Can first-person shooter skills really be taught?

A development studio in Scotland thinks they can – and it has the browser-based instructional game to prove itSome gamers are just naturally good at killing people. They have the fast responses, the pinpoint hand-eye coordination, the Rainman-like ab…

A development studio in Scotland thinks they can – and it has the browser-based instructional game to prove it

Some gamers are just naturally good at killing people. They have the fast responses, the pinpoint hand-eye coordination, the Rainman-like ability to memorise maps and power-up locations. Meanwhile, the rest of us bumble around in the darkness hoping to achieve a kills-to-deaths ratio that doesn’t utterly shame our entire ancestral line.

Now Play2Improve, a fresh-faced development studio based in Scotland’s games industry capital Dundee, thinks it can help players in the latter camp. Launched recently as a free-to-play browser game, FPS Trainer is essentially a coaching aid for would-be virtual assassins. With simplified visuals that separate maps into different strategic zones, the idea is to help players develop the tactical base necessary to start dishing out effective slaughter.

“FPS Trainer provides you with the necessary knowledge for playing online,” says designer Paul “astz!” McGarrity, himself a professional gamer who has triumphed in several major LAN and online events over the past decade. “It cuts out months of laborious practice time in FPS games by teaching the core skills and methods which experienced and professional players use when competing at the highest levels.

“We do this by introducing the strategies for managing resources, controlling your opponents, positioning yourself, using the terrain or level features and setting up shots to maximize damage – all in a highly visual and intuitive manner. There are many levels of strategy in competitive FPS titles that can take years to even become aware of, FPS Trainer will introduce these at an early stage to take you up the ladder more easily.”

With its stylised visuals and emphasis on quickly picking up weapons and health packs, the game most closely resembles twitchy arena shooters such as Quake and Unreal Tournament, but the studio, Play2Improve, reckons the strategies it teaches will help with all kinds of FPS title.

“We don’t really see a distinction between an arena-based FPS and more ranged, free-roaming combat – with the exception of vehicles to traverse larger maps,” says founder Matt Seeney. “Our premise is that first-person shooters are fundamentally strategic in nature, rather than purely twitch-based; therefore, we are focussing on the mental side of the game; including timing, positioning and appropriate weapon selection. This is what differentiates a good player from a bad one – not just blindly rushing in and shooting, but making sure you are fully prepared and taking a far more measured approach.”

Set up in 2009 and based within the University of Abertay, Play2Improve has an interesting background. Although several of its staff have traditional games industry experience, Seeney comes from the serious games sector, where simulations are developed to train workers in various professions. With his previous company, TPLD, set up when he was a student at Abertay, he created games for the Scottish schools system and for corporations looking for assessed cooperation exercises – it’s probably a natural progression from Apprentice-style team challenges to the dog-frag-dog world of the first-person shooter.

One of the key elements of FPS Trainer is the monitoring of player behaviours and the provision of post-game feedback – and apparently this extends to more than just hit percentages. “Basic accuracy stats can be misleading,” says McGarrity. “We will be providing information not just on whether you scored a hit or not, but on whether you maximised the damage with each shot. Along with this there will be information about which areas of a level you are most active in, which areas you have neglected and also indicators to show where you should ideally be positioned in key situations, along with your actual location at the time. The stats will also cover things such as item pick ups, including the amount and frequency. They will show how long items have been left unclaimed, which will tie in with the positioning tips.”

What’s really interesting is the way the game sounds like one of the fitness titles currently dominating the Kinect software line-up. As Seeney says: “There are detailed stats for debriefing, with intuitive graphs and visualisations to identify strengths and weaknesses; you can track your performance over time and compare stats with your friends and peers, and everything can be easily shared with friends via Facebook.”

It’s the same approach as Your Shape or EA Sports Active 2, but it’s about shooting at people; it represents the appropriation of mainstream coaching techniques for a hardcore gaming genre. I like that.

At the moment, the game can only be played on PC and Mac (it runs on Unity so you’ll need the correct plug-in), and the next step will be the addition of premium paid-for features. But Play2Improve is also planning to create Xbox Live and PSN versions once they’ve achieved a benchmark of 100,000 users online. If it does make it too console, I’ll be near the front of the queue – though I’ll probably be shot in the back of the head by a sniper I failed to spot on my way in.

FPS Trainer is currently in pre-alpha. A beta version is launching in mid-January. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds