Call of Duty: Modern Moneymaking

The first person shooter (FPS, or shoot-em-up) genre is the biggest and most profitable in the gaming industry, which is itself now (globally) the biggest entertainment industry on earth. Every year Activision pay off their expenditure for the next decade by releasing another Call of Duty game, and every so often Battlefield, Medal of Honour and Halo like to join the party to similar financial response. Given that many critics have built their name on slagging off such games, and that even the most ardent fans will admit that perhaps only four of the nine CoD games have actually improved on the previous one, this fact seems a trifle odd to my eye (which may have something to do with me being awful at them), and since I cannot apply science to this problem I thought I might retreat to my other old friend; history.

The FPS genre took a while to get going; partly due to the graphical fidelity and processing power required to replicate a decent first-person perspective, it wasn’t until 1992 that Wolfenstein 3D, the game often credited with ‘inventing’ the genre, was released, long after the first four home console generations had passed. However, the genre had existed after a fashion before then; a simple game called Maze War, akin to Pac Man from a rudimentary 3D perspective and with guns, is considered an early example and was released as far back as 1974. Other, similar games, including the space simulator Spasim (the same thing but in space) and tank simulator Battlezone (very slightly different and with tanks) were released over the next decade. All, as well as most subsequent efforts pre-Wolfenstein, used a tile-based movement system, whereby one’s movement was restricted to moving from one square to the next, since this was pretty much all that was possible with contemporary technology.

Further advances dabbled in elements of multiplayer, and introduced such features as texture mapping to enhance graphical fidelity, but Wolfenstein’s great success lay in its gameplay format. Gone was any tile-based or otherwise restrictive movement, and in its place were maps that one was free to move around in all directions and orientations in two dimensions. It also incorporated a health meter (and healing pickups), depleting ammo and interchangeable weapons, all of which would become mainstays of the genre over the next few years. Despite its controversial use of Nazi iconography (because the bad guys were Nazis, rather than the developers fascists), the game was wildly successful; at least for the short time before the same company, id software, released Doom. Doom used a similar interface as Wolfenstein, had better graphics and a more detailed 3D environment, but its real success lay in its release format; the first third of the game was distributed for free, encouraging gamers to experience all that the game had to offer before gladly paying for the remainder. With it’s consolidation and enhancement of Wolfenstein’s format and its adoption of a now-ubiquitous multiplayer mode, Doom is often considered the most influential FPS of all time, and one of the most important games full stop; its fame is such that versions of the game have been available on almost every major console for the last 20 years.

Over the next few years, many other features that would later become staples of the FPS genre were developed. The Apple Mac, not usually a traditional stronghold for gaming, was the platform for Marathon, which introduced a number of new game modes (including cooperative multiplayer), more complex weapons and placed a heavy emphasis on story as well as gameplay. Star Wars: Dark Forces introduced the ability to crouch for the first time, thus setting the template for today’s FPS pattern of repeatedly hiding behind chest-high walls, and 1995’s Descent changed the graphical playing field by changing from using sprites to represent objects and NPC’s in the gameworld to a 3D system based around polygonal graphics. This technology was one of the many technologies used in Doom’s 1996 sequel, Quake, which also increased the series’ emphasis on online multiplayer. Unfortunately, this market would soon be totally conquered by 1997’s GoldenEye, a tie-in to the James Bond film of the same name; the game itself experimented with new, claustrophobic game environments and required you to manually reload your weapon, but it was the multiplayer that proved its success. It has now been revealed that the multiplayer was actually nothing more than a hasty add-on knocked up in matter of weeks, but the circituous maps and multiple weapons & characters on offer made it endlessly compelling, and right up until 2004 GoldenEye was the best selling game for the Nintendo 64.

But the defining FPS of this era was undoubtedly Half Life; released in 1998, the game combined Quake’s graphical technology with a bulletproof gameplay format and one of the strongest narratives and plots of any game ever made. The single player experience alone was enough to raise Valve, the game’s makers, to iconic status almost overnight (a label they retain to this day due to their penchant for innovation and not being dicks about their business tactics), and when a multiplayer mod for it was developed (Counterstrike), it and its successor (Counterstrike: Source) became the most popular multiplayer FPS experience ever.

