Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Genius of Slowdown

Slowdown is certainly a relic of our past when video games used to push their processors to their limit and beyond. When there were simply too many explosions and bullets streaking across the screen the frame rate dropped and the game began to play is slow motion.

Many would like to believe that we are now currently in an age that has moved beyond slow down. Though the frame rate in our modern releases may hiccup (GTA4), sputter (MGS4), or even drop to a cinematic 24 frames per second (Shadow of the Colossus), all of these performance slips are far better than back in the day when the games used to slow to a crawl. With the advent of widespread online gaming, many gamers now find it strange when latency issues are resolved by slowing down or even temporarily pausing the action for all players until the information flow can be reestablished.

My recent exploration of Bangai-O Spirits for the Nintendo DS has caused me to think about the possible design benefits of slowdown. Unlike bullet time, where the game time is slowed usually by the player to enhance reaction time and accuracy, slowdown happens as a result of an excess of onscreen elements that require graphics and collision processing. In Bangai-O's case, when the player launches a counter attack of 100 homing missiles, the game automatically slows down. The benefits for the slower gameplay are the same as with bullet time. When the game is slowed down, the player has additional time to process and analyze the game. But unlike bullet time, the amount of slowdown that occurs is directly proportional to the amount of in game "chaos" on screen. Like the smart slow-mo from Perfect Dark that activates when two players in a multiplayer match move within a certain proximity of each other, slowdown makes the game time relative to action and position.

It's like Where's Waldo, but different.

Slowdown might have addition design benefits that may not be as obvious to discern. As it turns out, Bangi-O Spirts features 4 player simultaneous gameplay. Designing a system that can communicate hundreds of packets of data between two systems can be extremely tricky even for two consoles using high speed connections. Geometry Wars is a perfect example of a game is so smooth with so many individual items on the screen each with their own behaviors and patterns that react off of the player's position and attacks as well as other elements in the level, that trying to get the game to work online would invariably slow down the game speed. In other words, because there's simply so much chaos in Geometry Wars the Geometry Wars that we know and love would be impossible to make work online with our current technology.

So what about Bangai-O Spirits for the DS? One might initially think that the the DS processors and wifi connections aren't better suited than an Xbox360 for the task for communicating the chaos of battle in a multiplayer mode. But slowdown, once again, plays a very key role in Bangai-O's case. The player should already be used to the contextually fluctuating game speed in the single player mode. So if the game slows down just a bit more to maintain communication with 3 other DSs, the player probably wouldn't notice. Because slowdown is an integrated part of the normal gameplay, using it as a sort of shield/buffer for multiplayer wireless communications is quite genius.

Just a few missiles

Bangai-O Spirits is a rare case indeed. Not only does it get away with massive slowdown that can drop as low as 1 frame per second, but in many ways the slow down works better for the gamepaly and multiplayer. In the moments when everything slows down, I have an opportunity to analyze the battle field, look at the map, check enemy health or any of the other stats before thinks kick back up in speed again. And for a game that accurately captures anime action in a video game, I'll take all the help I can get.

As modern games continue to push the technical limits of video games while maintaining relatively smooth gameplay and high frame rates, it's interesting to see that slowdown, which many consider to be a technical flaw, can be successfully embraced and incorporated into the core design of a game.

Stay tuned for my explosive review of Bangai-O Spirits.

And if you're worried about the future of slowdown and/or the potential in relative game speed and design, then look no further than Drebin #1 Asynchronous Time.

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