Well, well, well, look who’s come crawling back for more. Couldn’t move onto a different topic, could we? Join the club. Everything is just frames to me now, including that one cute girl down at Zambrero’s who makes a hell of a burrito. Flirting is way harder when input lag is a problem, but this is no time to get stuck up on the immobility of my love life! The time has come to graduate you from the school of hard motions and ship you out into the big wide world of smooth gyrations. Your graduation present is just this article, though, but I’m sure it’ll move you.
We’ve looked at how video games make movement happen, but I lacked to mention the consequences of this approach. Sure, input lag is an unfortunate side-effect, but there are plenty of other corollaries worth talking about that aren’t even hardware related. These consequences are mainly due to a change in attitude towards movement over the years. Where once there was weird, eccentric motion, a more palatable bore-fest has stricken the once noble art of movement. Now you don’t even need to think about what you’re doing to move optimally, and if that’s not depressing, I don’t know what is. To hammer home what I’m talking about, let’s look at everyone’s favourite chitinous little alien friend.
Don’t you just want to give it to give you a big dismembering hug?
Frame By Frame
Consider the Zergling. I’m sure most of us are used to seeing it in Starcraft 2, smoothly sliding across the ground from point A to point B, but it wasn’t always so graceful. In SC1, the lowly Zergling’s movement was stunted every few frames. It would jump forward, move very little for a few frames, then jump again. Why is that so important? Well, if you wanted your marines to shoot it, they needed to be at a certain range, which meant that you could gun down a few zerglings for an extra few frames before they jumped away. On average, marines moved slower than Zerglings, but those few frames allowed for a micro that was as intricate as it was interesting, unlike SC2’s interpretation.
With SC2 came a dramatic shift to how units moved. While the Zergling’s animation was still a little jaunty, their movement now resembled every other unit in the game. Their hitbox motion was smooth, intuitive and predictable, lacking the intricacies of its pre-DX10 ancestor. You could argue that this is an improvement over SC1 since it makes the game much more approachable to new players, but that seems like an odd argument to make. Without the ability to make insane plays that aren’t direct consequences of unit composition, the whole game seems duller to me. Of course, thousands of people are still playing SC2, and I doubt they want stunted zerglings anytime soon, but I can’t help but feel that the game lost something with the change.
Even Homeworld gave its units personality in how each ship moved
The Zergling is just one example, but many other games seem to have followed this mentality of ‘smoother motion is better’. Look at Lara Croft back in the day compared to now. Getting her to a point where she could raid a tomb was like disarming a bomb without a user manual, but that’s part of what made the old games interesting. The old and New Thief also have astonishing differences in their movement, especially when it comes to how freely the player can move about. The erratic dodging in UT2k4 compared to DOOM is- well, I suppose not all games suck these days. The takeaway from this is that plenty of games are concerned with smooth motion rather than intriguing movement.
Don’t get me wrong, smooth motion is fine, but that’s all it is. There’s no personality or flair to the movement if it’s all the same, and smooth motion more often than not misses the point of making a game. There’s a gap (which Frank Lantz labelled the ‘immersion gap’ in a nice rant) between reality and a game, and how you represent or misrepresent that reality is what makes your game interesting. Having smooth movement at a crisp 60FPS is all well and good, but how frame data evolves and influences decision-making is just as important as making a game approachable or intuitive. Smoother does not necessarily mean better, and this hinges on the principle of orthogonality.
Imagine this in terms of designing a video game. Easy.
Pop n’ Lock
Orthogonal design is a methodology where no two elements should mimic or overlap roles. Intuitively, you can see why this is a good idea. If two elements in a game are effectively the same, why is the second one there? It adds nothing, clutters the design up and could be taken out without consequence. It’s like Chekov’s gun didn’t get fired, appeared in every scene and made a constant high-pitched whine to distract every character in the story. Now, let’s apply this to movement. Making enemies with varied movement patterns means that they are easily identifiable, incentivise prioritising specific targets and give individuality to the blurs of colour on the screen. Some units run, some teleport, others jump, others roll, and each of these movements carries its own speed, smoothness and effectivity. The problem here is that coming up with these ideas takes time; something game developers have precious little of.
If you’re making a game about shooting things, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to fixate on movement. Surely more time should be devoted to adding more guns, getting the gunplay down, making everything feel satisfying to use, so movement takes a backseat. It seems like common sense not to get bogged down by things that aren’t the primary mechanic of your game, which is mostly right. Mechanics don’t exist in isolation, though, and how they interact with other parts of the game is just as – if not more – important than how the mechanics operate alone. If your game about shooting things also involves moving, you’re probably going to be moving while shooting, but how will that influence your aim, speed, accuracy, and other related actions? If you just use smooth movement, the interplay of all these mechanics won’t be unique; you’ll just end up with another CoD clone. These days, though, it’s unlikely that you’ll find many games concerned with anything other than player freedom.
