Writing Sample: The Doctrine: Improving Your Performance at First-Person Shooters (excerpt)

Chapter 1: Introduction

There are a lot of reasons why you might want to become better at first-person shooter or FPS video games. You can become better at learning and executing strategy. Perhaps it’s just satisfying to be good at it. Hey, maybe you’d like to become one of the lucky few good enough to be a professional. Who knows – it has to happen to someone, right?

Whatever your motivations are, becoming better at a first-person shooter video game today requires a new form of practice, self-organization and motivation. To be a professional, you have to act professional and have professional skills. This is difficult; FPS games have only been around for less than twenty years at time of writing. There are no schools, coaches, minor leagues or general methodologies to inform even the casual player. As a result, what we are faced with is the need to develop is a methodology for learning and adapting and growing as an FPS player.

Inside this book, you’ll find a set of working terms that you can use to develop your team, your group of friends, or just any lucky random player who happens to be in the same game lobby as you. We’ll set forth some basic concepts and get clear on some frequently misunderstood issues. We’ll include some specific tips and tactics that you can use immediately to improve your own play. And finally, we’ll tell you how to build a clan of FPS players to lead.

There’s a lot to say about FPS play, and a lot of very expert people who can say it. The biggest hurdle to overcome is fixed thinking. There is more than one way to do things, even something as simple as an FPS game! Thus, the aim of this book is not presenting some preset plan or strategy, but rather setting forth the constraints of online strategy, as well as the intellectual and organizational tools to develop strategies and tactics that work for you.

Basic Principles

We’ll start with the basics, to establish a common working vocabulary. First person shooter combat can be defined as consisting of three simple components:


As players, we develop and enact general and specific strategy through coordinated fire and movement. We define general strategy as the pre-emptive practices (teams, partnerships, individual practices) and behaviors (checking corners, movement to contact, “camping”) that players have in all their matches. In general, this type of knowledge is taken to be generally accepted and known, or at least not written down. What most players tend to have instead of general strategies are what we term specific strategies, plans for particular maps or forms of play (“run to the edge and check a corner”, “find a dark corner and wait for someone to run by”). These are fragments of the whole – without an overall grasp on why we do what we do, we don’t really have a real strategy per se.

A well-defined modern tradition discusses real military combat, and the rules and conduct thereof. However, we need to develop new terms specific to FPS combat because we need strategy for a game that is only a representation of real gun combat. Although many features are cross-applicable, a truly productive and effective strategy for FPS needs its own native theory and vocabulary.

Do Not Attempt This In Real Life, Gunshot Wounds May Result.
One of the first things you should realize is that real life military strategy does not always apply. Just because a strategy works in real life does not mean that it works in a video game context. Combined-arms strategy, for instance, is a real-life military concept that emphasizes combined engagement distances and coordination of multiple forms of weapon systems in order to deliver lethal, pre-emptive kinetic damage.

Despite sounding appealing, combined-arms doctrine does not translate well to video games, where the average lifetime a player is often simply too short to effectively work as an arm of a highly coordinated team. Moreover, teams composed of only a single set of weapons – say, the single most powerful weapon in the game – are often more effective because they use a simple, highly adaptable plan (“Find a way to kill it with the BFG”) and can function well even after taking heavy casualties.

Pervasive, persistent strategic errors in video games happen when people try to misapply the rules of real life armed combat. It should go without saying that the opposite will occur, and probably with potentially life-threatening consequences. Indeed, the notion of “life” is one of the first things we have to get through.

A note on life and killing
We’ll use the terms “life”, “death” and “kill” throughout this book so much that at least a short explanatory note is worth it. A “life” is simply the duration of your play in an FPS; it’s how long you get to run around and try to “kill” people. “Killing” people, here, means simply that you inflict imaginary damage with a notional gun on a player character sufficient to remove them from play. They no longer get to run around and try to “kill” you.

This will look incredibly bad sometimes if taken out of context – for instance, consider how the sentence “kill everyone in the room until you die, then come back and kill them again” would sound if your religious beliefs included reincarnation. However, it’s simply unwieldy to quote it every time, so we’ll trust in the not-so-gentle reader’s maturity here to caution: We’re talking about video games here. It should go without saying: Unless you are a state-sponsored and -authorized agent of legitimate violence like a policeman or soldier, please, do not actually kill anyone.

In a video game, your “life” only has one purpose: To temporarily end the play of other, equally skilled, equally well-equipped FPS players. Your “life” in an FPS has no other value, and if you’re not getting kills, you need to either change positions or “kill” yourself and get a re-spawn somewhere you can.

This is counter-intuitive enough to mention because in real life, humans don’t want to become casualties in order to inflict casualties upon other human beings. Most sane people just won’t go that far. Besides, it doesn’t work: History is full of notable exceptions of people who have behaved in real life as if it were an FPS game, being willing to die to inflict damage upon other humans. The results have almost uniformly been disastrous.

This difference has important implications on our basic strategy. Put simply, your “life” has no other purpose than “killing”. Much contemporary military strategy is based on the concept of force security, or in common parlance, keeping your guys alive. This basic assumption – that you want to keep your soldiers alive – drives a lot of basic military strategy. Military concepts like elite troops, aid stations, reinforcement and holding actions all assume – and quite rightly so – that the life of the individual soldier is worth saving, conserving and developing. Generals have become famous and storied heroes by successfully retreating and saving their soldiers (George Washington is a classic example).

