Fragged & Respawn: The Birth, Death, And Twisted Resurrection Of Arena Shooters

Thanks to this “work laptop”, I’ve been able to download and install some of my favourite games from childhood (as low as the specs of this machine may be, it can still run games from the ’90s) like Command & Conquer Tiberian Sun, Dungeon Keeper 2,  Unreal Tournament and Quake series’. I’ve been playing a lot of Armajet, so I jumped back into those last two, and it got me thinking… What the heck happened to Arena Shooters?

Before we can look at where they went, it’s important to first establish where they came from, and for this, we must first travel all the way back to December 1993. A new game has just been released on PC, and it’s called DOOM. You may have heard of it.

Image result for DOOM classic screenshot
Blood? Check. Demons? Check. Kickass Soundtrack? Check!

Yes, like many games and genres, we go back to id Software’s deific first person shooter. DOOM invited players to grab a shotgun and start killing demons in its epic single player campaign, but it also gave four players the opportunity of linking their computers and going head to head against each other. This was arguably the first Deathmatch, a term that would become synonymous with Arena Shooters.

As much as DOOM is considered the God Father of FPS games, it was id Software’s next major franchise, Quake, that would raise the bar again and completely redefine a genre that id Software themselves had only just redefined three years earlier. Quake was the first fully 3D action game, and was the first shooter to have dedicated multiplayer maps. Quake paved the way for the online PvP we’re used to today. Sure, it didn’t have its own lobbies or matchmaking, but it showed the world what gamers wanted – the ability to play against each other anywhere around the world.

Ultimately though, both Quake and its successor, Quake II, were single player games with a multiplayer component. It was 1999 that arguably defined the Arena Shooter, with Epic Games’ Unreal Tournament launching on 30th November 1999, and id Software releasing Quake III Arena two days later.

Both of these games were very similar in design, though vastly different in execution, and set down the blueprints for the genre. The focus here was not on single-player campaigns with puzzles, tough enemies, and an overarching story. Here, the main focus was a multiplayer gladiatorial arena, with fast paced bloody combat being the focus. Players spawned in with basic weaponry, and could pick up more powerful weapons and ammunition that was scattered around the arena with other power ups like health boosters, armour, damage amplifiers etc.

These became hallmarks of the genre. Fast paced bloody combat, with pickups and spread of weaponry with which to reduce the enemy players or teams to bloody bouncing giblets.

The two games took a different approach to this though. In Quake III Arena, there were only eight weapons (including the all-powerful BFG 10,000 and the basic Gauntlet that was essentially a fall-back if you ran out of ammo) but each was meticulously balanced to be as satisfying as they were destructive. There were only three game modes originally; Death Match, Team Death Match, and Capture the Flag.

Conversely, Unreal Tournament launched with thirteen weapons (including the Redeemer and the Impact Cannon) each of which had two firing modes, making for a much wider variety of gunplay than Quake III Arena offered, although some of these were not widely used. For game modes, Unreal Tournament offered Death Match, Capture the Flag, Domination, and Assault. This may only be one more mode, but the variety was, again, wider. Again, this isn’t to say that either game was better or worse than the other – purely an exercise in showing that the two games took a different approach to the same genre. Quake III Arena took a more stripped down, minimalist, balanced approach. Unreal Tournament gave you as many options as it could squeeze in, even if some of those options weren’t great.

Both of these games spawned massive communities. Whilst Quake had arguably sired the first ever esport with Red Annihilation in May 1997 being considered the first national-level gaming event in North America, it was arguably these two games that began to showcase perhaps esports could one day be an actual thing. It was about an arena, teams, individual players – this was Hunger Games before Hunger Games, a bloodsport without the actual blood. Sadly, it was before its time, and the genre would fade before the world was ready to accept esports.

Both Quake III Arena and Unreal Tournament were succeeded by other games in their series with Quake 4, Quake Champions, and ultimately Quake Live, alongside Unreal Tournament 2003, 2004, and Unreal Tournament 3. A reboot of the series, called simply Unreal Tournament, was planned by Epic Games, but ultimately was cancelled in order to focus their teams on Fortnite.

