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The FPShuffle

First the explanation. The FPShuffle is an emergent behavioural occurrence in first or 3rd person shooters. Perhaps you've experienced it at some point. Picture one player moving back and forth in a fairly unpredictable fashion shooting at every opportunity at a single opponent who is doing the same. Neither can cause enough damage to kill the other quickly. So this dance of sorts continues until someone runs away, gets lucky, or other factors intercede. 

FPShuffle at 50 seconds (lasts 16 seconds)


The reason I especially dislike the FPS Shuffle is because it's a goofy stalemate. Though it's not the worst thing that can happen in a shooter, when excessive FPShuffling is present a game begins to fall apart on the basic level. In other words, the function of mechanics fail to move the state of the game closer to the goal or a resulting state where the mechanics become functionally useful again. In such moments, the game may seem like a very different thing. Instead of focusing on actions like getting kills or moving into position, when FPShuffling, players desperately try to kill, yet no kills are made. Nothing really happens.

Now, I understand that "nothing really happens" is an exaggeration. Even if two players are locked in a stalemate situations in a multiplayer shooter, the rest of the players are still moving and changing the state of the game in numerous, emergent ways. At any point when FPShuffling, a teammate can step in and dynamically break up the dance. However, when I can't aim, shoot, and kill effectively in a shooter, there may be little I can do to contribute to the game in a meaningful (goal oriented) way. And that's a serious issue. Of course player skill and play styles are contributing factors, so let's lay everything out clearly.

The reason the FPShuffle occurs is a combination of these factors:

  • player skill: No matter how an FPS is designed, if two players aren't skilled enough the FPShuffle may occur. Also, if both players elect to dance about, that's their prerogative.
  • character movement: If the basic character movement is too fast/quick in an FPS, simply moving around can create a very hard target to hit requiring significant player skill to overcome. This includes moves like strafing, jet boosting, running, jumping, and context sensitive dives into cover.
  • aiming versatility: When you can't adjust your aim quickly/accurately enough to hit a target whether due to player settings, game limitations, or controller types the entire game system can be stressed. If you can't aim well, killing becomes that much harder. And if you can't kill, there goes most of the significant actions in a shooter. 
  • environmental cover: If there are too many objects to hide behind and sneak around in a 1v1 fire fight encounter, the opportunities to get a clear shot off are reduced. With the ability to do damage diminished, FPShulffing is more likely to occur.
  • weapon attributes: If a gun has a very slow fire rate a player may decide to dance around in the interim. After all, a still body in a shooter is an easy target. If a gun doesn't do enough damage quickly enough this next factor may come into play.
  • regenerating health: If one or both players are using guns with long firing/reload times, the player health may have time to regenerate  (if the game supports such a design). In such a case, player can recover health faster than they can do damage.
  • connection lag: In a match with significant lag issues, there is a disconnect between everything you do and everything you see. A target may appear to be standing right in front of you, but to the computer putting everything together, that target may have moved to another location. With lag issues, time, actions, and reactions can be very different for each player. The worst I've experienced was probably from Gears Of War. I lined up the reticle, fired, and a few seconds later the shot came out. By then the target had moved. In our feeble attempts to kill each other, we FPShuffled madly.


Beyond adjusting the above factors in attempt to reduce the amount of FPShuffling in a shooter, there are other creative solutions.

