Posts Tagged videogame

Segues

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.

segue, n.

  1. 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.

Some of GTA IV's more hyperbolic praises were attributed to its seamless world and the ability to carjack any vehicle...

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.

...while Fable 3's most common criticism seems to be its anything-but-smooth hand-shaking minigame.

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?

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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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Fun With YouTube

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.

youtube2

Broadcast Yourself. And videogame clips.

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The Cattle Prod

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.

super-metroid1

The iconic escape sequence from the intro of Super Metroid.

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:

game death, n.

  1. 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.

super-adventure-island

Super Adventure Island's cattle prod is the very intuitive hunger mechanic that requires the player to constantly pick up fruits. Not only is this concept very easy to grasp, but it also fits in with the game's setting and is supported by the extremely horizontal level design.

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.

crackdown

Although Crackdown's races were actually pretty easy, the rapid checkpoint approach definitely increased their intensity.

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:

cattle prod, n.

  1. A mechanic based on diminishing resources that forces the player to advance in order to avoid game death.

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The Magic of Secrets

All sorts of entertainment media use the concept of secrets to add intrigue and evoke a powerful emotional reaction. A strong effect of unveiling a secret can be the validation of the observer’s perceptiveness and reasoning; a wink wink, nudge nudge for being such a smart cookie.

gta-sa-1

Grand Theft Auto - San Andreas' Hot Coffee mod. Despite the scandal this polygonal sex caused, it was not a real videogame secret.

However, most forms of media tend to be strictly passive. Aside from the occasional dabbling in interaction, the audience exerts no direct influence over the medium’s content.

Games — and videogames in particular — are inherently different. They are interactive and require players, not just observers.

There are plenty of lists online cataloguing the “best secrets in videogames,” but before we delve into this discussion, let’s actually define the term:

Secret, n.

  1. Something kept hidden from others or known only to oneself or to a few.
  2. Designed to elude observation or detection.



Now let’s apply this denotation to design in videogames.

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