A rant against 3D platformers!

Discussion in 'Game Design' started by techbear, Aug 19, 2006.

  1. techbear

    techbear
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    I just finished Psychonauts, the PS2 game by Tim Shaefer that everyone sez is mind-bendingly awesome. Meh.

    Now, there's no doubt that the CONTENT, the story, voice acting, plot, level design, are all first-rate. And I also have to say that I'm an atypical consumer, with no real love for platformers of any dimensions. But psychonauts was, in the end, just another 3D platformer. Platform puzzles, collectables, powerups, and the infamous double-jump.

    I loved everything about the Giant Lungfish (in the middle of the game), and thought that THERE, they introduced some fun and innovative mechanics. In the boss fight, you see yourself though the eyes of the boss, and as he chases you, you have to run and jump through terrain to keep away from him. Then, inside the boss's psyche, YOU get to be the giant monster, stomping cities in a loving homage to Godzilla.

    But aside from that, yawn.


    However, I also feel that I've formed a new game design theory. I now believe that 3D platformers are inherently, profoundly flawed. Their camera cannot be made to work properly, because the format of the game itself prevents it.

    I definiately had big problems with the camera in Psychonauts. I'd often miss a jump or get pounded by enemies because my camera had ducked behind something, or was facing the wrong way. But EVERY 3D platformer suffers from this! Go back to your gaming mags; every 3D platformer review contains camera critism. The reviewers seem to believe that there's a perfect camera out there somewhere, and the games they play only measure up to certain degrees.

    The granddaddy of 3D platformers (conventional wisdom states) is Mario 64, and I've read people saying that THAT camera was perfect. I played the game. It wasn't. The world-space was a lot less cluttered; that can help the camera.

    I think everyone in game development thought 3D EVERYTHING was simply inevitable, starting with the PS1 (I thought so too). Moving platformers from 2D to 3D sounds and looks so RIGHT, no one stopped to ask if a perfect follow-cam was even possible. Now my young nephews don't bother to ask if there's a better way; they just play the game and enjoy it.

    But as game designers, we DO have to ask if there's a better way. I don't know, but I'm convinced that if we can find it, everyone in the world will wake up and realize that 3D platformer cameras were ALWAYS wrong, onerous, tiresome.
     
  2. TheMysteriousStranger

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    I've always thought that 3D platformer camera problems would be solved by always having the camera at a set distance. The only time the camera causes problems is when it gets stuck on something or decides to zoom in because there's a wall there.

    Why not simply make it so any geometry between the player and the camera is drawn at 15% opacity? Problem solved - now the camera can go anywhere without obscuring the player or his view.

    PS. Psychonauts ruled. Best. Platformer. Ever. Despite its flaws.
     
  3. soniCron

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    Interesting. I always figured many of the camera problems would go away, once 3D games were actually 3D! That's one thing that bugs me to no end: the lack of depth perception in 3D games makes for a wholy difficult exercise when faced with spacial puzzles and activities. Ideally, the camera also needs to impliment some form of head-tracking.

    However, 3D platformers have been "done right" in the past. Look to the early Crash Bandicoot series for that. Of course, that's more like 2.5D. But there's really far too much "wandering," in almost any 3D game of today. It really helps to constrain the path, or at least completely populate the ancilliary areas.

    Silly game developer, spacial navigation puzzles are for kids! :)
     
  4. Rainer Deyke

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    Mario 64, the only 3D platfomer I ever played, was the first Mario game that I couldn't be bothered to play through to the end. Horrible, horrible camera, and the lack of depth perceptions just made things worse.

    I find it disturbing that other 3D platformers were actually released with a worse camera.
     
  5. AnthemAudio

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    Most games now go with the whole opacity instead of wrangling the camera unexpectedly. That is they draw a line between the player model and the camera. And if any structural object comes in between the object goes opaque.

    A game I finished recently had a neat idea. The object would kind of dissolve in and out entirely. Here's a quick vid to demo:

    http://www.anthem-audio.com/demos/NarcolepticNinja/Ninja_CameraFade.wmv

    I think they just needed to tweak that "line" to be a bit larger or to stem from nearby enemies as well because sometimes a building will "dissolve" back in and blocks some other important stuff. But it's a cool idea more people should try out. I don't think the camera should ever move unless the player wants it to for 3D platformers.

    But you're right, every review I've read of these games always smash the camera. I can't think of one that got it right. Mario64 felt right and worked for the game, but it was still far from perfect.

