Split-Screens and Widescreens

Split-screen modes in videogames are often pejoratively labeled as the “little brother” feature. I think the association was always there, but only recently has the term itself gained popularity.

With the advent of XBLA, PSN, etc., console gamers are playing multiplayer titles the same way their PC counterparts have been for years: online. Supporting both online and split-screen modes is not a trivial task, so the older brother — much to the younger one’s assumed chagrin — ends up hogging the console. If a split-screen feature is present, though, both can enjoy the game at the same time, hence the “little brother” moniker.

Of course developing multiplayer games for a single screen has been around for ages. Shmups, puzzle games, rhythm titles, rail shooters, etc., often only require a single screen to accommodate all the participants. Other genres like scrolling beat-’em-ups or fighting games tend to lock or stretch the playing field to attain similar results. However, when a title requires a large physical separation between the players (such as in a racing game), console titles have generally relied on a split-screen approach.

Split-screens (especially with 3D games) are computationally expensive, so their implementation tends to be quite basic: each player gets his own personal rectangle of real-estate. In two-player games, this means dividing the screen into two portions with either a horizontal or a vertical line.

It might look pretty (if a bit wide), but I didn't enjoy Gears of War's horizontal split-screen co-op.

On older, squarish TVs neither the horizontal nor the vertical approach could really be that graceful, but the horizontal split became a de facto standard. It made sense since much like human vision, games were more horizontally oriented. It was the lesser of two evils.

With the rising popularity of co-op and the advent of widescreen HD TVs, though, I assumed this would change. My HD TV’s picture-in-picture option allows me to vertically split the screen between two visual streams, and it works quite well. After all, 8:9 is a lot closer to 4:3 than 16:4.5. It’s something developers have started to address — despite the fact that many current games are designed for a 16:9 aspect ratio — but split-screens still tend to be a bit of a mess.

To improve their implementation, I would suggest the following:

— Provide an option for either a horizontal or a vertical split-screen mode. Automatically selecting one might seem user-friendly, but it’s also a very divisive issue. Once split-screen is implemented, it should be relatively simple to support both modes, so why not let the player choose which one he prefers?

I didn't know Splinter Cell: Conviction had a vertical split-screen co-op mode! I was going to wait a bit for its price to drop before picking it up, but now I'm tempted to get it just so I can play it with my roommate (hi Dave!).

— There’s no rule that says 100% of the screen real-estate must be taken up by the players’ viewports. This can often produce a warped and cropped appearance, so why not try to maintain correct aspect ratio (in either mode), and use the remaining space to display a minimap, the inventory, HUD components, etc.?

— The major issue with vertical split-screens seems to be the lack of peripheral vision. It’s a legitimate complaint, but one that also seems easy to address with a little bit of field-of-view tweaking. FPS games in particular have been reducing the FOV for quite a while now, and widening it for split-screen modes should be very simple to do.

Thoughts?

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ROM Hack Goodness

The practice of editing ROM images has been around for a while, and it’s probably best known for inserting crude sexual jokes or making games much more difficult.

Of course that’s not its full gamut.

There have been plenty of ROM hacks that tweak games in various interesting ways. Some are even complete overhauls, clearly resembling the originals but providing lots of new content.

I find all of these quite interesting as they represent additions and alterations that the games’ fans clearly desired. There’s quite a few of them too, so here are just a few that caught my eye:

Rockman 3 Endless.

Rockman 3 Endless
Something of a backport, this hack brings Mega Man 9’s Endless Attack mode to Mega Man 3. It’s a standalone patch, not just a small modifier, and it’s a good example of a feature/mechanic of a sequel that the fans wanted to bring back to an earlier incarnation of the series.


Mortal Kombat II Unlimited

Mortal Kombat II Unlimited
It took ages of EGM posting certain spoofed rumours to convince developers of fighting games that implementing some playable hidden characters in their titles was a good idea. Eventually this became quite common, but not before Mortal Kombat II was released. To make things right, this hack not only allows the player to take control of the secret characters, but also to play as the bosses.


Chrono Trigger Coliseum

Chrono Trigger Coliseum
New worlds, quests, enemies, spells, etc., are always longed for with beloved RPGs, but realizing a fan-fiction piece in-game is quite a lofty task. Instead, this hack concentrates on providing a varied gameplay experience by creating an arena where the player (and optionally his party) can compete against numerous enemies for prizes.


Like I mentioned above, these are just scratching the surface, so what are some of your favourite ROM hacks?

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Pop-up Videos and Love

Although I enjoy creating games more than anything, occasionally I ponder what it’d be like to focus on critiquing. If I were to take that path, I have a couple of ideas for “hooks” that could potentially set me apart from countless critics and reviewers. One such hook is (was?) the format of a Pop-Up Video.

