FPS e-sports have always struggled to reach the same levels of popularity as RTS and MOBAs - something that Nadeo are hoping to change with ShootMania. Designed for competitive play from the ground up, the French developers are aiming to create a new model for the FPS e-sport to suit players and spectators alike.
As with Trackmania, ShootMania will be driven by the community. Maps, skins and even game modes will all be designed, built and tested by players. Not only does this create a pretty much infinite map pool but it also gives players the opportunity to streamline the game into something more fun. If a map or game mode is too one-sided, then it can be tweaked and edited to create a more balanced experience. Most dedicated servers also run a simple map rating system which allows the very best to rise to the top.
The most popular game mode for competitive play is currently 'Elite'. In this 3v3 mode, one attacker wields an instakill railgun where three defenders carry rocket launchers.
But there's a twist. Nadeo have included a block in the map editor that automatically equips a railgun to any defending player standing on the piece. Istead of jumping, space activates a zoom. This enables map makers to create powerful sniper nests for defenders. Similarly, when a player enters a tunnel, their weapon is gets switched to the 'Nucleus' which fires a small glowing blob of mass very slowly. It can stick to walls for a limited time and will detonate when an enemy is within a certain radius. These features put an emphasis on positioning and will separate the professionals from the amateurs.
But back to the Elite mode. The attacker has three hit points and has to either kill all the defending team or activate the flag by standing on it for one second. However, the flag is only available for capture after 45 seconds have passed, and even then it's only active for a further 15 seconds - so timing is crucial. One of the main problems with watching a competitive FPS is that it's incredibly difficult to keep track of all the players, and as a result most of the action can happen off-screen. This is why Duel is the most popular mode for Quake Live tournaments - you're always going to see every frag when it's just two players battling it out. The sole attacker in ShootMania's Elite mode works in the same way.
Joust is the equivalent of Quake Live's Duel mode. Normally taking place on a small map, both players have limited ammunition with which to hit the opponent a certain number of times. To gather ammo, the player must touch the opponent's flag. It doesn't have quite the same tactical depth as a QL duel, but it can create some very tense moments.
In Royal mode, up to 32 players start in separate spawn locations on the outskirts of a large circular map. Each player has recharging rocket ammo, two hit points, and respawns are disabled. The aim is to be the last player standing. There is also a flag in the center of the map which, once activated, will unleash a giant electrified dome completely enclosing the map. This gradually decreases in size shrinking the battlefield until it's only a few meters wide. Frequently, two players are left dancing around the pole trying to bluff each other into guessing which way they'll go.
Even in the obligatory deathmatch mode, Nadeo have managed to up the stakes by allowing up to 255 players on a single server. Although technically possible, Nadeo international product manager Edouard Beauchemin says that “it is unrealistic to reach such a high number, given the bandwidth required”. I've been playing on an 80 player server throughout the past week and it has surprisingly little lag, given that you can be trying to dodge up to 320 rockets at once. They are still improving the net code throughout the beta - so hopefully higher numbers will be reached with time.
Like TrackMania, Nadeo have developed ShootMania to be incredibly simple to control - just WASD for movement and space for jumping and sprinting. If space is held whilst airborne, you glide and can land much further away than you would normally. Gliding and sprinting both degrade your energy bar, however, which takes several seconds to recharge. The movement system is very fluid, and can even feel a bit like Tribes Ascend when you're gliding across a map.
Competitive Quake Live wasn't just popular for the pixel-perfect aim of its players. Part of the spectacle was the perfectly timed rocket-jumps and plasma wall-jumps that allowed players to circumnavigate entire maps in moments. ShootMania currently has very little leeway for mechanics like this. Although rocket jumping is possible to an extent, there isn't enough benefit gained from doing so. However, ShootMania has only been in beta for a week - and as more and more professional FPS players move over, it's only a matter of time before movement exploits are discovered.
Players already familiar with the TrackMania level editor will instantly recognise the interface used in ShootMania. The simple block-based interface allows incredible maps to be made simply and efficiently. What's even more exciting is the idea of players influencing tournaments via map creation. With so many tiles and blocks, every map can be finely tuned to be perfectly balanced for a particular game mode. When asked about map-pools for tournaments, Beauchemin says that “[Nadeo] will publish official map packs that are 'ready to be used' for competitive modes. However, if organisers and players are organising their own tournaments, it is quite common that they will select the best maps in their opinion. Some might come from our official map pack, some might have been created by themselves or by the community.”
There are already plans to expand ShootMania beyond Storm. Last week, at Brighton's Rezzed convention, Nadeo announced that they are planning another two games which will each bring different environments and features to the series. Several rumours have been circulating that the second title will be set in a snowy environment and be called Cryo. Beauchemin downplays the rumour. “Somebody from Nadeo mentioned that it could be ShootMania's next game, but he was misinformed. It is nothing concrete at the moment.”
Despite still being in beta, ShootMania tournaments have been popping up all over the place. The Cyberathlete Summit in Paris last month allocated over €8000 in prize money to the game. Winners Team Colwn are led by Alessandro 'Stermy' Avallone, an Italian pro gamer who has been playing competitive Quake for over a decade.
As a Quake player, why have you chosen to move to ShootMania?
At the moment I'm still planning to play both games, and as a matter of fact we are trying to attend Quakecon next month. ShootMania just got into beta stage and it's already quite fun to play with a competitive team and has potential to become big, with many tournaments and events already taking place in different countries and as a professional gamer you always have to be ready for something like this. I remember back in 2004 when Painkiller came out, I was exactly in the same position as I am now. I was playing Quake III Arena but practicing tons of Painkiller because it was being used at ESWC 2004. Right after that the CPL picked it up and slowly became huge.
It's also nice to finally be back practicing constantly and looking forward to events each month. I really missed competing regularly and ShootMania at the moment is delivering that, which is great.
Do you think that Nadeo were right to simplify the FPS to such an extent?
I have to agree that it is a bit too much simplified, but that's the general direction games have nowadays since they probably want it more accessible to the casual gamers. Simplified doesn't necessarily mean worse compared to others, quality is better than quantity.
Which game mode is best for spectators?
Only the Elite mode is suited for competitive play at the moment.
Are there any issues currently affecting ShootMania's chances as a competitive e-sport?
I think it`s too early to judge. The Elite mode is fun - I have played two live tournaments so far with my team against the current best ShootMania players in the world and I have to say it was a great experience and we enjoyed the tournaments. Game wise, it still needs polishing and some important features and fixes and I wouldn't go into details because I'm sure the developers are aware of the community requests and they keep releasing updates every second day, which is great.
The learning curve might not be as high as it should, limiting the pro-player experience and skill in the long run. This could also go the other way around, since more and more teams will be able to compete for the 1st place, creating strong and exciting tournaments. After the summer we can have a better idea overall.
Can you see ShootMania being a part of tournaments like the IEM (Intel Extreme Masters) and Dreamhack?
I think so yeah. Servers are always full at the moment and a lot of people are enjoying the game. We have seen a lot of teams forming and there are full online tournaments popping up every week. The game definitely has potential. I love FPS and I just hope we can see them back in the big leagues.