber of more fan­ci­ful weapons, turned many plot items re­quired for pro­gres­sion into generic key­cards, and cleaned up cer­tain en­vi­ron­ments to al­low for speed­ier nav­i­ga­tion.

Loaded with taboo im­agery, ul­tra-moddable thanks to id’s de­ci­sion to store game data such as level as­sets sep­a­rately from en­gine data as ‘WAD’ files, and equipped with four-player mul­ti­player to boot, Doom was a phe­nom­e­nal suc­cess. Such was its im­pact that be­fore ‘FPS’ be­came an ac­cepted term, many in the de­vel­op­ment com­mu­nity used ‘ Doom clone’ as short­hand for any first-per­son game in­volv­ing gun­play. No game can claim to de­fine a genre for long, how­ever, and id’s work would at­tract plenty of im­i­ta­tors and rivals in the years to come.

Four months be­fore Doom’s ar­rival, a fledg­ling Chicago stu­dio founded by Alex Seropian and Ja­son Jones re­leased Path­ways Into Dark­ness, a Wolfen­stein homage with a pinch of Ul­tima- style item puz­zling. It thrust play­ers into the boots of a sol­dier fight­ing through a pyra­mid in or­der to nuke a sleep­ing god be­fore it can bring about the apoc­a­lypse. One of the few Mac ex­clu­sives avail­able at the time, Path­ways was hailed for its col­or­ful hand-drawn art and men­ac­ing at­mos­phere. It de­serves men­tion to­day for the abil­ity to com­mune with the ghosts of other ex­plor­ers us­ing special crys­tals and elu­sive keywords—an en­gag­ing, melan­choly ap­proach to tex­tual back­story. The de­vel­oper, Bungie, would build on this con­cept dur­ing work on two of the 21st cen­tury’s best-known FPS se­ries, Halo and Des­tiny.

Be­fore Halo and Des­tiny, there was 1994’s Marathon, the se­ries often billed as the Mac’s an­swer to Doom. A sus­pense­ful sci-fi of­fer­ing set aboard a hi­jacked colony ship, it was a more com­plex game than id’s of­fer­ing— adding free look with the mouse and a range of ter­rain dy­nam­ics, such as low grav­ity and air­less cham­bers. It was also a more con­vo­luted work of fic­tion, which re­lied on play­ers scour­ing its open-ended lev­els for nar­ra­tive arte­facts. In place of the souls of the slain, Marathon of­fered com­puter ter­mi­nals through which you con­verse with var­i­ous sen­tient AIs about the wider uni­verse.

The game’s reach was lim­ited by its choice of plat­form, but it at­tracted a ded­i­cated com­mu­nity thanks to its elu­sive nar­ra­tive back­drop and in­fec­tious eight-player, ten-map mul­ti­player. 1995’s Marathon2: Du­ran­dal added co-op­er­a­tive play while 1996’s Marathon In­fin­ity in­tro­duced a ‘Forge’ level edi­tor, two fea­tures that would be­come cen­tral to the stu­dio’s projects. Just as sig­nif­i­cant, how­ever, was Bungie’s work in the emerg­ing real-time tac­tics genre. Con­ceived by Ja­son Jones in a bid to stand apart from id Soft­ware, the top-down Myth games equipped Bungie with a feel for how dif­fer­ent unit types and vari­ables might re­act to­gether. This would yield fruit in the shape of Halo’s fa­mous com­bat sand­boxes.

Its sheer bril­liance aside, Doom’s pre-em­i­nence dur­ing the ’90s owes much to id’s em­brace of the mod­ding com­mu­nity, with play­ers able to cre­ate their own maps us­ing the de­vel­oper’s own edit­ing tools (and thus, squeeze many hours of en­joy­ment out of the free share­ware ver­sion). Fan con­coc­tions ranged from Bat­man and Alien-themed con­ver­sions to trashy odd­i­ties like TheSky MayBe, in which zom­bie men moon­walk and the leg­endary BFG-9000 has a chance of con­fer­ring im­mor­tal­ity on its tar­get. Many up-and-com­ing de­sign­ers cut their teeth on Doom mods, and other stu­dios were ea­ger to li­cense it for com­mer­cial use. Among them was Raven Soft­ware, founded by Steve and Brian Raf­fel, which created the fan­tasy-themed shoot­ers Shad­ow­caster, Hexen and Heretic us­ing their own be­spoke ver­sions of John Car­mack’s en­gine tech­nol­ogy. The two com­pa­nies were at one point based just down the road from each other, and formed an en­dur­ing bond—id would even­tu­ally hand Raven the keys to the Doom and Quake fran­chises.