The idea is simple enough, although time consuming. Still, it’s a sure fire way to stand out from the crowd, and Ben Croshaw’s Zero Punctuation has certainly shown the benefits of a unique format. Also, the iconic imagery used to convey opinions and trivia in Pop-Up Videos can be extremely preferable to actual voice recordings.

And with the advent of YouTube’s annotations, Frank Cifaldi of Lost Levels has created his own version of the concept:

Obviously it’s missing the visuals of Pop-Up Videos, and there’s a bit of a data overload for the length of the clips, but it’s still good stuff.

The videos also repeatedly mention one aspect of game creation that’s widely recognized but rarely discussed in detail: “the love.”

It’s a nebulous term, and seeing how it’s been a while since I’ve suggested any definitions, I figured it’d take a shot at it.

One of my personal favourite loving touches: the plant enemy from DraculaX. It's not a boss, yet it's only encountered once in this semi-secret room along the way to the alternate exit from Stage 1. It's completely optional and there's no prize for defeating it, but it greatly enhances to the atmosphere.

The idea of love in a videogame usually boils down to the romantic notion of a developer so passionate about a title that he surmounts countless hurdles to put his personal stamp on the creation. It’s the extra sprite that’s encountered just once in the game, the playful dialogue between minor characters only accessible upon subsequent replays, an alternate special move for a boss that only appears on the hardest difficulty, etc.

These loving touches don’t carry a lot of bang for the buck. They’re easy to miss, they’re rarely duplicated, and they usually have a minimal effect on the gameplay. If they’re planned ahead of time, they’re often the first elements to get cut when the realities of budgets and schedules rear up. It’s not easy to place any actual value on them, and when removed — or simply not implemented — their absence doesn’t seem very detrimental.

In short, they’re the opposite of the typical bullet-points that can go on the back of a box.

Baking bread in Ultima VII was far from a requirement, yet it's often used by fans to exemplify the game's rich setting.

Somewhat contradictorily, though, they can easily become the most memorable parts of a game. They’re what can set it apart from other titles and make it special to the player, and, in the grand scheme of things, matter a whole lot more than the number of levels or weapons. That alone warrants a definition:

loving touch, n.

  1. An element of a videogame that’s largely inconsequential and easily overlooked, but one that often represents quality and resonates as a unique and defining feature.

What are some of your favourite examples of “the love” in a videogame?

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Framerates Matter

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A while ago I was reading up on Starblade, one of the first commercial polygon-based games. What really struck me about the game was just how smooth it was compared to its spiritual successor, Starfox (granted the above links are YouTube videos that don’t accurately reflect framerates, but the differences are still quite noticeable).

It’s an extreme case, but one that nicely demonstrates the importance of rendering speeds.

smb

Despite having animations that consisted of only 2-3 frames, many classic games ran at 60fps. This granularity helped to smooth out movement, including Mario's beloved jump.

Of course no one ever complains about games being too smooth, but the debate of 30fps vs. 60fps continues to pop up. What’s more, the 60fps side keeps losing ground, often to the argument that humans can’t really detect more than 30 frames in a single second.

And that is completely untrue.

It’s an inherently flawed statement as humans are not digital machines. The human brain is always on, always receiving input. Light hits our eyes as a wave, and the information it carries is almost instantly transmitted to the Visual Cortex. The brain analyzes this data, focusing on changes brought on by motion and fluctuations in intensity. Displacement is interpolated via motion blur and identical input is discarded to avoid extraneous processing.

The “decoded” image is further analyzed by various parts of the brain, but the overall process — as complex as it is — is quite fast and versatile. Much faster than 30fps. Faster than 60fps, in fact.

So where does the myth of 30fps come from? Well, film and TV for the most part, but the framerates of those media are not analogous to those of videogames. Others have written extensively about the topic, so I won’t go too deep into it. What I’d like to talk about, though, is why high framerates are important to games.

unrealtournament3

The Unreal Tournament series has been known for letting its players set very high FPS benchmarks.

As a preface, different titles obviously have different requirements, and some suffer more from a low FPS than others. Also, the reasons for Insomniac’s decision to move away from their 60fps standard were completely understandable, if a little painful to accept.

With that said, here’s why I think high framerates are important:

1). Granularity

The framerate of a game is usually directly tied to the processing of its logic. As a result, action games that run at 30fps cannot have the same granularity of movement as those that run at 60fps. This might not matter much for turn-based strategy titles, but it makes an awful lot of shmups technically impossible to do at lower framerates.

2). Input Lag

Games are inherently an interactive medium, and as such the response times for input need to be virtually instant. On the hardware side this is rarely an issue, but a stuttering framerate can reduce the response times and greatly detract from the overall experience (especially in “twitch” titles).

