Last summer, Brainy Gamer himself Michael Abbott compared the first-person shooters of today to the Westerns of the late 50s. Each surged in popularity that sustained for over a decade; each eventually saturated the market with washed-out, predictable versions of each other, until the public moved onto other genres and storylines.
That last phase hasn't quite happened with the modern shooter—the fall's Black Ops 2 continued Activistion's annual leap-frogging of the previous iteration's sales numbers—but there is an increasingly audible resistance to the genre's tired conventions, not to mention a fatigue with and internal questioning of what all those headshots might be doing to our psyche.
So how do we save the shooter?
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We spin the clock backwards. We relinquish our barrel-of-a-gun persective. Maybe we can't save the AAA, giant-budget game from being smothered by ennui, or crushed under the weight of sales expectations. But what if we revert back to a time when “shooter” meant horizontal playfields, where spaceships or jumping soldiers spat out deadly pixels across a screen filled with cruelly-placed opposition? A recent game borrowing from those televised western tropes of half a century ago might just pave the way.
Bertil Homberg, a Swedish indie developer with a couple of smartphone games under his belt, released a slick 2D platformer called Gunman Clive onto Android and iOS last spring. Take away the cowboy hat and Clive feels like Mega Man in the OK Corral. His wasn't the first retro platformer to grace the mobile indie scence, nor will it be the last. But its setting (the Old West) and arresting art style, a kind of sepia-toned living sketch, as if the artist was half-done before the characters leapt to life anyway--think Gun.Smoke meets A-Ha--helped garner some valid attention.
So how do we save the shooter?
Homberg then revamped the game for the 3DS eShop, where it released in late December in Europe, and early January in the states. In nearly one month on Nintendo's downloadable store, it has already out-sold the iOS release, on the market since last April. I asked Homberg of his experience working on each platform.
“While the reception was very positive on iOS and smartphones, I do find it even a bit more so on 3DS. That's probably partly because the game is simply better with buttons. There's some extra polish in the 3DS version and some extra features that people really like, but it feels like they're a bit more enthusiastic in general and perhaps a bit less jaded than the iOS audience.”
Just as more TV watchers tired of shoot-outs and tumbleweeds, so, too, is it becoming increasingly difficult for players to sift through an App Store wasteland or retail shelf crowded with look-alikes. So what can Clive tell us about success in a maturing market? Abbott prescribed four main reasons for why John Wayne and Co. faded from view, noting how each reason relates to our present industry's stagnation:
"Westerns began to disappear in the late 1960s for reasons relevant to modern game developers: 1) Genre fatigue and homologous products; 2) High cost of production; 3) Public outcry over violence; 4) Narrow target audience."
Gunman Clive, and other takes on the shooting genre like last year's hyper-brutal Hotline Miami, reveal a way games can continue to mine familiar territory while remaning in the black. Smaller projects mean less economic risk (2), which can lead to more creative risk (1). Forgo the realistic models and uncanny valley coloring books of the Unreal Engine, and instead focus on more abstract or stylized art. Each game will have its own look, and our connection to the on-screen mayhem may be lessened (3).
As for the narrow target audience, well, Clive and friends may never out-sell Modern Warfare 4. But with a new generation of consoles looming, and an ever-expanding market of Android devices, the audience is only going to get wider. The trouble is harnessing that power and finding your customers. Homberg worries about what happens next.
“As a developer I'm a bit cautious about new tech,” he wrote in an email. “I like to make quite traditional games and won't be able to really push graphics so I don't feel the need for new hardware. And having just found a space where I can make games and make a profit, change can be pretty scary.”
Scarier still is never changing at all.