In video game strategy, “force security” is far, far less important. Near-suicidal strategies such as running around the map at full tilt attempting to find the enemy’s flank – a “rush” – are often highly effective. The moral dimension of the “life” in video game terms is something more like a flag in touch football – a token which, if taken, removes the player from play. Where real combat has real life as its stakes, video game combat has only players’ dignity at stake.

Now, there are very legitimate circumstances where you might want to be very careful with your video game “life”. Zero-sum games (where score cannot be obtained by the enemy except by killing you), playing a sniper role, being the sole survivor of a massacred team or just being a perpetual soloist by choice are all examples of very valid reasons to preserve life. However, in all cases, killing – removing other players from play – is the purpose of the “life”. Here lies the reason why we’re discussing “lives”.

Perhaps you’ve had this experience: Some enthusiastic player who’s watched a few too many military shows on TV plays your game, gets panicky and start spewing out military jargon about “flanking” and “falling back” while you’re trying to kick back playing an FPS. Why is this so annoying? Because we all recognize that it is absurd that someone would consider an FPS game to be a panicky life-or-death fight where one must protect one’s buddies and brothers.

Whether consciously or not, you’ve recognized, just like everyone else that’s played a video game, that virtual “lives” in video game play really don’t mean squat except a chance to play and participate. Indeed, because “life” has multiple meanings – “the amount of time you get to run around and shoot other players” as well as “the things that you do in your life” – it’s not really the best term to use for what’s basically a duration of player-killing opportunity but hey, it’s what we have.

We can certainly apply and adapt real life strategies to video game combat – indeed, this will be a central methodological feature of this book – but the serious player of video games should realize that games, by themselves, have a strategic dimension which is independent of real life logic and strategy. That is, just because it’s a good idea in real life, it doesn’t mean you should (or even can) apply it in an FPS game.

So if the FPS game is separate and detached from real life, then why even play at all? Why learn anything at all? It’s a good question, and it has an answer important enough that it deserves to be set aside. The answer is this:

The reason why you should play video games is that it teaches you how to use strategy and learning to win contests of will.

Becoming wise through playing games – in other words truly becoming a player of games, and not just a gamer – requires the knowledge to recognize the essence of a strategic situation. You must be able to recognize, in any given strategic situation, the priorities to maximize, the result quantities to maximize (e.g. kills, scores, survival) and those to minimize (e.g. deaths, flag losses, territorial losses), the resources at hand and the details of opposition – and then, recognizing these, formulate and apply a winning stratagem. These skills will take you a lot further than just video games. It just so happens, however, that video games are an easy and accessible way to learn them, and so video games have a value just as much as any other form of play like chess, parcheesi or flag football. You will fail, and you will be frustrated, and if you mean to become good, you will have to overcome, and you will not be able to help it but you will grow as a person while you are doing so. The terms and ideas you learn in this book will help.

Ready? Here we go.

Chapter 2: Basic Strategic Priorities

The first thing to get clear on is what exactly our strategic priorities are. Generally, in most FPS games, it’s simple: Increase a numerical score, either through accomplishment of certain objectives, or through killing other players.

Let’s discuss killing other players for a moment. In most FPS combat, from the perspective of the final score, killing other people is as important as, if not more important than, surviving. In other words, killing is more important than living in an FPS. Just living does not add to your score. Killing other players does.

We should be very clear on this reward structure, so let’s use an example. Imagine a simplified free-for-all deathmatch game which counts kills against deaths; you get 1 point for each kill, if you die you get 0 points, and there’s no other way to get points. (This is a common format for many popular tactical games.) We’ll further posit a time limit – say, ten minutes – after which all the kills and deaths are counted as well as a team size of, let’s say, five each. After a ten minute game, two players on each team on the final scoreboard look like this:

Player: Score Ratio Kills Deaths
Adam 100 1:1 10 10
Bob 50 5:1 5 1
Yves 200 2:3 20 30
Zachary 60 1:2 6 12

First, let’s consider Adam’s performance versus Yves. Adam played carefully, killing 10 people and dying ten times in the process. Some lives, Adam didn’t kill anyone; other lives, Adam managed to kill one or two, which evens him out to an average of 1:1. By most standards, this is fairly decent, or at least average play.

Yves, on the other hand, went 20 kills/30 deaths, blundering about smashing into whomever he could. This cost him dying 30 times; and if we assume a zero-sum game (where the only way that you can get kills is by making someone else die), then he created a substantial liability for his team. Ignore that for a moment: just look at his “killing” performance. He killed twice as many people as Adam, and died three times as much. Although he was incredibly reckless, this paid off; his score is twice as much as Adam’s. As an individual player, this reckless approach was in fact very rational and it turned out to be decently successful for Yves.

Now consider Bob versus Zachary for a moment. Let’s assume for the sake of discussion that Bob was a sniper; that 5:1 kills:death ratio states starkly the fact that Bob is good at killing and getting away, or at least killing from an unanswerable location. By most accounts, Bob is a pretty good sniper; he kills five people for every time he dies, in fact. Now, this does not mean that he can be expected to kill five people on average for every time he is alive – he may have killed two people, died once, then killed three people, for instance. But it works out to about a 5:1 ratio on average – not bad for a sniper.

Zachary, in contrast, is a rushing madman, zipping around and trying to surprise people. He dies twice for every time he kills someone. Yet here, again, he’s outscored the careful, professional Bob, with six kills to Bob’s five. He’s died 12 times, sure, but remember – deaths don’t decrease your score.

