“Give us more guns!”
November 17, 2019 10:45 AM   Subscribe

Doom creator John Romero on what's wrong with modern shooter games [The Guardian]
“I would rather have fewer things with more meaning, than a million things you don’t identify with,” he says, sitting in a Berlin bar mocked up to resemble a 1920s Chicago speakeasy. “I would rather spend more time with a gun and make sure the gun’s design is really deep – that there’s a lot of cool stuff you learn about it.”
Modern shooters are too close to fantasy role-playing games in how they shower you with new weapons from battle to battle, Romero suggests. This abundance of loot – which reflects how blockbuster games generally have become Netflix-style services, defined by an unrelenting roll-out of “content” – means you spend as much time comparing guns in menus as savouring their capabilities. It encourages you to think of each gun as essentially disposable, like an obsolete make of smartphone.
posted by Fizz (41 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
This loot-shower is the explicit design purpose of Borderlands 3. All the Borderlands games are loot-driven games but BL3 really dialed it up a lot. I probably get one new gun worth considering as an upgrade every minute of gameplay. It's nutty. And it's hard to compare them.

I love how Breath of the Wild dealt with loot. There's really only like six kinds of weapons, each with an upgrade or two and maybe one buff slot for a special effect. All weapons are transitory. The result is you never stick with one piece of gear too long, you're constantly breaking things and trying new ones. It worked really well.
posted by Nelson at 10:51 AM on November 17, 2019 [6 favorites]

I dug the guns in TITANFALL 2's campaign (which is great in general). You got a decent array of guns with a variety of looks and feels and they were all solid. You could only hang onto a handful at a time, so definitely not a loot-centric shooter.

It surprises me to hear that BORDERLANDS 3 is somehow more loot-centric than the second one.
posted by brundlefly at 11:18 AM on November 17, 2019 [2 favorites]

As a Borderlands fan, I can't disagree. But I think guns are interesting because many of the games really aren't. Another game I used to enjoy was TimeSplitters - which didn't offer a plethora of guns, but rather a variety of settings. Here, you're creeping through an abandoned Siberian laboratory, there you're a gumshoe in gangland Chicago, and over here you're spaceman with a ray gun that goes pew pew pew. No real advancement in hardware, just a lot of different situations that had to be approached in different ways. As I think Romero is suggesting, coming up with different challenges that require different tools and skills is hard; easier to just "level-up" the same old challenges.
posted by SPrintF at 11:19 AM on November 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

I think it's micro-transactions more than anything else that has pushed this trend in gaming. More guns, more skins, more unlockables, more boxes to loot. I do appreciate how much variety there is in Borderlands 3 and I feel like that might be the odd one out, but for the most part, what Romero is saying rings true for a lot of the FPS genre.
posted by Fizz at 11:21 AM on November 17, 2019 [2 favorites]

Well, I do like a game with really engaging puzzles, character interactions that can vary depending on your concept of who your PC is, and even stuff that isn't just a gun that shoots harder or faster, which is one of the reasons why I loved the Mass Effect games so much. But Romero never really did that sort of game, and "secret rooms" which are found by a) literally shooting every panel on screen, b) backing off and looking for one oddly-colored panel, and/or c) going back to an already cleared area to look for something that may have popped open when you did X or Y, really don't enhance the game for me.
posted by Halloween Jack at 11:25 AM on November 17, 2019 [6 favorites]

I'm reminded of how Destiny 2 tried to chuck out the whole loot randomization thing and then people got REAL MAD about it and forced them to put randomly-generated gear back in the game.

It's not like I don't play a lot of loot-driven games, but when I do I have to be really on guard to figure out whether I'm actually having fun or if I'm just hooked on an exploitative loop. As is my right as an Older Millennial, I worry sometimes that the younger gamers who grew up with MTX-driven games literally don't know the difference between those two things.
posted by tobascodagama at 11:26 AM on November 17, 2019 [4 favorites]

I know it's not a gun, but I'm thinking about the sword in Sekiro. Not, like, the starting sword, or the fully upgraded sword or whatever. You get one sword and you use it for the whole game. And the gameplay is sublime, and I honestly never once wished for a bunch of different swords to have to choose from. There are secondary weapons that fill the role of specialization, complete with upgrade trees, for folks who really enjoy that aspect. But the upgrading is mostly of the skills of the player rather than the digital objects in the game. And that's how the best games are, I think.

What I've always found unsatisfying about games like the Borderlands series is that the avatar is getting stronger / better while the player keeps doing the same thing. It's a simulacrum of progress meant to cover for the lack of depth in the gameplay.