  • Metroid Prime 2: Echoes - Lock On - Like in the single player game, the multiplayer in Metroid Prime 2 features a lock on mechanic. One way to break lock is to go into morph ball. A player in morphball form can't fight back at medium to long range. Therefore, when in morphball it's a good strategy to run away while covering your retreat with bombs. In this situation, the other player can either pursue the morph ball player through the bomb traps or free aim in attempt to destroy the target before it escapes. If both players lock on, it's a fight to the death unless someone decides to run. With the lock on mechanic and the accompanying interplay, the FPShuffle is converted into a style of play where kills or chases are the norm.
  • Section 8 - Lock On - To counteract the lack of aiming accuracy in a game that's designed for a play style somewhere between a PC and a console shooter, the designers at Timegate came up with a innovative lock on mechanic. On the most basic level, once you zoom in on an enemy, you can lock onto them. When locked on, the aiming reticle is fixed to the target no matter how quickly it moves. All the while, the lock on timer ticks down. Once out, the player must rely on free aiming. The point is to get the kill before you run out of lock on time. If both players run out of lock on, then the probability of FPShuffling increases significantly especially on the console. After all, hitting a highly mobile player that uses any combination of their super run or jet pack mechanics can be very difficult.
  • Halo3 - slow movement, aim assist, power weapons, splash damage - Bungie really knew what they were doing when they made the Halo series. Console analog sticks fundamentally change player aiming mechanics. Quick, accurate, and fine tuned adjustments are harder to pull off using a console analog stick compared to a mouse. So instead of designing an FPS around hitting fast moving targets, they slowed the motion of Master Chief on the ground and in the air. The slower movements coupled with the aim assist allows players to hit each other more easily than they can dodge each other. Add in some power weapons that can kill in a hit or two (Snipe, Shotgun, Rocket, Sword, Hammer, etc) and the FPShuffle is mostly removed from play.
  • The beauty of Halo's design starts with the core mechanics. Guns compress 3D space allowing players to interact over long distances. Melee attacks are for close quarters. While connecting this high damaging attack, the player will lunge forward which helps to simplify the 3D space just around the player (which can be the most awkward in a first person game) in addition to briefly locking the player's perspective on the target. Lastly, the grenades are a timed attack for medium to long rang that move through 3D space in an entirely unique way (design space wise). Because grenades can arc, they can travel up over structures. Because grenades bounce, they can be angled around corners. And because the grenades have splash damage, you don't have to land a direct hit to deal effective damage. So, you can use grenades to keep players back, flush players out, or, with a preemptive throw, set up a layered attack. And if the target tries to jump over the blast, Halo's floaty jump makes the target more predictable thus ending a possible FPShuffle. See examples here.
  • Perfect Dark - slow movement, low health, stop to aim - For this N64 game the player only has one analog stick to move or shoot (on the default control scheme). There's also no jumping either. So, all of your opponents will be traveling fairly slowly along the ground. To aid players, the auto aim feature adjust one's aim toward the chests of targets. Perfect Dark also has a low health design. In general, two shots to the head is fatal. To aim at the head or any point outside of where the auto aim is positioned, players must hold R to stop moving and free aim. All of these design elements together facilitate encounters that end fairly quickly in either a western style quick draw or with one player in pursuit. If players do dance in the FPShuffle due to additional factors like weapon types and/or shield for added health, the encounter will most likely be converted into another type (chase and pursuit).
  • Call Of Duty 4 - low health/powerful weapons - In a system where a few bullets will kill and you can die before you realize you're in danger, being able to move quickly or under the cover of smoke isn't enough to produce many FPShuffle scenarios. In the blink of an eye where you can be dead or victorious, dancing never crosses your mind.


On a final note, some games have more complex versions of the FPShuffle. From my experience, sliding into cover and rolling in Gears Of War can create a different kind of dance. Games like this and Shadow Run have to be careful about their design if they want to make their games more functional and accessible to a wider range of gamers. If you're the kind of gamer that likes the FPShuffle, let me know. 

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Reader Comments (6)

This reminds me of those awkward times in TF2 where you and another guy are trying to melee each other to death, but neither of you seem to be able to hit each other despite your frenzied flailing. I it's sort of embarrassing in a weird way, I always think to myself jokingly 'Man, I hope no one saw that.'

Counter-Strike actually makes a lot of design decisions which help minimize this kind of behavior, and two that stood out to me as not really being represented in your list is the games 'hit stun' mechanic and by dynamically changing the accuracy(bullet spread) based on player movement.(This is similar to no aiming while moving in Perfect Dark, but different)

Hit 'Stun' - When you get shot, your movement speed is drastically reduced for a moment. This makes it much much harder to move behind cover, making most gunfights lethal.

Precision is important in all FPSs but I think it is more important in Counter-Strike for which the 'headshot' is so iconic. I think this is a result of the high lethality and effective range of almost all weapons and the 'one life' round structure. CS uses this emphasis as a way to make the increase the cost of moving around and incentivize standing still/crouching. The game is also downright hostile to anyone who has the nerve to fire their gun while shooting; they aren't going to hit anything except out of pure luck.

November 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan Sheets

@ Jonathan Sheets

Great follow up. I'm glad you brought up the precision/accuracy design feature of CS. I knew such elements were a part of the game, but with my very limited experience with the game, I didn't know how it affected strategies and player behavior.

Hit stun is something that I wanted to bring up about Perfect Dark that I ended up cutting for brevity. In Perfect Dark, higher caliber bullets actually push targets around. If you have an assault rifle and you unload on a target running straight at you, you can actually pin them against the wall with the force of your shots. Likewise, if you hit someone on the side of their body (like the shoulder) you can actually jar/rotate their aim in that direction.

I love the idea of hit stun in many different types of games from fighters to shooters especially for the organic push/pull interplay it creates.

