Thursday, July 10, 2008

Optimized Aiming Deconstucts Playing

I've been having a problem with aiming in first-person shooters. Actually, I've been having a problem with shooters in general, but today aiming was particular irksome.

Imagine a typical FPS complete with a disembodied floating gun in the bottom right corner and some kind of symbol for the aiming reticule. Depending on the game, you might be imagining a dual stick controller, Wiimote and Nunchuck, or mouse and keyboard under your fingertips.

We've already established that shooting is a mechanic that typically doesn't involve a lot of interplay, but what about aiming? Before we can consider the interplay of aiming, we must established that aiming has interaction in the first place. After all, enemies certainly can't see the floating reticle unless it's a laser sight. In a typical FPS, the only thing that aiming interacts with is the player's view. Otherwise, aiming is just the intent of the player.

The irksome part of it all comes from trying to find the minimum difference for aiming. Shooting is pretty easy. Each shot is the quantified minimum difference. Because bullets tend to fly straight and true, the significance of the distance between shooter and target is lessened. The shotgun, a powerful close quarters gun in shooters like Halo, is different from most guns. The shotgun's effectiveness decreases as the distance between target and shooter increases. For this gun, the minimum degree of difference can be determined by finding the minimum distance it takes for the shotgun to kill in 2 shots instead of 1.

With aiming what determines the minimum degree of difference? Unlike shooting, aiming is always "turned on." Simply looking at the world sets your sights down the end of a gun barrel. If the player is constantly aiming, then isn't aiming constant therefore eliminating the possibility of difference? Perhaps. But before we come to any kind of conclusion, lets look at things in a more practical light.

Aiming at enemies. What if, when the crosshairs are on an enemy the aiming is "turned on," and when they're on anything else we can consider the aiming to be "off." In this way, we can measure the minimum degree of difference by the distance the reticle moves on the screen. Sounds like a good idea? The problem with this method is the amount of space an enemy body takes up on the screen varies depending on the distance the player is away from the target. Because there isn't a standard distance of combat due to the long range nature of projectiles, using enemies targets as reference points fails.

Even if we could pin down a minimum distance for aiming, first-person shooters typically feature design elements/options that would minimize the results.

Being able to tweak looking speeds, turning speeds, and/or aiming speeds gives players the option to crank up how quickly their aim can move from one point to another. The faster the aim, the less significant the minimum distance becomes. If a player can turn around 180 degrees in the blink of an eye and defend him/herself from a sneak attack, then that player's blind spot has nearly become a nonissue.

It's the same way with head shots. There aren't many shooters that don't deal extra damage for head shots. Likewise, I've never heard of a first-person shooter than doesn't feature humanoid player avatars. With the accuracy and freedom of shooter controls these days, the majority of aiming is set squarely on the head. It's hard for shooters to have a lot of interplay as it is. Without a way to counter a speeding bullet, many shooters are little more than "aim at the next head and squeeze the trigger."

This is probably the reason why first-person shooters tend to put the player through roller coaster rides of scripted events and earth shattering action. It's because they have to add some pizazz to the experience.

Multiplayer for shooters is all about the meta game. Because you can kill quickly due to head shots, remotely, and without the target being able to counter you (because of the lack of interplay) internalizing the run patterns, hiding spots, and optimal positions in a given map becomes the game. Also, because you can kill or be killed so easily, the flow of multiplayer shooter deathmatches are heavily perforated with respawning, which resets the match into small cycles.

Look at the evolution from Resident Evil to RE4 (GameCube) to RE4 on the Wii. In the original Resident Evil, aiming is very indirect. Players can point their character toward a zombie and fire, but they are unable to aim at specific parts (like the head because everyone knows to shoot zombies in the head). Players can aim their gun straight forward, or tilt it up and down for 3 total degrees of difference. The gameplay is very RPG like in that the player is forced into encounters with limited mobility where getting hit is virtually unavoidable and attacks have probabilities of success. It was like the game rolled a dice to see if the zombies head would explode. You weren't really aiming at the head, but you're grateful anyway.

Resident Evil 4 changed everything up. Rendering everything in 3D and positioning the camera over the shoulder of the hero allowed for the developers to let the players take aim. Now players can shoot legs, flying axes, arms, chickens, and of course heads with deadly accuracy. Though the aiming isn't quantified anymore, the reticle only moved at a relatively slow speed. Every time the player stopped to shoot, the aim had to be repositioned from the center of the screen.

In the remake of Resident Evil 4 for the Wii, the new controls not only added ease and accuracy to aiming, but now players can aim as fast as they can point. What's even worse is, players can aim at a target while moving. When they stop to raise their gun, the reticle is still where the player was aiming before. This allows for the player to line up the shoot before hand and shoot immediately upon raising the gun. In this way, the new controls reduce the stop and pop gameplay. The gun is a powerful weapon. Slowing down the aim in the GameCube version of RE4 may have been more cumbersome, but it keep the player's power in check, which makes the game more interesting.

