Ever played a game that was packed with great set pieces, concepts, characters, and mechanics, but nevertheless felt boring? Perhaps the problem lay in how your character moved through and interacted with the game world. In this article we'll take a look at player/world interaction through the lens of player mobility for a few key games, and see how this helps us understand the way level design and character design should work together.
The Player Character and the World
Most games have player controlled characters, whether they're actual human beings in shooters, anthropomorphic animals in platformers, or cars in racing games (yes, I’m saying a car is a character). It’s surprising, then, that said characters are frequently looked at simply as a medium through which the player can experience the game world created by the developers, rather than an integral part of the game experience itself.
If I’m playing Assassin’s Creed (any of them) and I see a tall tower in the distance that I can climb and then jump off of and land in a cart full of hay, that’s considered a stellar example of an “interactive environment”. I’d argue that it’s rather a stellar example of a player character with a high level of mobility based interaction. Yes, it sounds like I'm nitpicking - that’s because they are both a description of the same thing happening in the same video game - but the process of creation changes drastically depending on which perspective is used, as does the final product.
I’m getting ahead of myself; let’s take a step back.
What I Mean by Player Mobility
Player mobility, as I use the term, refers to the tools the player is given to traverse a world. This can go from simple actions (running and jumping in a Mario game for example) all the way to more complex ones (driving, climbing, swinging, rolling, grappling and so on).
This isn't a very complicated concept, so let’s take a look at a few games and see what we can learn from them.
Spider-Man and His Webs
This is Spider-Man 2, from the previous console generation. It’s not really a good game. The voice acting is just terrible (sorry Tobey Maguire); Spidey has a million moves to unlock in combat, but the first combo you start with is almost always the most useful; and if you don’t indulge in side quests, the game is really, really short.
Still, you can ask anybody who’s played it what they think of it and they’ll all say it’s the best Spider-Man game ever, that is was tons of fun, and that they spent hours just idly swinging around the city. So why is that? Well, it's because of that last part: the swinging - it was awesome.
Spider-Man 2, along with just about every other Spider-Man game, has a really cool movement system: you can run and jump, but you can also swing from your webs, launch yourself using a web zip (you can see it in the video at 0:37), climb walls and ceilings, and even run on walls. This stuff was fun to do; nobody cared that the game was short, they spent way too much time swinging around the city to even notice it. The combat may have been dull, but for every mission where you had to beat someone up, there were three more where all you had to do was swing around the city. And the voice acting? People just ignored that.
What Are Players Doing?
This illustrates how important it is to realise how the player's time is spent. When designing a video game, you need to look at what content is going to be taking up most of the player's time, and in open-world games like Spider-Man 2, it's typically movement.
Now I don't know if this was the same train of thought the Spider-Man 2 developers (Treyarch) went through, but I do know that they made a game that focused on its core elements, and that even though they weren't able to flesh out the ideas surrounding it, the game succeeded as a result.
This type of thing is known as "game feel" and it should be tackled early on in development. Even the earliest prototypes of a game should be fun experiences, because more often than not, what you've just prototyped is what the player will spend most of their time doing. In fact, Shigeru Miyamoto (of Nintendo fame) talks about this in his Iwata Asks interview where he claims that during the development of Super Mario 64, Mario's movement was changed from the way it worked in the initial prototype and the entire game became boring as a result (though as we all know, this was fixed).
So does this mean that if you're making a game where moving the character around is what the player does most of the time, and you make that aspect fun, that your game will be amazing? Unfortunately, no. Game feel (in this case specifically relating to movement) is important, but it can't exist in a vacuum. Let's look at another game that demonstrates this...
Spider-Man and His City
Here we have The Amazing Spider-Man, released for every system in existence except the PSP and Vita. If you take a look at the video above, you'll notice the movement looks almost exactly the same as it does in Spider-Man 2 (which came out eight years before, for reference).
But it isn't identical - in this game Spider-Man's webs attach to the sky rather than to buildings, players have much less control over the angle and timing of their swings, and web zips have been replaced with the new web rush mechanic (which is functionally just a web zip that can be aimed in slow motion and that results in cool animations). It's a little different, but it's polished and tons of fun, so for the sake of this article it's essentially equivalent. However, nobody is going to tell you The Amazing Spider-Man is the best Spider-Man game; they probably won't even tell you it's a good game, let alone a great one.
