The year was 2000. Y2K. The Pentium III processor ushered in a new wave of high powered PC’s, and a new generation of graphic adapters provided the horsepower for 3d FPS games to run fast and smooth. Two games, Quake III and Unreal Tournament were released that relied on the power of the modern PC. Deathmatch was about to become king.
By 2003, the arena FPS was reaching a pinnacle of popularity. UT2003, and it’s even better followup were both visually amazing, and even more fun to play than ever. id Software had upped the ante with it’s idTech4 engine, and had also released it’s earlier engines as open sourced software for the masses to make their own engines and games. Before long, a new generation of free, open sourced FPS games began to spawn, each with followings and communities of their own. The mid 2000’s was a frenzy, with a plethora of choices for the arena FPS gamer to get his or her’s fix. Projects such as Nexuiz, Alien Arena, Open Arena, and Warsow lead the charge of arena games based on the idTech engines, while Cube and Sauerbraten rounded out the field with a custom engine. Epic announced Unreal Tournament 2007(later renamed to UT3), and looked to cash in heavily on the strong popularity of the genre. id Software later announced the free version of Quake 3 that would play in your browser, Quake Live. The glory days of the arena FPS were at hand, and the future looked bright.
Then something went wrong…very wrong. UT3 ultimately turned out to be a failure, as it was buggy, ran poorly on the average gaming rig, and didn’t play well over the internet. Quake Live was initially successful, but focused too much on a small segment of gamers who played duel, and it’s popularity faded quickly. The free arena FPS games also began faltering, partly due to Quake Live siphoning off their players(and cornering the majority of new ones), and lack of development interest. Warsow, Alien Arena, Open Arena saw their player bases shrink steadily, Nexuiz wound up forking after a bitter dispute over the use of it’s name in a commercial game, and while other games cropped up, the general interest of these games had dipped to an all time low by 2012. New gamers were no longer interested in the fast paced, deathmatch and duel modes of these games, and mostly gravitated towards simpler, team based, slower paced type games that required far less skill and far less attention span. The ADHD generation simply lacked the patience to, well, for a lack of a better term, “get good” at anything.
There were attempts to revive the genre in recent years. Shootmania. Fail. Commercial Nexuiz. Fail. The list goes on, but the pendulum has not swung back in the direction of the arena FPS. Is it because the notion of that genre is completely unpalatable to the current generation of young gamers? Or is it because these games have just flat out missed the mark? Well, it may be a bit of both. Shootmania was fairly fun, and simplistic as an instagib type game, but the levels were bare, bland and quite ugly. Nexuiz was very visually appealing, and had quite a few fun weapons and excellent innovations, but ran *very* poorly even on decent gaming rigs. Had these games had the right formula, the way that Quake III and the original UT games did, they might have had a significant impact in bringing interest back.
All of this brings us to the present. Epic is currently working on UT4, in a very unique, and open way. The game is being designed by the community, and the engine is now free for anyone to use, for anything. Early videos haven’t really shown much, other than some skeleton levels that demonstrate the layouts of the maps, that seem tighter, smaller, and more dynamic than what we saw in UT3. It’s unclear what the game will look like visually, as it’s still using UT3 artwork(and maybe it will, considering that the UT3 artwork was outstanding). Bethesda(and id) seem to have little interest in developing Quake Live any further, and maybe that is a good thing, at least for the free arena FPS games. Open Arena seems to be rebooting completely, but there has been little progress shown. Xonotic shows a bit more promise, but is running on an engine that is no longer being actively worked on and updated with any significant improvements. That project could use some improvements in their artwork(particularly the “tron” style of player skin that could be executed a lot better), and more modern looking level design(IMO). Changing engines would probably be a good move for Xonotic to be taken more seriously. Warsow was Greenlit for Steam, and is possibly the most polished of the current free arena FPS games, but progress is very slow. It’s style may be more suited for the hard-core gamer than the newer generation, but this certainly has the potential to capitalize, if not help push the revival of the genre when it reaches Steam. Let’s hope development continues on this project. There are a host of indie arena FPS titles that have shown up as well. Reflex seems to be the one that the old school, current arena FPS gamers are most hopeful about, and looks very good thus far, but it’s still too early to tell if it will have any curb appeal beyond that group. Toxikk is visually stunning, and looks similar to the commercial Nexuiz game, the question will it run well, and play well? So far it looks, IMO, to be the most promising of these games to lead the revival. Another, Project Nex, appears dead, which is a shame. There are other projects based on the Sauerbraten Engine as well, but I don’t have much insight on those, but they are still active and appear to be pushing for new releases.
