I recently picked up a copy of Prince of Persia for the Game Boy color, which was a port of the 1989 DOS game. Being fond of the Prince of Persia: the Sands of Time, I was curious to see what its predecessor had to offer. It was rough. While there are a lot of quirks to the game, one that stood out to me the most was its controls. This week we’re going to look at what makes games fun to control.
Prince of Persia is a platformer game meaning the core gameplay involves jumping on platforms or over obstacles. It uses a 2D perspective, players moment options are limited to moving right or left and jumping. The Prince is tasked with climbing, jumping, and fighting his way through a castle to save a captured princess. Pretty standard fare. What makes Prince of Persia stands out from the other games around the late 80s is its animations.
An animation is the illusion of movement that occurs when you view a number of still images in rapid succession. Each still image is called a “frame,” and you can start to detect fluid motion around 10 frames per second (fps). The more frames that you can display per second, the more fluid the animation is. For a point of reference, movies are shown at 24 frames per second. Video games are widely preferred to be displayed at 60 fps but have been known to dip to 30. Animation can also refer to the movement of actions in games. When Link raises his sword and swings it in front of himself, the movement that he executed would be considered an “attack animation.” These animations are also measured in frames.
Going back to the Prince of Persia for examples, we see that the Prince’s jumping animation consists of 15 frames. Compare this to Super Mario Bros 3 which boasts a 1 frame jumping animation. This means that the Prince’s jump looks a lot more realistic compared to Mario’s.
However, there is a drawback to having so many frames of animation. In Prince of Persia, you must wait for every animation to finish before starting a new action. There is also a start-up to every animation, and actions can take up to 2 seconds to finish. The Prince becomes airborne on the 5th frame of the animation, almost a 3rd of the way through. Meaning there is almost a second delay between starting the jump command and having the Prince jump. Mario, on the other hand, is airborne the moment that the player presses the jump button. This makes Prince of Persia feel sluggish and unresponsive.
There are benefits to having long animations hover. It forces players to commit to actions, which creates tension, which is a positive to certain audiences. The Monster Hunter series’s combat, for example, is firmly rooted on committing to long animations. In this game, timing the lengthy attacks of these insanely large weapons is satisfyingly when executed correctly. It also has the unpleasant side effect of seeing your mistakes long before having an opportunity to respond. One way to counteract this is through something called “animation canceling.” This means that if a player can respond at a precise time during an animation, they can stop the character from completing it. Having animation canceling allows players to avoid punishment if they can respond fast enough. There are many applications to animation canceling, especially in player vs player (PvP) games.
Games like League of Legends allow animation canceling to add a layer of competitive complexity. If a player becomes familiar enough with a champion, they can cancel the tail end of their attacking animation. This provides the player with a head start to move after the damage has been applied. Players use this to get to a better position to deal damage or avoid attacks.
Having the ability to stop your animations is not the only thing that leads to enjoyable controls. It also comes down to… well, control. How much you are able to influence your characters movement goes a long way in terms of enjoyable gameplay. We’ve already briefly talked about Prince of Persia’s jumping animation, but another aspect to the Prince’s leap is its trajectory. Jumping will move you the same distance every time. Compare this with Mario’s jump. In Super Mario Bros 3, your jump is influenced by momentum, meaning if your running you will jump further. You also have some influence over the trajectory of Mario while airborne. Although it’s not realistic, it allows players to make precise landings if they are over a platform.
Giving the player the ability to control their animations, trajectory and momentum are what makes controlling a 2D character fun. However, 3D games have an entire slew of problems to deal with in terms of player control. You now have to deal with 3D movement, depth, and camera controls. There is no end all beat all control scheme when it comes to 3D games, but there are a few common practices that have emerged.
One common technique used in 3D platformers is the “drop shadow.” When a character is airborne in a game, it can be hard to judge just how far they are away from the ground. This is due to how our eyes perceive the 2D image displayed on the screen. An easy way to solve this is adding a drop shadow underneath the jumping character. Banjo-Kazooie, for the Nintendo 64, utilizes a transparent circular shadow to help players gauge where they are going to land. The shadow always directly under the character, allowing the player to aim their decent accurately.
