Item Driven Gametypes in Arena FPS

Arena FPS is the moniker given to games like unreal, quake, etc. There are many ways to describe them and many factors that make a game more arena FPS than another.

One key ingredient are the gametypes. FFA, Duel and TDM. These gametypes are driven by their items. The items are the game. This factor is quite often not mentioned when discussing arena FPS. Typically people will talk about movement, weapons (types/styles and the ability to carry more than 2), lack of classes, game speed, the fact you pick things up (but nothing beyond that) and time to kill. Gametypes may get an honorable mention but how the gametypes play beyond “deathmatch”, “team deathmatch” or “duel” is rarely, if ever, bought up.

Arena FPS History

FPS game types grew from single player. Free for all was single player items with respawn times (or not for weapons) attached to them. There were different places players could spawn after dying – spawn points. There was a scoreboard to keep track of who killed more people.

Duel and TDM is the obvious extension from FFA. One for going head to head, one for teams. Neither needed much tweaking, duel typically removed damage modifier style items like quad damage and amp.

This was the dawn of FPS, the original game types and to this day the best. Players and developers have created others, in large part due to lack of understanding of these gametypes. They lack objectives players said. They were just about killing. They take no teamwork. Its just aim. Teamwork is minimal.

Flags were added to custom designed maps and CTF was born. Players were given specific roles like attacking and defending. Items were still there but they played different roles, buffing defenders or enabling attackers to push against lower odds. Quad allowed breaking of defences.

And then items were relegated to a menu. Teams purchased them or selected them based on classes. Some FPS became rock/paper/scissor class based affairs and most added heavier emphasis on aim. The latter was unintended but is the result of shifting focus away from strategy and other aspects due to the removal of the game mechanics that allow greater depth.

Finally spray, “realistic” weapons, recoil control, aim down sights and similar mechanics were implemented. Player movement was slowed, strafespeed was slowed, time to kill (ttk) was shortened and we ended up with COD/CS/BF. Players now think that these modern FPS require more strategy, tactics and thinking. They think that BF is a brain game, and becomes an even bigger brain game when played on hardcore mode (less health, faster ttk). While this is a side argument and not really within the scope of the current articles on this site I believe that modern FPS require more aim, reward better reflexes in general and less brain. This mainly stems from ttk, lack of items and the gametypes played. A slow game does not equate to greater tactical or strategic depth which is often cited as a reason why arena FPS are shallow. But maybe that is an article for another time…

Items have all but evaporated from the FPS landscape and with them gametypes that have arguably more objectives, more challenging positional play and greater depth than anything on the market today. Gametypes that are more challenging and push players due to their dynamic nature. Gametypes that drive conflict better than flags. bombs or hostages. Gametypes that work because the players have to overcome a problem to gain an advantage rather than because the time is ticking. Gametypes that at the time they were first implemented were dismissed by the majority as shallow and objectiveless. “TDM is about killing, the most kills win. This is the objective”.

This is a long way from the truth.

This sort of statement is probably one of the more naive FPS related comments ever made. There are issues involved with item driven gametypes, for sure, but they are not what most players thought when CTF was innovated or when modern gamers make comments like the above. There are issues involved with all gametypes but some less than others, and in some game types balance does not matter much at all. The example here would be CS bomb style objective gametypes. Both teams play both sides, map balance or even weapon balance does not matter overly much. A map could be designed so you only have a 10% chance of winning a round on defence, but over 20 rounds total this becomes acceptable and the map is just considered difficult for the attacking team. In fact this sort of imbalance could make for what could be considered close and exciting games. Maybe this is an exaggeration..

Item driven gametypes and made by their items as well as maps. They are highly dynamic, which is quite challenging for most players. In 1999 there was a basic understanding of how to play, since the break between gamers and these game types in mainstream games even more of this understanding will have been lost. Going forward part of the challenge of an arena FPS

The two main factors of items and how the effect the flow of the game is their strength and how frequent they spawn. This could be a difficult to balance – do you want powerful items that spawn infrequently and as such are very important? Do you want them spawning more often so that one pickup difference does not skew balance too much? Do you want infrequently spawning items that do not really add a great deal to a team or players stack, they are beneficial and will be fought over but could they be ignored? How do they related to each other? Is there a cycle that involves a set of items within a given duration and then some others that sit outside it in order to “break” that cycle periodically?

