Realism too distracting?

Discussion in 'Game Design' started by jefferytitan, Dec 22, 2008.

  1. jefferytitan

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    I recently played some of Valve's Orange Box games, and I noticed something. Portal has a complex mechanic but mostly very graphically simple levels, i.e. fairly stark and austere with little clutter. Half Life 2 has a more traditional FPS mechanic, but aims for realistic graphics. When I compared the two games I found that Portal was in fact much easier to pick up and I got stuck in it a lot less.

    I guess my number one observation on this is that in many cases Half Life 2 became like a hidden object game. There was clutter everywhere, e.g. cardboard boxes, soda cans, damaged walls and floors. It's realistic... that's the way the world is. But it made it very challenging to spot the things you're actually meant to pick up and use. And in a similar vein, you can see areas that you can't actually get to (or maybe just much later in the game). I found myself wasting time exploring things that were dead ends but didn't look that way. And don't get me started on the atmospherically lit (e.g. pitch black) stairs that I needed 3 tries to get up while being chased!

    In Portal however, virtually everything you could see was required to complete the level. In addition there was an iconic quality to objects. Once you'd seen a button you knew what all buttons looked like. And even if you hadn't seen one before, the form suggested the purpose (no, not just for buttons). I also really liked that they didn't hide that certain gameplay was linear. The circuits, ticks and crosses, etc made it clear how you'd know when you'd completed a level.

    At the end of the day I have great respect for the graphics, physics and atmosphere of both these games. However I feel that the design of Portal cleverly used the design and story to cover up any technical limitations, which is what I hope for both in games and in movie special effects. ;)

    Has anyone had similar gameplay experiences, or encountered good techniques to avoid such problems? Not just in 3D games, that's just my examples.
     
  2. Jeff

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    Dead Space is a great example of how to do it right. It's just intelligent level design. That is a case study on how you can have realistic graphics, but with smart level design it's usually clear which way to go. If you get lost, there is actually a button you can press that draws a line on the ground showing you the way.
     
  3. jefferytitan

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    Ah, I've read about Dead Space but I haven't played it. Can you give any examples of how the level design makes it clear? And I seriously like the idea of a button that shows you the way! Although you would think that there must be other ways you could more subtley lure players back on track, e.g. make completed zones boring, send scouts out from the active zone so you can track them back, maybe spawn useful items as breadcrumbs to lead the way. Make the path to the next zone seem more or less safe than the rest of the level via cinematic effects such as flickering lights. It would be cool if you could pull off something very gut level, e.g. head towards the place that seems the scariest right now and you're probably going the right way. lol
     
  4. zoombapup

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    I've got a group of students doing a study on exactly that. They are looking at methods used in games to guide players. The overall point being to study how subtle these effects can be while still being useful.

    Will let you know if we get anything worth talking about here.
     
  5. jefferytitan

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    Interesting. How are they working on that? Studying existing games? Trying techniques on testers?
     
  6. hippocoder

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    Its probably uncanny valley in some form. You are constantly identifying and at work recognising shapes in a realistic game, whereas in a very simple game you have plenty of spare processing time to think about your objectives. If that made sense :D
     
  7. oNyx

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    Painkiller has some kind of compass at the top of the screen, which points into the direction of the closest enemy or the next save point (if you killed all enemies).

    Crazy Taxi featured a similar compass thingy.
     
  8. jefferytitan

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    Hippocoder - I suspect that it does create extra work for the brain, although largely because you're often dealing with unfamiliar environments and/or objects. If the game was set in a familiar location (e.g. your home city) and items were in logical places (e.g. food is in a deli or restaurant) I don't think you'd experience the same problems. Similarly I suspect that people who play a game long enough get good at spotting items, plus or minus the terrible resolution if you play a console with a regular TV. ;)

    oNyx - the compass sounds like a good idea. Although implementation would be key. A compass that points to goals as the crow flies is much less useful than one which is pathfinding-aware. I encountered that in... some car game with free drive and missions. The name escapes me. I followed the compass but the roads where I was kept turning away from the goal. I had to backtrack substantially to find another road.
     
  9. vjvj

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    You're making a very important observation, but don't forget that Portal and HL2 are very different games. There are a lot of factors in play here other than "graphics":

    - Portal has a VERY simple* mechanic suite: Items passing through one portal appear through the other, and velocity is maintained while passing through portals (using the orientation of the exit portal). That's pretty much it. HL2 has a ton of different mechanics, and you're never 100% sure of what mechanic will be tested as you pass from one area to the next. You might be expecting gunplay when in fact you are supposed to break through a hollow part of the floor to drop to the next area. This ambiguity NEVER happens in Portal.

