Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Eyes of Master Chief

"Why are you getting Halo 3?" my co-worker asked.

I gave him my answer. "I cannot go another day forward as a game designer without playing Halo 3. It is too important of a game for me to have missed." (And I'm over a year late!)

I had read the reviews and back story, of course, and I'd had many long conversations with fellow game designers about the glories and wonders of Halo 3, but somehow, none of that prepared me for playing the real thing.

At once, I drank in the beauty of the game. The music, the environments - and all the loving detail put into the weapons, vehicles, and characters - it was delightful.

In the initial sequence, my teammates help me up. They're so happy to find that I am well - they treat me like we've been friends for years. They have so much respect for me, I don't know if I've ever felt so welcomed.

What an unexpected sequence of emotions! I thought I'd be shot to death many times over in the first few minutes, not step into a living world surrounded by friends.

Then, at the end of the intro, the camera shifts to become the eyes of Master Chief.

Somehow, I wasn't prepared for it. Yes, the first two letters of "FPS" stand for "First Person" - you'd think that would be a big giveaway.

So I try moving around. No good - apparently my armor is still locked up. However, my friends are here to help, and one of them offers to recalibrate my suit.

He asks me to look up, so I look up. Then he asks me to look down, so I look down. We repeat the process. And then he tells me he's set my look style to "inverted."

I'll admit that I'm most accustomed to 3rd-person-style controls. In many 3rd-person games, your camera sits on the outside of a sphere and always looks inward towards your character's head. Thus, when you move the camera downward, you see more of what's above your character, and likewise, when you move the camera up, you look down. While it is "inverted" to move in the opposite direction from the way you want to look, it's completely natural for someone used to playing in the 3rd person (like me).

Satisfied with my inverted controls, my armor unlocks, and I'm free to move about on my own. I try all the buttons. Movement with the left stick - check. Shooting with the triggers - check. Reloading with the bumpers - check. Jumping - how do I jump again? Ok, the A button makes sense.

And then I try looking around. I can't do it. Looking up and down is great - we tested for that - but every time I try to look left, I end up looking right, and vice versa. What gives?

Unable to aim my weapons, I hit pause and go straight to the configs. I check all of them, and realize my problem. Inversion is only an option for the Y axis, not the X axis.

I try to get used to it. I run around, trying to look at rocks, plants, and my companions. It's a no-go. I'm moving the stick the wrong way every time.

Disheartened and frustrated, I go online to see if anyone else has my problem. Yes! Games with unalterable X axis controls are frustrating people on both sides. Final Fantasy XII has an inverted X axis that you can't switch to normal, whereas many FPS games, like Halo 3 and BioShock, have a normal X axis that you can't invert.

Sadly, many of the forum posts I read were hurtful. To put it nicely, players said that those who use inverted controls are backwards, and players who use normal controls don't know how to use a camera. Arguments on both sides generally ended in "just get used to it!"

So that is what I did. It took me a long hour of play to start looking in the correct direction, and it took me another hour to learn to aim accurately.

During those two hours, I spent a lot of time hiding behind rocks, being frustrated, and not shooting aliens. I felt like I was letting down the Arbiter, Avery Johnson, and the rest of my team. I could have jumped right into the game if I could have inverted the X axis.

With this experience, I have taken this lesson to heart: It's important to make a game's controls be configurable in as many ways as possible without breaking the game.

Designers can't assume that they know where a player is coming from, and players should not be forced to re-map what's intuitive to them - nobody likes to hear that they must "just get used to it."

Aside from that point, I took to Halo 3 fairly well. In fact, it's probably because the rest of the game is so intuitive that my X axis issues stood out like a sore thumb... or should I say, a confused thumb!


Lisa Boleyn said...

I had the opportunity at GDC to ask John Hopson, the lead tester on HALO, about my x-axis problem. He assured me that my issue was unique, and that the controller issues he most frequently encountered were those with the two-stick system (one controller stick for movement, the other for the camera). Ah, well.

gentimouton said...

I am sorry my comment has nothing to do with this post, but I would like to comment on your recent post and it does not seem comments are enabled anymore. Please tell me (cf my blogspot profile) if you do not want to receive comments on your blogs anymore.

You write "If the joy of altruism could be maintained throughout a player's in-game career, it ought to provide for a more engaging experience." But some researchers (like Ducheneaut or Yee) have shown many players liked to play alone, appreciating other players for the spectacle they may offer: showing off your skill mastery, achievements, equipment, etc. At the same time, Domino mentions scripting smart quests where the player actively works through the story, looking for the whys, so that NPC look less like XP vendors, to take your words.

Thanks for taking time to read (and possibly answer) me :-)

Lisa Boleyn said...

Comments should be enabled again; sorry about that!

In response to your comment, I should have been clearer in my more recent post - I was only attempting to look at altruism between the player and NPCs, rather than that among players. It is true that many players do not look to help other players.

Domino's smart quest scripting system sounds like another great way to get players more emotionally involved.

These postings are mine alone, have not been reviewed or approved by any employer or company, and do not necessarily reflect the views of anyone but me.