Where Have All the Arena First-Person Shooters Gone?

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Where Have All the Arena First-Person Shooters Gone?

ESTNN's Phillip Miner takes a look at a recent trend in gaming – the lack of new Arena FPS games.

First-person shooters (FPSs) are undoubtedly a popular game genre, in both esports and beyond. Within esports, the dominant FPS games are Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and the Call of Duty franchise. Apex Legends also takes place in first-person, and Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds also has a first-person mode. Even outside of esports, FPSs are still popular, and with so many FPS games out there right now it’s almost impossible to keep track.

In the FPS genre, however, there’s one trend that is extremely surprising. That trend is the decline of the Arena FPS. By Arena FPS, I’m talking about FPS games that have two defining aspects: a focus on arcade-style action instead of realism that rewards high levels of skill and tight-knit multiplayer fun. Sure, one could make the case that games like Call of Duty fit that bill, especially the multiplayer-only Black Ops 4. However, to narrow this Arena FPS field down even further, I’m going to use two examples that pretty much created this subgenre of FPS in the first place – the Quake franchise, and the Unreal Tournament franchise.

Quake and Unreal – the First Arena FPS games

Quake, by id Software, and Epic Games Unreal Tournament were the first two game franchises to create games that were specifically focused on multiplayer action. Both franchises had their multiplayer-specific games come out in 1999 – Quake 3 Arena and Unreal Tournament. These franchises had gameplay that was anything but realistic, with weapons such as rocket launchers, plasma guns and other high-tech items and power-ups that made great players unstoppable. Furthermore, the movement systems of these AFPSs placed an emphasis on speed and skill as opposed to realism. Rocket jumping (using the blast radius of rockets and other explosive weapons to propel yourself) and CPMA (Challenge Pro Mode Arena) movement made their debuts during the early days of the Arena FPS.

There are games in the AFPS genre besides those two franchises, of course. The Halo series is one example, with weapons that were slightly more realistic than Quake but also with a science-fiction flair. The Tribes series is another, which had a very unique movement system known as skiing. One could say that, in some ways, the AFPS genre was esports ready. Yet by the time esports started to become big, the AFPS was unexpectedly on its way out.

The Current State of the Arena FPS

The AFPS genre is presently nowhere near as popular as it used to be. Quake Champions is the latest in the Quake series, but that game came out all the way back in 2017. While that game isn’t officially dead (the developers released an update earlier this week), the player count isn’t anywhere near Call of Duty or CS:GO levels, with an average of 1,000 players active at any given time. By comparison, CS:GO has half a million active players. Meanwhile, Epic Games started development of Unreal Tournament 4 and released its alpha was released in 2017. Unfortunately, that game was officially canceled in 2018  while Epic moved its development resources and teams to the ever more popular Fortnite.

That certainly hasn’t kept newcomers to the game development scene from trying to capitalize on AFPS nostalgia. That said, they haven’t had much success. Splitgate: Arena Warfare, a game that combines the AFPS feel of Halo with the portal mechanics of Valve’s Portal game series, was popular when it first came out. It even cracked over 10,000 active players when it first launched. However, that number has significantly dwindled since then. The active player count is now below the total for Quake Champions. And Diabotical, a hotly anticipated “Quake killer,” has been in development for at least four years but still isn’t publicly available to play, in Early Access or otherwise.

Why Did Arena FPS games Decline?

It’s honestly hard to say what caused the decline of the AFPS. There were a variety of factors at play, from bad timing to some low-quality games and beyond. The Call of Duty: Modern Warfare games came out at just the right time when the esports scene to really take off. That franchise (alongside similar games like the Counter-Strike series) capitalized on the esports revolution at a time when fans were starting to perceive AFPS games as old-fashioned.

There is the modern-day perception of AFPS games being a “niche” genre that only appeals to a specific kind of gamer. That line of thought certainly doesn’t help matters. Also, the AFPS crowd can be quite mercurial. While there are plenty of AFPS players who play these games purely for fun and don’t care for drama, there is a segment of this crowd that is very vocal about the flaws of the present-day games of the genre.

That said, there is still hope for the AFPS genre. While no one is ever expecting this subgenre to reclaim its former popularity and glory at this point, the scene is still alive. ESL Gaming still runs online tournaments for Quake Champions to this day. And there are still developers creating, updating and maintaining AFPS games of their own, such as the aforementioned Diabotical and Splitgate: Arena Warfare. The AFPS may still be a “niche” genre well into the foreseeable future, but at least developers are keeping the dream alive, even if only on a small scale.

Phillip Miner
Phillip has been a freelance writer covering video games for over a decade. He's had video game articles published in places from local newspapers to The Escapist. Call of Duty has been a passion of his since the first Black Ops. You can learn more about Phillip on our About page.