    - Portal's level design is inherently block-based, and 100% linear. HL2 has larger areas with multiple entry points and lots of backtracking. HL2 would still be more confusing even if they adopted the same art style. For another example, compare Super Metroid for the SNES to Metroid Fusion for the GBA. It's extremely easy to get disoriented in Super Metroid, while Metroid Fusion is cake to follow. Both games have practically identical "realism" levels, the same mechanics, and both games are 2D, even. The only difference is the style of layout.

    - Portal has no gunplay. You are never being chased. Lack of pressure does wonders for your navigational skills :)


    Couple questions:

    - Did you beat Portal? Because the end section is a rather large departure in terms of level layout style (although it's still easier than HL2).

    - Did you check your gamma settings while playing these games? I had the same problem about darkness in HL2 until I changed my brightness settings... The "Barely Visible" text should still be visible! None of the text was visible on mine until I fixed it...

    At any rate, I do agree with your point that graphical cues are extremely important in games, I just think HL2 is a bad example here. The HL series is generally known for being one of the best in the genre in this regard (most buttons/switches DO look the same, and non-interactive areas are generally clearly marked), and I think the confusion you are facing when you play it stems from other, aforementioned factors.

    *The word "simple" here is being used in a positive context. I prefer Portal to HL2, personally, with the simple action set being one reason why.
     
  10. jefferytitan

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    Thanks for your thoughtful response vjvj. I realise they are quite different games, I suppose my main reason for comparing these two games is because I played them one after the other and because they are from the same company. Therefore when beginning development they had similar technical resources and schools of thought available.

    Just to clarify first, I haven't played either game for more than a few hours. I'm only renting them. :D But I feel that the first few hours is what you're selling players on. If they aren't representative of your game as a whole, you're doing something pretty strange. I've nearly clocked Portal, although I did find the post-incineration areas much more confusing as you probably allude to. In HL2 I'm only on the 4th level out of 19. I've spent about the same time on both games, but my progress in HL2 has obviously been much slower. A lot of this time was playing hunt-for-the-exit.

    In Portal they could have put mobile enemies (although not with a portal gun, as the AI requirements would be huge!), breakable objects, etc, but I felt that the simplicity was a conscious choice to enhance the gameplay. I agree that part of Portal's simplicity is the linearity of the levels, however I feel that fundamentally they are both pretty linear games. Enemy activity, forward progress, etc seemed very scripted in HL2. The non-linear maps seem more like a disguise than actual choice.

    I hope it doesn't seem like I'm bagging HL2... it's more like having a pinata but nothing to hit it with. You know there's all sorts of goodies inside, but they're unexpectedly hard to get at! I'll check the gamma settings as suggested. Probably also tricky as I'm playing during daylight hours. ;) I also think you're in deep trouble if you miss some early in-game advice. Like how to charge the suit. Whats-his-name said to charge it "over there", I had no idea where "over there" was as I was in a cluttered lab, and then he just continued on merrily and I had to follow him. lol
     
  11. vjvj

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    Oh I didn't think you were bashing HL2 at all, honestly. It was actually the comment about realism that sucked me in; hatred of modern/3d/realistic graphics is near the top of the list in terms of flame war potential on these boards, so I wanted to try and balance out the discussion a bit. I realize that bashing graphics was not your point, but you'd be surprised by the segue patterns here :D

    I, too found the post-incineration areas in Portal somewhat confusing, and some sections were kinda disappointing as they lacked any real interesting use of the portal gun. As for HL2, if you're on level 4 you've probably missed some of the different mechanics. Actually, now that you bring this up I just remembered that there was one section in HL2 where I was getting completely lost all the time, and it was definitely due to graphics (although interestingly, it was due to lack of ANY visual cues, as opposed to visual cue overload). But I won't say more, just in case you get further.

    I agree that both Portal and HL2 are linear games. When I mentioned linearity, I was referring to the actual level layout itself. Portal levels are basically either one room, several rooms in a serial pattern, or several rooms in a circle. You can only navigate "forward" or "backward" through a level for the most part. HL2 has some pretty spidery level layouts, with lots of backtracking and even dynamic changes in layout (lots of "oh no, the explosion took out the elevator/doorway/dam, we need to find another route").

    Another thing I'm realizing is that HL2 is not a completely standalone game from HL1. The recharge stations are one example of a convention carry-over from HL1, without much of a proper introduction in HL2. That could be confusing to people new to the series.
     
  12. magallanes

    magallanes New Member

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    In the opposite, Left4Dead take a really different approach, initially you haven't a clue how or which route you must take, just a subtle signs,blocked path, voice message and lights can show you the path.