    Tony
     
  6. jankoM

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    I havent played with many 3d platformers but this video showed me why everyone so hates these cameras... on this vid. it seems that the most complicated task (biggest challenge) is to turn to the enemy to then hit him... which can't be too fun...

    otherwise seems like an interesting game.. I am downloading it
     
  7. stiill

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    Most 3D platformers have a very wide-sweeping weapon (Ratchet's wrench, Raz's fist), or a wide-spread gun (Jak's shotgun), or a lock-on (Zelda), or a bit of fudging to orient you towards the enemy you're probably aiming at, or some combination of those techniques. You are correct: if the biggest challenge is turning to the enemy to hit him, the game developers have done something wrong.

    The "hole in the wall" camera has its own failure cases. I agree that selective use of translucency can be great, especially for smaller objects that don't count as camera geometry (i.e. you don't want the camera getting blocked or freaking out when it runs into a little post, or a moving enemy). However, just because a little hole is cut out of the wall so you can see your character, that doesn't mean you can actually see the thing off to the left that you're trying to jump on-- it's still blocked by that wall that has a hole cut out of it.

    With or without bits going translucent, a good 3D camera for arbitrary environments is an intractable problem. The easiest way to make it good in most cases is to have simple, wide open areas. The first Jak and Daxter did this well most of the time. R&C did this well also, I think (it's been a while since I played it). Most of the time when a platformer camera gives you trouble, it'll be in a more intricate area.
     
  8. Rainer Deyke

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    That video more or less shows everything I don't like about 3D platformers.

    The player should never be hidden by an obstacle, not even for a split second. Nor should the path in front of the player, and especially the opponents near the player. However, turning important obstacles completely invisible isn't such a great idea either.

    And what's with the rotating camera? Is it too much to ask for a game that doesn't turn walking in a straight line into a challenge?
     
  9. oNyx

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    No. That solution (workaround really) comes with its own set of problems. Like you can trick it to see outside of the map or into secret or currently locked rooms (Oni comes to mind).

    A cam will never work in a fashion the player happens to like... well, that is as long as you dont use brain inputs. I guess that the new rotationary controllers could be used in a pretty intuitive way to control the cam directly. Like holding the right shoulder button for enabling cam modification with rotation, pitch, up/down... whatever. Using the c-stick of the GC (or c-buttons of the n64) works sorta alright, but they keep your right thumb occupied.

    Super Monkey Ball for example uses some auto cam, which (non-linearly) turns into the direction you move. I really cant enjoy the game at all thanks to that. Why should I bother with such a retarded indirect cam, if I could use the c-stick instead? But no... they had to dumb it down to the max... single stick controls only.
     
  10. electronicStar

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    At the birth of 3D-capable consoles , and with all the possibilities of 3D modelling, designers came to believe they should make playing area that would be realistic and life-like, instead of modelling the playing area (map) to suit the needs of the gameplay they thought they should go for the cinematographic approach.
    Hence all the camera problems ....
    I think modellers should model the playing area according to the gameplay specifications and not try to do something realistic or beautiful or impressive 3D-wise.
    If you look at old-school 2D platformers, their levels were not realistic at all, it was very unlikely that you would encounter such a configuration with a path that could be deployed on a transversal 2D map like you could see it in 2D platformers.
    That didn't prevent the game designers to create realistic and/or impressive levels (see Shinobi, Strider, etc...). After all, videogames aren't supposed to be realistic, they require a minimum of suspension of disbelief.
    That explains why Mario64 was a bit better than the rest of the 3D platformers, because the Mario level are not particularly realistic , most of the levels look most 2.5D than 3D (with, for example, 2D platforms slapped on the side of a mountain )

    And if you really want to make a realistic level, I would suggest to use the FPS paradigm (first person camera)
     
    #10 electronicStar, Aug 19, 2006
    Last edited: Aug 19, 2006
  11. Nexic

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    I also hate 3D platformers. Crash Bandicoot is a really good example of this, in the levels where you are forced have to run into the camera, so basically you have no idea where you are going. I guess the designers thought it would be a good challange, but it was totally unfair and frustrating.

    Pandemonium on the PS1 was not too bad, but then that just played the same as a 2D platformer since you could only really go sideways and there was very little depth.
     
  12. soniCron

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    The new Prince of Persias use pretty solid camera work. They're not immune, but they're certainly one of the better ones...
     
  13. AnthemAudio

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    Regarding the first video I posted here...I think the player was slowly rotating the camera...not sure. I was just using it as a visual aid for the good and bad points of this discussion. Good being a cool dissolve effect, bad being still unstable and unusable sometimes, needs tweaking for sure.

    The reason I'm for opacity and transparent objects is not only that I don't want the camera manager to wiggle to a better angle, but I don't want it to zoom into me any either. If I'm setting up a move, or a shot then zooming in ruin that moment...like Splinter Cell does. I liked the camera there, but it was pretty fussy when needed it to be forgiving. Then again, in Splinter Cell it would look really odd for a building or car to go transparent...so you do have to keep in with the setting of the game. Mario64 was pretty damn abstract...