Having good camera controls is important in 3D games because it’s how a player sees the game. If a game has bad camera controls than the player can become confused as to what’s happening on screen. There are two common types of camera controls, third person, and first person.
Having a third person perspective means that the camera is separate from the character. A First person perspective, on the other hand, means that the camera acts as the character’s vision. Both have advantages and disadvantages, the best type of camera used comes down to the gameplay involved.
First person camera controls compliment gameplay that involves a lot of aiming. With no character in view to cover up a part of the screen, players clear view of what’s directly in front of them. Heck, there’s a genre of game called “first person shooter.” Usually, at the center of the screen, there is a reticle to assist with aiming. The camera is anchored to the character, so where ever the player moves the camera will move with them. Players rotate the camera to look around, as though they are looking through the characters eyes. Player movement, in first person games, involves strafing and moving towards or away from the reticle. Having a first person camera also comes with the benefit of letting players feel like they are the ones doing the actions, rather than a fictitious character. One downside is that platforming is a lot harder to pull off in first person games. If players want to make precise jumps, they need to look at the floor, which could take their attention away from nearby threats. Jarring movements can also disorientate players and in some cases cause motion sickness, so movement options are limited.
Third person camera controls consist of a camera that focuses on the character you are controlling. Controlling the camera usually involves revolving around a focal point while keeping the player’s character in view. This focal point can be either the player character or another object in the area. One of the benefits of a third person camera is that players can see a lot more of the area than in the first person view. Since the field of view includes the area behind the character, it’s easier to respond to threats in every direction. Characters movements can also be expanded to dashes, rolls, and flips without worrying about disorientating the player. This compliments games where movement is a key part of gameplay. You get to see and react to all threats while having movement options without the risk of disorientation.
Lastly, you need to consider what type devise the players are using to play the game. There have been countless attempts to innovate in this matter, from track balls to plastic guitars. Dance Dance Revolution is an arcade game where players must hit designated spots on the ground with their feet in rhythm with arrows shown on the screen. The motions that the players make mimic dancing. While you can accomplish the same thing with buttons on a keyboard, it doesn’t capture the novelty in the same way.
Ultimately, it comes down to the type of game that is being played. The two most common control methods are the keyboard/mouse and the controller. Controllers come in many sizes and shapes, but the more widely used and modern ones share a few distinctive properties. Controllers use both hands, have 4 buttons and one analog stick for each thumb, and buttons on the top of the controller (also known as shoulder buttons) for the first few fingers to press.
Analog sticks are generally used for moving the character or the camera. This is because an Analog stick can move in an infinite amount of directions. Compare this to 4 directional arrow buttons, which can move in 8 directions. Buttons are limited to “press” or “not pressed” which is a binary system. Analog sticks can measure how distant the stick is from the center point and return a wide array of values. This has often been used to control the speed at which the camera and player’s character move. If you want your character to move slower, push softly on the analog stick. This is crucial for the design of stealth games, where the speed of your character determines how much noise that they make. Having analog movement for the camera means that movements become less jarring. The player can control the speed at which the camera rotates around an object which cuts back on disorientation.
The keyboard and mouse is a popular option because if you have a computer, chances are you have these devices. The keyboard has a huge array of buttons compared to a controller and thus can handle a lot of different commands. Games that involve hotkeys, like real-time strategy games and roguelikes, are completely designed around having a command for each letter of the alphabet. Because of this, however, you cannot hold a keyboard like you can a controller. You need to rest it on a surface, which can get uncomfortable during long play sessions. Movement options are also limited on the keyboard because the movement is relegated to buttons. As mentioned earlier, with a directional button set up, you are limited to 8 directions. The mouse provides for more precession in aiming compared to the controller. A mouse has the benefit of using all of the locomotions of your fingers and wrist. Compare this with the analog stick, which only utilizes the limited movement of a thumb. This best compliment gameplay that involves a lot of aiming (Déjà vu?).
There is a lot to consider when making controls that are fun. Characters actions and animations need to be clear and responsive. At the same time, the camera and controls need to be appropriately matched with the type of gameplay used. In some cases, players won’t even be aware of the small touches of polish that go into making a game enjoyable. But it is important to get the controls for your game right. After all, if it isn’t fun who’s gonna play it?