OK, technically you do get a second sword in Sekiro but it's really just a plot point and barely changes the gameplay.
posted by dbx at 11:30 AM on November 17, 2019 [5 favorites]

This dude sounds very obnoxious to me as quoted in the article, but then I guess that's the intended reaction for this sort of writing ("Here's why the thing you like is terrible!"). Sounds like Mr. Romero isn't a fan of power-level item grind games (Borderlands as mentioned above, The Division, Diablo, etc). Which is fine, but it's a totally different genre! What do you think he thinks about, say, Halo (which seems like a purer descendent of the Doom-style shooter), or story-decision-tree shooters like Mass Effect (also mentioned above).

I do get what he's saying about "deep" mechanics, and love that aspect of game design. A pure example of this is Rocket League (the car soccer game, which is a "shooter" but not in the same sense :-p) - everyone has the same car (more or less), the only upgrades are aesthetics (skins, etc), but there is a huge range in skill differentiation in learning new ways to manipulate the car to do insane maneuvers. I guess there are parallels to that and, say, rocket jumps in Doom?

I never finished any of the Doom or Quake games - My impression was they are linear mazes where you need to unlock a series of weapons or keys to advance to the next area. I can see the evolution from command-line dungeon games, it's a UI overhaul plus real-time action. Contrast that with Metroid Prime, which I did manage to complete, and has similar shooter / puzzle mechanics, but is less linear (though came out almost a decade later, but I imagine inherited its nonlinearity from it's own MetroidVania lineage). Non-linearity isn't inherently good, but it does provide an added dimension for permuting how you play the game (which is a huge boon to the speed running community, for example)

The final quote in the article sums up the egocentrism that rubs me the wrong way: “Stuff that could have been done 25 years ago but was never thought of, I did with Sigil. And it’s like, yeah, this is cool. It’d be cool if more shooters had this.” It suggests there is one true platonic ideal for what a "shooter" is. But every game designer I've spoken to (it is not my profession) is motivated by identifying something they think is cool, and trying to bring it into the world. The fun part is that everyone's design aesthetic is different, so everyone is remixing different aspects even within an apparently similar (but incredibly broad) genre such as "shooter." Case in point, in the time it took me to write this, there have been multiple comments passionately describing games I have never heard of yet still fall within the scope of the conversation.
posted by apeship at 11:41 AM on November 17, 2019 [2 favorites]

I do appreciate how much variety there is in Borderlands 3 and I feel like that might be the odd one out, but for the most part, what Romero is saying rings true for a lot of the FPS genre.

Yeah, the BORDERLANDS games are loot-centric in the same way the DIABLO games are. Making them reliant on microtransactions would totally ruin them.
posted by brundlefly at 11:48 AM on November 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

I'm having trouble articulating this precisely, but I think the decline of secret doors also represents some other trends in game design. I associate that kind of thing with the era of red key cards and wall switches - those level design tropes have largely been dropped because they were tedious, and running around bumping into every wall tapping the space bar can get tedious, too. On the other hand I get the thing about the decline of more abstract level design. It's surprisingly often that the last level of the Duke Nukem 3D shareware episode ("You're not supposed to be here - Levelord.") enters my mind unbidden. As I recall it, it's a sprawl of real-feeling spaces that are almost certainly geographically nonsensical, tied together with a sort of dream logic, and it kind of blew my mind.
posted by atoxyl at 11:59 AM on November 17, 2019 [5 favorites]

Fine, iI'll use the Mark V blaster and a bag of Cheetos.
posted by clavdivs at 12:18 PM on November 17, 2019 [2 favorites]

idk if it would be considered a shooter in the sense of the games discussed but i played the entire first bioshock using only the wrench and it was amazing
posted by poffin boffin at 12:30 PM on November 17, 2019 [3 favorites]

Modern shooters are too close to fantasy role playing games...

ok doomer
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 1:03 PM on November 17, 2019 [53 favorites]

I don’t really play modern shooters, if by that is meant Call of Duty or Fortnite or Borderlands. I do enjoy the style of game that has only 8 guns, with none ever becoming obsolete, though I never played Doom and am thinking more of Half-Life 2. I also hate when games have a thousand guns with little distinction between them and you have to spend so much time in the inventory menu, as he says. But I LOVE the kind of game that has a hundred guns so you can tailor your play style to your preference, like Fallout New Vegas.

Bioshock is the best of both worlds in that you only have five or six guns but you can replay it a completely different way every time by changing your tonic and plasmid loadout. (The first time I played I leaned hard on the Tommy gun. The second time I used tonics that made me invisible and increased wrench damage, so I would wait for Splicers to walk right past me and WHAM.)

