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Why I'll Never Work on First-Person Shooters Again

By Charles N. Cox | Published Apr 18 2013 09:04 AM in GameDev.net Soapbox
Peer Reviewed by (jbadams, Glass_Knife, NightCreature83)

opinion fps

Microsoft has a term they like to throw around: a Career-Limiting Move (CLM). Refuse to take point on a major project from your manager? You’ve just committed a CLM. Accidentally send that witty, opinionated email to a wide audience that includes your Group Manager? CLM. Stand up and throw an iPad at Steve Ballmer at the annual Company Meeting? CLM!

Just maybe, what I’m about to say is a Career-Limiting Move of its own. Maybe it’s a convenient, portable, travel-sized way of ensuring I never get a job again in the industry I love, the industry I threw away every other opportunity (including the chance at a respectable four-year degree) to join, the industry that represents the fastest growing revenue segment of every digital platform ever developed - but screw it, I’ve been in the business a full, stormy, self-doubting decade and the world can hear me loud and clear:

I will never work on a first-person shooter game, ever again. Period.

Note:  
The Soapbox provides a platform for developers to stand up and speak their mind about the games industry. The views and opinions expressed in this article are soley those of the original author. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of GameDev.net.


Sacrilege


Drunken ramblings!
Prosletyzing from a youthful cad with visions of superiority!
Mass hysteria (it’s going around this season, you know)!

Action games of all stripes make up about 20% of worldwide sales - run n’ gun games made up 3 of the top 10 grossing games of 2011. Over 20M copies sold of Call of Duty: MW3. 10M for Battlefield 3. Those two games alone made up $1.5 billion at retail in 2011. Even if the publisher only nets $20 per copy, and a wild pessimistic guess at $100M for production costs (2x what it cost to make MW2) MW3 alone pulled in $350M in pure profit on that one title in launch year alone.

The amount of cash up for grabs in the business of Shooting People in the Face is simply staggering.

I understand. It’s not just the money. There’s a magnetic, almost shamanic aura that pervades our favorite shoot-em-up games. We’ll wait in line at 2AM to buy the new consoles that feel like they were built for these games. We’ll eagerly plunk down hundreds of dollars for deluxe editions with extra digital uniforms, special guns, or plastic tchotkes that bring the game closer to an idyllic reflection of ourselves - truly, our own lives, own hopes and dreams are wound up in these experiences - the fact that thirty million other people believe and contribute to this shared vision only adds to the intoxication we feel.

Perhaps as an expression of just how embedded I’ve found myself in this world over the last decade, six of the eight professional titles I’ve contributed to are first-person shooter games. I wish the percentages were different, but money follows money. Corporations and people both are caught in the whirlwind. Even when I toiled away in my education at Digipen at the turn of the millennium, I had half-drawn designs of shooter games; building them represented then the absolute apex of my career. If I could get the money, I thought, this would be my dream.

I'm not alone in this new world, fuller than ever of nascent game developers, would-be professionals, clawing at the walls to make a name, a life, a career full of shipped titles and rabid fans screaming for more. First-person shooter development packs and helper classes are among the most popular - and highest priced - items in the Unity Asset Store.

I’m not here to say there’s no room for innovation in this space, especially from its fans and enthusiasts. For a great understanding of how non-developer involvement has grown and changed in the space, see the excellent post from Rock Paper Shotgun - A People's History of the FPS.

The problem here is that money isn’t an acceptable stand-in for ethical behavior. Just as legality doesn’t equal morality (seriously, it doesn't, spread the word), so too does profit fail to imply ethical superiority. Great, we’re all making these games. Should we? Did we ever ask?

I had an experience that forced my hand - I haven’t stopped asking since.

Introducing Superdad


It was a blustery pre-winter at Studio Q. (Call it whatever you want, I’m holding onto at least some plausible deniability here.) Another day, another paycheck, another generic shooter project for the ten-foot experience on a high-def console.

I spent a lot of time building communication channels among engineering, art, and design, disciplines that have often stormy relationships with one another. Putting coalitions together to fix the most critical issues and build up new game features was my self-selected job at the company; playing peacemaker comes naturally when you grow up in a divorced household.

The wide reach meant opportunities to survey dozens of my fellow game developers informally, and ten years in the business hit me all at once. I found many who were excited to work on anything at all. Glad to be in the industry. Maybe I’m supposed to be one of those still, if I know what’s good for me. Many who knew no better or no different. And still others who wished, who hoped against hope we’d make something different one day.

And there were those who were resigned to the mechanism of the industry - who knew that they’d work on whatever was profitable, and that meant, at least for the forseeable future, a lifetime of making shooter games. And they’d worked out their own coping mechanisms.

