The folks in the Apex Legends were discussing FPS games, skill, the effects of age, reflexes, and so forth. I've been playing shooters (both first and third person) since a few months after I got my first computer, and they've probably comprised the largest slice of my gaming pie in the decades since. Lately I've noticed that I'm not as quick as I used to be, no doubt a function of age and eyesight. I set out a couple of months ago to rectify that. I offered, in the Apex Legends thread, to share some of what I've learned. Now, I'm not a pro. I'm not an expert. I can't compete in high level play. I don't want to be in esports. I'm just a guy who spent some time researching the skills behind shooters and how to improve that skill.
tl;dr: If this all seems like to much hassle, the bare minimum to improve is: Turn off any mouse smoothing/acceleration in Windows and in games, lower your sensitivity, and make sure your sensitivity is identical between different games. There are a lot more tricks in the long version, though, and they add up.
There are several factors that go into shooter skill:
- Hardware. This might seem obvious, but it's not just about having the right hardware, it's about configuring it correctly.
- Precision. This means that everything moves the way it should.
- Technique. How you do things. How you hold the mouse. How you move the mouse.
- Muscle memory. This is what you practice to build. Muscle memory is how, when you repeat an activity often enough, you take the thought out of the action. When you drive a car, you don't think about where the brakes are or how much to turn the wheel. You think 'stop', and your foot moves to the right spot with the right amount of pressure. You look at the turn and your hands turn the wheel the right amount. That's what you need in shooters; you see the target, and you don't think about how to move the mouse; the crosshair just moves there.
- Consistency. Lack of this is the bane of building muscle memory.
- System. Obviously you need a system that can run the game you're playing. If the game is jumping all over the place trying to render the frames at 17 FPS, you aren't going to hit anything.
- Keyboard. There are some speed benefits to a good mechanical keyboard, but it isn't a huge factor as long as there isn't a delay between you pushing the button and your character moving.
- Mouse pad. There isn't a lot to this. You just don't want to have to drag your mouse over the pad - you want it to glide. Hard or soft, fancy or cheap, whatever's fine as long as it is big enough that you're not running the mouse off the edge and isn't interfering with moving the mouse. You also don't want a thin, soft mousepad over an uneven surface. Put down a thin piece of wood, metal, plastic, or even a super-cheap rigid mousepad under the soft one. A good mouse pad isn't expensive. The most common pro mousepads are the Logitech G640, Razer Gigantus, SteelSeries QcK, BenQ Zowie G-SR, and Artisan brand pads. If you're getting one, don't get a Windows sized mousepad. Get a large one. You want room to move.
- Accessories. The only one I really feel is necessary is a decent mouse bungee if you use a corded mouse. You don't want to be tugging the cord or have the cord tugging the mouse.
- Mouse. This is the big one. If you want good results, you need a decent mouse, and that $20 Wal-Mart mouse isn't it. You need something precise, fast, and configurable. You want a decent DPI (how sensitive the mouse is at the hardware level) and a good polling rate (how often the mouse reports its position to the computer - for a modern monitor you want 1,000Hz - 1,000 reports per second, or 1ms per report.) A low DPI mouse will be inaccurate, and you'll have to compensate with less precise software. A low polling rate will create input lag. Input lag is a delay between the time you move the mouse and the time it registers the movement and shows it onscreen. It's best to have a configurable lift-off distance, too (how far you have to lift the mouse off of the pad before it stops tracking.) You also need to have a mouse that fits your hand and fits your grip, and is weighted appropriately (fingertip and claw grips generally need a lighter mouse.) Personally, I use a Corsair M65 Pro. It's the best mouse I've ever owned. I also do my best to avoid Razer due to their poor quality control and worse customer service.
You also need to configure it properly. You want the polling rate high, at least 500Hz, 1000Hz if you have a 144Hz monitor. You don't want the DPI set too high. This is a mistake many people make - more isn't better. My own mouse is set at 800 DPI, which is actually a bit on the high side. With the proper sensitivity for accuracy, you are going to need to periodically lift the mouse, so you want a low lift-off distance so your mouse isn't moving without you.
- Monitor. This one surprised me. Those of you who followed my thread in General Computing know that my son's computer died recently - motherboard, video card, and monitor all died. His grandmother kindly bought me a new video card and monitor so that I could pass mine down to him. I ended up with a 144Hz G-Sync monitor and a video card that supports the technology. Believe it or not, the change from a standard 60Hz monitor to the 144Hz made an distinct difference. It isn't just nicer, it is smoother. When you turn, the images stays fully in focus for the whole turn, and the turn is smoother. It may not sound like much, but it is like night and day when you're trying to focus on a target and move to it.
One factor to be aware of on a monitor is response time. That's how fast the pixels change from one color to another, and it is one factor that contributes to input lag. A slow response time is why it took so long before LCD monitors replaced CRTs for gaming. Years ago, a 5ms response time was adequate for gaming. For accuracy, you want no more than 2ms, preferably 1ms. The monitor response time combines with the response time from the input hardware and any processing delay to give you your input lag. Again, that's how long it takes from the time you move the mouse to the time the movement registers on-screen. It can add up quick.