I’m very much enjoying the shape of the game I’m playing right now, Control, in which you only have one gun for the whole game, though you can unlock new modes to make it act like a shotgun, machine gun, sniper rifle, etc. But you don’t even use your gun that much since you’re usually telekinetically tearing up the environment and throwing it at your enemies instead. Good times!
posted by ejs at 1:09 PM on November 17, 2019 [6 favorites]

also i ate all the children which certainly added quite substantially to my enjoyment level
posted by poffin boffin at 1:10 PM on November 17, 2019 [5 favorites]

I really like a shooter with deep tactical situations. You sneak here, you lure there, you quietly assassinate, you set up a defensive point. Extra points if you can win a situation in more than one way. Extra-extra points if just face-forward spamming will not work.

I feel like Borderlands 2 had a few situations like that, but mostly you just gunned your way through.
posted by argybarg at 2:59 PM on November 17, 2019

And for the record, my vote for the most glorious shooter is Portal, because you get one "gun" which potentially turns many environmental elements into guns. The first time I Portalled one turret among a bunch of other turrets and it wiped them out was greater than a dozen of hours of adrenaline-driven run & gun.
posted by argybarg at 3:03 PM on November 17, 2019 [12 favorites]

I like Nuclear Throne's approach to this problem... There are O(10) different shot-types (bullet, shell, slug, grenade, rocket, big bullet, mini-grenade, etc), and different guns mostly give different distribution characteristics. (Precisely aimed or big spread? High rate of fire or low? Sure, you can really dish some damage with that quad machine gun, but it ain't precise and you'll be out of bullets in no time...) And you can only carry two weapons at a time...

In the end, weapons have three basic functions: a high-damage precise weapon for killing big bads, low damage and high spread for clearing rooms full of chaff enemies, and melee, which protects from enemy bullets but only does damage when up close and personal. And you only get two, so you either leave one out, or else one (or both) will be compromises...
posted by kaibutsu at 3:22 PM on November 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

For those unfamiliar with John Romero (and those who are) I absolutely recommend Masters of Doom, a little bit less than a biography and a little bit more than a longform essay about the programmers and game designers of that period of games. Romero and his colleagues, and most of the other people in the book, come out really badly, as vain egocentrists (at best!) but that's not really the point of the narrative, which is a story about the fundamental shifts in computing and popular culture that happened at that time.

Like Wolfenstein 3D before it, Doom is a maze game that happens to have shooting in it—the reason it became such a cultural touchpoint is that it pushed computers and computer networks to popularise things they had never seen computers do before; explore convincing and unsettling quasi-3D spaces, and interact with that environment with others, in e.g. a LAN party. All of these basic elements of what we understand 'games' to be were new to that period.

The thing that hasn't changed of course between the mid-1990s and the present day, because nobody can agree, is that we are still figuring out what the video game is as a commodity, and there's still a real battle going on between owners, producer-creators, critics, and consumers, about exactly what it is being sold and bought. Is a game more like a toy, to be sold to a player (as in a console cartridge)? Is it like a magazine, with a free intro copy to convince you to subscribe (the id shareware model)? Is the game the commodity or is the game a vector for other commodities—advertising, information, in-game commodities? Is a game more like an album, more like cable TV subscription, more like a book, more like a movie ticket, more like a theme park pass?
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 3:57 PM on November 17, 2019 [10 favorites]

I thought Romero's discussion of secret areas weird. I stopped trying to play through Doom in single player mode because the way the secret rooms often operated struck me as being basically unfair. They would open up with no clear connection to anything in the level; there wasn't any stated logic as to where, when, and why they would appear.

And there's plenty of games that feature secret areas; they're just less likely to be shooters. People seem to forget that some old games have become obsolete--not in terms of their technology, but in terms of their gameplay. I remember a discussion here some time ago where people were discussing multiplayer deathmatch maps, and the fact that whether or not "camping" is sporting has been rendered obsolete by better level design. Some of this feels similar; there's a nostalgia for lots of aspects of games that have changed, but a tendency to credit some of the wrong things for *why* things were good before.
posted by pykrete jungle at 4:31 PM on November 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

I loved the spatial dimension of Doom. Loved finding the triggers to secret spaces or listening for the sound of a door echoing down a hallway.

There was something Gothic about it, these forbidden, wracked, hidden spaces.
posted by doctornemo at 6:14 PM on November 17, 2019 [2 favorites]

At this point in the diversification of video game genres, "first-person shooter" is as helpful a definition as "sitcom".

