Recently I have had an explosion of creativity that has both excited me and even brought a few game design challenges to my attention. For many of the game concepts I have worked on recently, gameplay perspective was not the first thing worked out.
In one of the concepts two teams of three to five users compete in various scenarios such as capture the flag, king of the hill, territories etc. Arguably a pretty standard competitive multiplayer format for the most part. The driving concept for this game however, was for each character to find and wear a unique tribal mask thus granting them a set of powers. As the battle progressed the power of the masks would diminish and the user would have to obtain more energy or a new mask.
After much thought, I was excited about the general themes and mask mechanics. But when I began thinking about the perspective in which the game would be played, I was torn. Originally I was trying to design a competitive multiplayer game set in a two dimensional environment. With the team sizes, the scenario types and even some of the effects that the masks granted, I was unsure if a 2D environment would be the best perspective.
This mind numbing battle grew into an even greater interest in stepping back and looking at many of the existing gameplay perspectives and really defining the pros and cons for each. All designers have to at one point decide whether or not their game will have a locked camera or be third person instead of first person. I felt there would be value it focusing entirely on what those gameplay perspective differences are and listing them out here.
The side scrolling perspective is exactly how it sounds. The user views the character from the side and scrolls as the character progresses throughout the stage. This perspective is commonplace for titles with 2D gameplay and is found in most of the earliest action oriented platform games. This includes games like Contra, Sonic the Hedgehog, Metal Slug and Donkey Kong Country to name a few.
For the most part this perspective is a must for titles with 2D gameplay. It gives the users a fair view of the area surround the character so they can avoid threats and make educated decisions when moving or attacking. The 2D side scrolling perspective was the birthplace of the modern platforming game, which unless done in full 3D gameplay is very difficult otherwise.
Despite the 360 degree view, this perspective can have its own limitations. The users cannot see the full distance in front, behind, below or above their character, even if they are facing that way. Some games have made improvements on this by allowing the user to shift their view slightly up or down when the directional pad his held in that direction. In the 2D shooter Einhander most of the game’s graphics are rendered in 3D and the user’s perspective is shifted slightly to the back of the character allowing them to see a little further ahead. Because these games are played out on a flat surface the more objects you have on the screen the less mobility your character can have, especially if they are bound by physics. This became an issue when I was thinking about the competitive multiplayer game where there could be up to 10 characters all on the screen at once. If collision restricted characters from passing through each other there could be all sorts of gridlock. Where if there was no character collision, groups could all just stack on top of one another and the users would have a harder time keeping track of what was going on.
Like the side scrolling perspective, the top down view has many of the same attributes but instead of facing the character and the action from the side the user views them from directly above. Surprise! To be clear, when I refer to a top down perspective I mean it in the most explicit way. Frogger, Centipede, Galaga and the original Grand Theft Auto game all fit into this category. This perspective is not as common in the modern age of 3D graphics, but it still has a name.
Because of the similarities that top down perspectives have with side scrolling games they have most of the same benefits, such as the 360 degree view. For many of the classic shooting games like Galaga, Centipede and of course Space Invaders this perspective was a great way to portray incoming enemies. Ever closer the enemies would come as they ascend from the top of the screen until they were destroyed or melted the character’s face. Of course to achieve this the user’s character was shifter to the bottom of the screen where it could only move left and right, and in rare cases the character could move slightly forward and back.
Honestly I think there is good reason why most top down games are shooters and that’s because anything else will restricted in gameplay options. Unlike the side scrolling perspective, a top down view did little for platform puzzles and physics were slim to none. Lets also be honest, most things are pretty boring viewed from the top, so the environments themselves would be lacking. Some games made improvements on this by skewing the character and environmental assets a little so the user could view them in a sort of forced perspective. Examples of this are the original Zelda and Bomberman. So unless you are looking down on the iconic silhouette of a space craft or other vehicle, the top down view is not the best choice for a lot of games.
The isometric view, for the most part, was the next stage for the top down view. It shifted the user’s perspective to a roughly 45 degree angle of the character, as if you were looking down at them from the second story of a building. Games like Diablo, StarCraft, and SimCity all utilized this perspective.
