Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Game Design: Lights, Camera, Action!

So inspired by something I noticed in my previous rant, I'm going to write about cameras in games. Which is strange because there's actually (usually) NO cameras using in game production. But it comes from 3D animation which uses "virtual cameras" to shoot scenes. Well you could argue it came from 2D animation too but you actually do use cameras for that. :)

3D Space and Camera
I got a degree in film and video...which I only say to validate the amount of money I spent getting said degree in hopes that it validates what I type. VALIDITY!
Now that most console games and many casual games have gone 3D camera position and angles are important. But the camera (from film) has a language! A cinematic language. And there are also rules of thumb or rather things like rules of thirds (which photographers should also be familiar with. It's about framing a shot for those unfamiliar). However, only in-game cinematics (out of the player's control) use this language. A low angle shot to make someone look more intimidating. That sort of thing.

But such is not the role for the camera in all parts of the game. No, the camera has a more functional role and a less "artistic" one. Although some games do try to mix them (mostly Indie ones.) But "views" (such as third person) are often made using some forms of classic cinematic language.

In first person shooters, you may have choices to use a first person view (which is used in film at times) or an "over the shoulder shot". This technique in film is often used to show one character engaged with another. (Conversation or fighting).

The Camera's "Job"
Outside the cinematics, the camera is something the player uses functionally as part of the game. It needs to show an optimal angle of the character (in 3rd person views) and a certain range of sight for the player to interact with the environment. In first person views there is some control of angle but it's always framed the same. By that I mean that the camera does not need to include your character in the frame it'll always be from their point of view.

What is expected though is that the camera shows US the character the information we need to best act within the game. Which is why some 3rd person view games allow you to switch to a first person view because that is the BEST way to view the lay of the land with out that darn character being in the way. But other games do an over the shoulder shot instead...which is fine.

Camera Control
For interactive parts of the game, the player is usually allowed control of the camera to suit their needs. If you need to see a platform better to make a jump you can rotate the camera around. Generally the camera follows you and you can not change that but you can change the angle, rotation point and closeness which it follows you. (Pitch, Pan, and Zoom...I went to school. )

Camera controls are one of the stickiest parts of 3D games, expecially on a console. There are a limited number of buttons (although they keep adding MORE) that can be assigned to the control of the camera. Yahtzee of Zero Punctuation puts it best, left analog stick for movement, right analog stick for camera. It's a great system...don't mess with something that works! Although before we had 2 analog sticks, N64 days there was at least a directional pad that worked the camera which was in the area where the right analog stick would be in the future.

In my last post I complained about Kingdom Hearts which has only rotational control of the camera which is done by L2 and R2 buttons. I still wiggle my right analog stick in denial sometimes thinking I can change the camera angle. But I only get mocked by Sora as he does nothing.

Ideally, it'd be great if you the player did NOT have to keep worrying about the camera and controlling it for optimal view. What I like is a game where the camera (on an automatic mode) will adjust itself accordingly and only need tweaks from me the player.

2D Games?
I know this may come off as a bit weird but camera views in 2D games are something to take into consideration. Just as 2D animation considers what angle to draw the character from so must a 2D artist. There are 3 commonly used views in 2D games.

Top-Down - like in the older Legend of Zelda games. (Except for Link's Adventure). Actually it's a very high angle and not a bird's eye view (true top down like in Galaga).

Side-View - Camera is level with the character. Any side-scrolling game known to man or woman. We'll say Link's Adventure for this one.

Isometric - or a 3/4 view is top-down and to the side to create a faux-3D look. Paper boy does this and the first Sonic 3D.

Other views include first person such as Wolfenstien or Hunting games. There were a few third person view behind the characters in Race car games, some special levels in Sonic games. It can be done but it's mostly based on the "look" of the art. There are 2D "tricks" to make something look 3D.

So most of this little article was stating the obvious now. But it is important to consider the type of framing or views that your game will have. Does it suit what the player needs to do? Do you want to convey some emotion at the same time? (In artsy games.)
And if you have camera control, make sure it makes sense. I didn't touch on PC games but they can have some strange commands too. Holding down a key and moving the mouse works for me.
Camera is one of those under appreciated artforms much like sound design. It's subtle until it ruins your game play.

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