So what gives? Wasn't Spider-Man 2 fun because of the movement system and doesn't The Amazing Spider-Man have almost the same system in place? The answer to both those questions is yes, but that isn't everything there is to it. You see, the Amazing Spider-Man mostly takes place indoors - in fact, most story related missions (excluding boss fights) take place in either the cramped sewers or the cramped genetic research/robotics facility. The few that don't instead take place in the cramped mental hospital, the cramped warehouse or the cramped bank.
Of course you’ve noticed the trend; every mission takes place in cramped indoor environments, places where Spider-Man can't swing freely (the swinging mechanics seen outdoors are completely removed during indoor segments) and where the camera constantly loses track of the fast-moving, wall-crawling hero. Basically, The Amazing Spider-Man has bad level design - or at the very least, level design that plays against the game's strengths.
Now, once again, I can't claim to be inside the developers' heads (Beenox this time), but The Amazing Spider-Man looks very much like a game designed with the mentality that the player character is simply a tool used by the player to traverse the world rather than part of the world itself. What I mean is that the player's abilities (which in this case are what make the game fun), were not taken into consideration while designing the game's levels. The people at Beenox created an amazingly polished movement system that was a ton of fun, but crafted an environment where using those abilities was either impossible or extremely difficult, bringing the game down as a whole.
More Isn't Always Better
This is Resident Evil 4, originally released for Gamecube (but subsequently released on many, many other systems); if you’re a gamer, you know about this game, as it’s widely considered one of the best games of all time. However, as you can see in the video above, player mobility is terrible.
I don't mean that it's a badly designed system, just that it's a restrictive system: you can barely turn while moving forward - meaning you constantly need to stop and turn to navigate through areas - and you can't move while aiming or shooting. Resident Evil 4 is absolutely no fun at all to move around in, but the game is awesome, because it's all about context.
Resident Evil 4 is supposed to be a scary game, and I think it is (for the more jaded of you, let's at least agree that it's "tense"). Now I'm no psychologist, so I'll just go with the dictionary definition of fear:
Fear: an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.
This doesn't frequently happen in video games, because in most games if something even so much as touches you they'll be obliterated by the fury of a thousand suns (action game characters are often super-human and ridiculously powerful, is what I'm saying). The developers of Resident Evil 4 (Capcom Production Studio 4) manages to make the game feel scary by limiting the player's abilities, especially their ability to run away from enemies. This sense of powerlessness really helps encounters feel nerve-racking and fills the moments between them with frightened anticipation.
This obviously isn't something new or fascinating I've discovered - the act of removing power from the player to instil fear is not some unknown technique developers have used to exploit clueless gamers - but it does help bring up a point I wanted to make. When I said that movement and game feel need to be tackled early on in development, and then said early prototypes needed to be fun, I didn't mean that you need to always have a character with which it’s fun to bounce, zip, drive, swim, backflip, or dance around an empty environment, because that definitely wouldn't be the case with Resident Evil 4. I meant that this sort of thing needs to be thought about and dealt with early.
Resident Evil 4 might not be a game where the main attraction is swinging around Manhattan, but it's easy to tell that Leon Kennedy's slow restrictive movement works in service of the game's main draws, scary things and shooting zombies, and that the decision to have him control this way was clearly made with this purpose in mind.
What It All Means
There are a ton of other cool movement based tidbits I could talk to you about, such as how simply changing the way a character moves around the world can take a game from being a run-of-the-mill third-person shooter to something much more (see Vanquish), or why trying to cross any expanse of land in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time without rolling is drop-dead boring... but let's cut to the conclusion.
When designing a game centered on a player controlled character, said character needs to be looked at as a part of the game world, rather than an agent acting within it.
What this means is that you can’t create a great game world and simply “place” the player in it, and neither can the movement (and other actions) of the player be carefully constructed to fit organically within the world you have created. What should happen rather is quite the opposite: the player character should come first. The player character and everything it encompasses, from movement to combat to benign interactions like opening doors, is what the player becomes within your game and what they spend the most time with, and they need to feel like the world was tailored to them.
Even in the simplest of games, few things create a disconnect greater than when the player feels like the toolset given to them is not the appropriate toolset for the challenges they are facing (and note that I’m not at all talking about difficulty here). All of this seems like a trivial specification, and it’s one that I’m sure is more often than not followed without explicit intent, but I can’t stress its importance enough. The consequences to screwing up can be disastrous, but when done right it separates the great from the incredible.