First-Person Shooters


There are many different varieties of computer games on the market today.  From flight simulators to real-time strategy, all of these varieties have created niche markets within the huge population of computer gamers.   One of the fastest growing game-types is the First-Person Shooter.  This subcatagory of action games, also called over-the-shoulder shooters and other names, is based upon a relatively simple premise:  You see the world through the eyes of your character.  The goal of such games also tend to be very simple:  You run down darkened hallways and kill anything that gets in your way.  However, reducing the genre to simplistic elements fails to appreciate the reasons that these games are so popular.  First-person shooters have lead the industry in implementing the latest technology, providing the greatest support for multi-player gaming, and generating the greatest amount of praise and condemnation.


The birth of the first-person shooter can be traced back to id Software's Wolfenstein 3-D, released in shareware on May 5, 1992.  Using a very strong graphics engine developed in-house, this game allowed players to see an amazing landscape through the eyes of the main character.  The graphics may appear dated now after less than a decade, but the ability to move along the x and y axis in a graphically rendered hallway was a revelation.  So was the feeling that the perspective gave the game.  Players who were used to seeing small, animated characters jump up and down in side-scrolling games were amazed at the immersive feel of Wolfenstein.  You could see the weapon that you were carrying and could see it fire. Life-like Nazis and vicious dogs attacked you from every corner.

If Wolfenstein is the father of the first-person shooter, then Doom would be his most popular descendent.  Doom, also by id Software, moved the action from the darkened hallways of a German castle during World War II to futuristic, although still darkened, hallways with a score of alien monsters.  The game was an immediate success.  This can be attributed to both the technical and aesthetic improvements in the game as well as the timing of its release.  Doom, released on December 10, 1993,  entered the scene just as modem speeds and awareness of the internet were increasing and the corporate and academic worlds were embracing the Local Area Network (LAN)  .  Its ability to support convincing  multi-player games catapulted it into the forefront of the gaming community.

Other software companies were quick to recognize the appeal of Doom and the first-person shooters. Many licensed the graphics engine from id and began creating their own games. These "Doom clones" enjoyed great success. Games such as Rise of the Triad and LucasArt's Dark Forces created worlds that rivaled the world of Doom. This competition encouraged companies to find new ways to exploit the Doom engine. One result was beautifully rendered games with innovative ideas, like Raven Software's Heretic. The other result was increasingly graphic violence and a move towards parental ratings. Apogee, and its subsidiary 3D Realms, have ironically been at the forefront of both controversial content and moves to inform parents of the content.

Doom was followed by the highly successful Doom II. This game is viewed by many as the ultimate development of the Doom engine. However, the game still lacked true 3D. id Software then announced the development of Quake, a true 3D game. Development of Quake lasted 18 months, giving competitors an opportunity to develop competing technology. 3D Realms took this opportunity. Using the Build graphics engine, created by the amazing Ken Silverman, 3D Realms developed Duke Nukem 3D. This game wasn't really a 3D game, but the graphics engine was versatile enough to make the illusion of 3D almost seamless. Duke was released several months before Quake and quickly garnered a huge following. Many of the innovations contained in this game are currently being used by other software companies.

The release of Quake marked the true beginning of the 3D age of first-person shooters, at least in the traditional sense that we use the terms 3D and first-person shooter.  Descent was the first title to actually use 3D successfully, with impressive and popular results, but Quake was the first title that used 3D in the traditional first-person shooter. With its superb graphics engine, quality levels and monsters, and multi-player support for 16 players, Quake allowed id Software to regain its crown as the king of the first-person shooter. Amazingly, Quake remained the technology leader for a year and a half. This has as much to do with the appeal of the game as with id's decision to release enough tools and information to allow users to modify Quake. Using a language called Quake C, programmers could alter virtually every element of the game. The creation of powerful level editors and a host of utilities, all by the growing "Quake community," paved the way for spectacular new games, new levels, and new ideas.

LucasArts' Jedi Knight was a revolutionary game on many levels.   Until this title was released in mid 1997, it was laughable to talk about the "storyline" in a first-shooter.  Jedi Knight took advantage of the rich Star Wars history to create a unique and entertaining game.  Through the use of cutscenes and a non-linear story, LucasArts provided a game that compelled a player to finish. 

The release of Quake II in December 1997 pushed the technology envelop even further.  Many of the features that had been pioneered during Quake's ongoing development, such as OpenGL support, transparent water, and the client prediction of QuakeWorld, were included in this new game.   Quake II also added nifty visual effects, like 16 bit textures in GL mode and colored lighting, but was also the first id title to have a strong storyline.   Granted, the storyline still involved you running around killing everything, but the player was provided with specific tasks for each level.

Just as Duke Nukem 3D and Jedi Knight had done previously, the release of Unreal has had a profound impact on a community that had been entirely focused upon titles from id.  Unreal's strength lies not in its storyline, which tended to disappear in the middle of the game, but in the power of its graphics engine.  The engine adds many visual improvements, allowed for incredibly large levels, and is still very easy to modify.  A wide range of titles, from hunting games to adventure games, are currently being developed with the Unreal engine.  Many have seen this as a real threat to the empire of id.

Fans of the Quake series are looking forward to the release of Quake III Arena.  This game has gone through a few profound changes since it was first proposed, but the many new visual effects and gameplay elements that have been proposed for the game are very impressive. 

1999 will undoubtedly see a continued evolution of the first-person shooter. Several companies are currently developing games utilizing the graphics engine from id Software's Quake 2. Several other companies are using the popular engine from Unreal to design their games.  Still others have created, or are creating, their own graphics engine. It is impossible to determine how successful these efforts will be in an increasingly crowded field. Regardless, it is clear that the first-person shooter will remain a large and powerful genre in computer gaming.


As a group, first-person shooters tend to be driving forces in accelerating the development of computer software and hardware. Other types of games are now trying to keep up, but FPSs have a clear lead in the technology race. The rise of the 3D graphics accelerator cannot be accredited to business applications; it is rooted firmly in computer games. It could be argued that 3Dfx, the company that created the Voodoo chipset used by several graphics cards, owes much of its success to GL Quake.

First-person shooters have also pioneered the mutli-player gaming experience. Artificial intelligence with games continue to increase, but many players find monsters a poor substitute for playing against real people.


Just as FPSs lead the way in technology, they also have cornered the market in controversy. Very few games contain as much graphic violence as a first-person shooter. Many first-person shooters have also received criticism for their sexist portrayal of women, satanic overtones, and racial stereotypes. Many voices have been raised in defense, and in condemnation, of these controversial games. The course of first-person shooters in this area remains uncertain. id Software removed all Satanic references from Quake 2, but the program was banned for sale in Germany for its violent content. 3D Realms created a "parental lock" for Duke Nukem 3D, an effort to allow parents to monitor a child's use of the game, but their is little doubt that the strippers and prostitutes will return for Duke Nukem Forever. Some software companies appear to be concerned about reducing controversy. Others appear to go out of their way to generate controversy. This division will likely remain as long segments of the gaming community are drawn towards each approach. In the end, the actual playability of a game will generate more interest, and more sales, than controversy alone.


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Last update: October 20, 1998
This page is maintained by Darren L. Tabor,
aka Dakota