What Yves and Zachary’s scores show is that a strategy which maximizes killing enemies, even at the cost of taking heavy casualties oneself, even at the cost of exposing oneself and one’s teammates to increased danger of death, makes sense. And as Bob the Sniper shows, if you try to limit your exposure to danger by following simple sniper doctrine, often the result can be a decrease in score.

The argument against
Now, the idea that rushing around always makes sense is not an unanswerable argument. You could argue that staying alive creates the opportunity to kill, so a cautious approach should pay off better (particularly if the respawn once you die is delayed). In team games, staying alive prevents the enemy team from gaining points from your death – making staying alive as important if not more important than killing. But these are only modifications on our essential point, which is that “life” in a video game does not mean what “life” does in, well, real life.

Here is the basic principle, fairly obvious though perhaps phrased in a surprising way to deal with this (fairly good) argument: From the viewpoint of strategy, staying alive is only worthwhile to the extent that it allows you (and your team) to kill.

So, now you may think: “Fine, we’ve established that I’m only running around to shoot – after all, all that the game gives me is legs and a gun floating around in front of my eyes. So what does this all mean in practice?”

In practice, this means the following:

Relax. It’s not about you. Don’t take it personally. It’s not your life. Getting killed and losing is the only way to learn. When someone else kills you, your focus should not be on feeling angry, or taking revenge, but rather on learning from the experience. Relax, take a deep breath and say to yourself: “How could I have avoided dying right there?”. Then internalize that idea, and get ready to do some killing once you respawn. This is very important. If there’s one lesson you take from this book that will improve your play, this is it: Stay calm and learn while you play. It will improve your play!

It’s not how long you stay alive – it’s how many people you kill. This should be fairly simple by now – you want points from being aggressive and creating kill opportunities, while living as long as possible. What you don’t want is less points, either from less opportunity to kill through dying more often or simply from not killing.

Live at the points of domination. The “point of domination”, a term from close-quarters battle (CQB) doctrine, refers to a location within a room from which the entire room can be effectively covered. Since conventional CQB doctrine is geared towards battles that only happen once and rarely last longer than a few minutes, the notion of cover and permanence is not often mentioned. FPS games happen over and over, a lot, on the same maps, and the points of domination are clearly defined – you can probably think of one right on your favorite FPS map if you think about it. The battle is invariably shaped around these points, and it’s at these points that your attention should constantly be focused.

To maximize efficiency, always move towards, or stay in positions to kill other players. Other than cursorial (hunting and following) or search-and-destroy oriented games, it is most efficient to move amongst and occupy firing positions – places where you know there’s obstructions to the enemy shooting at you, and a position where you can kill from without effective reprisal.

If you’re not killing where you are, figure out where the enemy is and move. You can get kills back by aggressively moving towards contact – but you can’t get time back. Thus, if you’re sitting somewhere, twiddling your thumbs and wondering where the enemy are, figure out and go kill them. Spending time figuring out the enemy’s location might be a waste of time, but simply waiting in a low-traffic or no-traffic position is definitely a complete waste of time. Even very advantageous positions – elevated camping spots far above where people would look, for instance – are fundamentally worthless if no one ever walks by and allows you to shoot them.

Maximize your readiness to “make the kill decision”. All hesitation must be removed from your mental process of identifying an enemy, centering it in your view, putting your crosshairs on it and taking it out. This means acquaint yourself closely with your visual environment and strip down your decision-making to its most simple so that it’s more robust and easy-to-remember in a fight. Your first thought when you see something moving should not be “Will it kill me?” – it should be “How do I kill it?”

“In the absence of orders, find something and kill it.” Erwin Rommel’s advice is as valuable and true today as it was in World War II. In real life, fighting positions tend to be where most of the actual fighting occurs; however, since life is worth less in FPS, it’s much more worth it to risk your life to leave your position if no one’s there and try and get some kills, particularly if you’re not doing anything else in-game. Or, put a little more trenchantly a lot earlier by Fred the Great, “Dogs, do you want to live forever?”

Chapter 3: General Strategic Givens

When developing a workable strategy for yourself or for others, there are certain common limitations and abilities which players have, which are simply intrinsic to the medium. You can’t have an FPS game without having certain constraints. Indeed, the constraints are arguably what defines a game as being an FPS, or RTS, or MMORPG, or whatever.

There are several unique constraints to FPS play that you are probably aware of, but only sub-consciously. Let’s make these explicit.

Imagine you have no arms, no feet, no body. You can’t feel anything and you can’t smell anything. You can only float around above the ground about five feet up. You only have one body part, an arm in front of you that always points straight out at the center of your vision. You can only see in a rectangle in front of you. You are, essentially, a giant eyeball with blinders on, with an arm in front of it, floating above the ground. No thumbs, no mouth, no skin, no bones, just an arm and an eyeball.

This is your situation as an FPS character. Some of the seemingly obvious and unrewarding aspects of this situation actually have some interesting and not at all obvious implications.

Vision, and only vision. You and your guys can only act based on what you can see, and more rarely, hear. Hearing is limited, smell is (thankfully) absent, and there is no sense of motion or touch to inform you as to what may be going on in the notional FPS world. This means you must look at the most critical portions of your environment, as well as constantly making sure you’re looking at the right thing. In fact, since looking is your primary form of interaction, you’re always thinking about where you’re looking. Looking right is your first job.

Limited viewport. The viewport is the amount of the environment that a player can see. Typically, players can see about 45 degrees to either side of their center of their screen, with exceptions for certain widescreen or multiple-monitor setups. Peripheral vision is not modeled in most video games. This has important implications for the video game tactician: Players have blind spots directly to their sides and to their backs, as well as directly above and below them.

