Recently I've been interested in the 'instagib' style of PvP multiplayer shooter. I've been watching a lot of old frag videos, searching through old forum posts, and delving into shooters (both old and new) to see it for myself. From what I understand, instagib began as a player created gametype in Quake 2 and over time made its way into Unreal Tournament. It hit its peak in the heyday of Quake 3 Arena and since then has settled into fairly niche obscurity.
If you're unfamiliar, instagib was a gametype in these old, fast-paced arena shooter games in which every player was equipped with a hitscan (instantaneous projectile velocity), single shot, slow firing railgun that killed with one shot. These gametypes transformed deathmatches into an ultra precise skill based and minimalist affair of mindgames, prediction, accuracy and speed.
In this written piece I'm going to talk about the design of the instagib gametype and its implications and potential for player skill, mastery and perfection. I've personally never played instagib in an Unreal Tournament game, so I'll be talking exclusively about it in a Quake-style movement engine.
Instagib fascinates me with the purity and inherent depth of its design. On the surface it's ultra simple, almost disarmingly so. It's a shooter distilled down to the utter base elements. Move around a map. Click when your reticule is over an enemy to kill them, avoid being clicked on yourself. Its real elegance, however, comes from the depth, speed and freedom of movement the Quake engine and many of these old arena style shooters allow. The high potential player speed and acceleration, ability to quickly shift momentum in midair and on the ground and the technical aspects of the movement physics introduced an element of 'footwork' to the game. It was critical to learn to efficiently move in a way that minimised your enemy's ability to draw a bead on you while still retaining control and precision with your own shots, and also maintaining constant awareness of your environment to avoid falling into a trap or bottomless pit.
This footwork added an element of 'yomi' to the formula. Yomi is a Japanese term that has become used in fighting game circles to describe the ability to read an opponents intentions and react accordingly. It's a cornerstone of fighting games and many PvP games in general. Within instagib, it relates to a player's ability to predict and react to where an opponent will move and be at the exact moment the player takes the shot, as well as moving in a way that will dodge or nullify any of your opponents attempts to do the same and minimise the time spent vulnerable. It becomes a dynamic back and forth tug of war of realtime deception, predictability and opportunity.
Without this speed and flexibility of movement the gametype in general would be far more based around sneaking, camping, caution and reaction rather than flow and precision. It would turn into a slower game of sniping rather than a game of high speed skill. The natural dynamic of FPS games (range, environment, elevation, relative positioning, accuracy, momentum, etc.) is emphasised and highlighted through this movement system.
Another important element of the instagib formula is the visible beam the players fire. It brightly telegraphs your exact position to everyone in the area. This seems minor, but it keeps the game constantly moving and keeps players on their toes. It gives you an idea of the relative accuracy and thought patterns of your opponents, allowing you to understand almost exactly how they hone in on your movement patterns to deliver the killing shot. It also dramatically decreases the effectiveness of camping and sniping. Instagib would not work nearly as well if the shots were invisible or did not take the form of a beam.
The purity of the design of instagib is what first drew me to it. Almost every single random or potentially unbalanced element has been removed. Every player has exactly the same abilities in regards to movement and offense. Every shot is perfectly accurate and instantaneous and everyone carries the same weapon. The only unpredictable, potentially biased aspects come in the form of latency (a natural side effect of any online game) and the level in which the game is taking place. The level is the greatest rogue element here, as it naturally creates bias and imbalance with places that are more advantageous to control or spawn in than others. The way the levels are designed seriously affects the flow of gameplay as well. A more open map emphasizes footwork and accuracy, whereas a more cluttered map or one consisting of tight corridors leans more towards reaction, twitch reflexes, zone control and split-second decision making.
In regards to the skill ceiling of instagib, potential player skill and ability is near infinite. A player can always be more accurate. A player can always be better at reading the mind and tendencies of an opponent. A player can always be better at moving (especially in the Quake engine, which contains a lot of precise physics and mechanical quirks to maximise speed). A player can always know a map, area or specific route more intimately. A player can always focus more intensely.
Skill ceilings this high have pros and cons. A person can play instagib for years and still have something to improve on and learn. It elevates playing the game almost to the level of an art form. Dominant members of the community (the 'masters' of the game) become zen-like gurus with sky-high levels of precision and skill. It adds an element of personality to an online landscape, whereas I feel that a lot of current modern shooters tend to be downplaying individual ability and playstyle in comparison. This, however, naturally introduces a steep learning curve for new players depending on who they are put up against as they are learning and practicing.
Scoring a point (let alone claiming a win) doesn't often happen by accident in instagib. The methods of scoring a point are so precise that indeliberate kills are few and far between. It isn't like many shooters in which you can spray and pray towards an enemy and hope for a kill. There's no cushion of chance. Everything in instagib requires constant focus, attention and precision. The skill difference between two players can be so vast that it isn't uncommon for a 1v1 match to be extremely skewed in one direction. A novice player could foreseeably score no points at all. But the mechanics of instagib are such that scoring a point is extremely rewarding. The player can roughly understand everything they did and everything that came into play that gained them that point. There's very little luck involved. I feel as if that is one of the main draws of the instagib gametype. All the fluff is cut out and the only thing that matters is your own skill and the skill of your opponent, hyperfocused to the Nth degree. It's a very 'hardcore' and competitive style of play.
After doing my best to hunt down instagib servers in Quake 3 and Quake Live (and mostly failing), I moved on to a small game called Ratz Instagib, which I had played a while ago on Kongregate before it was re-released and refurbished on Steam. Ratz is like an evolution of the instagib gametype. At first I feared I would have trouble finding people to play with, but the game has a small, dedicated, relaxed and skillful community, as these sort of niche online games often do. Ratz Instagib turned out to be exactly what I was looking for. It combined all the best parts of Quake-style gameplay while presenting it in an elegant, thoughtful and hyper-readable style. It cut out everything that wasn't needed and emphasised everything that made instagib great. It's essentially a love letter to the gametype, but introduces its own very thoughtful additions and changes that improve and alter the formula in subtle ways.
The most significant addition is a form of rocket jumping, or 'boosting', which opens up the movement of the game immeasurably. Rocket jumping began in the Quake engine and has become an almost iconic staple of the old-shooter playstyle. It was unavailable in traditional instagib settings but finds itself very much at home in Ratz, allowing a new level of freedom of movement. It fits well into the established flow and even adds a new degree of balance between drawing a bead on your opponent and having to aim away to perform a rocket jump. Ratz also contains minor adjustments to the physics of movement that emphasize verticality and air control. The gravity and fall speed is fairly low, allowing players to almost drift and parkour their way through levels with well placed jumps and rocket boosts.
The levels are constructed in a way that compliments the gameplay, combining open, interlinked areas with climbable and jumpable elements scattered about in the form of offices, rooms and home environments. The arenas are relatively small and enclosed, keeping the action moving and the pace frenetic, but they never feel stifling or claustrophobic. It's very well put together overall.
Instagib is a great example of the zen-like depth and complexity of play that can come from designing by omission. When all distractions, asymmetry and rogue elements are removed from the equation many games are naturally drawn to focus on mentality, mindgames and skill rather than builds, individual weapons or items.
By removing every superfluous element, instagib dynamically shifts and transcends into a core playstyle that both accentuates and focuses on the purest, most base elements of the game and the required skills for playing it. And yet it retains an inherent complexity and depth to a degree in which it can stand as a game all on its own. There aren't a lot of game formulas that can pull that off, but multiplayer Quake is one of them.