By Rich "Beaker" Wyckoff
This may seem a bit mystical, so let's go back to the concrete examples, and talk about picking up objects some more. In the real world, it is generally as simple as moving towards the object you want to pick up, and then deciding to pick it up. A designer should be able to see that the expectation is that there are just two commands involved - 1) get within reach of object, and 2) pick up object. For the game to feel "right", the game needs to try to match the expectation that there be only two commands as much as possible. The details of translating those expectations between reality and the game world is where a designer's real skill comes in and is not a subject for this column, and anyway, before the translation can occur the expectations need to be identified.
Let's look at some common situations and the expectations most people would have in them. Carrying an object: if you have a good hold on the object, you don't expect to drop it unless someone or something tries to knock it out of your hands, and you expect to be able to trivially place it on any good sized surface. Climbing a ladder: you expect to be able to get on and off the ladder at platforms with little thought, and to be able to ascend and descend without risk of falling off. Jumping onto something: if the object is large, stable, and not very high or far away, you expect to be able to hop on to it and land on solid footing. These are all physical situations, and determining these expectations is as simple as reflecting on experiencing them. Of course, if you've never carried anything or climbed a ladder or jumped on a table, you may need to go and try (even game designers need real-world experience!).
I picked those three situations because they also exist in games, and the expectations are usually violated. In Trespasser, it can be a chore just to carry an object around - even when out of combat, brushing against walls and objects can wrench it out of your hands, and placing something to rest where you want it is near impossible. No other 3D games have really let you carry an object in front of you like Trespasser, and few let you drop objects - Thief is one that does, and actually has similar, though lesser problems. Ladder climbing is a particular fascination of mine, as I've never seen a first-person 3D game do it at all well. Half-Life was particularly disturbing until I figured out that the safe way to go down a ladder was to ignore the reality of the situation and to face down towards the floor, but dismounts onto high platforms to the side were risky throughout the game. As for jumping onto tables, 3D games usually tend to fall into the "why the hell can't I jump high/far enough" camp, or the "I keep sliding off/jumping over it" camp.
Even if you meet all the realism expectations, however, you can still wind up with a game thatís not fun. People have a wide range of gameplay expectations as well, most important among them that they are able to win. It's certainly not realistic that a solitary hero can triumph against overwhelming odds, but it is what most people want. It's also not realistic to expect to be able to carry fifteen different weapons and hundreds of rounds of ammunition, but that too is the norm. Because these gameplay expectations are often fundamentally unrealistic, however, they can clash with the realism expectations. If the balance is not carefully maintained, the whole game can wind up either too realistic or too "gamey," and neither is much fun to most people. Gameplay expectations are often recently acquired and faddish, however - when videogames were first introduced, for instance, the solitary hero against impossible odds inevitably lost (Space Invaders, Asteroids, Robotron, etc). Because of this continual change, designers can feel safer about not meeting every last one of the large heap of gameplay requests which come pouring in over the net, if their gut feeling leads them in a different direction.
Explaining exactly how a designer squares realism and gameplay would probably fill another few columns, and I only set out today to show that both are important, and designers (and the rest of the development team) should not ignore or be afraid of either one. Perhaps the best way to close would be that with some examples of how I would change the balance between realism and gameplay in the games I mentioned at the start:
Trespasser - could have been more fun if the arm was more context sensitive and could be controlled with higher-level commands, and if we had violated our sense of realism enough to either make the character faster or the areas smaller, or give some other quick-travel feature.
Half-Life - could have actually used a lower character speed, or at least more-realistic player physics, as I felt like I was rollerblading the whole time. And better ladder climbing...
Thief - could have used more game-like bow and blackjack interfaces. It's frustrating that even the most perfectly lined up arrow to the head barely ever seems to down a guard, or that blackjacking is next to impossible. However tough either would be in real life, your character is supposed to be an expert at them, so there should be more player assistance to concentrate gameplay on choosing when to do them, not how to do them.
Baldur's Gate - needs more realism in the conversation system (especially kill the idiotic, jokey NPC one-liners that have nothing to do with the text of the conversations), less realism in the number of NPCs wandering about and the annoying, old-school weight limits and party changing (most RPGs for years have done you the courtesy of having departing characters drop all their stuff, and "advanced" RPGs like those on consoles have gone even further by allowing you to swap characters in and out of the active party so you never have to go through unfun fretting about who to bring along, as well as providing infinite inventories).
Zelda 64 - needs more realism in terms of having better dialogue: they are making the series more and more adult (or at least young adult) - isn't it time to bring the writing up to at least Star Wars level?
- Rich "Beaker" Wyckoff is a game designer on the game Trespasser for DreamWorks Interactive.
|Credits: Beaker's Bent logo illustrated by and is © 1999 Dan Zalkus. Beaker's Bent is © 1999 Rich Wyckoff. All other content is © 1998 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited, so don't do it. We have ways of making you talk.|