In fact, generally speaking, you will never be able to see the lower right corner of your screen. Since most FPS characters tend to be right-handed, the gun model that players carry obstructs a significant portion of the player’s viewable area.


Unless your gun is transparent, you have a permanent blind spot. HUD elements like compasses, mini-maps, and textual notifications also further obstruct vision, narrowing the effective field of view to a pretty narrow cone. This can have tactical implications – hiding in a dark room so that you are on the lower right corner of your opponent’s vision as your opponent comes in a door, for instance, can be quite effective as an ambush tactic.

You’re always exposed. With rare exception, you must expose at least a portion of your character model to potential enemy fire in order to fire on another character. Usually, this is the head and shoulders of the player model. Limiting or concealing this exposure by means of distance, angling, cover, concealment, light or darkness makes shooting safer and is practically required for living through your first gunfight.

Limited interactivity. Although it seems simple that you can only shoot what you are looking at, this has an effect on how you should interact with the world. You can’t shoot around a corner (with notable, although limited exceptions in some video games), you can’t throw a can to make noise or raise a hat on a stick, you can’t shout “HEY! I give up! Don’t shoot me!” Many assumptions that you might take for granted about real combat do not apply.

Recon By Fire: The Easiest Kind
Put together, this means that you must expose yourself to potential enemy fire, in order to use your imperfect vision to attain anything you’re supposed to do, with only legs, a gun that shoots only forward, no thumbs and no voice. If it sounds a lot more limiting than it feels, that’s only a credit to game-makers. However, for the player, what this creates is a quandary: How do I tell if someone’s there or not without dying?

Here’s a simple answer: Simply put, if you’re not sure what’s there or if there’s enemy there, well genius, shoot it and find out – within the limitations of noise and overall exposure, of course. After all, you can’t go over there and rap it with your knuckle and ask it “Hello is anyone there?”

Next time someone asks “Hey what’s in there?” your answer can be “I don’t know noob, why don’t you shoot it and find out!”

Diminished motivation, or the IDGAF syndrome. Most people play video games for a more or less simple, unthinking type of fun (arguably, most people are simple and unthinking, but that’s a different argument) and will not care or will have to be made to care to even try to do well at a video game. This has a really important implication: You have no way of getting anyone to do anything for you, other than being nice and pleasant to play with. We’ll discuss this more in our treatment of team play.

Limited training. There is no common vocabulary between FPS players, making it difficult to coordinate. Even simple locational references such as “double doors”, “small shack”, “the cornfield” tend not to be agreed-upon amongst players. More complex concepts like “covering fire”, “ambush”, “rush” and “camp” have wildly varying definitions.

Why you should never say “Cover me!” to strangers
“Cover me” is a good example of what linguists call a polysemous term, and what everyone else calls “something that means too many damn things.” Asking someone to cover you, unless you all have something specific in mind, can result in any one of the following taking place:

  • They look towards you, watching what you do and engaging enemies you run across.
  • They look towards you and don’t do anything, waiting for you to get into really serious trouble.
  • They look towards the enemy and don’t do anything, waiting for them to do something that would require shooting them.
  • They run towards you and look the same direction that you are looking.
  • They spray the enemy’s location with cover fire, giving away their position.
  • They spray your location with cover fire, giving away your position and theirs.

Don’t just spout out military lingo and expect things to happen – be specific and use the right terms and then maybe people will do what you want.

Short ranges, fast action – with notable exceptions like the Battlefield series, ArmA or Operation Flashpoint, which we’ll discuss separately, the map within which you’ll be engaging enemies in FPS games are usually quite small – less than a quarter-mile square in virtual terms. Since combat is fast-paced, complex specific strategies – indeed, nearly any type of conscious plans – are so devalued as to be nearly worthless. This has the effect of removing much of the “pre-set” aspects of strategy. An ambush position, for instance, can fall apart relatively quickly as players die and respawn outside the position. Applying general strategies, using rules of thumb and simply reacting smartly tend to be far more important than attempting any type of pre-emptive strategy.

So, to sum up, here’s the situation: You can only use vision – and not much of it at that – to move about, exposing yourself as you do so, negotiating a limited world that you can only shoot at, stand on and interact with to a limited extent. Movement is constant danger, but standing still eventually exposes you to danger with more surety than movement. And you’re working with, and against, people similarly limited who speak only a somewhat common language.

These limitations, by themselves, dictate three behaviors and habits to adapt which are not obvious:

Knowing is seeing. If you can infer where the enemy is from indirect information – the direction that sound is coming from, the reports you are receiving from your teammates, the constant flow of data on your minimap – it is better than having the enemy in your sights. You are now able to kill the enemy by simply moving over to them and shooting at them, while they cannot kill you because they don’t even know where you are. In this book, we will call this type of deduction tactical inference, and it is an extremely important skill to develop as an FPS player. You can’t see much through your viewpoint, so the more you know about where things are, the better you’re doing.

This is the primary reason why this book provides terminology – it provides a framework for collective tactical inference by an FPS fire and support teams. Before strategies and “strats” that are actually just fragile pre-set tactical plans, you need to develop a common language with the people you play with. In particular, an agreed-upon vocabulary for locations is imperative. Common language for fire, movement and strategy will give your team a killer advantage – you’ll learn a lot of that from this book. Through team practice, relative locations like “a little in front of the double doors”, “crouched on top of the lobby stairs”, “under the balcony” can communicate very precise locations and be immensely valuable. (How do you get people to play with you on a regular basis, you may ask? We’ll discuss that in a bit.)

