Games, how they work, and how they should work

Immersion Part Deux

Welcome back! To be honest, I’m glad. On reflection, that last blog post of mine was terribly written. I apologise, but I’m a lazy so-and-so and thus won’t be re-writing it for a while. To make sure this never happens again, I have enlisted aid from gamer and aspiring writer, Mish Kisbee. Say hi, Mish! <insert Mish waving here> This is all a learning process for me though, so if something slips through, forgive me please. I also noticed that I didn’t exactly stick to one of two mentioned forms of immersion. Never the less, I will continue, and bring you part two of my break-down of immersion.

 

HOW DO I CROUCH AGAIN?

We’ve all played games that didn’t have great controls. This didn’t use to be a problem, but now with games trying harder to be “realistic” and “immersive”, dodgy controls just will not do.

If you look back to the previously mentioned games for a moment, the reason that this is a problem is obvious. Manuals are for losers, so are generally not read, so that vital info that you have to hold A, B, RT, and LB to melee isn’t going to be read either. This leads to players panicking and (usually) flailing around the room shouting “howdoiknifehowdoiknifehowdoiknife-Oh come on! Dead?” With company it can be hilarious, but on your own it can just be really distracting or even de-motivating. If the controls are really bad, this scenario can play out several times in any one session, and ultimately lead to the game being traded in.

Solution? Simple. Convention. To be able to pick up a game and play like a pro right away requires you to know the controls, and the best way to know them is if you’ve used them before. The great games of the past don’t all have the same or similar controls because of some strange conspiracy. They do it because they work. Game developers aren’t being “clever” or “inventive” when they mess with the conventional layout; they just have the wrong idea of revolution or are just plain blind to how well the convention works. Of course, new control systems are inevitable, but they should be thoroughly tested. Far too often developers ignore QA feedback from players new to the game, when those are the people they should be listening to the most.

 

WHERE IS THE SAVE MENU?

Setting this aside, there is another common immersion-wrecking malpractice that must be addressed. A brilliant game can become frustrating if the menu systems are not navigable. Though it seems like a simple problem, designing a great and intuitive menu system can be a challenge, even for a AAA studio. As before, the importance is in testing the system frequently and thoroughly with new players.

There are a couple of general rules though that tends to work. Keep the main/pause menu simple. I mean really simple. Fortunately, this usually fixes itself; there’s not much you can add to new game, load game, multiplayer and options. Next, keep sub-menus easy to follow, which is a hazier criterion. Some will naturally match a linear system where each step happens one after another (e.g. starting/loading a game), but some will need more sub-menus or options. This is where testing counts, as little things like menu titles, button location and general navigability are very specific and require fine-tuning.

 

Now, that was better wasn’t it? I’m always looking for feedback from anywhere, good or bad (bad is better when it’s constructive, don’t just be a troll please).

Until next week, farewell!

 

Immersion (Part 1)

We are starting with a big one. So big I need two posts to cover all I have to say. You’ll see what I mean.

You hear the term “immersion” thrown around all over the place in game reviews, but what does it really mean? No one ever seems to say. If you break it down however, there are actually 2 ways of looking at immersion. You have what I like to call aesthetic immersion. This is how the player and the environment interact, and well as how the environment looks and how it makes the player feel. The other, I call story immersion. This is what most people think of when when say immersion, as it is the more traditional meaning, stemming from books, film and other non-interactive media. It’s how well the player connects with the protagonists, or even how comfortable the player feels being the protagonist. In this blog post I shall cover the latter.

Because this form of immersion is so readily practised in the traditional non-interactive media, it is normally executed very well is games and is almost fool proof. However, that doesn’t mean is never is poorly executed.

How does it fail?

Let’s look how and when it doesn’t work, then we can see what can be done about it.