Player freedom isn’t bad, but it rarely comes without some major simplifications in gameplay
The direction games have headed towards for the last decade has been one of giving the player more and more freedom. Technology has allowed developers to dream bigger over the years, including higher framerates and more powerful CPU’s. Dead Rising and Saints Row are perfect examples, with each new title giving the player new allowances to let you do more and more crazy stuff. Saints Row is especially good at illustrating this since Saints Row IV went so crazy with movement that it made the game less exciting. By giving the players superpowers that nothing else in the game could rival, there was no point in using guns or vehicles beyond any gimmicks they offered. The game went too far in giving players the ability to go nuts, which destroyed any resemblance to orthogonal design.
If you give players more freedom, you begin running the risk of overriding other mechanics. Saints Row IV’s superpowers overlapped with other parts of the game, like the guns and vehicles, and drove them into obsolescence. Remember Sunset Overdrive? You could grind around while gunning down zombies, giving you bonuses to your attacks. That also meant that movement and positioning were done for you. Putting any thought into movement became pointless, turning the high-octane gorefest into a dull on-rails shooter. The frame-to-frame subconscious thought was subbed out for a simplified ride on the doing-less-is-fun train. Giving the player more freedom hindered these games more than they helped, and both of them fell from grace when they tried to make the player stop having to think about movement.
Now this was grinding done right. Planning required, thought-inducing, potentially everlasting.
Bunnyhop O’ Clock
I understand the appeal of giving players the ultimate escapist experience, but there comes the point where freedom goes too far. For movement, the point of no return comes in the form of not having to think about it in the first place. You still need to consider units’ speed in SC2, but how they move is a negligible detail that doesn’t play the role it did in SC1. In Assassin’s Creed Unity, you can use your grappling gun to scale buildings, but is that a better design choice than navigating a wall with parkour? By removing the amount of thought required when it comes to movement, you’re losing a part of the game that could make every other part more interesting. Smooth motion is easier to understand, though, right? The player shouldn’t have to work to get from A to B, right? That’s just a minor inconvenience, right!? This entire article has been for nothing, has it, Nick!?!? INCORRECTOMUNDO!
Great games straddle a fine line between work and recompense. If you’re not rewarded for putting in some effort, the game’s not worth your time. If you’re not working for that reward, you’ll never feel satisfied because you didn’t have to invest any effort to get that reward. It’s a delicate balancing act with no easy solution (especially with casuals ruining everything), but letting the player effortlessly jump over gaps or scale walls leaves us in the latter scenario. The player’s experience will be too simple, so the game will feel like it’s flinging rewards in your face without needing the effort to be invested. The obvious solution is to make movement harder, but that’s a bit too general of a term.
Just because it’s more difficult to move around in a game than firguring out where those eyes actually end doesn’t make the game better
Three factors could make movement more interesting without making players gods. The first is having skill-based movement, like bunnyhopping, which requires precise timing or deep knowledge of the game’s mechanics. The basics of movement could still exist, but the advanced stuff would be reserved for those that could pull it off. This doesn’t necessarily mean movement is harder; there’s just more interesting stuff you can do if you’re willing to git gud. Titanfall’s parkour is a great example because of how crazy you can get with it, but it also ties into the shooting because of how much more challenging it is to react and aim on the move. That’s a lot more interesting to me than grinding on a rail, but that’s also because movement plays a bigger role in the game overall.
Another factor in making movement engaging is how pivotal the player’s/units’ movement is to the overall game. If movement plays a significant role in gameplay or demands more from the player, other mechanics interact with movement and make for more enjoyable gameplay. I love Time Crisis, but it’s not a riveting experience to stand and shoot without a real (plastic, of course) gun, and turret sections remind us all just how boring a game can get when movement is taken away. Even for an RTS, if all units had the same velocity and acceleration, there would be no personality or quirks to keep the game interesting. Keeping movement relevant and making it integral to each scene of a game is vital, but sometimes you just need to take a step back and keep it straightforward.
MOVE. AIM. SHOOT. MOVE. AIM. SHOOT. MOVE. AIM. SHOOT.
The third and final option is to get rid of everything and keep it super duper simple. Sometimes it’s the fewest mechanics that work best together, as orthogonal design has taught us via DOOM. Doomguy’s movement isn’t particularly unique. He runs, jumps and occasionally climbs a wall, but his movement rarely changes based on what gun your holding. He’s a simple man with simple movement, but the interplay between positioning, aiming and watching the enemy is so good, why change it? It’s not that I think SC2’s movement is beautifully elegant, but sometimes you can just take out what isn’t needed and work with only what you need, Team Ico style. After all, if it doesn’t add anything to the game, why leave it in? You might not be given the freedom of other games, but at least you can’t forget about movement altogether.
Movement is becoming a lost art in games, but that’s mainly because of the trend towards player freedom. I’m all for having freedom to get around, but not if it hinders my satisfaction with the game. A return to skill-based, important or diluted movement could make games a bit more interesting than the dull motion we see today. Games like DOOM and Titanfall 2 have shown that making movement interesting reaps its own rewards, and I’m hyped to see more games play around with these ideas. And now, for my final movement joke: That burrito is kicking in.