November 3, 2009 | Registered CommenterRichard Terrell (KirbyKid)

@Jonathan Sheets - I agree, great comments!

Its not an FPS, but I would love these shooters to learn from that tank combat game in Wii Play. The slow moving shots, bouncing, and shot cancelling were very fun. The open source BZFlag has some similar features too, but third person.

November 5, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBryan Rosander

This article is great, I really enjoy reading it. Categorizing the situation where this behavioural occurrence appears is also a good idea. However, I feel like all your thoughts have been built on console experiences. I was wondering if the FPSshuffle behaviour wasn't a typical console players phenomenon ? Because of the controller (such pad) that players use, it has been always easier to move quickly to dodge attacks than aim accurately and deadly his opponent. CS is a typical PC FPS game that were born from the heritage of mod such as "Action XXX" - Action Quake, Action HF, etc. (one or two bullet from any weapons could killed you or bleed you dry). These game structures are the opposite of game like Quake 2, Quake 3 Arena, or Unreal Tournament series where rocket jump, jumper, gravity forces, speed modifier, were major elements of the game. I think these elements help to create FPSshuffle behaviours...

My first encounter with FPSshuffle was probably in Quake 2. I was used to play keyboard only at the beginning (because of my Duke Nukem 3D, Blood, Shadow Warrior, etc.), and my only (poor) advantage was my fast moves which helped me to dodge some deadly weapons such rail gun (sniper-like without scope). Nevertheless, my accuracy was bad compared with other "mouse players", and I've stopped playing only with my keyboard.

I agree FPSshuffle is due to some gameplay structure and game design. However, I believe FPSshuffle can also occur on account of controller devices used by the player. Playing a FPS game with a pad won't develop the same behaviour and performance than with a keyboard + mouse, or any kind of different devices... I can't really prove it, that is just a point of view based on my own experience, but I dream to compare different groups of FPS players to analyse how they play according to their controller (a group of Xbox player, of PC, of PS3, of Wii). Do you know if such an experiment has been done yet?

Sorry for these long lines, but your article was very inspiring ! ;)

November 6, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSimon

@ Simon

You're right. Most of my shooter experience comes from consoles. I've played some PC shooters, but I mainly have to talk to others to complete the picture.

I don't know if any kind of study has been done on the behavioral patterns in a shooter based on controller type. Perhaps with the controllers and a FPS to mod, you could do all of your own research.

I'm glad you liked the article. Good luck.

November 6, 2009 | Registered CommenterRichard Terrell (KirbyKid)

From your examples it really sounds like the source of your problem with the FPS Shuffle is inadequate controls rather then the shuffle itself.

In everything from Doom, Unreal Tournament, and Quake, to the Halo series, dodging maneuvers and shuffling are prominent and can add a lot of depth to combat. Victory becomes not just about how accurate you are and how well you control map resources, but also how well you can dodge.

There are a lot of potential mind games to FPS shuffles. As long as the controls are accurate enough, you can recognize habits, patterns, and tendencies of the opponent and capitalize on them. Once you notice your friend always zags to the left after a jump, or zigs right on sight of a grenade, they become ripe for headshots until they learn to vary their patterns. A less experienced player who doesn't know the weapons or maps as well can survive against a superior player if he can get inside the opponent's head and do the opposite of what they're expecting. It's a lot like the kind of mindgames you see in fighting games.

Where I tend to notice this sort of play really break down is in stuff like early console games, handhelds, and the like with limited control setups which don't really give players a fair chance to hit each other. Another occasional problem is weapons which are simply too inaccurate or too weak to bring a kill within a reasonable amount of time - a firefight involving a pair of infamously-underpowered items like the Halo 2 SMG can cause stalemates regardless of how much shuffling is going on, or how well the players aim.

Lastly, while FPS shuffle can enhance gameplay in a fantasy shooter, it could be a totally undesired behavior in a military shooter like Arma or Red Orchestra, which aims to realistically replicate human movement capabilities. The simple answer here, is that it's all about replicating momentum and inertia. The shuffle isn't enabled by the avatar's top walk/run speed, it's enabled by his/her ability to accelerate from one direction to the opposite direction too quickly. Introduce more inertia, and now players can't jerk side-to-side so erratically.

I've seen paintball and laser tag players attempt the "FPS Shuffle" in real life, and while it does work a little bit, it's not nearly as quick as you see in videogames, and its efficacy is heavily bolstered by the slow velocity of paintballs, and the low per-hit damage in most laser tag rules.

November 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGnalvl

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