Over detailing

Yes, over detailing can utterly shatter the experience. Take a look at something like a good-ol’ fashioned shooter like the CoD, Crysis or Battlefield series. Ever walked into a knee-high wall, fallen off ledge that you’ve gently been nudged over by a team-mate or been blocked by some slow, stupid AI in front of you? Sucks doesn’t it. This arises when the game advertises itself as being “realistic” not through marketing, but by the nature of the art style. Its related to a phenomenon that was discovered in robotics called the uncanny valley. I’ll let you google that yourself, but here’s a basic lesson on it. As things become realistic, the human brain finds things in common with reality and finds comfort in it until it reaches a point at which it flips and the human brain begins to notice the things that don’t fit. The effect can be so strong as to make children fearful of humanoid robots or other animatronics, and even cry at the sight of them. Anyway, the effect can be seen in many places including games. This leads me onto…

How is it fixed?

Well, in this case prevention is most definitely better than cure. Much of the problem comes from choosing an art style that falls in the uncanny valley, so the solution is to choose an art style on either side of it. The trouble is, we can’t go beyond it, simply because gaming platforms simply don’t have the computing power and it would just be very difficult and time consuming to make. This means we have to go on the hypo-realistic side of the valley, or cartoon style to you and me. This actually doesn’t solve the problem on itself, but makes it much easier to create workarounds. Let’s take a look at the example I gave earlier. When in the realistic game, you are met by a low, easily jumped barrier yet you are unable to vault it, you start thinking to yourself “WTF? I can jump that thing and it’s higher than this!” You notice it because it doesn’t fit with the environment. However, with correct application, the play never thinks about things like that while playing a game with a non-realistic art style. For example (this is my personal favourite), Team Fortress 2. In one map in particular, there is a low crash barrier (like the ones on motorways) keeping players on the path. No one ever thinks twice about it! this thing is about waist high, but some characters can jump up (with a little explosive help) to about 10 times their height! There’s just no need to jump over it, so it doesn’t appeal to the player to do so. If a player does try to jump it, instead of thinking “That’s not realistic” he/she thinks “Whatever, I must not need to go there then.” and carries on the path. Notice how this has also improved the flow of game play as it has persuaded the player to just move on.

I did say it can be cured, just that it is harder, so now we’ll look at that briefly. Sticking with this barrier example, the simplest solution is to make a higher barrier, but suppose you want the player to see out there at the beautiful environment in all its glory. The best solution then is to just put it a long way way. Keep the skybox detail there, but push it back a long way so the journey looks tiresome to embark on and just not worth the time to go and explore. That’s only one problem though. Let’s look at one more, then I’ll leave you in peace. Being knocked off a lethal cliff is a common tool in the troll’s arsenal, but can be equally annoying if done accidentally. Solution? Don’t allow players to collide. Simple and easily done in a non-realistic game, but can be just as immersion breaking as the initial problem in a realistic game. The usual method is to make the push-er have no effect on the push-ee. It isn’t a flawless solution though, as can be seen on many many CoD grief-ing videos. Unfortunately, for now at least, locking players in corners is going to have to be the lesser of two evils, but a ‘realistic’ will be found in the future I’m sure.

 

If you are still reading this then well done! Come back next week for part 2, where I will cover player interaction with games.

Hello, and welcome to my game-centred blog!

Now, you may have found this because you know me and I’ve pestered you into reading it. If you don’t know me, allow me to introduce myself.

I’m Mike. I live in the quiet south England town of Blandford Forum. I’m a gamer through and through but I go beyond obsessive constant gaming and enjoy creating my own content for games (mainly Team Fortress 2) so I can eventually break into the games industry. <shamelessplug> For example, I contributed to this http://construction.tf2maps.net/ </shamlessplug>. *ahem* moving on…

So, what am I doing writing a blog? Well, although I love games, I can’t stop seeing strange and frustrating things going on beneath the surface of some of the worlds favourite games (not mentioning any names. Yet.) and it really grinds me gears. I’m not here to change the world, I’m here to vent rage from my system and maybe come up with some ideas on solutions to the most persistent problems. To my friends who are still reading at this point, I also hope to teach you guys what the hell I’m talking about when I ramble on LODs, view models and “proper” optimisation.

For now, you will all have to wait a week for my first and highly educational blog post covering games (maybe sooner, we shall see). I’m still playing around with the site so don’t get overly attached to it right now.

Until then, farewell!

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