First-Person Shooters Are Thriving under Independent Developers

Games Features First-Person Shooters
First-Person Shooters Are Thriving under Independent Developers

If you’re anything like me, you loved Titanfall 2. Respawn Entertainment’s 2016 masterpiece—think Mirror’s Edge with mechs and a whole lot more shooting—slaked a thirst even then, as the “first-person shooter designed for a reason beyond just the multiplayer components” was already a well run dry. You’ve got your annual Call of Dutys, sure, and EA tosses out a Battlefield every few years, Microsoft keeps going with Halo, but the new franchises? The more modestly marketed and budgeted ones? Few and far between the better part of a decade ago, and even fewer and farther now. This is in no small part because we’re in the midst of two converging eras that have made the existence of more games like Titanfall 2 unlikely: that of AAA bloat and games as a service.

Activision can keep making Call of Duty with its expensive single-player campaigns, because everyone plays them and moves on to the multiplayer for a year until the next iteration arrives. The sales figures are among the most reliable in games, and the franchise in general has a hold on tens of millions, and perpetually so. The days of more experimental and newer FPS franchises, however, seem to be over in the AAA space, given how massive the budgets for games in that arena are—and this has also hurt existing first-person shooter franchises that were successful, but not tentpoles. Sony hasn’t even bothered commissioning a new Killzone for a decade now, and they put a stop to Resistance titles even before then since they did not, in fact, kill Halo. Check out EA Play’s listings sometime for a sense of how often the publisher used to release different iterations of Battlefield a console generation or two ago—I can save you some time and just say that it was constantly happening. But now? Too expensive, too risky, have to maintain a narrower focus or the stockholders will be grumpy. Hell, even Doom hasn’t been immune from the trends: Doom Eternal added, as our esteemed editor Garrett Martin put it, “a lot of new business to the Doom formula,” thanks to pressure from Zenimax to do more than “just” be another Doom game. Hey, at least Eternal managed a better fate than Redfall with that mandate

And games as a service, well. Maybe you’ve heard by now, but that trend did not just figuratively cost us Titanfall 3, but literally took it away. The sequel to one of the great first-person shooters of its generation—if not the first-person shooter of its generation—was canceled after 10 months in development, because the battle royale craze had begun with PUBG: Battlegrounds, and both Respawn and EA wanted in. The idea to create a battle royale in the Titanfall universe to keep players hooked on multiplayer for much longer periods of time meant that the best part of the Titanfall experience was going to be lost. The multiplayer wasn’t making enough money in the long run, so the extremely tight, extremely rewarding single-player experience had become dead weight, and the original vision of Titanfall 3 was no more, just like that.

Warstride Challenges

Warstride Challenges

Given that Titanfall 3 shifted into the wildly successful Apex Legends, you can’t even necessarily blame Respawn for the shift, but it certainly signaled the direction things were heading in. Battle royales, titles like Destiny 2 switching to live service… this is the nature of this particular beast these days, and there isn’t any room in AAA for a Titanfall 3 or anything like it from the looks of things. And again, that’s not a hypothetical: another Titanfall project was canceled just last year

If you’re thoroughly depressed about all of this, there’s some good news to be had. Indie games have a history of filling the voids that AAA and even mid-sized publishers leave behind them, and first-person shooters are quickly becoming a favorite of those studios and the publishers that work with them. It’s not that 2023 is the first year for indie first-person shooters by any stretch of the imagination, but this past summer featured a glut of them, and all within a range of quality from “pretty good” to “holy shit.” Trepang2 (styled Trepang²) released for Windows on June 21, and launched for Playstation 5 and Xbox Series X|S in early October. Turbo Overkill landed on Windows in its 1.0 form on August 18, the same day that 2019’s Amid Evil received its expansion, The Black Labyrinth. Maeth’s debut game, Sprawl, hit for the same platform five days later. Warstride Challenges simultaneously released on Windows, Playstation 5, and Series X|S on September 7. 