3). Consistency

30fps isn’t bad, but what most people fail to realize is that it’s often the “ceiling” measurement, i.e., the best case scenario. Unlike TV and film, games are dynamic, and the processing required to render any given scene can fluctuate quite significantly. As a result, 30fps games actually tend to run at a rate of 20-30fps. These sort of inconsistencies can be very difficult to avoid, but they’re much less noticeable with higher benchmarks.

motionblur

Motion blur at its finest.

4). Motion Blur

Motion blur is the biggest reason TV and film get away with smaller framerates. The phenomenon of motion blur relies on the human brain’s ability to stitch together a series of blurred images into a single, smooth animation. Until fairly recently, games had absolutely no motion blurring, and even these days it doesn’t have quite the same effect. The reason for this is that post-process blurring is not always accurate, and in many cases purposely exaggerated to create a distinctive visual effect.

To properly accommodate for all these factors, a high framerate is a must. And when it’s there, it creates a certain synchronization between the player and the game; a smooth flow that more developers should strive to achieve.

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The Uncanny Valley Of Videogames

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I’ve recently praised the use of states and derided their absence, but it’s not a one-way street.

To put it simply, states are great for abstractions. They fit unrealistic settings very well, and give us clear signs of what’s actually going on inside the game. They can also diminish the need for complex transitions while making the best use out of limited resources. A clear benefit of this approach is gameplay that can rely on instant, i.e., twitch, responses. For example, a character in Street Fighter II can go from doing a leg sweep to a backflip in a split second without looking too awkward.

zeldaww

Despite being a 3D game, Wind Waker -- like most Zelda titles -- made great use of state-based mechanics.

States are not directly tied to arcade titles, though, nor are they unfit for 3D games. The correlation here is between states and the lack of realism, not states and projection types. The further a game gets away from what we know of real life, the more explanation and experimentation it requires. Sure, Super Mario Bros. might be pretty intuitive, but you can’t really tell how fast Mario can run and jump until you try it out yourself (or see it happen). Conversely, when initially approaching Call of Duty 4, there are many preconceptions for how the characters should move and animate because of their depictions.

Of course CoD4 isn’t a life simulation, but it does aim for what “feels” right and consistently follows its own rules. As does SMB, actually — both titles have a real sense of verisimilitude. One’s just more abstract than the other, and as a result can get away with being much less realistic.

Which leads me to my main point: as the fidelity of games approaches real life, state-based mechanics increasingly detract from that illusion.

But first, let’s take a look at two drastically different titles: Snow Bros. 2 and Grand Theft Auto IV.

In Snow Bros. 2, the enemies have a few basic states. There’s walk, jump, covered in snow (1/4, 2/4, 3/4, or fully), and a couple more. The physics behind movements are very basic, while the transitions are instant. As soon as an enemy gets hit with a shot, its visual representation changes to an animation that shows it on its back struggling to get free.

assassinscreedclimb

Say what you will about Assassin's Creed, but the way it allowed Altair to interact with his environment spoiled the audience of third-person action games.

In GTA IV, all game objects respond to a wide variety of variables. The cars don’t have a simple moving/idle/dead state, and their visual representation is a reflection of their physical properties. The cars accelerate on a curve and dip with each turn, while a drunken character’s skeleton animates him as he hangs on to the door handle.

Trying to apply the state mechanics of Snow Bros. 2 to GTA IV would result in ludicrous situations that would detract from its sense of realism. In fact, making the world feel more organic was one of the major improvement of GTA IV over GTA III.

And this gradual raising-of-the-bar is to be expected in videogames in general. Dialogues were once just text, with the occasional frame or two of a “talking head.” These days they’re fully voiced and lipsynced, and character models even emote and use body language. However, many games that rely on a realistic presentation still insist on state-based mechanics. I think one of the more notable examples of this is the upcoming Final Fantasy XIII.

Here’s a video of its demo:

Various fans have praised this game’s detail and fidelity, providing glowing commentary on its rendering of hair and other such tidbits. Well, it is quite a long stretch from the deformed pixel art of the older titles, but it’s also a clear example of dissonance between visuals and mechanics. The player character’s movement has an instant acceleration, and, when she gets stuck on a wall, she performs that old running-man animation. The topography of the obstacle at the 0:52 mark is also quite complex, but its collidable surface is represented by a giant, invisible block. Furthermore, traversing this obstacle is done with a single button press that initiates an instant and perfect jump. This movement is entirely scripted, and it looks quite awkward and unreal when contrasted with the scope of the environment and the proportions of the character.

Now I’m not sure if this is technically an example of the uncanny. After all, that phenomenon describes a feeling of unease brought on by an almost-but-not-quite-real object, and I don’t think anyone would describe the above example as being entirely realistic. Still, the uncanny concept deals with the contradictions between what’s expected and what’s witnessed, and I think high-fidelity games that rely on state-driven mechanics embody that point quite well.

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