Saturday, June 28, 2008

Suppressive fire in FPS games, or lack thereof.

If you've watched many war movies, you've probably heard one of the characters yell out "Lay down suppressive fire!" or "Give me covering fire!" at some point. And with FPS games like Call of Duty and Battlefield trying to emulate these war movies, you'd probably assume that suppressive fire was a battle tactic that would be emulated in some way in these games, and in their multiplayer portions particularly. But for the most part, the tactic of suppressive fire is ineffective in FPS games. Why is this? And what can be done to change this?

Today, I played Battlefield Bad Company. As in most FPS games, the light machine guns found in Bad Company are some of the worst weapons in the game. Not being accurate enough for long range shooting (the realm of assault and sniper rifles), and not accurate enough on the move for close quarters combat (the realm of submachine guns and shotguns), the LMGs don't really have a role to fill. This is true of the LMGs in most other semi-realistic FPS games, too, such as Rainbow Six Vegas, Counter-Strike, and Battlefield 2. In all of these games, it is rare to see a LMG-using player top the score charts (and if they do so in the Battlefield games, they're usually there because they are supplying ammo/health to other players).

I later played some Company of Heroes, an RTS game where the machine gun is far more useful. A few seconds of machine gun fire on any infantry unit will send them to the ground with the "Suppressed!" status, slowing their rate of movement and fire drastically. A few more seconds and they'll usually be given a "Pinned!" status, unable to do anything at all but cower in fear.

Seeing that "Suppressed!" indicator pop up time and again in COH made me go to Wikipedia to look up what Suppressive fire is exactly, and why the tactic is so absent from FPS games and its treatment of machine guns.

Suppressive fire (also known as covering fire) is a term used in military science for firing weapons at or in the direction of enemy forces with the primary goal of reducing their ability to defend themselves or return fire, by forcing them to remain under cover.

Suppressive fire differs from lethal fire (i.e. shoot-to-kill) in that its primary objective is to get the enemy to "keep their heads down" and thus reduce their ability to move, shoot, or observe their surroundings. While soldiers may be injured or killed by suppressive fire, this is not its main purpose...


To be effective, suppressive fire must be continuous enough to keep the enemy suppressed - that is, to force them to remain behind cover. As long as the enemy can be kept fearful (emphasis mine) of the next round coming in, they will not consider moving or shooting back. If there is so much incoming fire that the enemy can not move or shoot, the enemy is said to be pinned...

Weapons used

Any ranged weapon with a reasonably fast rate of fire can be used to suppress. But suppressive fire is usually delivered by specialized weapons, such as machine guns. Within an infantry squad, this role is usually filled by squad automatic weapons,also know as SAWs, like the FN Minimi, the RPK and the RPD, especially when attacking, as these weapons can be quickly deployed. Suppressive fire can also be delivered using other weapons such as assault rifles, but the volume and intensity of fire generated is less than that of machine guns, as the rifles overheat more rapidly and require reloading more often.

Note my emphasis above. "To be kept fearful." I think this is the key element that is missing from FPS games, one that keeps LMGs from doing their job of suppressive fire. And it is missing for an obvious reason: FPS players aren't afraid of bullets or death like real soldiers are. Unlike in real life, FPS death is just a temporary affliction, usually one that lasts no more than 10 seconds. It's no wonder suppressive fire and the LMGs that are supposed to be delivering it are so ineffective in FPS games.

So how can suppressive fire, and the idea of "fear" be put into a multiplayer FPS game? And can it be done without reducing the fun of the game?

I've got three ideas that I've borrowed from other games.

#1 - Warhammer's Morale

Like fear, morale is another emotional concept that is absent from FPS games. In Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War, players were able to wittle down the morale of squads with certain weapons or spells. Once a squad's morale hit zero, the squad "broke" and became very ineffective. At this point, the player had little option but to take that squad and retreat it out of the battle, where its morale could regenerate back up.

In an FPS game, morale could work almost as a second kind of health bar. Once depleted, the player would be unable to fight (use any weapons of any kind) and be forced to find some kind of safer ground. And the #1 reducer of morale would be light machine gun fire. Now, the LMG fire wouldn't have to HIT the player, and I think that's important. The bullets would merely have to land near or whiz past the player in order to decrease their morale bar. In this way, the idea of "keeping the enemy's head down" with the sheer volume of fire of an LMG would be emulated.

Perhaps LMG bullets would create temporary "areas of emotional influence" depending on where they were going and where they impacted. If the target is near or inside these areas, morale depletes. Once morale is gone, the target must leave those areas, and regenerate morale a bit, in order to use weapons again.

While I would love to see this idea in an FPS game, I'm not sure if this would provide most players with a deeper game play experience... or a more annoying one. Having a "morale" bar, and one that can so drastically affect game play when it depletes, may slow the pace of the game too much for some.

#2 - Metal Gear Solid 4's Psyche

In MGS4, Solid Snake has a Psyche meter, which represents his psychological state. As it depletes, he becomes a less effective soldier. He moves slower, shoots and reloads slower, he controls weapon recoil less effectively, and when aiming a gun, his hands sway more. None of these negative effects are so disabling that you can't fight at all, though.

As above, being in proximity of LMG fire would have a negative impact on your soldier's Psyche. Low enough Psyche and your effectiveness becomes a bit less than what you'd normally have.

I like this idea the most because it is the most subtle. While it wouldn't recreate the idea of suppressive fire to the extent that I'd like, it is probably the most tolerable of the ideas for the mainstream FPS audience. It gives the LMG user that extra reason for being while not pissing off everyone else too much :-P

#3 - Company of Heroes' Suppression system

Finally, the COH system of suppression could be emulated in an FPS. Players who are taking LMG fire would first be suppressed, and forced to crouching or prone positions. Rate of fire would be reduced. This idea would probably be too frustrating for most people though. Like with the Morale idea, the flow of the game becomes too altered. Imagine being suppressed, forced to crouch and shoot slower as the LMG's teammates flank your position and open fire on you. The feeling of vulnerability would likely be too high and frustrating.

So those are my three ideas. What do you think? While I would love to see all three ideas in action, I think something like #2 is the most reasonable.

That being said, I also feel the likelihood of FPS fans ever seeing a well done suppressive fire system of any kind to be very low. FPS LMGs will probably continue their current "nearly useless" status for years to come, as there's no indication that any FPS developer has plans to emulate the "emotions" of war fighting that the suppressive fire tactic is designed to exploit. Without the emotional/psychological element in FPS games, suppressive fire is an idea that will continue to remain in the real world and in the dialogue of war movies.