The man I remember most, Superdad, was an engineer with a young daughter. Like many of us in the business he had to work long hours, during many of the weekends where he’d spend time with his little girl. To try to please both sides, he brought his daughter, probably only 5 or 6 years old, into work and had her play with her toys in his office while he did his coding. He had no choice, really - this industry works people overlong and threatens them with excommunication if they complain, knowing full well that enthusiastic young talent will gladly come fill in at a lower wage.

Superdad was one of the old guard. A bandolier of shipped titles slung across his chest, he had survived layoffs, buyouts, new console launches, mobile versions of games; all manner of weather sprayed across the decks of the sailing ship Development. And he’d had enough time, consideration, and that true engineer thoroughness to come up with a unique solution to a problem that faced him every other weekend: explaining to his young daughter what it was he did for a living.

It was inevitable. His daughter would look up at the screen during a debugging session, see bad guys jumping to and fro from cover points, sneaking through the bush, guns trained dead-on at the eye-point of the player, and she’d be curious. She’d say “Daddy? What are those men doing?”

It’d be a lot harder to explain if the guns were firing, bullets were flying, blood was spurting from flayed carotids and torn femorals - but they weren’t. Not a shot. No gunpowder, no blood.

Superdad had programmed in a hardware switch that stanched all gunfire, instantly. He smiled, and with a gentle voice, he leaned over to his daughter and explained:

“They’re just playing hide and seek, honey.”

Curtain Down


I’ll admit it: I’m terrified of children.

My fictional maybe-ones that I may or may not have some day, and the children of my friends and colleagues. I don’t know how I’d have the courage to do what it took to protect my child from the visible, media-ready horrors we know plague us as humanity every second - and the more insidious, invisible ones like my industry friends experience every day: the fact that deep down inside, we love to shoot people on these giant screens and watch them fall into the dirt.

That fear may have something to do with why I feel an overwhelming sense of awe in remembering Superdad's actions. The man is a hero to me, plain and simple. Caught only a worker in the great industrial revolution of digital violence, the Great Blood Gold Rush, he did what he had to in order to feed his family while protecting the delicate hope and optimism of his child, to give her a chance to see the world as it might better be seen, than as it is.

It’s not his response to the situation that I take issue with. It’s that there’s even a situation like this that he feels compelled to respond to - that’s the shame, the ugliness of it.

And this drama - this tightrope walk between building virtual violence while fashioning a safe space for the next generation - was forced to live in the same building that received countless letters, forum posts, YouTube videos, and more from angry gamers that threatened us - and our families - if we didn’t deliver them the bloodthirsty experience they wanted, the one they demanded. The pressure in these pipes does not let up, not from any source. Experience it, and you can begin to see why executives feel they have no choice but to ride these rapids to the hazard of all.

It’s entirely reasonable to tell me that the story is the same whereever you go. Whenever you’re addressing a crowd of millions, you might say, you’ll get hate mail. You’ll accumulate moral debt. You’ll get a crisis of conscience. Just a cost of doing business.

Well, sorry; that’s a cheap escape hatch, and I’m not using it anymore.

If I blame anyone for Superdad’s situation - it’s not him, it’s all of us. What we buy, what we line up for, what we clamor for in great digital mobs drives our next generation of production, fuels the generators and oils the wheels of capital that drive our next wave of industry.

The sad truth for me is that I am just as drawn to shooters as I’ve ever been. It’s unlikely that I’ll ever shake the response I’ve developed to the bursts of adrenaline, the short-circuited route to endorphins triggered by lining up a 32x32 pixel crosshair over a collection of triangles, now acid-etched into my brain as if it were its own printed board of chips and gold-coated bus lines.

But I am drawing the one line I can draw, starting now, for a few good reasons.

First, for the other Superdads out there, I want to be able to look them honestly in the face, not to give them some bullshit line about the fascinating duplicity of mankind, and say that I’m honestly working to try to make the world that their children will inhabit a better one.

Second, my new company, 4gency, built after plenty of time in an industry I couldn’t change, now has the opportunity to pick and choose the games it builds, and the ethical stances those games exhibit. If there’s any time along the singular diode path of my life to take a stand for something, anything, this is it.

So I’ll say it again:
I will never work on a first-person shooter game, ever again. Period.
Not with my company. Not with any company.

I’ve been inspired by a variety of titles, including those in the much-hated “casual” space. I don’t think there’s a need for more Cowclicker 3000’s, but as a glimmer of hope, a shining did-you-know: strategy games made up 28% of the PC game market - the highest grossing genre for that platform. Of course you did; that fact alone does not a lifetime of riches make - but I see more, and better, ahead of us.

