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Weekly Musings #6 - Camera, Camera, What's With the Camera
Author: Michael Ahlf & Kirk Kimmel
Date: July 22nd 2004
In the beginning, computer games were 2-D. And, for a time, it was good. In the 2-D days, the days of Mario Bros., of Defender, of Pong, nobody mentioned a game camera. Why? Because there were very few ways to make a camera. Mostly, it was a choice between top-down or sideways viewing. top-down was the favored approach of RPG-style titles like Legend of Zelda or Chrono Trigger; sideways was used for platform titles like Actraiser, Ninja Gaiden, Sonic the Hedgehog, and the Megaman series (Megaman X7 excepted).

But then we were gifted with more and more powerful consoles and PCs, and as things got better people started making 3D games. The first were fairly simplistic - flight simulators, racing simulators, and of course the ubquitous First Person Shooter, as epitomized by Doom.

Later came Adventure and Action titles, adding to the genres... and to methods of putting a camera into a video game. And the more complex people decided to make the games, the more they sought graphical superiority, the worse cameras have gotten. 

If you want to skip the discussion of camera modes and go straight to problems and solutions, well, that's why this article now has page 2.

First Person

The first person variety of camera is what flight simulators and driving simulators stuck to for a long time, and what first person shooters by name subscribe to. While there are some games that allow switching to other modes (Thief: Deadly Shadows and Mechwarrior 4 qualify, as they have modes to shift from first person to third), for the most part even these are best left in first person mode.

The First Person mode is, by nature, almost impossible for a design crew to screw up, because it puts the gamer 100% in control of the camera in a setting that is most natural to a normal human experience (very few people, except those skilled in meditation or who have been near death, will claim to have had views of themselves from the outside, much less gone through anything approaching a normal day in this mode). Therefore, when bringing up what causes game cameras to get into trouble, we can pretty much disregard it. 

Gamers assume, and rightly so, that if they miss crucial information in a first person camera mode, it's their own fault for not looking.

Side View

The Side View camera, again, is almost impossible to screw up. It is also the realm pretty much exclusively of fighting games, where the camera can be easily placed pointing at a spot arbitrarily between two points (the fighters). Games in this line are Rival Schools, Soul Calibur, Tekken, and Street Fighter EX.

Like the First Person mode, Side View is nearly impossible to screw up - provided the arena being fought in doesn't have obstructions behind which the camera can go. As fighting games rarely have arenas that are ridiculously laden with traps and walls and gadgets, it's usually not a problem. So, when examining what screws up a camera, we can likely ignore it.

Side View is also used when an action game such as Viewtiful Joe is only pseudo-3D; in this case, it works because the levels are deliberately designed in a way that the character is always traveling in only two dimensions. 

Head-on Locked

In a similar vein with Side View, but creating many more issues, is the Head-on Locked mode. This is usually a subfeature of Action games with a third-person camera; on player command, the camera shifts into a mode where it attempts to stay behind the player, but keeping another target (an enemy or item) in the center of the screen as well. Usually, controls are then altered so that sidestepping circles around said target, and forward/back likewise correspond to moving towards/away from the target.

It's pretty easy to see where this one falls flat - if there are ANY obstructions/traps/pits in the area, locking onto this target usually means the player has a good chance of falling into them.

Third Person (soft)

The "soft" Third Person mode is what the majority of action games, adventure games, etc. rely on. The main focus of this camera is usually the back of the character, but it will change focus in three instances: when an obstacle gets in the way (a building, wall, pillar), when the player moves in a way that indicates a need for more information on one side or the other (turning right, the camera will "lead" a bit; in the Tenchu series, when approaching an edge, the camera shifts to look down instead of forward), and when the player changes it. 

This is unsurprisingly the camera where most games of all sorts exist, excluding FPS/Simulators. It's also, obviously, where the most problems lie, because it forces the developer to make blanket assumptions about what information - and from what area - the player needs. When the camera lets the player down, they don't see it as their own fault, but as a result of the programmer messing up and not interpreting correctly what they'd need to see. 

Alternatively, gamers sometimes curse this camera because they wind up completely controlling it - overcomplicating the game's controls - or because it shifts back from their own pre-set settings too soon.

Third Person (hard)

A "hard" Third Person camera is relatively unlikely in this day and age; the closest are those games that ONLY shift camera on player command, such as the first Tomb Raider title, or the Soul Reaver series. It can be slightly less annoying, if properly set with an angle that produces a good deal of forward draw distance; on the other hand, if tilted too far forward, it can leave enemies attacking from offscreen.

Staff Writer Kirk also mentions Isometric View:

Isometric View (3rd person) camera fixed - a subset of Third Person Hard

Isometric, meaning "of or exhibiting equality in dimensions or measurements." Diablo and Diablo 2 are perfect examples.