Like Fiasco said, Doom and similar games are mazes. There are loot shooters like Borderlands, simulations like Arma, cinematic action shooters like CoD, first-person puzzlers like Portal, and that's only covering single-player elements. In each of those games, guns need to support the central experience in different ways, if there even are guns.

All these types and others have plenty of fans with lots of crossover. It's interesting to hear the design considerations that go into crafting a game's weapons, but assuming those are broadly applicable to any type of FPS seems nonsensical. If you lifted Doom's gun selection and plopped them into Rainbow 6, it would be interesting, but it would fundamentally alter how it's played.
posted by subocoyne at 6:41 PM on November 17, 2019

I watched a review of Sigil and it seems that it's not fun to play, being full of narrow ledges and small rooms where you just dump shotgun shells into countless cacodemons and barons while carefully wiggling to dodge.
posted by fleacircus at 8:53 PM on November 17, 2019

I've seen a few Romero interviews recently - I would have guessed DOOM's 15th but that would have been last year so maybe it's just that he's making shooters again? He comes off a lot more likable now than at the peak of his fame but to be honest, design-wise, I still think he's a bit of a one-hit wonder.
posted by atoxyl at 10:41 PM on November 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

DOOM level design is a pretty specific medium but he is probably still the all-time great at that though!
posted by atoxyl at 10:45 PM on November 17, 2019

I do think there's something to be said about how the metaphors we use to describe video games have changed over time. In the 90s and early 2000s, we tended to think of technology in terms of spatial and geographical metaphors, and among those metaphors the idea of the web was perhaps the dominant one, lifted as it was into the collective conscious by the growing internet. And looking at a game like Doom, there's a parallel between its construction (a patchwork of rooms haphazardly connected together by a maze of passageways) and the early web (a patchwork of webpages haphazardly connected together by a maze of links).

But over time the metaphors shifted away from thinking of technology in spatial terms, as 'places' and 'spaces', and into thinking of technology in terms of 'experiences'. Now the dominant metaphor isn't the web, but the timeline-- an indefinite succession of bite-sized experiences. Just as Doom paralleled the structure of the web, the modern 'loot shooter' parallels the structure of Twitter or Facebook or Tumblr: a series of bite-sized action set pieces and incremental gun upgrades, each to be consumed and then forgotten.
posted by Pyry at 11:37 PM on November 17, 2019 [8 favorites]


I've been thinking about this a lot as well. Wondering if you've read anything on the topic that piqued your interest?
posted by Telf at 3:58 AM on November 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

Worth re-reading the final Gawker post from over 3 years ago. Even the silver linings pointed to in that post, have fallen apart.
posted by Telf at 4:09 AM on November 18, 2019

Wait, the same John Romero who was going to make us his bitch wants to tell us what's wrong with current FPS games? John Dikatana Romero? That guy?

Plus, he's clearly just not paying attention. Yes, there are FPS games that shower you with guns. But many/most don't. Bioshock, Doom (hey John remember that one?), Overwatch, Paladins, Far Cry, Killing Floor, all of them have a fairly limited number of weapons.

So at best he's griping about a subset of FPS games, and anyway he's a has been and why should I give a shit what he has to say?
posted by sotonohito at 7:31 AM on November 18, 2019

I'm kind of surprised the hostile reception here. Even someone singling out his last line, which reads to me like someone looking back and noticing concepts and ideas they had the ability to make but not the ideas at the time. Seems like a lot of these takes are eager to interpret it all as rashly as possible. He didn't really say anything that controversial, he's not speaking about these exceptional games brought up, you can tell because of how they are exceptional entries in the broad genre umbrella and also many of them are not "modern" anymore anyway, over a decade old in many of the examples.

So at best he's griping about a subset of FPS games, and anyway he's a has been and why should I give a shit what he has to say?

What even is this complaint, would you rather he make broad unapplicable statements about whatever anyone might consider to be an FPS?!? It's not a bad thing to be more specific and only speak about a subset of a genre? Genres are very loose categorizations for things, they don't define the games lumped in them.

I would never argue you "should" listen to anyone, ever, for any reason, at least not without a specific qualifier as to what the goal of "should" is. I would say that there's precious little in this article to be offended or sanctimonious about, and I'm really baffled how complaints about a certain type of GaaS FPS milking players and addictive loops being core somehow must be reflecting insultingly on some old game that's obviously not germane to what is being discussed.
posted by GoblinHoney at 9:41 AM on November 18, 2019 [5 favorites]

I'd rather he STFU until he's made a new game worth playing. Right now he's the guy who made Daikatana then ran off and hid for 20 years before emerging from his cave to shake his cane at the kids playing on his lawn and telling them they're doing everything wrong.
posted by sotonohito at 10:31 AM on November 18, 2019 [2 favorites]

Quick mention of Ratchet and Clank. Those are third person, rather than first person, but I love the guns in those games. There's usually a fair number of them, but it's a specific set number. You don't get new guns as drops to replace your extant guns, instead the just get better with use over time. Some of them have upgrade systems that rely on other resources.