There’s an amazing amount of innovation just waiting under the surface for us to tackle - and yes, perhaps violence will be some part of it; we are no simple beings. But we as a self-aware species of gamer - and game developer - can evolve to a more varied diet as a start; a one-course feast of blood and shell casings can perhaps sing its last with this generation and never return, a relic, discarded as the cyanide trappings of our adolescent industry and its hopefully brief era of strip mining for the social soul.

We are ready to do better, and I'm prepared to do my part. No more first-person shooters will come from me.

I've said it. Have I destroyed my career?

Am I just minutes away from receiving the famed “you’ll never work in this town again” email from the Gaming Illuminati?

Have I invited a hundred million gamers to tell me I’m going to hell for not capitulating to their demands for a life filled with entertainment that leads with the gun and leaves all else to ruin?

Maybe.
Fire away.

I’ve got a company to run.


Reprinted from Charles N. Cox Dot Com
GameDev.net Soapbox logo design by Mark "Prinz Eugn" Simpson



About the Author(s)


Charles N. Cox has worked on games for Sierra Studios, Microsoft, and Sony. He is now the Developer Education Manager at Xbox, and runs his own mobile/tablet game company, 4gency. Charles blogs at http://www.charlesncox.com.

License


The Microsoft Public License (Ms-PL)




Comments

Good article. I like the honesty. This is actually why I'm not going into the game industry (professionally). Making games is what got me into programming, and it's something that I always plan on keeping as a fun hobby. But I decided to not make it a profession because I didn't want to work on a project that would make me feel uncomfortable if my young (future) kids were playing it. I want to be able to show my (future) kids the things I make, and hopefully inspire them.

 

And I've enjoyed playing shooters just as much as anyone else out there.

 

edit: I do have to agree with some of the other commenters: this feels kinda weird as an article, and I wonder if it should be something else instead (also, I'm not sure what it has to do with game design, as it's more about personal moral decisions).

I appreciate what you've posted(although i disagree with your reasoning(or rationality of why you've decided to stop making fps's)).

However, I don't think this is article material, this is fine as a blog, or journal post. But it feels weird to be apart of the article database. Perhaps others disagree with me, and that's fine. But this is my opinion.

There needs to be a section for article's like this.

I too think this isn't appropriate for an Article, your self expression is interesting but I think better suited in a Journal.

 

It seems a bit weird to disagree with you, since I am the snobby Computer Science student, but anyways...

I don't have a Problem with military FPS games, some games are about stepping in the shoes of an other human, being something you are not. Why not a Soldier?

But what I do agree however, is the Medal of Duty series is brainlessly run and gun heroism that only serves to drain money out of the consumers hands and that it isn't very rewarding creating the next brainless shooter.

 

But games are a medium, in order to be taken seriously as a medium there have to be games with adult content. Let's take movies for example, you wouldn't show "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" to your child, but why should you be ashamed working on it? It is a great movie with a great story with the sole purpose to entertain (at least I couldn't see any other tone).

On the other side you have movies like V for Vendetta or Schindlers List that try to show something to the viewer, that try to teach them a concept. Shutter Island wasn't only entertaining, it showed beautifully how the mental illness has manifested itself in the protagonist. It left the audience with questions, a subject to talk and think about. And the same can be done with games.

 

Casual games are an important step to get this medium the respect it deserves, but it isn't the last step. In order to be taken seriously, we need to take steps further, we can't shy away from controversial concepts, we can't shy away from games you don't want to show your kids..There is no game to my knowledge, that didn't tell any WW2 conflict in the uncontroversial view of the Americans. In rare cases you stepped in the shoes of other Ally forces like the Russians or the British. But there never was a game where  you walked in the shoes of an SS Soldier in a concentration camp, that shows you why the soldier can't simply not do the horrors he is commanded to. You can tell stories that simply won't work in any other medium. And that is where I want the game industry to be, games are so much more than "fun" or time killers. They can be art. They can be poetry. They can be a medium to tell stories, to teach and to learn.

 

That's why I can understand why you don't want to work on an other irrelevant shoot em up military flag waving heroism fantasy, but I can't understand why you turn your back on a camera position. For example Spec Ops: The Line has on the surface  the same formula as the Medal of Duty games, but they use it to bring up Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, they manage to critique the whole genre ("You just wanted to be a hero"). It is a great game that shows games as a medium is growing up, it is worth the controvery, it is worth our time, it is woth our effort to push beyond the dogmatic "fun" criteria.

This is a wonderful piece, whether article or blog. May I reproduce it?

I do have to agree with some of the other commenters: this feels kinda weird as an article, and I wonder if it should be something else instead (also, I'm not sure what it has to do with game design, as it's more about personal moral decisions).

 

I don't think this is article material, this is fine as a blog, or journal post. But it feels weird to be apart of the article database. Perhaps others disagree with me, and that's fine. But this is my opinion.

 

Etc, etc

 

To keep comments focused on the topic of the article, please continue this discussion in this forum thread. Thanks!

