The headshot turns 10

The christening and ancestry of the headshot; its roots, its usage, and how it became the piece de resistance of shooter fans

When spoken aloud, it's capable of realizing feelings of pride, expertise, and superiority. It's often coupled with outward bursts of jubilation. So how did the "headshot" become the most sought after trademark of first-person shooter fans?

In short, it shows you know what you're doing. "A headshot is the mother of all bulls-eyes for 3D shooting games," says Scott Steinberg, a fourteen year veteran of the video game industry. "You get praised for landing one, and humbled for receiving one. Add in some gooey particle effects and booming audio, and it's no wonder headshots are so addictive."

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Unreal Beginnings

The headshot's video game origins are difficult to trace. But there is one game widely credited for immortalizing the term: Unreal Tournament, which released at the end of 1999. Unlike earlier games, Unreal Tournament emphatically rewarded players for shooting the head via a voice-over that positively reinforced the player in their success.

"The announcer would roar 'Headshot!' while the enemy's cranium popped off," recalls Sid Shuman, former GamePro editor. "Before Unreal Tournament, few (if any) games tracked the concept of headshots. In most shooters of this era, shooting an enemy's head inflicted no extra damage than shooting their foot. So Unreal Tournament was the clear precedent-setter."

How did Epic ending up taking such a deliberate approach to headshots? Lead designer Steve Polge explained "Once we decided to have a 'Reward Announcer' call out cool things you did in Unreal Tournament, like killing sprees, we looked for every opportunity in the game to add announcements," he explains. "At first, we were worried that the headshot announcement came up too often, but it was just too satisfying and rewarding to ship without it."

Three-dimensional games an enabler

But Unreal Tournament wasn't the first game that let you shoot at someone's face. Earlier games like Rare's Goldeneye 007 did it in 1997. And other lesser-known games are sure to have incorporated it as well, albeit understated to the point of being easily overlooked. So who was first?

"No idea," says Nick Bruty, lead designer of 1997's MDK. "But I can imagine someone phrased it the very first time it was witnessed," he adds, seemingly recognizing that the original headshot may have been too plebeian for anyone to accept or seek credit for coining it.

Bruty's work on MDK helped make the headshot an event, as opposed to an afterthought or minor occurrence. Early in the first level, players are required to take out aliens atop an obstructing wall to advance. Since the bad guys are taking cover, only their heads appear, giving Bruty and his team a perfectly good excuse to introduce "sniper mode" with its zooming scope

I ask Bruty for his source of inspiration. "I was playing around with ideas for a futuristic assassin, and I wanted him to shoot without having to use his hands, so I came up with the helmet sniper gun," he says, describing what would later become protagonist Kurt Hectic. "Aiming with your head seemed to make sense plus it had elegant visual flourish. As this was also my first 3D game where zooming came for free (something that was very difficult for 2D hardware), it seemed like such a natural progression.

Modern appeal and overuse

Whoever the author of the headshot, today's games like Halo, Gears of War, Call of Duty and Fallout would be short on exclamation points without headshots. They never get old.

But not only are they rewarding, headshots are encouraging for a player. And when done right, they give games better mileage. "The human head is the equivalent of the bright glowing spot on a giant video game boss," says Bitmob's Dan Shoe. "It's your opponents weak point. And because it's a relatively small object compared to the rest of the body, trying to hit it becomes a game by itself."

With the industry releasing new shooters at a breakneck pace, shooting enemies in the head should seemingly be getting tiresome, but the feature is still enjoyed by many. Bruty explained this phenomenon, stating, "It produces a satisfyingly primal response, which helps explain shooters' longevity for such a simple mechanic."

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The evolution of a classic

So how should developers evolve the technique to stay fresh, while still meeting the demands of gamers? Bruty says to keep them guessing. "It's always nice to finish off with something a little unexpected. Maybe shooting through the head and hitting another target [... or] environmental challenges like crosswinds, or murky vision."

But Bruty councils against unnecessary creativity, so as not to fly to close to the sun. "The headshot's strength comes from being so basic. If you try to involve too many other mechanics, it's no longer such a simple satisfying experience."

Whatever developers end up doing, everyone agrees headshots will still play a vital role in games. And it's a long time coming before anything replaces it as the crowning achievement in shooters.

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