Image result for halo combat evolved multiplayer
The endless memories of getting sniped on Blood Gulch as I ran for a Scorpion Tank…

So what happened? Games evolved, as they are always wont to do. In November 2001, Bungie released Halo: Combat Evolved onto the original XBox console. The game limited players to only carrying two weapons, and a handful of grenades, a restriction that carried across to the multiplayer. At the same time, the modding community for these games had begun using the Quake engine to make other games, and modern shooters were on the rise.

The mid 00’s saw a shift in FPS genre games moving away from fast-paced gunplay to a more realistic shooters like Medal of Honour and eventually the Call of Duty series. These games followed Halo’s blueprint of limited loadouts, and moved away from projectile based weaponry (where weapons fire virtual “bullets” that the game renders and works with) and began using hitscan coding more and more in order to better facilitate online play.

With this, games slowed down. Gone were the crazy strafe jumping shenanigans of old, where players whizzed around arenas trying to frag each other to pieces. Now, players moved from cover to cover, taking shots whenever they could dare to. To a certain mindset, the games matured. No more deep voiced “KILLING SPREE” announcers, and floating Super Shield or Double Damage pickups, these games were taking themselves that little bit more seriously.

Then, with games like Counterstrike taking the helm of modern esports and making the games a more serious tactical enterprise, the frenzied action of the Arena Shooter began to perhaps look a little immature, a relic of an earlier period of gaming history.

Image result for splitgate screenshot
Splitgate looks utterly INSANE, and I want in!

Over the years, there have been games that took clear inspiration from the old Arena Shooter games, like Evolve (a sad story of an exciting game that fell apart faster than you can believe) and, more succesfully, Team Fortress 2 and Overwatch. Of course, there are references and inspired titles still springing up today with games like Toxikk (which even sports the tagline “Frag like it’s 1999!”) and the amazingly wacky Splitgate. This is not to even mention the fantastic 2.5D Arena Shooter for Android, iOS and Steam – Armajet!

But I would argue that the Arena Shooter isn’t quite as dead as we may believe it to be. I believe that when gaming fragged the Arena Shooter, it respawned as something wholly unexpected.

The Battle Royale.

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An unstoppable mammoth in mobile gaming and esports in general…

Here is a genre of games that takes the gladiatorial combat concept, mixes it with the “grab your weapons on the go” idea with armour and shielding pickups in the arena, but swaps out the Death Match point scoring and respawning for a survivalist single-stock approach (you die, you’re out… usually). Even these games mix things up with Apex Legends adding Hero Shooter mechanics (where individual characters have different abilities), Fortnite has the construction aspect, Spellbreak swaps guns for spells, and PUBG keeps things on the basic streamlined approach, like Quake III Arena once did.

Is it any surprise that both the Battle Royale and Arena Shooter genres were dominated by the same studio: Epic Games?

To me, the excitement isn’t quite the same, if I’m honest. I miss the frenzied action of fragging players, respawning and back into the combat. I miss the ability to carry one of every weapon and all the ammo in the world. I miss Capture the Flag, Domination, Assault, Virus and other crazy game modes. I miss Arena Shooters, and maybe that’s why I’m so adamant that I want Armajet to succeed.

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It’s an old screenshot, but an AMAZING game. If you’re not already playing, why not!?

To me, this one little game holds all of my hope and love for the pure strain of a genre that no longer exists. In Armajet we have the Double Damage and Shield pickups, the meaty giblets bouncing around the screen, the high powered crazy weaponry. We even have the obligatory deep-voiced announcer. Strafe jumping has been replaced with jetpack boosting, but this game tickles a fancy that no other game has managed since the mid 00’s.

Who knows? Maybe one day, Epic Games may even finish that Unreal Tournament reboot that they started!

Of course, these are just my thoughts! What about you? Were you playing arena shooters when you were younger? Are you still playing them today? Let me know here in the comments, or on the Gaming Galleon Discord

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