There are a number of games that do this well. Quake is one and Unreal is the other. There are quake and cpm spinoffs like warsow.

The armor system includes health – and rests heavily on values as well as spawn times and how the armors work together.

This may all sound obvious but discussions about spawn times and relative power of items/health are very rare. In fact I cannot remember reading anything in depth over the past 10 years. In part this may be because the arena shooter and this style of gametype is dead so there is little discussion. When these games were popular it was not discussed. It is an important conversation to have because all of this determines how the game plays. People can say that “I just want to run around and kill stuff” and that is fine – the challenge is to balance the game so players that want to do that can^, while others have an option of playing a more structured game. This balance does not need to be in a way that will give the player who chooses not to partake in item control an advantage, but at the very least having a game that is accessible for all levels is good. Obviously this scales differently. In a 8 player FFA game one participant timing will not be as evident to other players as in a 1v1 situation.

Discussions of weapons are very common but are generally related to damage values or weapon mechanics like rate of fire or projectile speed. For instance I think ammo on pickup is an excellent way to balance a weapon , even if it is a little more overpowered than it should be. If it can only shoot four times per spawn its not likely to cause large problems and players will have to consider its use. Just an example. Discussions of movement and very minor issues like air control* in ut go on for pages.

^or players can do that if they do not know any better.

*air control in ut is not like air control conversations in quake. This is more limited to allowing players slightly more “aim” when falling whereas quake revolves around letting players turn sharp corners in the air.


To demonstrate item driven game types working at all levels we need only look at how a player progresses from when they start playing the game. If a player starts FFA they will undoubtedly pick up whatever weapon they can find for the first few games, and continue to do so. However as time passes and they learn maps and weapon locations they will end up seeking out a specific weapon, either because they are more efficient at using it, enjoy using it above others or because they see the potential of using it more. The new player may also opt to play maps they have seen before rather than branching out to other levels, because they will know where the guns they need are located.

For weapons there are two examples in ut99 – the first would be rockets and flak. Both are easy to use and in the past typically satisfied newer players with kills. The latter is the sniper rifle as the new player probably thinks they can use it to engage at long range out of harms way, its fun to snipe. Headshots are fun. One is easy and the other has appeal. The last weapon type, high rate of fire hitscan is probably not that appealing for a completely new arenafps player, however others with some FPS experience, might gravitate towards these as they may already “know” how to aim and something like the minigun is the closest the ut franchise has to an m16 or ak.

So the new player starts to seek out a weapon of choice, and picks up the others along the way while traversing the map. They learn to become more efficient with their chosen weapon while at the same time are forced to use weapons outside their comfort zone due to not having the weapon they want available after every death. Sometimes these other weapons may surprise them and from here they can add other guns to their repertoire. At the same time they also learn the maps, or at least routes from where they spawn to the weapon they want.

This applies to every item driven FPS ever. The beauty of it is the lack of game specificness. It simply works and teaches the player how to play. Telling a new player that the jacket spawn is 27 seconds is not really useful. This can be extrapolated out from simple weapons. The player learns that they can kill more if they look for health. To begin with this could be to preserve their “stack” (in this case the gun of their choice) but as time goes by they will realise they can improve their KDR by not dying. They will realise they can get armor and start taking mental notes of where it spawns. They might like the idea of quad damage and try to take this.

The player starts to “play” the gametype correctly, without instruction. There is a built in learning curve and teach the player to improve. There comes a point where they might get interested and go looking for information on spawn times and whatnot, however for many players this never occurs.

As a side note the main item driven gametypes (FFA, TDM, Duel) are also the greatest for public play. The objectives improve player net/kdr and overall this is what a large proportion of pub players are going for. These players also ruin games of CTF.