After Half Life, some felt that the FPS genre had been taken about as far as it could in its current iteration, and that the genre’s immediate future was to be based around increasing graphical quality, fiddling with storylines and making money. However, in 2000 Microsoft acquired Bungie studios (who had made Marathon back in 1994) and released their real-time-strategy-turned-third-person-shooter-turned-first-person-shooter as a startup title for their newly released Xbox console. The game incorporated a heavy focus on characterisation (helped by it occasionally leaving first person perspective for cutscenes, which Half Life never did) with a new style of enemies (well-rendered and varied alien opponents), a wide variety of weapons and the perhaps unusual feature of having an auto-healing system rather than health pickups. The game was called Halo, and it revolutionised the FPS genre.

Since then, advancements have been less revolutionary and more gradual, as the FPS genre has diversified. Halo has now gone through several incarnations whilst keeping the basic format the same, but the gameplay principle has been applied in almost every conceivable way. Battlefield and Call of Duty applied the concept to military-style gameplay with a strong multiplayer emphasis, whilst the likes of Resident Evil and Left 4 Dead added a horror theme (or at least used zombies as bad guys). The games based on the Crytek engine (Crysis and Far Cry) turned the focus away from linear mission design and on to beautifully rendered open-world levels (some would argue in direct contrast to CoD’s increasingly linear single player mode), and recently Spec Ops: The Line has followed in Half Life’s plot-centric footsteps with a nonlinear storyline based around the mental impact of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Some argue that the current FPS genre is stagnating; indeed super-critical game reviewer Yahtzee Croshaw has recently created a new genre called ‘spunkgargleweewee’ to cover generic linear modern military shooters (ie Call of Duty and her extended family) and indicate his contempt at their current form of existence. But to many they are the pinnacle of current-generation gaming, or at least the most fun way yet devised to spend an afternoon. By way of an example as to how much people… enjoy these things, the most recent Call of Duty game was released with a feature for the PS3 to allow the map packs used for multiplayer to be downloaded to the console’s hard disk. This was a feature requested of Activision by their hardcore fan base, who were somewhat perplexed at the request; the feature was, they pointed out, not going to make the game run any faster. But the fan base said they realised this, and it wasn’t a performance issue; it was just that they were playing the game so much that the process of continually reading the map data from the game disc was beginning to wear out the laser used to read the disc information. Thank you, Call of Duty fans, for making me feel especially productive after spending an afternoon writing an article for nobody on the internet to read.

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The Offensive Warfare Problem

If life has shown itself to be particularly proficient at anything, it is fighting. There is hardly a creature alive today that does not employ physical violence in some form to get what it wants (or defend what it has) and, despite a vast array of moral arguments to the contrary of that being a good idea (I must do a post on the prisoner’s dilemma some time…), humankind is, of course, no exception. Unfortunately, our innate inventiveness and imagination as a race means that we have been able to let our brains take our fighting to the next level, with consequences that have got ever-more destructive as  time has gone  by. With the construction of the first atomic bombs, humankind had finally got to where it had threatened to for so long- the ability to literally wipe out planet earth.

This insane level of offensive firepower is not just restricted to large-scale big-guns (the kind that have been used fir political genital comparison since Napoleon revolutionised the use of artillery in warfare)- perhaps the most interesting and terrifying advancement in modern warfare and conflict has been the increased prevalence and distribution of powerful small arms, giving ‘the common man’ of the battlefield a level of destructive power that would be considered hideously overwrought in any other situation (or, indeed, the battlefield of 100 years ago). The epitomy of this effect is, of course, the Kalashnikov AK-47, whose cheapness and insane durability has rendered it invaluable to rebel groups or other hastily thrown together armies, giving them an ability to kill stuff that makes them very, very dangerous to the population of wherever they’re fighting.