If the character is facing down the x-axis, the camera is placed a fixed distance away on a line that forms a 45 degree angle from the x-axis. It is then moved up the z-axis and tilted down 45 degrees to aim strait at the character. It is not quite a side scroll view, but also not a full aerial view. The camera is fixed in terms of not being able to pan left or right, zoom in or out or rotate around the character - so at times it seems as if the world is moving around the camera, rather than the camera within the world.

This view is good for delivering information, everything around the character is visible - all items, enemies, objects stay the same size as the avatar moves closer to or farther away from them. This makes finding small items on the floor easier. The drawback to this view is that items in the game can be obstructed by in-game objects, such as pillars and walls. In the case of Diablo some walls are translucent, while others are not. This house in Landstalker for the Sega Genesis, for instance, hides an obstructed item.

Locked / Rail

The final camera mode is the locked camera / "Rail" camera mode. To see this in action, either grab a Final Fantasy title,  Devil May Cry, or Resident Evil. The Final Fantasy titles, to this point, have gotten away with camera modes wherein the camera moves on a fixed track because of their random-encounter system; with the exception of hidden chests/items, there was no content to worry about.

The Devil May Cry camera, by contrast, is one of the worst control/camera combinations imaginable. Enemies being offscreen, but still attacking, is bad enough - but when shifting screens in DMC, the control system shifts likewise, such that even reaching an enemy across the border of a screen is difficult at times.

How They Screw Up

Cameras in games screw up in one of three ways. They can overcomplicate the game, they can become unfixed, or they can withold vital information at exactly the wrong time.

FPS/Side View cameras have very little of this; by their very nature, they tend to give all the information available in a scene.

Third Person soft cameras can easily screw up in action titles, if the player is relied on too much to control the camera - in this case, the freedom of camera control becomes a liability. Good examples of this are hard to find in recent memory, thankfully - although iterations of the Dynasty Warriors series have sometimes come close. Dynasty Warriors also has some issues with draw-in rates (so many enemies onscreen that not all are drawn because the engine runs out of polygons, choosing not to render enemies rather than risk frame skipping), so it's hard to tell what's worse for that series overall.

Third Person cameras tend to be the worst. In the case of Third Person cameras, a compelling example of both good and bad is found in Spider-Man 2: The Game, just recently released from Activision. In this game, the "good" is exemplified by how well the camera works in normal mission fighting scenes, or in webslinging around the city - the camera stays uniformly behind Spider-Man, allowing the player near-perfect control at all times.

In boss fights, however, the camera starts to suck - the excellent "Spider-Sense" system notwithstanding, it's a choice between the camera getting stuck on walls indoors, or the less than palatable lock-on mode. This is probably at its worst in the game's final battle with Doc Ock, because the fighting area is just too crowded with junk (not to mention a pit full of water, into which falling is instant death). This is an instance where the camera being given free movement, and simply turning items between the camera and player translucent/transparent, would have been far preferable to trying to keep everything tightly in-scene with a solid camera.

Likewise, try climbing up a wall, and then executing a charged jump near the top. Result? The camera can't keep up, and briefly can't find a landmark to point to... so it gyrates wildly, almost sickeningly, and half the time Spidey winds up falling towards the street rather than landing on top of the building, because the controls are pegged to the camera as much as to Spider-man. Painful, especially since it's something that could have been programmed against. It would have been so easy for the programmers to have had the camera back up and go high when spidey was on a building wall; instead, they've got it sitting comfortably staring forward past his tights-clad butt, attempting to approximate a first person view while still keeping him in-scene.

Similarly, the Devil May Cry series is a perfect example of the troubles inherent in making directional control tuned to the camera, and not the player. Crossing boundaries between screens, Dante will continue moving in the current direction until the control stick is let up. After that point, the controls recenter so that "up" is away from the camera. This occasionally leads to areas where players, dealing with enemies across borders, get completely confused as to what direction will send Dante where. Similar events - though less likely because of its tendency to back off from the action - can happen even in Mario 64, which is often pointed to as an example of near-perfect camera AI.

There's overcomplication, and becoming unfixed.

The final problem is common to Side View, Third Person, and Locked/Rail cameras. It's denial of needed information. In all three cases, this comes either in lack of notification of treacherous terrain (trying to navigate a bridge while fighting a camera, for example, or avoiding pits in the ground during a boss fight while locked on to the boss), or else of enemy attacks due to an enemy attacking from offscreen. There are a variety of causes - sometimes the camera gets stuck on objects. The solution in this case is what some designers have done; make the camera intangible, and turn anything between it and the player, transparent. There have been varying degrees of success with this, however - occasionally, it's resulted in transparent (thus hard to see) enemies that are right on top of the player, again denying needed information.