Look around constantly, look around fast and constantly revisit your assumptions about the enemy’s intentions. Your viewport is limited, so constantly scan the environment. The faster that your viewport can move, the faster you can scan. Thus, increasing control sensitivity – whether mouse, trackball, joystick – is always better, up to a point, since having oversensitive controls can result in over-adjusting and correcting that can spoil aim. Checking locations visually is valuable not only for the opportunities for killing that it might offer, but also for their ability to offer inferences as to what the enemy may be doing, even if they’re wandering about aimlessly. Improving your hand/eye (or, more accurately, hand/mind) coordination is a subject adequate for another book, but it suffices to say for a book on general principles that the first and most key step is to get to the point where you don’t “aim to the right” – you think right, and the crosshairs are there. To do that, you must aim as fast as you think, which is to say, fast.

Always secure your immediate environment first. When you reach a fighting position you know you want to spend time at it, always thoroughly inspect it and set up defenses as necessary – in other words, secure it – before you look at anything further away. In terms of location, that’s your Job One. When in position, always scan closer to you, rather than further away from you. Since it is never a given that an unmotivated and untrained teammate will help you secure your location, it is on you, and you alone, to make sure that there’s no one you can’t see to your left, right, behind, above or below you who can shoot you.

Chapter 4: Fire

Now that we’ve established some basic priorities and a framework of assumptions, we can begin to get into the nuts and bolts of technique and terminology. Buckle up, this chapter is going to be packed with a lot of new terms to learn.

Fires, for the purposes of our discussion, are attacks at range, using representational weapons, usually guns. This definition specifically excludes attacks like bows, crossbows or magical spells which will require different optimization strategies (and probably wizard hats). Gunfire, as it is represented in the FPS genre, always obeys certain physical laws particular to the video game’s representation of reality. It will always be shaped by the assumptions of the game’s designers with regard to how a “real” gun should behave. These tend to be in line with a few determinate schools of thought, so we can briefly dispense with the obvious aspects of fire in relatively familiar terms.

Fundamentally, people play these games to fire guns, so we’re about to get very precise about fire. Whatever the particular implementation of gunfire may be, fire in a video game is always essentially a simple vector with at least three values:

  • Point of origin (the shooter) is the beginning point of the vector, usually located at head-level on the player’s character model
  • Point of destination (the target) is the end-point of the vector; for you, this is hopefully an opponent’s head.
  • Time of shooting is the time in the play session, round or match that the shot takes place during. Every shot is a software event taking place at a determinate point in time. This is an important, subtle difference between real and virtual gunfighting strategy.

Timing, in the video game context, determines whether a fire vector’s end point has a player there or not. Time gives us a distinction between early shots and late shots – shots that you tend to take at the beginning of a match, or common shooting situations near the end of a match – or prepared and hasty rushes, as well as prepared and hasty sniper positions.

Fires are pointless without movement, so we need a few basic types of movement before we get to our chapter specifically on it. A prepared move or a position is one that is conducted with a plan at a specific time of one’s own choosing. When you go to your favorite camping spot on any particular map, you’re moving to a prepared position – you have a plan in mind, you know the angles and the shots you can take, and you’re pretty clear on what’s going to happen.

A hasty move or position is one that is conducted without full preparation or planning. When you receive notification that the enemy’s taken your flag in a CTF game, or when you suddenly dive into a building to avoid or seek out a firefight that just erupted, you’re conducting a hasty rush.

Treatment of accuracy and effect of fire vary widely. For the purposes of discussing strategy that should be “portable” between games, we can distinguish three types of fire regulation in video games, simple, tactical, and complex.

In a simple physical model for fire, every time the player fires a weapon, whether singly in a “semi-automatic” fashion, in rapid succession, or “automatically” with a simulated automatic weapon, the result is that the bullets are always under the crosshairs. Stance, movement, or recent history of actions don’t influence player aim. More inveterate players will recognize this from early FPS games like Quake; Quake Live is still a shooter with an essentially simple physical model. The railgun from Quake is a perfect example of a weapon along the lines of the simple model: Brick the fire key and shoot it as fast as it’ll go and it will drill the same hole into the wall in front of you the fiftieth time that it did the first time.

In the tactical model for fire, a rapid succession of semi-automatic shots or full-automatic fire will tend to deviate from the fire vector. The intended effect is usually to represent the effect of physical disposition (kneeling, lying, standing, moving, etc.) and status (full-health, low-health, power-up) upon representational fire. The automatic weapons of Counter-Strike, based on the venerable old shooter Half-Life 2, are a perfect example of the tactical fire model. When standing or crouching (Counter-Strike does not have a ‘prone’ player status), the first two shots of a Counter-Strike AK-47 land exactly upon the crosshairs, much like a simple-model gun. When used for sustained fire, however, after the first few shots the end points of the gun’s “bullets” tend to move upwards relative to the player’s centerline, mimicking the upwards climb of a real gun fired on full-automatic; the inaccuracy effect does not fade for a pre-set amount of time, which has the effect of limiting the gun’s rate of accurate fire, and it is more exaggerated for fire while standing than it is for fire while crouching.

The complex model for fires attempts to include as much representational physical detail as possible, and may include many aspects of real-life marksmanship like sight-zeroing, leads, lifts, bullet-drop and other ballistic factors. Games along these lines tend to be few and far in-between; Battlefield Bad Company 2 is probably the best example of a highly popular modern game along these lines.