It's also important to calibrate your monitor correctly, but that's beyond the scope of this page. Make sure you check into things like overdrive, ghosting, and input lag features on your monitor.
Precision means that when you move the mouse, it moves predictably. That means eliminating input lag (discussed above) and it means getting the system to respond to the same mouse movements you're trying to make. Turn off angle snapping in Windows. Turn off mouse acceleration (sometimes listed as 'Enhance Pointer Precision' in Windows) and in games. Disable mouse smoothing. When you're configuring your graphics, look into Vsync (tends to cause input lag), triple buffering (reduces input lag when used with Vsync) and numbers of pre-rendered frames, depending on the game (again, beyond the scope of this. Google is your friend.) And even after you disable the Windows acceleration settings, there is hidden acceleration that may affect games depending on how they capture the input. The fix is here.
If you have a G-Sync monitor, make sure you give this a read. Of particular interest are the sections on G-Sync ceiling vs VSync and the stuff on FPS limiters (short version - if you run at 144FPS on a G-Sync 144Hz, you'll occasionally jump a little above 144Hz, creating input lag. It works best if you globally limit FPS to three frames below the max - so 141FPS.)
The other part of precision is a hard pill to swallow for many people. It was for me. The way you use your mouse when browsing the web probably isn't the best way to use it in games. Most people have their sensitivity set way, way too high in games. Here's the difference: At a very high sensitivity, the spot on the mousepad you have to move the crosshair to may only be a millimeter wide. Move your hand to target, move it a millimeter too far, and it's a miss. At a lower sensitivity it will be several times that, effectively doubling or tripling the target size for your hand. You can be three times as accurate without becoming any more precise! I'll go into this more lately, but when talking about sensitivity across multiple games, the usual terminology is cm/rev (sometimes cm/360.) That is how many centimeters you have to move the mouse on your mousepad for your viewpoint in-game to move 360 degrees (printable rulers are your friend.) Most pros for non-flick games (CS-Go) have a cm/rev range of 30 or more. That's pretty extreme, but even what I currently use (about 22cm/rev) is far slower than what I used to use before I started this project. It also forces you to aim with your arm, not your wrist. It's not the way most people mouse in Windows, and there's an adjustment period, but the movement is much more stable, and therefore much more accurate.
But there's the rub. If you drop your sensitivity that much, a few things will happen right away. First, it will feel wrong. You will absolutely hate it. Second, you will suck. You'll die repeatedly while shooting a rock halfway to the guy who's killing you. It sucks. You'll want to go back. You'll beg yourself to go back. After a week or two, though, you'll be over the learning curve and you'll start to pull off shots you never could before. It'll be a month more before it's comfortable, but after that if you try your old sensitivity again (briefly), you'll wonder how you ever hit anything.
And remember, your mouse sensitivity is a function of both the mouse's DPI and the in-game sensitivity. Change either and you change your sensitivity.
Ok, now to muscle memory. Muscle memory is when you perform an activity repetitively enough times that it can occur without conscious thought. When you're playing a game and someone turns the corner in front of you, there isn't time for conscious thought. We're literally in a race with the other person (or the AI) to react. Whoever can lift their weapon, get the sights on target, and fire first is the winner. If you stop to think and consider how to move the mouse, you've lost. That's why you need muscle memory. You see the target and your crosshair is already on it. Your mind moved your hand moved the mouse moved the crosshair the same way that your mind would have moved your hand alone to catch something. Instinctively. What's better is that when you achieve this, it frees up your mind from bothering with the mouse entirely, allowing to to think, consider the target, consider priority if there are multiple targets and so on while your hand is moving. Your hand doesn't need to dominate your thoughts anymore.
Gaining muscle memory is fairly straightforward. The only way to gain it is through repetition. Do what you need to do over and over. In other words, practice. It's vital that you practice in your game of choice, but not all games are good for practicing. Targets are few and far between, especially in a multiplayer elimination game (like a battle royale or most modes in R6:Siege) where you may only get a few shots per match. Games are great for applying skills, but there are alternatives for practicing for reaction speed, accuracy, anticipating and tracking movement, judging lead, aiming while moving, aiming while avoiding projectiles, and so forth. I offer up Kovaak's FPS Aim Trainer. An example of it in use. If you don't want to watch it all, skip around and see some of the practice options it includes.
Now here is a warning: Don't build the wrong muscle memory. You'll end up with a slew of bad habits that will just make things harder for you. Make sure your hardware is set up right first. Make sure you have considered the settings discussed in Precision. Look at what I said in the section on technique and get your sensitivity right first. Only after you have things set up optimally do you want to start building muscle memory. If not, it's like learning to play guitar while fingering the notes wrong, then practicing the wrong thing for months.
Kovaak's is also a great way to warm up for a few minutes before you play.