Point is, they're not looter-shooters, the guns are fun as hell, and they still have a system of progression.
posted by Zudz at 10:51 AM on November 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

I really like John Romero’s games and I think he has a lot of good points about why piles of loot and tons of guns to choose from is not a good thing - in his games. The latest version of DOOM made me a better gamer. It taught me new things in a genre I’ve been playing since before the original DOOM. That’s great game making and John deserves every accolade for the things he has made.

As usual for the past three decades of Romero voicing his opinions, I’m less interested in his opinions regarding the games made by other people. Now I’m gonna log into Borderlands3 and pull the trigger a few times on my gun that shoots other guns, because that’s just fun!
posted by Revvy at 11:50 AM on November 18, 2019

Sorry, I'm being an asshole today. John Romero is allowed to have opinions and express them. I don't know why I'm so pissy about it.
posted by sotonohito at 11:54 AM on November 18, 2019 [4 favorites]

The gun-gun still isn't as good as the SWORDSPLOSION, THE SHOTGUN THAT SHOOTS SWORDS AND WHEN THE SWORDS HIT YOU THEY EXPLOOOOOODE! sorry got possessed by Mr. Torgue there.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 11:54 AM on November 18, 2019

>I would rather have fewer things with more meaning, than a million things you don’t identify with,” he says, sitting in a Berlin bar mocked up to resemble a 1920s Chicago speakeasy. “I would rather spend more time with a gun

I'm supposed to have a close personal relationship with my gun in a videogame? Jeez. Seems to me it has no meaning in either case, so I'd rather have a variety of stuff with no meaning.

I'm playing Borderlands 3 with a friend, and finding new stuff is a hoot. I mean, I get that it's not supposed to be a hoot, I'm supposed to be having a meaningful level of intimacy with my gun, and only plebes want games to be "a hoot". But Borderlands 3 is like, "You had grenades a minute ago. Now you've got bouncy grenades. Heck, now you've got bouncy homing grenades. And a rocket launcher that shoots flaming green toxic skulls." You can have my rocket launcher that shoots flaming green toxic skulls when you pry it out of my etc., etc.
posted by Sing Or Swim at 6:37 PM on November 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

My favorite part about the guns in Borderlands 3 is how they really leaned in on showing you the gun design. Guns were always procedural and made out of building blocks, but now in BL3 you can really see them in detail. It looks like this. Now you can highlight every piece of the gun and learn that the grip you're using gives you +10% accuracy but -10% firing rate. or whatever. Just seeing the pieces fit together is a lot of fun.

This system was always implicit in Borderlands, they've always had procedurally generated guns. Fans reverse engineered it (and let you mod it) in previous games. They finally exposed it in the main game. You can only look though, not alter.
posted by Nelson at 7:02 PM on November 18, 2019

I'm supposed to have a close personal relationship with my gun in a videogame? Jeez.

To come back to Control again, your gun chooses you to wield it, and then you hold it up to your head Russian roulette-style so it can whisper sweet nothings and secret instructions in your ear. The most intimate gun relationship ever.
posted by ejs at 1:10 PM on November 19, 2019 [2 favorites]

So "gun" is another word for actuator?
posted by sneebler at 1:26 PM on November 20, 2019

I'd rather he STFU until he's made a new game worth playing. Right now he's the guy who made Daikatana then ran off and hid for 20 years before emerging from his cave to shake his cane at the kids playing on his lawn and telling them they're doing everything wrong.

Daikatana is more than twice as old now as DOOM was when Daikatana came out. He's made games in the meantime, they have just been smaller-scale games. As I said earlier I find him much more likeable now than he used to be.

On the other hand, and as I also said - he only really seems to have had one great game in him. That's not being mean, just honest, and it's more than most people to say the least! But if his opinions on shooters now are interesting to me it's because he's a guy who has been around for a while and seen a lot, not because I think he's likely to have a clear vision of the future of the genre.
posted by atoxyl at 4:54 PM on November 20, 2019

Control is really the only game I've ever played where I can say I had an actual relationship with a gun. The Service Weapon is a character, not just a tool.
posted by sotonohito at 5:07 PM on November 20, 2019 [3 favorites]

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