We’ll deal primarily with strategy for the tactical/physical model because this model is used in the most popular multi-player shooter games of this time: Call of Duty: Black Ops, Team Fortress 2, and Halo Reach to name just a few. With additional modifications, most of which are simple direct applications of existing publicly available military strategy, it is possible to adapt strategies based upon the tactical model to complex model games.

It bears mention that strategy for games on the simple model are substantially different than more “realistically” based games. However, much of the principles set forth for tactical fire will also apply, with reductive modification (i.e., “ignore these aspects of strategy”) to the simple genre, so the focus of this groundwork will be the tactical model.

The tactical model’s game mechanic of stance interacts with fire significant ways that tend to be universal across video games: Fire when moving tends to be inaccurate. The faster a player moves, the larger the player is vertically – running targets are always the largest, while crawling targets are the hardest to hit.
Fire from the crouched or prone position tends to be more accurate, with less “recoil” and more tightly grouped fire vector endpoints. The crouched player gains an advantage in offering a smaller target at medium and long distances; at close distances, headshots on crouched players are easier, however, because the “head” on the character model is exactly where the center of mass is on a standing player, and most players tend to run around with their crosshairs slightly lowered – pointing right at the crouched players’ head level when up close.
Fire from the standing and moving positions is the most inaccurate, with more noticeable recoil and more loosely grouped fire vectors.

These two systems of concepts we’ve explained – prepared versus hasty, and standing versus crouched versus prone – make some examples possible which anyone who’s picked up an FPS should be able to agree with.

Killer lawn gnomes with tiny heads and guns
Let’s imagine a confrontation between two players, one standing, the other prone, both with identical weapons and hand/eye coordination, at medium to long distance, it can be generally agreed (and tested, if the reader wishes) that the prone player will stand a significantly higher chance of killing the other and staying alive. Prone player models are also harder to hit in a majority of situations (being shot at from directly overhead or below is a notable exception), further incenting prone firing. Yet despite this, going prone has its disadvantages. Primarily, these have to do with diminished move speed. From up close, a prone character also presents a broad target laying flat on the ground. Finally, people are not snakes, and in addition to being counter-intuitive to human players, video game characters that move low and fast and are dangerous would pose a significant balance problem from the tactical fire model perspective. If you could play as a lawn gnome with a tiny head instead of a full man-sized model with a regular-sized head, wouldn’t you?

The system of postures creates a trade-off between accuracy as killing power versus mobility as the ability to stay alive, which can be expressed as some pretty simple rules:

Shooting from prone is for “prepared” positions. These are positions with a favorable strategic situation where you don’t anticipate the need to move hastily move away, either because you plan to kill anyone near you (as in a prepared sniper hide at the end of a long hallway with a mass of enemies at the other end) or because the position has secure sides and rear (like a position that a team holds, or a sniper hide with a proximity-triggered trap at its rear entrance).

Shooting from a crouch is for “hasty” temporary or transitional positions. When stopping to take a shot while you’re on the move, or inspecting the surroundings, or waiting for an enemy in an unprepared position, crouch to provide a pre-emptive edge in firing against enemies whom you might expect to be standing or moving around in the open.

Standing, walking or running while shooting is for assaulting. Due to the accuracy penalty for firing while standing or walking, this should be avoided except in few cases. First, when an immediate, high volume of fire is necessary – like turning a corner and running into someone by surprise. Second, while you’re moving evasively – if you can see them and they can see you and you’re moving to avoid their fire, you might as well shoot back while you’re moving. Finally, during a movement towards a known enemy position aiming to kill them off or displace them, or in other words, an assault, a large volume of fire may be more effective than precision fire.

Due to these advantages and the short ranges of most FPS games, most players tend to fire from a standing or running position. This tendency can be used to good advantage by one simple habit: Run around with your crosshairs up at head level. You’ll headshot more people, and since most people you run across won’t be crouching, you won’t lose the ability to attain headshots on that many people. Enemies you aim at who are crouching will tend to be in hasty or prepared positions that you’ll need to consciously aim at anyway.

The “mad minute”
In American military tradition, the “mad minute” is sixty seconds where everyone on a firing line empties their weapons in a certain direction. In real practice, this is meant to make scare off or kill an enemy that you can’t see precisely; if someone pokes you, you suddenly, as a group, extrude streams of hot lead in multiple directions like the quills on a porcupine. In video games, however, this will have a similar effect, with additional useful benefits of masking individual gun fire noises (making it possible for a sniper, for instance, to kill with an unsilenced weapon), potentially killing enemies, and just generally confusing the heck out of anyone not hit by the random fire. If you can convince your FPS team to try this, or better yet, to try it while moving, the effect on an unprepared enemy can be profound and surprising.

It shouldn’t pass without mention that occasionally, dropping suddenly to a crouched or prone position during the middle or beginning of a firing can be a very powerful move – most people do not expect enemies to suddenly diminish in size while they’re shooting at them. This is termed drop-shotting, and as a technique (and not a strategy), it’s outside the scope of this book as well as fairly obvious.

Fire Terminology

Before we get deeper into specific fire strategy, let’s establish some common terms that you and your team can work with.

Dead space, in traditional military sciences, is the visual area beneath a fixed shooter’s field of fire, below which the gun cannot traverse. Dead space can only be aimed at by physically moving the fire vector’s point of origin. An understanding of the concept of dead space is vitally important for the purposes of FPS tactics. The player viewport is extraordinarily limited compared to the visual reality it represents. In fact, given the highly vertical nature of many popular FPS maps, dead space can be said to be three-dimensional. Rapid, intuitive awareness of your own and an enemy’s dead spaces relative to their field of view is a powerful tool in FPS strategy.


