When I was at Fan Expo last August, someone in line for the State of Gaming panel asked the group of us waiting where we thought the industry was headed. Increasing the quantity and quality of free-to-play games was a popular answer. More mobile games for core gamers was another answer. Motion controlled games on Kinect, Wii U and PS Eye finally becoming proper gaming was a less popular suggestion but it was made.
After some pondering, I realized that those answers weren’t wrong but I had a better one. While all those ideas might be right, I think Titanfall might be a harbinger for where the industry is headed. It has nothing to do with mechs or pretty graphics or third-party triple-A games going exclusive. It has everything to do with dropping the single-player campaign and launching a game with only multiplayer.
If you look at the history of the FPS genre, it’s changed focus a lot over the last 20 years. The original games were all solely offline experiences with LAN multiplayer introduced shortly afterwards in Doom. The likes of Half-Life popularized narrative-focused games. Halo is credited with making regenerating health a common mechanic in FPS games along with breaking open the market for first-person shooters on consoles. And it was Battlefield 1942 reintroduced the military shooter subgenre that we first saw with Wolfenstein.
The most recent major genre change was with the release of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. It wasn’t so much the fact that it changed the focus of the military shooter genre from World War II to a modern setting. Modern Warfare took the emphasis away from the single-player campaign and started shifting focus to the multiplayer. Sure, CoD4 was praised for its campaign but this was the turning point for the genre where multiplayer became more important than single-player.
Since Modern Warfare, it’s more the norm than the exception for the single-player mode to be almost an oversight for the developers. All the work goes into getting you to play online with friends and random other folks online for hours on end. Given that multiplayer is where most of the development and marketing dollars for first-person shooter are going, it was only a matter of time before the single-player campaign was dropped entirely from a triple-A FPS.
And that brings us to Titanfall. Many people are talking about the fact that it’s a new IP, that it has mechs and that it has freerunning/parkour elements. What nobody seems to be mentioning is that this is an evolutionary step for first-person shooters.
As I mentioned two paragraphs ago, the single-player campaign hasn’t been the key component of a first-person shooter since CoD4 in 2007. As a result of time and effort into making the multiplayer game modes better, first-person shooters have assumed a spot that the likes of Madden once held. Shooters are the games you boot up when you want to play with your friends.
When you look at recent statistics, the developers are putting their time in the right place. Even with shorter campaigns, a look at the Steam Achievements for CoD: Ghosts shows only 36% of gamers finished the campaign and 26% don’t even complete the first level of the game. Granted, that’s a sharp decline from the 57% who completed and 86% who started MW3’s campaign which is marginally down from the 58% of gamers who completed Modern Warfare 2’s campaign.
While three games don’t make for a very complete statistical analysis, the anecdotal evidence backs up that trend above. Gamers are eschewing the single-player campaign for more time online. Titanfall is just following this trend by eliminating the offline component altogether. The matter of how many gamers will play an online story campaign with a group of friends or a pick-up group (PUG, in multiplayer parlance) rather than just going straight into the story-less multiplayer game modes remains to be seen.
Admittedly, going multiplayer-only isn’t the only evolutionary step forward for the FPS genre. Two of Titanfalls most popular features may be what are causing gamers to hype it but also aren’t new to the industry. First-person parkour and freerunning is actually something that was popularized by another EA title, Mirror’s Edge. There have been numerous mech games over the years, including a couple of free-to-play mech games currently available online. And, personally, I didn’t find anything particularly amazing or innovative about these mechanics or the gun play in the Titanfall beta.
However, this brings me to another thing that Respawn is doing with Titanfall that we may see more of going forward. The trick of Titanfall is the smoothness of these disparate pieces coming together. If I was to pick apart my time with the beta to the individual components, I wouldn’t be overly impressed. It’s the polishing of the parts and bringing them together into a cohesive whole that is where Titanfall shows promise.
While we’re used to looking at games as a series of individual parts, Titanfall is shaping up to be a game where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The individual parts aren’t revolutionary but bringing them together makes them collectively better than they are individually. That cohesive whole of a game is where Respawn seems to have spent its time and realized that the combination of a whole is where the strength of great games lies.
Now, just because Titanfall is doing things in a new way for first-person shooters doesn’t mean that it goes beyond evolutionary to revolutionary. It does things differently enough to the status quo that it’s a step forward for the genre but it doesn’t completely redefine it. First-person shooters were already heading in the direction of only online. Titanfall progresses the genre forward and charts a new course for successive FPS games but, unlike Half-Life or Halo, it doesn’t introduce massive changes to the genre that will completely change how FPS games are designed from now on.
Just because Titanfall isn’t revolution for the FPS genre doesn’t mean that commercial success is likely to result in it being a catalyst for change in the genre. That’s why I suggested that this game was the future of the gaming. People are complaining about lackluster single-player campaigns and Titanfall drops it. People want something new and this is a new IP. Gamers want a game that isn’t as buggy as an early access game when it releases and that beta seemed promising.
If Titanfall makes money- When Titanfall makes money, this game will change the direction of first-person shooters going forward. I think we’ll be better off for it.