There is a very thin line between a top down view with forced perspective and the isometric view. Where the isometric perspective excels is in graphics and gameplay. Now with a greater sense of 3D space there can be varying surface altitudes and objects that obstruct things behind them. Overall this gives the user a much better view of the characters and environments making it ideal for many real time strategy games.
As mentioned above, objects can get lost behind taller objects in the environment. Some games have fixed this issue by never allowing objects that were too high to exist in the foreground or by allowing the user to rotate the view by increments of 90 degrees or freely left or right. In modern titles when characters pass behind objects they can still be seen as a silhouette, this is called occlusion shadows or sometimes just occlusion.
The free camera allows the user to freely move their view to areas of the game that may not even contain the characters or focus of action. This is most common in modern real time strategy games like Ground Control, Total War and World in Conflict.
This perspective grants the user the most information out of any of the others, which is probably why it is most commonly used in RTS games. You can zoom in on the action, rotate to see it from different angles and zoom out to see a greater picture.
Free camera perspectives add a helpful layer options for the user when choosing their view, but this can also add an additional layer of complexity. Aside from managing a character, or many characters in an RTS, the user will also have to manage the camera. Most games improve on this challenge by allowing the user to lock the camera to specific targets and quickly lock to others without the need of panning.
The preset camera perspective is what some may call the director’s perspective. This is when the camera is placed in a single position overlooking an area of the game where the character resides. The camera never deviates except for a slight tilt or pan when the character moves. This perspective is common to the original Resident Evil games and many of the modern action games like God of War, Ninja Gaiden and Bayonetta.
Because of the premeditated placement of the camera the developers can create well planned scenes and settings. Because the developer always knows where the user will be looking they can build the stage and gameplay with greater precision. This can also keep asset costs down seeing how most of the environment only needs to have a few visible sides. This “director’s view” has also allowed games like God of War to have highly cinematic combat where simple zooms and movement of the camera can change the entire mood of the scene.
Like with side scrolling games, when the perspective is limited the user can have trouble seeing things that their character might have no problem seeing. The user can have trouble when there is an enemy attacking from behind an object and they cannot see it. An even more common problem is when the character leaves the area completely changing the perspective of the camera. Based on the angle of the camera, the character’s motion can be altered because the user was controlling them based on a prior perspective. Developers have made a lot of improvements on this issue, but games like the original Resident Evil are a testament to these flaws.
The third person perspective puts the user’s view directly behind their character so they see everything that the character does. Games like the modern Dead Space, Brutal Legend and Zone of the Enders all use this perspective with slight differences.
The great thing about the third person perspective is that it allows the user to see exactly what the character can see in addition to the immediate area around them. This is great for action and adventures games and has become a standard for modern 3D platform games. Of course getting to see your character up close and personal gives the users a greater appreciation for them and the work the artists have put into them.
The first flaw I think of when considering this perspective is how the user can sometimes miss things that are directly in front of the character. In this case the character itself manages to obstruct the view of the user. While this isn’t a massively difficult issue to overcome it can be troublesome in third person shooter games like Dead Space.
The first person perspective places the user directly into the eyes of the character. Clearly games like Wolfenstien, Doom, Half-Life, Halo and all of the games based off of them utilize this perspective.
Of course the games that gain the most benefit from this perspective are shooters, allowing the user to make very specific shots from right down the crosshairs. The user can turn their view in all directions allowing them to see everything around them, this makes exploration pretty easy. Because the user is so close to the action they can emotionally become closer to the point where they are fearful for themselves and thus the character.
As much as the user can look around and see, the one thing they are unable to fully comprehend is what is happening to their character that isn’t directly in front of them. Most games have improved on this issue by adding blinking icons around the screen that tell the user they are being hit. This also doesn’t allow the user to enjoy any customization they may have made on their character’s appearance.
I would argue that mostly every possible perspective has been utilized in one way or another and none are perfect. What will make the difference in the end is what sort of gameplay experience the developer wishes to achieve. Sometimes limiting what the user can see can make things more interesting. Where other times you cannot show the user enough and a mini-map will have to be added. Keep in mind that the pros and cons that I have listed above are general and vary from game to game. As for my magical mask wielding concept, I will have to see where the idea takes me before I can confidently decide which perspective would be best.