This in turn gives players different options for playing and different areas of their game they can work on. Do they want to play aim +forward heavy game? Do they want to control armors and play pac man. Do they want to concentrate on weapons and optimise their various strengths? Even if they are bad aim wise they can contribute by timing for their better mechanically skilled team mates. ut99 was well balanced at release for non-aim heavy play and I would like to think this is going to make a comeback.

Items tie back to time. Items cost time. In FFA, TDM or Duel time is the general currency. For example, a player could spend 5-10 seconds getting a better weapon in FFA or they can go straight into combat with their spawn gun. If they happen to kill someone they can take that weapon and continue, a kill gained faster than if they

Items are control.

Note: Flow and what items are for. Quad is not for killing, it is for securing armor spawns. Rockets are not for killing they are for securing spawns, etc. Disconnection of items from killing is paramount to understanding how to play. Taking this further – disconnection of everything from killing is key to winning. Item driven gametypes are about control.

Items drive conflict and player interaction since players need to obtain items – it sounds obvious, but without a solid system it falls apart. This is why discussion of the armor/health system beyond posters wanting a belt or jacket or furry coat is important. Items are why the game works on a deeper level than “get gun and shoot stuff”. They have always worked this way, this is what FFA, Duel and TDM are.

At a duel level players should be contesting items regularly. The player who is taking the better items should be constrained in movement and ability to pressure the down player because of them. On the other side of the coin the lesser player can plan their moves around the predictability of the “in control” player – they can try to deal efficient damage (where they take none as their stack is lesser) or they can just opt to avoid the locations altogether.

Weapons do not drive conflict or shape the course of a game in the way armor and health do, at least not in the context of ut99 duel. Or ut4 duel for that matter. For a gametype driven by weapons I strongly suggest you check out DDKs quakeworld TDM videos. In ut99 they do not drive conflict for a number of reasons, the brief version is:

Weapon (or firemode) use is doubled (or tripled) in ut. There are two of each main “attack”. High ROF/low damage hitscan (pulse/mini). Low ROF/high damage hitscan (rifle/shock). Projectile with area of effect (rockets/flak/combos). Most maps had every weapon, often weapons multiple times. In order to drive conflict an item needs to be sought for a reason – they make players predictable and force them to show up at the same place around the same time. With the abundance of weapons they will not drive players together. Sure you can deny weapons (this adds depth, which is good) but from a conflict creation standpoint they do not work well because there are so many of them. Also denying weapons in 2014 is very different to 1999. Quite often players back then would have a favorite weapon. This was quite often due to connection (dialup using shock/rockets/flak). Now players tend to be decent with everything. Also, even in a three weapon game like quakelive weapons do not truely drive conflict. They shape fights when one player is lacking specific weapons, but rarely would you see a fight pop up because of a weapon.

As such you can deny weapons in ut99 but the weapons themselves don’t really drive player interaction in a meaningful way. They do dictate player movement because players want specific guns, but because they are not really timed or controlled in the same way as armor or health conflict does not come about because of them often.

Again this is not to say that sweeping weapons to stop your opponent taking them is not a legitimate thing to do, far from it. However it would be rare for the player not taking a weapon to bother timing it and come back to find their opponent turning up at the same time.

This is an important difference to understand.

And of course there is an exception to this rule and it is a very interesting exception because it shares many similarities with ut but at the same time is completely different. That game is Quakeworld TDM.

The problem of gamers

Beyond the rose tinted glasses issue previously mentioned gamers have a habit of discussing ways to improve FPS games that are very specific. Players generally get hung up on specifics that involve weapon or movement mechanics. cpm has the best movement. The rocket in qw is overpowered but good. UT movement is clunky. The shock rifle is awesome. To an even finer level “I cannot combo myself”. Sometimes maps are a discussion point but rarely does the gametype come up beyond “quakelive duel is the best” or similar.

The gametypes and in item driven gametype, the supporting items*, tend to just.. be. Noone really talks about them. Noone. Weapon specifics are important, super important. But the amount of ammo in a weapon pickup? Unimportant, or rather if you read the forums it is an unimportant question.

*This applies to health, armor, weapons, powerups, miscellaneous pickups and their respective respawn times.

In truth the gametype and how it plays is a large part of why a game is good. In the case of item driven gametypes the items and how they interact is key to the game being good.

