Posts Tagged video
Videogames are filled with transitions: loading new levels, initiating scripted sequences, obtaining special powerups, etc. These are often accompanied by the familiar wipes, fades and cuts of the film industry.
The effects themselves mask pit-stops necessary for resource (re)allocation. The segmentation also creates a natural variety and lets developers work on separate parts of the game that are only later stitched together.
In short, these transitions are functional. However, they are not smooth.
- A quick and uninterrupted change to the player’s avatar or surroundings that often facilitates new gameplay.
The above definition is rather nebulous, but it’s based on a simple concept: a smooth flow keeps the player immersed. Segues do this by removing the awkward parts of transitions that break immersion, namely disorientation and helplessness.
Disorientation can take place quite easily as the camera cuts to a different point of view, or a different scene entirely. All of a sudden the player is expected to parse the change — to keep up with the fast-forwarding presentation — while filling in the gaps. Humans are quite good at this, but it’s a somewhat taxing effort that’s easy to get wrong.
Helplessness is strictly rooted in ignoring player input. Videogames are inherently interactive, and taking away control to show a transition strips the player of engagement. Plus, it’s never fun to wait on a loading screen.
Of course many videogames are quite abstract, but for the most part the medium tries to simulate various facets of the real world. There are no “bumpy” transitions in everyday life — aside from maybe losing consciousness — so it makes sense to limit them in videogames as well. That’s not always possible, but if the choice is there, it should be an easy one to make.
As hardware, technical design, and production methodologies have advanced, so has our ability to implement segues. Vehicle sections now take place in the same maps as on-foot action, level geometry gets dynamically streamed in, scripted sequences play out as the player explores the environment, etc. These are almost universally praised as they make for some very memorable moments, but smooth transitions have been around for a long while.
Here are just a few of my favourite examples:
1). Spy Hunter’s Boat Segments
Spy Hunter was famous for giving players the ability to drive into the back of a moving truck. This was done at full speed without any camera wipes, but it wasn’t even the game’s greatest segue. No, that honour goes to the car-to-boat segments.
These had the player race through a dockside garage only to emerge in a different vehicle without slowing down for a second. It wasn’t the most realistic transition, but like many moments in Spy Hunter, it perfectly emulated the craziness of action-movie sequences.
2). Metroid’s Morph Ball
The Morph Ball has been a staple of the Metroid series since the inaugural title, and has always been an excellent example a segue.
Turning Samus into a diminutive sphere is effortless and presents the player with an all new moveset. The morph ball’s abilities also grant the player new options for combat and exploration, and switching between the two modes is quick and easy (even in the somewhat underrated 3D sequels).
3). Lost Odyssey’s Intro
Lost Odyssey’s FMV opening depicts a dark and epic battle. As the presumed hero fights his way through the ranks of bizarrely armed soldiers, there’s a brief pause in the action. The camera pans around, and a menu pops up! All of a sudden the player is in the game, and it’s waiting for his input!
There’s a slight hitch here, but it’s barely noticeable and makes for a fantastic intro. Sadly, the rest of Lost Odyssey is a veritable catalogue of awkward segues.
What are some of your favourite examples of smooth (or bumpy) transitions?
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.
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.
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:
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).
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.
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.
Recently I’ve been browsing YouTube for some examples of JRPG combat mechanics. This little search led me to a low-level, initial equipment playthrough of Final Fantasy IV (Advance). It was a pretty interesting watch, and it reminded me of just how much varied content exists on the site. Sure, you have your usual gameplay footage, corporate trailers and fan reviews, but there’s a lot more beyond that.
I’ve previously talked about the Alamo standoff, a technique in which the player’s physical progress is halted, so I figured I’d take a quick look at the opposite end of the spectrum: forcing the player to move forward.
Now there are plenty of ways to encourage the player to physically make progress in a game (collectibles, for instance), but forcing him to do so is a bit different. One approach is to simply take the player on an automated ride where his input bears little to no effect on the actual traversal, e.g., autoscrolling stages in shmups, or wholly scripted camera movement in light-gun games. Another possibility, and the one I’ll be focusing on, is what I like to call the “cattle prod.” But first, a quick definition:
- An event in which the player fails to adequately advance through a challenge, often resulting in a restart at the last checkpoint/save spot or a “gave over” scenario.
Game death is a pretty nebulous concept, e.g., losing a race and having to repeat it doesn’t have to actually involve anyone or anything being killed. However, it is also the ultimate consequence of not properly following the directions dictated by the cattle prod(s).
With that in mind, we can now talk about what makes a cattle prod work. Namely, diminishing resources that can bring on game death.
Cattle prods are manifested in various ways, e.g., time limits, combo meters, autoscrolling walls, currencies, decaying health, unstoppable enemies, etc. The overall feeling they tend to bring on is that of tension (and the possible satisfaction of overcoming a challenge) although that intensity varies greatly from case to case.
From what I’ve noticed, there’s three main factors that play into the stress level of a cattle prod:
1). Player Knowledge.
The more information the player possesses, the better he will be equipped to judge the situation at hand. Traversing a familiar level while being accompanied by a minimap that displays various points of interest is a lot less intimidating than being given a time limit and thrown into a hostile and unknown area.
2). Player Power.
The stronger the player is, the lesser the impact of any possible cattle prods. For example, if an RTS match begins with the player at a fully outfitted base with a lot of units and resources to mine, he won’t be too worried (at least not immediately) about succeeding. However, remove the base, provide only a handful of starting units, severely diminish possible resources and create a massive opposing army, and the stress levels quickly increase.
3). Resource Availability/Lifespan.
The more sparse the resource and the quicker it runs out, the more intense the overall experience. If a checkpoint is fifteen minutes away in a rally-style racing game, the player tends to trust the designer to give him plenty of time to reach that goal. However, if a checkpoint can be seen just a block down the street but the player only has 10 seconds to reach it, the experience becomes much more rushed and hectic.
The dials on these 3 factors can be turned independently — something that’s particularly important when using multiple impetus mechanics at one time. In the end, though, they all represent a single concept:
- A mechanic based on diminishing resources that forces the player to advance in order to avoid game death.