Raven’s games were eclipsed, how­ever, by the nox­ious ex­cess of 3D Realms’ DukeNukem3D, a cel­e­bra­tion of B-movie tropes that oc­ca­sion­ally re­sem­bles a post­mod­ern satire, and oc­ca­sion­ally the aim­less, chau­vin­ist doo­dlings of a 13-year-old boy. DukeNukem3D is an in­tensely an­ti­so­cial game, its lev­els grimy par­o­dies of real-world lo­cales, such as movie the­atres and strip­clubs, guarded by porcine cops and strewn with the corpses of cinema idols like In­di­ana Jones and Luke Sky­walker.

While tech­ni­cally ac­com­plished and for­mally in­ven­tive—it in­tro­duced jet packs, shrink rays, an­i­mated props such as ar­cade cab­i­nets, phys­i­cally im­pos­si­ble lay­outs and a pro­tag­o­nist who pro­vides au­di­ble com­men­tary through­out—the game is remembered to­day mostly for its jig­gling soft­core im­agery. In years to come, shooter de­vel­op­ers would spend as much time dis­pelling the no­to­ri­ety DukeNukem gen­er­ated as they would prof­it­ing from his ex­am­ple.

Doom’s suc­cess also won the re­gard of fran­chise own­ers in other me­dia. Mary­land-based Bethesda—flush from the suc­cess of its eye-catch­ingly vast role­play­ing ef­fort, TheElderScrolls:Arena— re­leased a Ter­mi­na­tor adap­ta­tion in 1995, en­dowed with lav­ish polyg­o­nal mod­els. In hind­sight, the game’s vast, clut­tered waste­land feels al­most like ground­work for the stu­dio’s later first-per­son Fall­out ti­tles. In the same year, the ven­er­a­ble ad­ven­ture game stu­dio Lu­casArts shipped DarkForces, the first Star Wars-themed FPS, in­spired (and per­haps, an­noyed) by the ap­pear­ance of Death Star mods for Doom. Lu­casArts had de­signed a num­ber of his­tor­i­cal cock­pit-based sim­u­la­tions dur­ing the late ’80s and early ’90s, but DarkForces was a straight riff on id Soft­ware’s work. The de­vel­oper’s im­pres­sive Jedi en­gine al­lowed for ver­ti­cal look­ing, en­vi­ron­ments busy with am­bi­ent de­tails such as ships land­ing on flight decks, a range of ef­fects such as at­mo­spheric haze, and the abil­ity to stack cham­bers on top of one an­other.

By the mid-’90s, de­vel­op­ers had be­gun to shift from so-called ‘pseudo-3D’ tech­niques such as ray cast­ing to fully-polyg­o­nal worlds, cap­i­tal­is­ing on the spread of 3D hard­ware ac­cel­er­a­tion and the ar­rival of the first mass-mar­ket graph­ics pro­cess­ing units. Re­leased for the Mega Drive’s 32X add-on in 1994, Sega’s lum­ber­ing Metal Head is often touted as the first ‘true’ 3D shooter. Pitch­ing

large, plau­si­bly an­i­mated mechs against one an­other in tex­ture-mapped ur­ban en­vi­ron­ments, it was a hand­some cre­ation let down by repet­i­tive mis­sions. There was also Par­al­lax Soft­ware’s De­scent, re­leased in the same year—an un­likely but grip­ping hy­brid of flight sim and dungeon crawler with 360-de­gree move­ment. But the game now re­garded as a by­word for polyg­o­nal 3D blast­ing wasn’t, to be­gin with, a shooter at all.

John Romero had in­tended Quake to be a hy­brid of Sega AM2’s ar­cade ti­tle Vir­tua Fighter and a Western role­play­ing fan­tasy. Con­ceived back in 1991 and named for a Dun­geons & Drag­ons char­ac­ter, the game would have al­ter­nated be­tween first-per­son ex­plo­ration and third­per­son side-on brawl­ing. Romero en­vi­sioned cir­cling drag­ons, a ham­mer mas­sive enough to send shock­waves through the earth, and events that trig­ger when play­ers