Sometimes it's the camera pointing in the wrong direction; this is assuaged sometimes by giving the player camera control, but again at the risk of overcomplication.

Sometimes, in Locked/Rail settings, it's by design, to heighten a mood of suspense or horror. It still sucks, however.

And then there's Action titles - the worst offenders for denying players useful information. Why is this? Mostly because they're always focused on making the eye candy as in-your-face as possible; staying close to the character at all times lets them show off the number of polygons they spent on detail, the new fabric routines and bump mapping, the nifty flashy weapon effects, all the things that make an action title, well, action. Unfortunately, especially in games where you're mowing down hordes of enemies at once, a close-in third person camera is the last thing you need. It's almost as bad as a First Person Shooter for giving players tunnel vision, and can sometimes be far worse if the character model itself winds up taking up more than 20% of the available screen area, especially if it pans low enough that the character model is between the camera and the aiming reticle, obscuring enemies that are dead ahead. Some games offer a choice of two or more camera modes, but these are usually a crock - one better-planned camera mode is far superior to a choice of any number of poorly programmed substitutes.

[Updated 7/22/04] Reader Brian writes in: I noticed you say that the First Person camera has no problems. I disagree, because the FPS camera doesn't work at all for jumping puzzles.

Brian's got an excellent point, which I had forgotten about (thank you, Brian!). I considered the first person camera view to be roughly equivalent to human view, and it's true that humans don't usually see their feet when doing something close to a jumping puzzle, such as walking along a beam, or hopping across stepping stones to cross a small creek.

That being said, we have one thing to compensate that the game can't give us, which is tactile feedback. When we're running or jumping, we feel our way along the ground, allowing us to gauge how close to the edge we are. This is why FPS games have proven to be quite lousy for jumping puzzles time and again. It's not to say that they're not doable, but more often than not the tradeoff is either to make the jumps as carefully timed as any third-person game's - in which case players will complain about lack of a third person mode so that they can see the edge of their current platform - or else to make them so easy as to be nearly impossible to miss, in which case there's no challenge.

Games which find that small zone in the middle can be quite nice, though some will still complain about the lack of a third person option for jumping sections. Remember, when 3D titles first came out many fans of old 2D titles were of the opinion that 3D jumping puzzles would never work. Now, of course, gamers have adapted. They can cope with, or even enjoy, a well-made 3D platform title. Mario 64 is such a title; the recent Vivendi title The Hobbit, on the other hand, is not.

Even so, many 3D platformers have fallen back on the old standard to make jumping puzzles easier - the double jump. While it's not technically a fix to the camera, it's definitely a fix for bad cameras, and a sneaky one at that. In any given game requiring double jumps, very few will require their use for more than one or two leaps across chasms or to get up to a ledge. More often than not, they're instead a reward for players surviving the first few jumping puzzles - "now that you managed that, we'll give you a way to recover if you messed up a leap."

[Update 2, 7/22/04] Reader Thinsoldier writes in as a counter to Brian's comments:

Here's my 2 cents.
Get a copy of quake3:arena
download the map named 'ultimate2'
try to get from the beginning to the end of the level.
I guarantee you'll jump your butt of and have a damned
fun time doing it too(not just rocket jumping either).
And then try jjm/jump jump madness.
If you fail to get through either, just find some
people who are into the Quake 1, Quake2, Quake 3, or
UT2k3/2k4 trick jumping scene. I'm sure they could
hook you up with a few thousand videos of very
'puzzling' jumps.
Mess with Resident Evil.
Don't mess with FPS.

Also something of a good point, though the tone is somewhat lacking. There ARE players who have gotten very, very good at navigating jumping puzzles in FPS gameplay. For that matter, there are players who spend their time making Warthogs in Halo fly in puzzling and dynamic ways, taking advantage of the physics system. Are they in the minority? In both cases, obviously so. Does it detract from their achievements, or their enjoyment of the game? Obviously not.

For that matter, I know a few people who get physically ill with nausea akin to carsickness from sitting in front of a computer screen with an FPS view, but do just fine in third person mode. There are even some who are fine in certain games, like Doom, but managed to get violently nauseous in others like Descent - sometimes something as minor as the game's color palette can be what triggers it. They're an argument for the option of either being available, as in Thief: Deadly Shadows. Does that mean nobody should ever play in FPS mode, or third person? Of course not. When given the choice, you should play whichever enjoy the most.

Sneaky? Yes. Annoying? Not once you have it. 

And then, of course, there are the major five problems, four of which have obvious, if sometimes difficult to code, solutions.

Got Comments? Send 'em to Michael (at) Glideunderground.com!
Alternatively, post 'em right here for everyone to see!

Weekly Musings #6: Camera, Camera, Camera


Added:  Monday, July 19, 2004
Reviewer:  Michael Ahlf

Page: 1/2

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