Last bit. Thank goodness. My brain is getting tired.
Now here's the thing about muscle memory: If you practice one thing and build muscle memory, then do something similar but subtly different, and then something else that's subtly different in another way, you'll end up not building any muscle memory at all. You'll confuse your mind and it won't know what to do. In this case, that means that every game you play needs to have a near-identical sensitivity. You should be able to close your eyes and turn 90 degrees, or 180 degrees without looking. Otherwise your hard-earned muscle memory isn't going to help you, and you'll undo your practice by practicing differently each time.
This is easier than it sounds.
Kovaak's Sensitivity Matcher. Yeah, the same guy that wrote the FPS trainer. This one's free, though.
There's several ways to set it up. If you play Quake, Source Engine games, or Rainbow Six: Siege, you're in luck. Just pick your game in the drop down, tell it what your in-game sensitivity is (once you have it set where you want it), and click 'Physical Stats.' Input your mouse's DPI (under Physical Factor.) Down at the bottom it will tell you your cm/rev is. Tick the checkbox marked 'Lock Physical Sensitivity', close that physical stats, and click 'save to default.'
The second way is to ignore the first page. Open the physical stats box. Input your DPI. Now input your desired cm/rev (again, I use 22cm/rev right now, pros are generally 30 or higher, although super twitchy 'flick' games tend to be lower.)
The last way is more complicated. It involves going into a game with the app running, spinning around, adjusting the setting incrementally, spinning around again, adjusting again, and so on until it spins a perfect 360 degrees. You can then exit the game and the sensitivity matcher will have the precise settings you have that game at listed for you to save. Do this only if you absolutely must match everything else exactly to a specific game. Kovaak himself details the process here.
If you're learning a new sensitivity, try #2, test it in a game, adjust it, and try until your happy, then match everything else to that.
Whichever method you use to get the numbers for your desired sensitivity, just make sure that those numbers are entered (say, as cm/rev in physical stats, then locked), leave the app running in the background, and launch a game. Go somewhere and put your crosshair on a small, distant object. Be precise. Push a key combination (configurable in the .ini, viewable under the 'Info' button - by default it is ALT-[ ) and the app will send a signal that will tell your PC that the mouse moved precisely that far. If your sensitivity is right in-game, you'll spin a perfect 360 and your crosshair will be right where it started. If it didn't go far enough, adjust the in-game sensitivity up and try again. If it went too far, adjust the in-game sensitivity down. It only takes a couple of minutes and your sensitivity will be set to your standard.
Tip: I found it much easier to drop the sensitivity in-game super low to start with and slowly move it up than the other way around. With it too high, it's hard to tell whether you turned too far or not far enough when you end up pointed directly behind you. Was that 180 or 540 degrees?
There have been a few games that capture the keystrokes and wouldn't let the app spin me. Since I know my cm/rev, I just lay down a printed ruler, line up, move my mouse 22cm, and adjust the in-game sensitivity the same way. It's also worth noting that not every game has the kind of fine adjustment needed to get a perfect 360. For those, just get as close as you can. Once you've done a few games, it'll only take maybe two or three minutes when you set up a new game. Just remember: it is vital to set this sensitivity in any game where you use the mouse to turn the way you would in a 1st/3rd person shooter, otherwise you'll be practicing muscle memory for contradictory movements.
A couple of other tricks that aren't directly skill related, but which pros use constantly:
- Gamma. Gamma clears out shadows. A lot of modern gaming monitors have a hardware version under various names (mine is 'shadow control'.) If not, there is either an in-game setting, and there is always your video card's configuration software's version. It makes shadows brighter, which makes it easier to see enemies hiding in those shadows. Be aware that this causes other colors to look washed out, and makes lighting less dramatic.
- Graphics settings. Many pro gamers crank the eye candy way, way down. Reflections, bloom, blur, grass in the field, clutter on the ground, smoke effects, particles, that sort of thing. It all looks great, but it also makes it harder to see your targets. Plus, if your system isn't up to snuff, it prevents low frame rate from screwing with your aim. Of course it makes your game uglier, too.
*Note: I personally don't use either of these options for exactly that reason, but if your performance is more important than the look of the game to you, this is a place to start. Even if you don't, though, it's worth being aware of. After all, that bush in the shadows you're hiding behind? Your opponent may have both the bush and the shadows turned off.
- Wires. The most skilled gamers won't touch a wireless mouse or keyboard. They say that the input delay is enough to be noticeable. The jury is out on whether that's true for normal folks, but the pros are fast enough to notice. Besides, a mouse wire isn't in the way if you have a mouse bungee, and I can't think of the last time I used my gaming computer's mouse or keyboard further from the desk than their cords reach, so why bother?
Ok, that's all I've got right now. Just remember my disclaimer: I'm not a pro, I'm not an expert, I'm not even all that great at shooters. I'm still going through this process myself. I just thought I'd share what I've learned over the last couple of months. I hope it helps.