As Big Ro­bot’s Jim Ros­sig­nol has noted in a 2011 ret­ro­spec­tive, some­thing of this fail­ure lingers in Quake as it stands. Though cut from the same coal­face as Doom— it of­fered fast, bru­tal gun­play, lev­els made up of cor­ri­dors and are­nas, and a mul­ti­tude of se­cret ar­eas—the game’s aes­thetic and fic­tion are cu­ri­ously di­vided, at once crustily medieval and high tech. You can ex­pect banks of com­puter mon­i­tors and tele­porters, but also broadswords and mon­sters ripped from the pages of Love­craft. In hind­sight, it plays like a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the tip­ping point from avant-garde into prof­itable con­ven­tion, the point at which the chimeri­cal pos­si­bil­i­ties of 3D ac­tion so­lid­i­fied into the fea­tures ex­pected of a mod­ern first-per­son shooter.

In at least one re­spect, though, Quake was trans­for­ma­tive—it in­tro­duced a thrilling el­e­ment of ver­ti­cal­ity, with play­ers dash­ing through the air above op­po­nents rather than sim­ply straf­ing or cor­ner-camp­ing. This qual­ity proved an as­set in the emerg­ing field of online mul­ti­player: By the late ’90s, Eth­er­net con­nec­tions and modems had be­come ubiq­ui­tous and in­ter­net us­age was rock­et­ing. Quake’s mul­ti­player was ini­tially de­signed for high band­width, low la­tency lo­cal area net­works—it would check with a server be­fore show­ing play­ers the re­sult of an ac­tion, which led to jerky per­for­mance online when there was a build-up of server re­quests. id swiftly re­leased an update, ti­tled QuakeWorld, which added client-side pre­dic­tion. The re­sult can be held up as the orig­i­nal es­ports shooter—soft­ware com­pany In­ter­graph spon­sored a US-wide tour­na­ment, Red An­ni­hi­la­tion, in May 1997, which at­tracted around 2,000 par­tic­i­pants.

As with Doom, Quake’s mod­ding tools made it an at­trac­tive plat­form for am­a­teur de­vel­op­ers—its com­mu­nity gave the world Team Fortress, which would later flower into a stand­alone shooter, along with early

spec­i­mens of ma­chin­ima, in­clud­ing an epic known as The Seal of Ne­hahra. Its great­est de­scen­dent, how­ever, would prove to be a shooter from a de­vel­oper founded by Mi­crosoft alumni Gabe Newell and Mike Har­ring­ton.

Created us­ing a mod­i­fied ver­sion of the Quake en­gine, Valve Soft­ware’s 1998 epic Half-Life re­mains ex­tra­or­di­nary for how it rec­on­ciles the ab­strac­tions of game de­sign with nar­ra­tive tac­tics redo­lent of a novel (the game’s tale of se­cret govern­ment re­search and alien in­va­sion was, in fact, writ­ten by a novelist, Mike Laid­law). Its achieve­ment ver­sus ear­lier shoot­ers can be summed up as the cre­ation of tem­po­ral unity: Al­most ev­ery­thing is ex­pe­ri­enced in real time from the lead char­ac­ter’s per­spec­tive, with no ar­bi­trary level breaks. In place of cutscenes, Valve weaves its tale through in-game di­a­logue and scripted events such as en­e­mies smash­ing through doors—a tac­tic that both gives the player some con­trol over the tempo and avoids jerk­ing you out of the world. The game also sells the im­pres­sion of a larger, un­seen uni­verse not via gob­bets of tex­tual back­story, but through the de­tail, re­spon­sive­ness and con­sis­tency of its en­vi­ron­ment. The in­tro sees Gor­don Free­man rid­ing a mono­rail through Black Mesa, glean­ing in­for­ma­tion about the lo­ca­tion and your char­ac­ter from PA an­nounce­ments and the sight of other em­ploy­ees at work. Fol­low­ing a dis­as­trous ex­per­i­ment, you’re asked to back­track through the same ar­eas, now fallen into chaos.

1 Wolfen­stein 3D

2 Maze War

DoomII ’s fi­nal boss is voiced by de­signer John Romero.

The Cat­a­comb se­ries be­gan its life as a 2D dungeon-crawler.

4 Ul­tima Un­der­world: The Sty­gian Abyss

3 Hover­tank 3D

2 Bat­tle­zone

2 Doom II

1 Cat­a­comb 3-D

1 Path­ways Into Dark­ness

2 Marathon

3 Doom Bat­man

Now a fad­ing mem­ory, Lu­casArts was once an in­dus­try giant.


Metal Head



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