    But even when the game will not help you to track the route, you are able to reach to the destination.
     
  13. jefferytitan

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    What do you mean when you say that it doesn't help you, but you'll reach there anyway? Does it guide you quite subtley, or something else?

    I read a review about Left 4 Dead which seemed to say that there's a rough story that's the same, but it fills in the details based on what you do. Is that what you mean about being able to find the destination anyway? Because that would be one approach... as most games are linear anyway, the player is bound to find the destination eventually. So why not flip it around and make the destination where the player chooses to go? You could make a game so that any big building more than a certain distance from the starting point is a potential destination, and the map layout is twisty enough that there's plenty of opportunities for ambushes etc going to any of those locations. Then you could just alter street signs, zombie placement, graffiti etc as required once they pick a direction. lol
     
  14. Sol_HSA

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    My pocketful of cents on this subject -

    I've recently* played bioshock and mass effect for the first time, and in both I found that it took a while to learn which things are clutter/static/scenery and which really matter.

    In the case of mass effect, before I learned these things the game felt absolutely amazing, like being in a scifi movie, and after playing for some hours I learned to separate the things I need to care about from the scenery, and the game turned more into a.. well, game. Still, one that I liked a lot.

    In case of bioshock, due to the whole horror/survival/shooter/atmosphere thing, before learning which bits are important, the game felt just plain awful. Once over the initial learning bump, the game turned into a regular FPS, and I really couldn't make myself like it, even with all the production values, atmosphere and whatnot. I had to force myself to play it, except for the last few levels (I'll skip the spoilers).

    This actually reminds me of my time in Israel. When I was first there, not knowing the alphabet or anything, I couldn't say which bits of the scenery are static and what aren't - like advertisements or whatever, so learning to navigate took a while. At first I also wondered why they only used one typeset, but after seeing enough hebrew text, I realized they actually do have several, but there's just much less variance when compared to the fonts in the 'western' alphabet.

    All that said, yes, realism is a distraction, but we rather quickly learn to separate the things that are important from the "scenery". When you're walking a dog, you tend to notice other dogs..

    *) within past year or so
     
  15. gmcbay

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    The level design in Left4Dead is extremely linear so you basically have no choice but to keep going "forward" and you'll eventually find the end, in every situation all you can do is pretty much just go forward or back where you came from. There are a few places where there are multiple paths to the same forward location but each of the individual paths is extremely short and linear in their own right.

    On the topic of the original post, though, I know when I used to play hardcore FPS games at a high level during the Quake1 - Quake3 era it was very common for the really competitive players to disable as much of the pretty graphics effects as the game allowed via menu items and console commands. It was common to go to LAN competitions and see all the top players playing with particle effects set to a minimum, running lower rez than their machine was capable of, using lower texture detail than their machine was capable of, etc. Partially this was to get a performance boost via higher frames per second, but I know for me and people I know who played back then we also recognized and discussed the cognitive benefits of having simplified displays and would run with settings that made things less complex looking even when it made things uglier and didn't impact performance either way. For us this was done so that we could make decisions about enemy movements in like 0.1 seconds instead of 0.25 seconds or whatever, but I think the same idea does scale up to the point where you can say that simpler environments and less cluttered rendering does make things easier to understand even for casual players.
     
  16. desmasic

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    Personally, I think it's way too easy to get lost in Left4Dead when you are inside a building. The ways to your goal are multiple and you are always on the move and unless you actually pay attention to the surroundings everytime you play the maps, you will find yourself getting lost first few times (there is no waypoint, nothing to guide you to your location). Every level has a destroyed look and there is no story to guide you in your quest. Overall it's not a survival horror experience I was expecting (feels like Quake 3 with bots using zombie skins.. except for shooting and dodging they just run straight at you for melee attack).

    Compare that to Dead Space, you can get lost in that as well, but the breadcrumb feature (sort of like Fable 2) helps you find the way. It's actually pretty fun to activate it as well. :p Here's a small video I made of that game, you can see the feature in use. The story is brilliant, every place has a purpose and even if you get lost, you can check the logs to know where to go next again (level design is easy to navigate through). Breadcrumb feature only makes it easier.


    As for HL2, I don't find the game realistic or level design confusing. For a simple FPS, it's way too linear for my taste.
     
  17. Sol_HSA

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    If you check the commentary (and I recommend it), they explain that they tried free-form maps as well, but ended up with people just using the most optimal route, missing most of the content.

    This was also due to some bugs in the quake physics, which made it possible for you to jump higher if your FPS was high. =)
     

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