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Most folks who've played FPS games would have noticed that the same weapons tend to reappear again and again, such as machine guns and shotguns. There was once a lot of innovation in the types of weapons in the genre's early days (see Duke Nukem 3D or Unreal Tournament for example), but in recent years the weapons tend to be cosmetic variations on a few standard types (warning: tvtropes link).

Why has this happened? I believe a large reason is that these standard guns serve distinct gameplay roles or purposes, so that even if they are replaced with a gun that is named differently or looks different, they act almost the same. If so, what are these roles, and could they be replaced with a gun that acted differently? For example, is it possible to replace the shotgun with something that was not semi-automatic, or fired a burst of pellets, without affecting the role?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ As a counterpoint, there are games that have automatic shotguns, as well as games that don't have sniper rifles. Quake 3, for example, has the rail gun but it isn't a "sniper rifle" in the traditional sense of the word, although fulfills similar gameplay purposes. \$\endgroup\$ – Tetrad Jun 23 '14 at 17:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ PainKiller also has a bunch of unique weapons painkiller.wikia.com/wiki/Weapons \$\endgroup\$ – Tetrad Jun 23 '14 at 18:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ They also don't have much choice. There are only so many types of hand-held non-explosive-firing weapon and with "machine gun, shotgun, sniper", you've already enumerated all the general types I can think of, save for pistols and assault rifles. \$\endgroup\$ – Anko Jun 23 '14 at 21:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Anko I disagree; Tetrad mentioned automatic shotguns, there could also be rapid fire "sniper rifles" such as the lightning gun in Quake, but for whatever reason they are far, far less common than the standard types I mentioned. \$\endgroup\$ – congusbongus Jun 24 '14 at 4:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 this is a really good question about the purpose served behind different types of weapons in FPS games. \$\endgroup\$ – ashes999 Jun 24 '14 at 13:53
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Part of the reason has to do with the simple fact that games favoring real, or plausibly realistic, guns are currently popular right now (perhaps owing to the success of similar games). That reason is a bit anthropological in nature, so I won't comment on it further.

Another large part is, as you said, these guns basically fulfil key mechanical roles:

  • An assault rifle or machine gun acts as a short-to-mid range general-purpose weapon. A very high rate of fire is generally balanced by weak single-impact damage poor long-range performance, and high kick or recoil.
  • A sniper rifle serves as a long-range, high-damage pinpoint weapon. A slow rate of fire generally compensates for its power, and its scoping ability discourages close-range use due to the significant decrease in immediate situational awareness.
  • A shotgun is a "trench" weapon, a short-range "panic button" that does lots of damage, but only in close quarters, and only for a short time before an extensive reload period.

Examining those mechanical properties, then, one could certainly see how it might be possible to replace the guns in those roles.

  • In a game that does not need to adhere to plausible reality, one could simply invent totally new weapons or devices that provided the same mechanics. This was done, for example, with the weaponry in "Hexen" and games of its ilk, which used magic or magical artifacts since guns did not fit the setting. This is less viable in games that have guns; players will tend to categorize them in the ways above regardless of what you actually call them in-game, since real-world analogies (and habit) are more natural.

  • In a game that does have realistic guns, then, one might be able to reasonably swap one or two properties around between the various archetypes to mix things up without causing too much trouble with suspension of disbelief.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ A good and analytical answer, but I would love it, if you could add an interpretation of games like Unreal Tournament or even Half-Life (Gravity Gun), that adds totally new roles of weaponry to the equation, while still maintaining balancing. \$\endgroup\$ – Kronos Jun 24 '14 at 17:45
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Why has this happened?

This HASN'T happened.

Duke Nukem 3D and Unreal Tournament (to use your examples) were creative games, both were trying lots of exciting new things, in new themes, in new ways.

But most other games from those eras weren't doing that.