Quakeworld is the standout in this department, with comments like “the weapons, items and armors are all overpowered, its awesome!” but generally little discussion about WHY this makes it an awesome team game.. Since the items in item driven game types are essentially the gametype it pays to have a good setup. This is similar to saying that “we need good maps for a good FPS*” but not being able to put ones finger on why a map is good.

*der, this is the downfall of most FPS over the past 15 years.

Discussion revolves around very specific aspects of various games. Comparing quakelive to cpm in a movement. Comparing ut99 to 2kx. Comparing a lightning gun to a sniper rifle.

The problem is the underlying framework changes between games, and while not as fun to talk about as weapon or movement specifics actually give more insight into why a game is good or not.

On changing item driven gametypes in arena fps

Obviously I am a fan of this style of gametype. Who would have a site dedicated to the idea of a gametype rather than a specific spin of a gametype in a specific game?

Items are the gametype, there is no way around this. Suggesting to remove armor or health is not conductive to a discussion about how to improve and balance duel or TDM or this type of gametype in general. Statements like “remove pickups” is akin to saying “remove flags” when discussing CTF. Love it or hate it, the items are the game. Not always the items themselves but how they drive the game. They cause one part of the map to be more important than another. Now this is not to say that other game types cannot exist, I can think of many spins on classic TDM that would make it more accessible while teaching players how to play “real” TDM.

And in the same way holding mid on a CTF map may be more important on some maps while on others heavy base defence or offence becomes important. Camping in the armor room might not be the best route to take, for example dm3 in quakeworld – the Red Armor is best handled by staying in the ajoining area.

In fact if you dislike duel, TDM or FFA and have suggestions on how to improve them that include things like adding loadouts for spawners, free armor to help comeback on spawners please, the door is that way.

If on the other hand you want to partake in a discussion that involves balancing and changing what already exists to give a better game, please speak up!

The slippery slope

Firstly one needs to accept that an item driven game has a particular flavor. It has uneven situations where a player with no weapon or armor is killed by another player with a gun, armor and quad damage. It has situations where a stacked player is smashed by a less than stacked player because of excellent execution and timing.

One needs to look past the fact that respawn frags are simply points, and your team will receive them as well. Think of them as conversions if it helps. A map should not allow one team to farm heavily because of spawn points but at the same time the spawn system should not be constructed in a way that forces teams to spawn on oposite sides of the map at all times as other problems can arise from this.

Once one accepts these things are part of the game and that the underlying structure is acceptable we can stop looking at changing or adding things. The game works at a decent level, adding strange abilities or mechanics to try to cover up one aspect that may be considered a problem is not really needed. Spawn killing in this example.

Why I like UT

I have always enjoyed ut99.

The different ways you could play appealed to me, especially at its release two players could approach the game from very different ways. You could play rocket or flak heavy. You could play with shock. You could play with sniper or mini/pulse. Aggressive and defensive play was catered to. You could play an item heavy game or basically ignore them and go for damage. It was decently balanced so players with high ping could still have fun.

IDS Education

Even with the nice story about the new player, IDS has problems. After a certain point the mechanics become vague and non-intuitive. The main points are: respawn times and how to time. I think in part this is easily addressed in FFA early in a players career. The item timers that Epic are planning on implementing and ID have implemented do not really teach item spawn duration or how to time from a traditional point of view due to adding a mechanic that does not previously exist. Once this is removed the player is left hanging.
The player may have been made aware of the item due to the pie-chart hanging above it and they may have paid a little more attention, but overall they will not have learnt much beyond “this is important enough to attach a pie chart to”.
The goal of this article is to look at how we can educate players better, not change how the game plays.

Hang up on timing

Because item driven gametypes revolve around items and spawns there can be an unreasonable amount of importance attached to timing. Arena FPS in general place a lot of importance on positioning, and while timing is large part it is a very obvious aspect of the game. This actually causes a problem that places too much emphasis on timing at lower levels. Quite often at lower levels timing loosely is sufficient. Reading some comments one would think that the entire game is timing, when it is simply one aspect.


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