Aiming is all about optimization. How quickly can I get from point A to B? How well can I follow a moving target? There are a few cases like Red Steel where players can point their gun at disarmed enemies and indicated that they should surrender with aiming motions. But, for the most part, shooters are ignoring the possibilities and interplay that can exist when aiming is designed as an integrated mechanic with the rest of the game's mechanics.

Take Super Mario World: Yoshi's Island for example. Because the aimer for an egg throw bounces back and forth like the stick of a metronome, there's an amount of timing involved with aiming and shooting. Because the eggs are thrown from Yoshi and the game contains Mario level platforming elements, moving and shooting become a dynamic dance of aiming, platforming, and fighting gravity. Many 2D games with platforming elements and shooting elements are the same way: Mega Man. Super Smash Brothers.

Most shooters these days are struggling to create interesting gameplay because of how aiming and shooting have evolved. To a critical-gamer it's not about how quickly the reticle moves, but how that makes or breaks gameplay. Shooters may have to start de-optimizing some of their mechanics so we all can play again.

4 comments:

Peter Gault said...

Sadly, if the aiming speed was turned down in re:4 (wii), players would complain that the wii controls are unresponsive. Due to its point and click nature, the interplay won't come from the aiming in virtual space, it will come from the player aiming the remote in physical space.


Building interplay on the wii demands more actions, to give more purpose to the remote. In Dragon Ball Z, the player uses the remote to act out spell casting. These physical actions require timing and precision, not simply waving the remote. RE could expand its interplay by building wider and taller encounters, where enemies come from all over, and the player is frantically aiming around the screen. Increasing the speed and distance between enemies would create a stronger interplay. Reminds me of portal...

Bryan said...

I think there is a little more to FPS interplay than you're letting on. I am playing Devil's advocate here though, because I've lost interest in the genre (At least single player) over the years.

Players rarely let their opponent get a clear shot at them. Instead, they use cover to minimize their vulnerability. They use grenades, flanking, and approaches with weapons specializing in close encounters to flush out / win the encounter. Some games also allow using smoke grenades and the ability to move game objects to modify / increase your cover.

Melee weapons and shotguns deserve special mention because they require the player to close with their opponent to use them. This forces interplay because most encounters in the game take place beyond their effective range. It varies whether that interplay occurs at the encounter level or meta level based on whether they see each other or not though.

Snipers also deserve special mention because in most levels, they give up field of view for range, which puts them in danger. I think good snipers learn how to counter this though, and its usually never a problem in single player.


In the Halo series, I tend to find vehicle combat more fun, and especially the tanks. I think it improves on the cover mechanics by making the vehicles move slower and have a slower rate of fire.

KirbyKid said...

@ Peter Gault

About the RE4Wii aiming speed, you're definitely right. It wouldn't make sense to slow down the aiming speed because of how the pointer technology of the Wiimote works. Because RE4 wasn't designed from the ground up with the Wii controls in mind, the "shoehorned" controls ended up shifting the game balance around giving the player more power.

Be very careful though. Interplay is made up of designed counters after each action is executed. I don't think aiming in virtual space or physical space can be considered interplay.

When you say "interplay" I think you mean "more complex mechanics" (DBZ example) or "a more balanced game" (RE example).

@ Bryan

You're right. Some games do a much better job than others in the design/interplay department. However, keep in mind that for the purposes of this article, I used a hypothetical FPS as a model.

Yes, some FPSs have grenades and other items to fight with. But grenades aren't a part of aiming (a gun) or shooting. Flanking is a strategy of movement and positioning, which is not a part of gunplay. Even smoke grenades are mechanics that don't create gunplay but add more complexities to player vision.

Also, using cover isn't a counter to being shot. It's a counter to getting shot more times. I've never heard of a FPS where the player's movement speed is equal or greater than the bullet speed. If that were the case, then player might be able to actively/effectively dodge a well aimed shot. Otherwise, the best ways to "counter" getting shot is to not get aimed at if that's even possible.

Trying to close in on an opponent so you can use a shotgun effectively is another strategy. Using a shotgun well calls for a change of strategy from a normal weapon, but remember that interplay is a counter than happens from one action to another. So avoiding a shotgun player by staying outside of range prevents the first action from happening and therefore the interplay can't exist in this scenario.

Like with your sniper example, strategies that involve risk-reward aren't examples of interplay. Countering a strategy by anticipating what most players typically do in a given situation is playing to the meta game.

Shooters just don't have a lot of interplay. To this day, the vast majority of shooters survive on multiplayer meta games, smooth graphics, or roller coaster ride single player modes.

Thoughtful comments all around.

Thanks

Bryan said...

@KirbyKid,
Sorry, internet problems over the weekend.

Agreed about the FPS comments. I was concerned you were making aiming and shooting into straw men.


As for cover being used to prevent getting shot more times, as opposed to prevent getting shot at all, are you assuming I haven't taken cover until being engaged by the enemy? If you're careful, you're avoid reactions should be faster than other players aim and shoot reactions because aim and shoot requires finer control. You're probably in cover already anyway. This confused me a bit.