Friday, August 28, 2009

Sticking With the Old Ways

Following on somewhat from my previous post regarding movement in games, one of my most major gripes is the way developers seem to stick so doggedly to the old ways of doing things. I understand in some instances it's due to engine, time, or budget constraints, but there are plenty of devs out there with the time and the money to try something new. So why don't they?

After movement, the way weapons behave is probably the most important (yet most neglected) aspect of a shooter. Yeah, yeah, your game features accurate recoil and perhaps even ballistics because your coders spent a day out on the range firing the real things - but where does the projectile originate from? In the overwhelming majority of shooters, it's the mystical camera, that thing which seems to be of paramount importance in dictating gameplay mechanics. Why does the player's viewpoint control everything? Why doesn't the player's body control the camera, or the player's rifle control the projectile it supposedly fires? Using Insurgency as an example, the former system can be a real nightmare to work with, especially when aiming for realism. Until a patch was released several weeks after the first release, Insurgency players found that while their crosshair could be directly on the target, their bullet would hit the wall, ground, or windowsill in front of them. This isn't limited to the Source engine; Red Orchestra has the same problem at times. Sure, you can adjust the camera height or the projectile origin in relation to the camera, but wouldn't it just be a better idea to change the entire system and make the game that much better?

Think about it. If your body and weapons are in control, wouldn't things be a lot easier? Wouldn't they make a lot more sense? If your weapon's muzzle is colliding with something, your bullet will strike the obstruction. If your weapon is clear of any obstructions, then your bullet will fly forth and kill whatever gets in its way. Instead of relying on a simple cone of randomised trajectories to reduce the effectiveness of firing on the move, the round will fly in a predictable trajectory... from the muzzle of your weapon, wherever it's pointing. If you're sprinting, that could be at the ground. It could be into your teammate beside you. It could be into your own foot. Breathing hard? Your rifle is moving with you, and anything fired from it will be affected by this. ArmA had this system, and with a few exceptions, it worked quite well. It wasn't entirely foolproof, but it was a tremendous improvement.

Perhaps it's time developers waved a fond farewell to the fixed-camera-centric shooter, and welcomed a new system into their studios - a system where the player's avatar is the most important thing.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Quest for Perfection: Movement

As this is my first entry, let me begin this blog by offering my thanks to both Robert Briscoe and Jack Monahan for inspiring me to finally dump all of my many gripes, musings, and ambitions regarding gaming's past, present and future in one convenient place. I recommend you head over to their respective sites and take a good look.

Movement is, perhaps, my biggest complaint when it comes to gaming. It seems that no game can get it 'just right'; their player movement is either too unnatural, with little difference to the games of old where there was no better option (Half-Life 2 and many of the mods spawned from the Source engine fall into this category), or it's realistic but far too clunky to control reliably (Cryostasis, ArmA). Some games have managed to fall closer to the proverbial sweet spot, but as of yet, I have neither seen nor played one which has actually hit it. Call of Duty 4, for example, combined the fixed-camera, constrained player of the last several generations with smooth, fluid movement (facilitated by excellent animation work and camera movement).

Obviously there is a whole host of problems associated with bridging this divide: to what extent should control be handled automatically, so as to allow for fluid gameplay without jumping aboard the fixed camera train? ArmA's player movement may be extremely realistic, but it's equally frustrating. On many occasions, the player's body doesn't go where it's told, deciding instead to lag behind the input or to respond selectively to it. Trying to move around a cramped environment while switching constantly between walking and running is nothing short of a nightmare, and requires so much work that it can really kill the immersion. Having a lot of key commands for the player to use is one thing; forcing the player to use four or five at a time is just annoying.

At the other end of the scale, we have the games which subscribe to the old system, where the player only has a few keys to worry about but has very little fine motor control. For some games, this is fine. I would be quite worried if Valve suddenly decided to bring Team Fortress 2's movement more into line with ArmA's. On the other hand, I wouldn't complain if they rethought the player's movement for HL2 Episode Three. That's just it: single-player games rely on the inbuilt immersion to keep a player interested, as opposed to most multiplayer titles. Even as atmospheric a game as S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl, which is positively overflowing with a depressing sense of decay, paranoia and isolation, can be let down by overly 'gamey' movement. Why is this core element of every shooter overlooked? Many developers will labour endlessly to make sure level progression is perfect and that the colour palette conveys their intended feelings, but the most basic element of the modern shooter is something the player literally cannot go without. Doesn't this, then, deserve as much attention as the colour of the player's sleeves, or the design of the weapons they will be using?