Quake 1, for example, had a pistol and a shotgun and a machine gun and a rocket launcher and etc. So did Doom. So did Quake 2. So did Sin. So did Half Life. So did Wolf3D. So did Marathon. So did System Shock. So did Dark Forces.

Yes, a few old FPS games were inventive in their creation of bizarre new types of weaponry, but they were far and away the exception: the vast majority of older FPS games were pedestrian in their weaponry, using standard weapon tropes which roughly evoked real-world weaponry.

In the same way, the vast majority of modern FPS games are using these familiar weapon tropes, but there are a few creative and inventive modern games experimenting with new ideas (for example, Painkiller or Bulletstorm), exactly the same way that Unreal Tournament and Duke Nukem 3D experimented way back then.

There are good reasons to use common weapon tropes, instead of inventing new weapon types. They're familiar to players. They're easy to design. Players don't have to be taught how or when to use them; players already know them from all the other games they've played, or from a general familiarity with pop culture. I think I'd be shocked if they weren't the most common weapon designs across all eras of video gaming.

Which isn't to say that new weapon types aren't fun. They're just a little more challenging and time-consuming to get right, and require more explanation to teach players how and when to best use them. And if that's not what your game is fundamentally about, then I can understand why somebody might want to focus their design efforts somewhere a little more interesting than on which bullet blows up when and how big the resulting explosion is to be.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm not sure if Half-Life deserves to be in that list. It has the basic types of weapons, but if you ask people what the most exciting weapons in those games were, they're unlikely to be the answer. The most iconic weapons in Half-Life are the Crowbar and Gravity Gun, for example. (And that's probably how a lot of games experiment, too. Having some basics and then adding some unique stuff on top.) \$\endgroup\$ – Erik Jun 2 '18 at 11:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ I would argue that there was nothing unique about the crowbar apart from the model; melee weapons had been in FPS games since the original Wolfenstein 3D’s knife. The gravity gun was an original design, yes, but wasn’t in the original Half Life game or era that we’re talking about. The original Half-Life’s more creative weapons were mostly alien tech like the Hive Hand and Snark. Yes, they existed, but they were definitely the extreme minority. \$\endgroup\$ – Trevor Powell Jun 2 '18 at 14:43
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Aside from Josh's answer you have to keep in mind something else: players know what each of these weapons does. If I pick up a sniper rifle I know what I can probably do with it (shoot long distances, scope) and when I pick up a shotgun I also know to use it on shorter distances. If these weapons are replaced by say a deathRay and a doomshooter I might not know what each of these weapons know making life harder on newbies.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 this is a sad but true trade-off: you change the standards potentially increasing creativity/immersion but at a usability cost (needs to be learned now). \$\endgroup\$ – ashes999 Jun 24 '14 at 13:55
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Forget the names, think of them as roles.

You have weapons optimized for short, medium and long range. For the sake of gameplay you don't want to allow any of them to be superior over more than it's intended range or you'll end up simply killing off the other options.

Pistols aren't used because you never carry a pistol into battle unless you don't have a choice. They are categorically inferior to all the standard weapon types and only exist for use by those whose actual odds of using them are remote. (Law enforcement, self defense, aircraft crew etc.)

You can have a game where they can fire other things (I'm thinking of XCOM and it's ilk) but that does not change their fundamental nature.

What other direct-fire weapon could exist without replacing one of these three?

Note that this does not mean there can't be things other than direct fire weapons. While I'm not a FPS player I've seen many people playing them and grenades are common. I've also seen rocket launchers. Rocket launchers always have to be ammunition-limited to keep them from eliminating the machine gun and sniper rifle roles.

Again, you can put different things in your grenades, they're normally still grenades. (Although one variation exists in this--I'm thinking of XCOM games with some friendly-safe grenades.)

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Perhaps you might like a slingshot? Or maybe a bow and arrow? Exactly how many weapons are there anyway? How about a potato gun? Choice of weapons need to be selected for play ability, realism, and any other factors included in the game.

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