And this distribution of such awesomely dangerous firepower has began to change warfare, and to explain how I need to go on a rather dramatic detour. The goal of warfare has always, basically, centred around the control of land and/or population, and as James Herbert makes so eminently clear in Dune, whoever has the power to destroy something controls it, at least in a military context. In his book Ender’s Shadow (I feel I should apologise for all these sci-fi references), Orson Scott Card makes the entirely separate point that defensive warfare in the context of space warfare makes no practical sense. For a ship & its weapons to work in space warfare, he rather convincingly argues, the level of destruction it must be able to deliver would have to be so large that, were it to ever get within striking distance of earth it would be able to wipe out literally billions- and, given the distance over which any space war must be conducted, mutually assured destruction simply wouldn’t work as a defensive strategy as it would take far too long for any counterstrike attempt to happen. Therefore, any attempt to base one’s warfare effort around defence, in a space warfare context, is simply too risky, since one ship (or even a couple of stray missiles) slipping through in any of the infinite possible approach directions to a planet would be able to cause uncountable levels of damage, leaving the enemy with a demonstrable ability to destroy one’s home planet and, thus, control over it and the tactical initiative. Thus, it doesn’t make sense to focus on a strategy of defensive warfare and any long-distance space war becomes a question of getting there first (plus a bit of luck).

This is all rather theoretical and, since we’re talking about a bunch of spaceships firing missiles at one another, not especially relevant when considering the realities of modern warfare- but it does illustrate a point, namely that as offensive capabilities increase the stakes rise of the prospect of defensive systems failing. This was spectacularly, and horrifyingly, demonstrated during 9/11, during which a handful of fanatics armed with AK’s were able to kill 5,000 people, destroy the world trade centre and irrevocably change the face of the world economy and world in general. And that came from only one mode of attack, and despite all the advances in airport security that have been made since then there is still ample opportunity for an attack of similar magnitude to happen- a terrorist organisation, we must remember, only needs to get lucky once. This means that ‘normal’ defensive methods, especially since they would have to be enforced into all of our everyday lives (given the format that terrorist attacks typically take), cannot be applied to this problem, and we must rely almost solely on intelligence efforts to try and defend ourselves.

This business of defence and offence being in imbalance in some form or another is not a phenomenon solely confined to the modern age. Once, wars were fought solely with clubs and shields, creating a somewhat balanced case of attack and defence;  attack with the club, defend with the shield. If you were good enough at defending, you could survive; simple as that. However, some bright spark then came up with the idea of the bow, and suddenly the world was in imbalance- even if an arrow couldn’t pierce an animal skin stretched over some sticks (which, most of the time, it could), it was fast enough to appear from nowhere before you had a chance to defend yourself. Thus, our defensive capabilities could not match our offensive ones. Fast forward a millennia or two, and we come to a similar situation; now we defended ourselves against arrows and such by hiding in castles behind giant stone walls  and other fortifications that were near-impossible to break down, until some smart alec realised the use of this weird black powder invented in China. The cannons that were subsequently invented could bring down castle walls in a matter of hours or less, and once again they could not be matched from the defensive standpoint- our only option now lay in hiding somewhere the artillery couldn’t get us, or running out of the way of these lumbering beasts. As artillery technology advanced throughout the ensuing centuries, this latter option became less and less feasible as the sheer numbers of high-explosive weaponry trained on opposition armies made them next-to impossible to fight in the field; but they were still difficult to aim accurately at well dug-in soldiers, and from these starting conditions we ended up with the First World War.

However, this is not a direct parallel of the situation we face now; today we deal with the simple and very real truth that a western power attempting to defend its borders (the situation is somewhat different when they are occupying somewhere like Afghanistan, but that can wait until another time) cannot rely on simple defensive methods alone- even if every citizen was an army trained veteran armed with a full complement of sub-machine guns (which they quite obviously aren’t), it wouldn’t be beyond the wit of a terrorist group to sneak a bomb in somewhere destructive. Right now, these methods may only be capable of killing or maiming hundreds or thousands at a time; tragic, but perhaps not capable of restructuring a society- but as our weapon systems get ever more advanced, and our more effective systems get ever cheaper and easier for fanatics to get hold of, the destructive power of lone murderers may increase dramatically, and with deadly consequences.

I’m not sure that counts as a coherent conclusion, or even if this counts as a coherent post, but it’s what y’got.