I've been having a problem with aiming in first-person shooters. Actually, I've been having a problem with shooters in general, but today aiming was particular irksome.
Imagine a typical FPS complete with a disembodied floating gun in the bottom right corner and some kind of symbol for the aiming reticule. Depending on the game, you might be imagining a dual stick controller, Wiimote and Nunchuck, or mouse and keyboard under your fingertips.
We've already established that shooting is a mechanic that typically doesn't involve a lot of interplay, but what about aiming? Before we can consider the interplay of aiming, we must established that aiming has interaction in the first place. After all, enemies certainly can't see the floating reticle unless it's a laser sight. In a typical FPS, the only thing that aiming interacts with is the player's view. Otherwise, aiming is just the intent of the player.
The irksome part of it all comes from trying to find the minimum difference for aiming. Shooting is pretty easy. Each shot is the quantified minimum difference. Because bullets tend to fly straight and true, the significance of the distance between shooter and target is lessened. The shotgun, a powerful close quarters gun in shooters like Halo, is different from most guns. The shotgun's effectiveness decreases as the distance between target and shooter increases. For this gun, the minimum degree of difference can be determined by finding the minimum distance it takes for the shotgun to kill in 2 shots instead of 1.
With aiming what determines the minimum degree of difference? Unlike shooting, aiming is always "turned on." Simply looking at the world sets your sights down the end of a gun barrel. If the player is constantly aiming, then isn't aiming constant therefore eliminating the possibility of difference? Perhaps. But before we come to any kind of conclusion, lets look at things in a more practical light.
Aiming at enemies. What if, when the crosshairs are on an enemy the aiming is "turned on," and when they're on anything else we can consider the aiming to be "off." In this way, we can measure the minimum degree of difference by the distance the reticle moves on the screen. Sounds like a good idea? The problem with this method is the amount of space an enemy body takes up on the screen varies depending on the distance the player is away from the target. Because there isn't a standard distance of combat due to the long range nature of projectiles, using enemies targets as reference points fails.
Even if we could pin down a minimum distance for aiming, first-person shooters typically feature design elements/options that would minimize the results.
Being able to tweak looking speeds, turning speeds, and/or aiming speeds gives players the option to crank up how quickly their aim can move from one point to another. The faster the aim, the less significant the minimum distance becomes. If a player can turn around 180 degrees in the blink of an eye and defend him/herself from a sneak attack, then that player's blind spot has nearly become a nonissue.
It's the same way with head shots. There aren't many shooters that don't deal extra damage for head shots. Likewise, I've never heard of a first-person shooter than doesn't feature humanoid player avatars. With the accuracy and freedom of shooter controls these days, the majority of aiming is set squarely on the head. It's hard for shooters to have a lot of interplay as it is. Without a way to counter a speeding bullet, many shooters are little more than "aim at the next head and squeeze the trigger."
This is probably the reason why first-person shooters tend to put the player through roller coaster rides of scripted events and earth shattering action. It's because they have to add some pizazz to the experience.
Multiplayer for shooters is all about the meta game. Because you can kill quickly due to head shots, remotely, and without the target being able to counter you (because of the lack of interplay) internalizing the run patterns, hiding spots, and optimal positions in a given map becomes the game. Also, because you can kill or be killed so easily, the flow of multiplayer shooter deathmatches are heavily perforated with respawning, which resets the match into small cycles.
Look at the evolution from Resident Evil to RE4 (GameCube) to RE4 on the Wii. In the original Resident Evil, aiming is very indirect. Players can point their character toward a zombie and fire, but they are unable to aim at specific parts (like the head because everyone knows to shoot zombies in the head). Players can aim their gun straight forward, or tilt it up and down for 3 total degrees of difference. The gameplay is very RPG like in that the player is forced into encounters with limited mobility where getting hit is virtually unavoidable and attacks have probabilities of success. It was like the game rolled a dice to see if the zombies head would explode. You weren't really aiming at the head, but you're grateful anyway.
Resident Evil 4 changed everything up. Rendering everything in 3D and positioning the camera over the shoulder of the hero allowed for the developers to let the players take aim. Now players can shoot legs, flying axes, arms, chickens, and of course heads with deadly accuracy. Though the aiming isn't quantified anymore, the reticle only moved at a relatively slow speed. Every time the player stopped to shoot, the aim had to be repositioned from the center of the screen.
In the remake of Resident Evil 4 for the Wii, the new controls not only added ease and accuracy to aiming, but now players can aim as fast as they can point. What's even worse is, players can aim at a target while moving. When they stop to raise their gun, the reticle is still where the player was aiming before. This allows for the player to line up the shoot before hand and shoot immediately upon raising the gun. In this way, the new controls reduce the stop and pop gameplay. The gun is a powerful weapon. Slowing down the aim in the GameCube version of RE4 may have been more cumbersome, but it keep the player's power in check, which makes the game more interesting.
Aiming is all about optimization. How quickly can I get from point A to B? How well can I follow a moving target? There are a few cases like Red Steel where players can point their gun at disarmed enemies and indicated that they should surrender with aiming motions. But, for the most part, shooters are ignoring the possibilities and interplay that can exist when aiming is designed as an integrated mechanic with the rest of the game's mechanics.
Take Super Mario World: Yoshi's Island for example. Because the aimer for an egg throw bounces back and forth like the stick of a metronome, there's an amount of timing involved with aiming and shooting. Because the eggs are thrown from Yoshi and the game contains Mario level platforming elements, moving and shooting become a dynamic dance of aiming, platforming, and fighting gravity. Many 2D games with platforming elements and shooting elements are the same way: Mega Man. Super Smash Brothers.
Most shooters these days are struggling to create interesting gameplay because of how aiming and shooting have evolved. To a critical-gamer it's not about how quickly the reticle moves, but how that makes or breaks gameplay. Shooters may have to start de-optimizing some of their mechanics so we all can play again.