    Which reminds me of another game I worked on. Camera was probably the thing most people hated about this one. But it tried so hard.

    http://www.anthem-audio.com/demos/BallsToTheWall/BallsToTheWall.wmv

    (BTW, I designed this level so you had to hit a trigger, teleport back to the top, hit another trigger, teleport back to the top....which is why I called it "From The Top")

    Again, not perfect...but what else could we have done for this kind of game?

    It is in fact the free range aspect of 3D platformers that make it impossible to create a camera system that can encompass everything a player will try to do. Which is a bummer because that's one of the cool things about 3D platformers and if you take it away...well you have Resident Evil. Now they were going for stylistic camera angles but it did impede gameplay, did it not?

    What is the answer then? Is the 3D platformer inherantly flawed? Is it a forgiveable flaw? Every genre has a major caveat, perhaps this is just one that will stick with 3rd person perspective games forever!

    Tony
     
  14. Rainer Deyke

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    Zanzarah was the one third-person 3D game I played where the camera didn't get in the way. IIRC, the camera was a fixed distance from the player's avatar, close enough so that there wasn't room for any major obstacles, and it was directly controlled with the mouse. The control scheme felt like a first-person shooter even if it was third person, which may explain why it worked so well.
     
  15. PoV

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    Yep, 3rd person 3D game = Camera problems. The only way around it is with a fixed, or path following camera. That way, you can build the areas that don't obscure the camera. However, it also means you can't/shouldn't do jumping challenges, unless you're restricting to 2 dimensions. Technically, the fixed/path camera is the same thing as a 2D game (platformer, beat-em-up, adventure), except we have more depth than parallax scrolling can offer. Games like tactical RPG's (FF Tactics, Disgaea) are screwed when it comes to heights taller than a character, or block sized pits deeper than a character, unless they have some sort of discernable minimap.

    If you need to play a 3rd person free camera 3D game, you have no choice. If you try to emulate the concept in the real world, you'll find out it's impossible not to have objects occluded. 1st person is the only way to avoid camera problems (beyond the ones you create as a player, walking in to walls like a fool ;)). The only solution is to do like film, and plan shots that don't occlude important entities (i.e. fixed/path camera).

    That's not to say there aren't things to ease out the experience, but I'm just not going to define them all this post. ;)
     
  16. Anthony Flack

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    Techbear, you have not created a new design theory, I'm afraid. The problems inherent with 3d platformers are well-known and well-documented, and there are many possible ways to tackle them, but it really depends on how you want to handle it.

    Basically, people can't cope too well with 3 axes of freedom in a game. 3d platformers work well enough when you're running around on the ground, but as soon as you have to jump about and move 3-dimensionally it all goes a bit pear-shaped. First-person shooters manage to do all right because, if you think about it, targeting and shooting things from a first-person perspective is almost a 2d activity.

    But there are so many other techniques you can use to manage a camera, or remove spacial ambiguity. A lot of it comes down to how you design individual bits of the game. The one thing you can't really do is make a 3d game that uses the kind of gameplay you find in a 2d platformer, and many early 3d games made that mistake. It took designers years to realise that performing tricky jumping sections in a 3d game was just annoying.

    Psychonauts has a fantastic script, a great story, excellent voice acting and brilliant visual design. As a platform game, it's pretty average though (and in fact it's a little old-fashioned; there is far too much collecting going on). On the whole, I'd say the package was above-average and well worth playing, but from a game design perspective there is a lot of room for improvement. Double Fine could use another designer on board to bring their game mechanics up a notch or two.
     
  17. PeterM

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    I usually find that whenever a game tries to be smart with its camera, especially moving to avoid obstacles or moving in the direction it thinks I want to go next, it does it wrong at the worst possible time. This usually results in a missed jump or being hit by an enemy I couldn't see.

    My all-time favourite strategy is this:
    * The camera never ever rotates itself during normal play. The joypad is used to rotate the camera around the player.
    * The background never fades out, since that can reveal geometry that was never meant to be visible (e.g., the previous frame buffer contents if you're not clearing the screen every frame).
    * Whenever a wall is in the way of the camera, a ray is traced from the focus point (player) to the old camera position. The point of intersection nearest to the focus point is now the new camera position.
    * The camera tries to pan from its current radius to a natural radius. This natural radius can be computed from the player's speed.
     
  18. Cubies

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    I know this is off-topic, but I'm curious as to what software you used to record the video game being played. I've tried FRAPS will no success. (Unregistered version.)
     
  19. AnthemAudio

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    GameCam. I have both, and for some apps Fraps works better, some Gamecam.
     
  20. Larry Hastings

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    There's one 3D platformer series I can name that had zero camera problems--because it was first person. That was the breathtaking, now incredibly aged, Jumping Flash series for the PS1. Now there's a game series that needs an indie remake!
     

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