I don't think it wise to hide this sort of stuff from kids (full disclosure, I don't have any kids but I plan to start within a year or so). If it were my daughter, I would just be honest. I would tell her its a game and isn't real. I would explain that doing this sort of stuff in a game is OK because no one is really getting hurt. Doing this stuff in real life is not OK because you are hurting people.

Your kid is going to learn about this stuff one way or another. Would you rather they stumble in the dark on their own because you don't want to explain it to them because you are afraid, or would you rather walk with them shining the light of wisdom guiding them to proper understanding?

It's time to face the facts about human nature. We LIKE violence. Violence is not necessarily evil or barbaric. A boxing match is violent but not evil. Playing airsoft or paintball is violent, but not evil.

Shooting someone is violent, but if it is to defend yourself or another from harm, that is not evil.

And you don't have to be violent to be evil. The guy that slips into someones house and steals their possessions is evil, but not violent.

The key here is context. Violence between two people who have agreed to be violent with each other by their own choice is fine. Violence between two people where one person is not agreed to it is evil.

There is a world of difference between violence and evil. Violence is a type of action. Evil is having no respect for other people.

 

Your kid is going to learn about this stuff one way or another. Would you rather they stumble in the dark on their own because you don't want to explain it to them because you are afraid, or would you rather walk with them shining the light of wisdom guiding them to proper understanding?

perhaps the articles section needs  a "perspectives" category.

 

there was another recent "article" that like this was more perspective than technical in nature.

 

i believe it got pulled.

 

there really should be a place for these things.

 

one can never have too wide a perspective on things.

I think its good this article is posted, its easy to get caught up on the technical aspects of our jobs and forget there even is a moral aspect to everything we do, including our jobs.

Having said this, I don't think shooters represent the moral evil this article shapes them to be and I don't think the actions of Superdad were actually necessary, though he is completely in his right to protect his child from what he deems harmful. I just feel this case is an overreaction.

I play (and enjoy) games of all kinds, puzzles, graphic adventures, strategy, shooters, rolegames... I do believe we need non violence centered games to be more prominent in our industry, but I don't agree with the notion that the violent ones need to go away.

Most games, even the non violent ones, are about conflict, a puzzle is a broken situation that the player needs to fix, a sim makes the player weigh the satisfaction of needs against the availability of resources... Violence is another kind of conflict, a more obvious one, an easier one, but there are great statements to be made through violent settings, take The Walkind Dead for instance, its a moving, amazing story about parenting, in an incredibly violent setting.

I also believe its dangerous for a person to be shielded from all forms of violence as long as possible, how will they face it once it inevitably breaks through the shields?

The title is wrong. This should be called "Why I will morally preen in public over my personal decision to not make a specific type of game anymore."

Disclamer...I'm not a professional developer, nor do I work in the game industry.   This is a hobby for me.   And for that matter I don't usually play FPS games (I'm one of those PC strategy guys you mentioned)

 

So first off let me say...good for you, taking a stand for what you beleive is right.   If more people in the world did that, I think we'd all be in a better place.

 

Secondly let me say...I happen to disagree that working on FPS games is morally wrong.

 

I agree with Bluefirehawk that games need to be able to address adult themes and it needs to be possible to target games specifically for them.   Granted as was pointed out there are plenty of "mindless shooters" and honestly there should probably be a place for them too.

 

I wonder, is your moral concern about the possiblity of increasing violence in the real world?  I can't find the link now but on a blog I was reading just last week they had an interesting chart about the decline of gun violence world-wide since the introduction of the first FPS games.   Now that author was talking about something entirely different and not making a case that FPS games increase or decrease the rate of violence in the real world, but I thought the chart to be interesting in that regards none the less.   I'd like to get the source data since people can make a chart say anything.

 

Or was it more the corcern over exposing children to virtual violence too soon?   Personnally (as a parent of 3 girls) I think thats more the parents problem than the industry.   If more parents actually did their job of monitoring what their kids did and (heaven forbid) actually TALKING to them about what they see/hear/do, then this wouldn't be a problem for the industry to work out anyway.    I agree strongly with Azaral...you have to be honest with kids.   They are smarter than you think...and they see/hear WAY more than you think.   For example my kids are 9, 5, and 2.   We had a frank discussion with the 9 year old about the Boston Marathon.   She was going to hear about it anyway, and I'd rather her hear from me.   (did to a lessor extent with the 5 year old too...once they go to school you never know what they will hear each day)

 

I think I've rambled too much here and as someone not in the industry you probably didn't care about my thoughts anyway :)    but just wanted to say "good for you", but I don't think you should have felt bad in the first place.


Note: Please offer only positive, constructive comments - we are looking to promote a positive atmosphere where collaboration is valued above all else.




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