Line-of-sight is the presence or absence of a straight line between the firer and the intended target which is not interrupted by any object which would impede the representational bullet. This is typically abbreviated LoS. Obvious lines of sight in a typical FPS context are down hallways, through doors and windows, and across planar surfaces (the “floor” or “ground” in a video game). Finding non-obvious lines of sight are emphasized in military sniper training, and this is very applicable to FPS games. Non-obvious lines of sight include through cracks and “hidey-holes” in walls, through holes in interceding obstacles (for instance, through a valley shaped by hills of varying distance from the firer), through multiple buildings, through doorways and from a defilade.

Defilade deserves special mention because it’s such a powerful and poorly understood concept by most video game players. Here’s a simple explanation.


Grazing fire is fire parallel to the ground. Grazing fire tends to be by far the most common, as FPS levels tend towards level surfaces (and thus literally “even playing fields” since elevated shooters have an advantage in firefights due to less exposure). In addition, moving players are more apt to shoot grazing fires. FPS players tend to stand still when they look up or down, a habit learned from avoiding walls – after all, as we’ve learned, you need to constantly look where you are going, and very few FPS games have made looking and going upwards a big deal.

Plunging fire is direct or indirect fire from above the target. Parabolic trajectories for bullets can create plunging fire (for instance, in real life, tilting a gun up and firing over a distant hill, out of LoS). Most FPS games do not feature detailed enough ballistic simulations for the effects of bullet-drop to factor into strategy. However, the preferential effect that most FPS games assign to shots that land on the head and upper-body makes plunging fire in the simplistic sense a useful distinction to make. For us, plunging fire is simply fire from above. Since grazing fire is the most common type of fire, an occurrence of plunging fire provides extremely important inference about the shooter’s position. Why? Because there tend to be very few positions from which FPS levels allow plunging fire (remember, game designers trying to make things fair). Thus, if you’re taking plunging fire, there are only a few spots where the shooter can be. Further, snipers tend to have a conscious or unconscious preference for plunging fire; vertical elevation makes it less probable to be noticed and therefore aimed at, and being further away in elevation also makes a sniper a smaller target.

Tactical inference at work
Notice what’s happening in the chain of inferences above: From just noting the direction of fire, it becomes possible to infer the enemy’s position (one of the few elevated camping spots on the level), the weapon the enemy is using (probably a sniper weapon), the enemy’s mission (camping and picking us off while we move), and even the exact enemy (the dude on the other team who always camps and snipes).

Enfilade fire is fire parallel to a line or row of enemies. Gun warfare, since the musket era, is spoken of in terms of “lines”, where lines are combatants with their left and right shoulders to each other (at varying distances depending upon context), enemies in front, and cleared space without any gunmen behind them. Human beings are least able to see and react to enemies at their rear and sides, and humans and FPS players both usually do not shoot through their comrades to get at enemies. Throughout military history, battles have repeatedly demonstrated that if it doesn’t kill them, being attacked from the front and not being able to attack back, or being shot from the side or the rear, is usually sufficient to drive away even a large group of fairly determined enemies.

Opportunities for enfilade fire are often encountered immediately after aggressive, uncovered movement at the enemy right at round start, when safety is guaranteed because the enemy team is guaranteed to be far away. At round start, enemy players inevitably tend to cluster along certain avenues of approach. If the shooting position can be reached in time, this is a strategically favorable situation for the shooter, even if it means multiple targets facing the shooter. Targets will block each other’s lines of sight and fire; some video games even stop fire vectors at friendly targets, making them “soak up” each others’ return fire.


This makes it possible to shoot multiple enemies with minimal movement of the crosshairs, so targets can be brought down with speed and control. Also, if friendly fire is modeled, fear of inflicting friendly fire on teammates can reduce the capacity of the enfiladed targets to return fire. Enfilade fire from covered or concealed positions, particularly from an elevated position above the targets, is also particularly effective and should be sought out when planning ambushes.


Reconnaissance by fire is simply putting bullets into something to see if enemies come out from behind it. In games which provide immediate feedback to players on whether their shots have landed on a target (for instance, the noise that Quake would make when a shot landed, or the clicking sound that Call of Duty games make when a player’s shot lands on a target), this is particularly useful. However, reconnaissance by fire has a converse effect; it may also give away the shooter’s position. Thus, reconnaissance by fire by a shooter should be used only when confirming an enemy location is more important than concealing and staying in that shooter’s position.

Suppressive or covering fire is fire meant to prevent enemy observation, fire, or movement. This is, in real military usage, primarily psychological: It is fire that is intended not primarily to kill, but rather to deprive an opponent of the tactical initiative. Fear of death is a powerful motivator to enact this. However, in multiplayer video games, this is far, far less powerful. By and large, death is relatively painless in video games, and being fired at is not as fearful an experience for the video game player as it is for the real soldier. In fact, being fired at establishes that there is a line of sight between the player and the enemy, and this in fact will usually encourage return fire.

For the most part, in FPS games, suppressive fire tends to have the effect opposite to its intent. Remember your ammunition is usually finite, and there is no incentive to die with full or empty ammo (like “firing quotas”); thus, it is usually your interest to conserve ammo somewhat. True suppressive fire is nonetheless possible and sometimes even useful in situations when ammunition is not at a premium and when the enemy has an increased penalty of death. This is often at the beginning of a round: players have full ammunition, and deaths deprive an opponent of the possibility of killing and thus scoring points. If the enemy has to walk back after respawning, or if they are placed in a strategically disadvantageous location after dying, or if they are not respawned upon dying, then suppressive fire will have an exaggerated effect.