I conveniently left Alien Arena out of the previous paragraph, as you know, this is the game I develop(with much assistance these days), and this article is basically a preface to lead up to a discussion of what is going on with it. It has been over a year and half since we have updated this game publicly, which is by far the longest we have gone(we used to have several updates per year). Some have taken this as a sign that the game has reached it’s end, and in some ways that *is* true. Alien Arena has largely been two different games in it’s history. The first generation(2004-2007), and the second(2008-2015). The second generation is in fact, coming to an end, and the game will be rebooting for the second time in it’s long history. The artwork is for the most part, completely new, and the engine has been thoroughly re-written, from the renderer, to the menu gui, to beyond. The game itself has been streamlined, removing many of the less popular modes, received various bug fixes and tweaks to make it as smooth and balanced as it’s ever been. There are going to be many completely new aspects of this game, such as true terrain, visual effects, and performance that is extremely optimized. What may be the biggest change, is the actual style and look of the game.
In Generation 1, the game had a campy, silly theme, with a very Quake III inspired visual style. We(I) made a lot of mistakes early on, levels too dark, too drab, or too large in scale(common mistake amongst noob designers!). By the Gold and Uranium edition though, the level design was much improved on many levels. Over time, my influences changed. By 2007, the levels had started resembling the style that was in UT2k3/4, and by 2010, more of the UT3 style. In the 2008 reboot to Generation 2, the game looked(and played) completely different than it had before. The theme changed to a darker, more sinister look, particularly the player avatars, and quite a few people were not happy about that, though eventually they came on board with the changes. Towards the end of Generation 2, the game was taking on it’s own unique style, with burned out post apocalyptic themes in level design, grittier texturing on characters and weapons, and more detail and realistic designs. Eventually though, as the engine performance began to ramp up, it was painfully obvious that the game needed to take advantage of that, and start using artwork that was more modern in standard. I also began realizing that the deviation in style for Generation 2, mainly the aliens, had been a bit of a design mistake.
The truth is, Generation 3 had begun quite some time ago, first with improving a number of the weapon models(beamgun, violator, disruptor), as well as the powerup and armor models. My first idea for the player characters was just redoing the skin textures, but I began to rethink that, realizing the mistake of deviating the aliens so much from Generation I. I wanted to recapture the stature, and campiness from Generation 1, but also make them look very modern, very detailed, and still have a touch of “evil” that was introduced in Generation 2. In the end, I think I re-captured the spirit of the first generation, and modernized the look. The face has similar aspects of the first, but with the detail and fear factor of the second. The body shape is much more like Gen 1, but the arms and legs are now cybernetic, and very detailed. The texture is modern and gritty, and full of glowing parts. Overall, it look much more like the natural progression that *should* have happened back in 2008, making Gen 2 look like a fork of sorts. Lastly, the polycount is more than double that of Generation 2’s models. In my next article I will go far more in-depth in what Alien Arena’s third generation will be. Think of this as a warm-up, or primer of things to come.
Can Alien Arena be one of the games to help revive the arena FPS? I don’t know for sure, but I certainly am hopeful. There are a number of great projects out there, and a lot of them have the potential. These are going to be exciting times for fans, and if just one of these games can capture the imagination and interest of new gamers, it could go a long way in doing so.