Maybe most impressive about all of this is that these games pull from some of the same sources and inspirations—there are a whole lot of “Like modern Doom? Like Titanfall? Well then you’re gonna love our game!” notes out there—but still manage to feel distinct. Turbo Overkill is a mad rush of incessant adrenaline courtesy of combining the kind of violence its title implies with parkour elements, but it includes pop culture references and a chainsaw leg, so it’s not all serious business. Trepang2 is very clearly trying to be a successor to the F.E.A.R. series, right down to slowing down time with a “Focus” ability, but is also mixing in its own touches based on advances within the genre since the days of Monolith Production’s first-person psychological horror shooter. Sprawl… well, Sprawl is a game where you can fire a portable rail gun at a walking chaingun, run and jump off of a wall, slow down time, spin, turn, fire off headshots from a shotgun at multiple other targets, then land and use your katana to kill the last of the bunch before anyone realizes you started fighting back. (Oh, and if you try to play it more traditionally, you will simply be overwhelmed and die.) Warstride Challenges does what it says on the box, as it’s a series of challenge levels of increasing complexity, where you run and jump and shoot while attempting to finish the task in question in record time. The “campaign” is this, but the real hook for many will be its user-created challenge levels. See? A little something for everyone in this year of indie shooters.



The publishers behind these titles aren’t the kind of mega powers described earlier. Apogee Entertainment used to be 3D Realms, and before then, Apogee Software. You know, the company responsible for publishing or developing first-person shooters like Wolfenstein 3D and Duke Nukem 3D. First-person shooters aren’t all that made Apogee into what it became, but they certainly didn’t hurt, and the company in its rebranded form has gone back to that well again. They now focus exclusively on publishing indie games, which is where a $25 first-person shooter like Turbo Overkill comes in. Focus Entertainment (Warstride Challenge) has a bunch of studios under its belt, but these aren’t the kind of headline-leading buys of major publishers: the studio I’m most familiar with under their umbrella, Dotemu, focuses on remasters of classic titles, and others are into train and farming simulators. Rogue Games, Inc., the publisher behind Sprawl, doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page! They have all seen a space that they can fill, however, and so they have. Someone had to, lest we lose our ability to imagine better and more complex first-person shooters in the future.

This alone would make for something of a first-person shooter renaissance, but when you combine the attention indie studios have been giving the genre with the likes of what Nightdive Studios has been up to remastering classics from the ‘90s, such as this summer’s mindblowing $10 Quake II release that is easily the definitive edition of that classic? Or consider that there’s already been a budding “boomer shooter” revival for a few years now—Dusk! Prodeus! Ion Fury! The still-early-access Ultrakill and Forgive Me Father 2! The aforementioned Amid Evil!—to pair with this emphasis on more modern indie shooters? The fate of the non-GaaS first-person shooter has changed in a hurry, and it’s clear AAA publishers aren’t a required participant in this arena any longer.

Now, it would be unfair to act as if first-person shooters didn’t become a little stale and in need of a refresh: they were the genre there for some time, with everyone coming out with at least one, and there were plenty of clunkers in the mix alongside the best the format had to offer. The thing about that, though, is that the genre was allowed the space for failure two and three generations ago, be that the critical or commercial variety. There was space to experiment, space to replicate, space to not put out a world-changing title, and by the time Respawn and EA took a look at Titanfall 3 and decided that wasn’t going to cut it anymore, that space was gone. 

With indie developers picking up the slack, we’re sure to see more of the kind of shooter variation we’re already seeing. There might be some sameness now in some basic respects, with the focus on speed and specialized movement and slowing down time and “hey, remember Doom?” and all that, but this will just push devs into figuring out even more creative ways to approach the shooter in order to stand out. This is all great news if you’re an enjoyer of first-person shooters, and hey, if you are, you’ve already got plenty of catching up to do while you wait to see what the future of the genre holds.

Marc Normandin covers retro videogames at Retro XP, which you can read for free but support through his Patreon, and can be found on Twitter at @Marc_Normandin.

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