Combined-arms fire, in the military sciences, means multiple forms of fire like artillery + airstrikes + tanks + hand weaponry on a target. FPS games tend to restrict weapons to hand-portable weaponry (with the notable exception of more full military simulators like the Battlefield series); in fact, FPS teams can often be successfully built using a constricted range of weaponry if some weapons in a game are unusually or unintentionally powerful, like a mobile all-rocket-launcher squad, or an all-shotguns tactical CQB squad. It should never be taken as a given that anything from the military sciences will apply to FPS games, and the modern preference for combined-fire arms teams in real militaries is often unproductive or un-illuminating for the purposes of virtual war theory.

When combined-arms fire strategy does work
Detailed, traditional combined-arms planning can be impractical in many fast-paced FPS games because player lives are simply too brief. For instance, as a sniper, it makes little sense to carry only a long-range sniper weapon, with a teammate who carries a short-range weapon. That presents twice the targets for less than twice the capability; should either of you die, the survivor is specialized and less capable than a similar player equipped with a medium-range all-purpose weapon. For the medium-range player with a more all-purpose weapon, having a sniper along would actually be a burden; snipers focus more on stable, defensible positions while medium-range players tend to focus on flanking and movement.

In tactical games, just as in real life, plans are destroyed rapidly and readily by reality – coordination becomes difficult and constant, episodic dying and respawning further fragments planning. Thus, combined arms planning only becomes practical when players are highly survivable, and have well-developed fallback plans and fallback competencies (“if the sniper dies, then you do this”, “if the medic dies, then you do that”, etc.)

Concentric fire is, simply put, fire from multiple angles onto a single target. Paraphrasing von Clausewitz, you generally want to have people firing at the same thing at the same time. Creating more than one source of mortal danger that players have to respond to is usually sufficient to produce bad decision making and panic; people are very good at focusing at one engagement, but can find it difficult to rapidly prioritize and handle a number of simultaneous engagements with multiple enemies. This type of cognitive and sensory overload results in the usage of fragmentary, incomplete or prejudicial information to shape a response; in other words, people freak out and start to mess up. Thus, concentric fire and the psychological effect that it creates is a valuable form of strategic pressure. One of the primary roles of the FPS strategist should be creating concentric fires, particularly during the initial rush.

Pins can be said to exist when there is only one area from which cover can be left, and there is a high certainty that leaving cover is going to result in death. This should be distinguished against a generally high level of threat, like moving through a well-traveled portion of a map. There are only a few methods of escaping pins: moving backwards behind the cover one is pinned behind, attempting to locate and fire upon the pinner from behind cover, coordinating an external response against the pinning base of fire, and using indirect fire to suppress or eliminate the pinner.

Moving backwards out of a pin means retreating to a location from which there is better mobility or simply avoiding the pinner altogether, all while avoiding exposure of any part of the player’s model to the pinner. Attempting to locate and fire upon the pinner from behind cover is a more common response; some players will gradually edge out from behind cover, carefully inspecting their environments. However, since the firer usually has a positional advantage which prevents targets from easily acquiring and aiming at them, edging out slowly from behind cover should not be considered a favored response – it more often than not results in a fine adjustment and subsequent kill by the more prepared shooter.

Coordinating external response to a pin means having a teammate fire on the pinner from their sides, or rear; often, because pinners fixate upon their targets, this is an easy kill for teammates.

Finally, indirect fire, such as grenades, weapons with parabolic trajectories, coordinated artillery, and airstrikes is another viable response, allowing the pinned target to eliminate the pinner without being exposed to fire. Indirect fire weapons which incapacitate the pinner or obscure the pinner’s vision, like smoke grenades or flashbang grenades are useful in this context.


In general, coordinating external response to the pin and usage of indirect fire are the most powerful methods for the pinned player to react.

So, now that we’ve established some terms, how does this all “pay out” in terms of a new mindset? Here’s how:

  • When firing, don’t move if you can stand still. Don’t stand if you can sit; don’t sit if you can lie down. Whether or not you can do any of these depends on your own assessment of your environment.
  • Fire teams must constantly describe how they’re being engaged to teammates. Developing a compact, easily spoken system of common terms allows everyone to develop a mental picture of the battle as it develops, feeding players a rich stream of information to create tactical inferences from. This involves exchanging observations (“enemy at A”, “taking grazing fire through the double doors”) and inferences (“I think there’s some guys behind that door”, “they must be at A since they’re not at B”).

Most importantly, don’t just challenge – pre-empt. Don’t create solvable problems for your enemy with pins – create dilemmas. These principles are as obvious for your enemy as they are for you; you just have the advantage (a not inconsiderable one) of having a formalized set of tools to think about the situation that let you build more complex and effective tactical behaviors.

We’ll explore this concept more in tactics and tips, but suffice it to say for here that if annihilating your enemy is your objective (sometimes it isn’t), don’t create a pin with a clear escape, or plan an ambush that the enemy can simply go around or retreat from – these are solvable problems. Instead, create a pin that pushes the enemy back into an ambush, or ambush using plunging concentric fire from multiple angles that drives people back into an enfilade from another direction. Create situations in which there’s no good decision that the enemy can make – create unfair fights in your favor.

A useful way to think about it is this: If you’re in a fair fight, it’s because it’s not a fight you planned. Don’t create fair fights – create dilemmas and traps from which there is no escape but annihilation.