Platform Laziness

Well, I can’t think of a good intro for this weeks topic, so I’m just going to jump right into this weeks topic without much in the way of an introduction. Well, aside from putting in a plug for Sonic the hedgehog issue 200. I may be an adult, but I still enjoy reading the comic, it’s like a piece of a childhood. Anyway, issue #200 is just hitting stands, and from what I’ve heard and read it’s a pretty big milestone in the series as far as story goes…give it a read, support the comic.

The topic this week is the difference in old-school and modern platform design. I recently mentioned in the course of this blog that I was playing both Sonic Unleashed, the newest in the Sonic series, and re-playing Sonic 3 & Knuckles at the same time. I noted a few interesting trends, and then began widening my scope, looking at other platformer titles to see if they exhibited the same differences between the old and the new. They did.

The platformer genre has been around since the early dawn of the gaming area. Both Mario and Sonic are both regarded as early types of platformers, Mario setting the platforming standard in 1985 with Super Mario World, and Sonic dragging it in a new direction in 1991. Numerous other offshoots of platformers exist, but all follow the same pattern of gameplay: Work towards the end of a level while running and jumping over numerous obstacles and occasional enemies. Mario followed a straightforward design, while Sonic later opted to introduce loops and inertia based physics.

However, since the inclusion of 3D the platform genre has faced numerous difficulties in terms of play style and level design. Creating a realistic and fun 3D world is much more difficult than creating a realistic and fun 2D world, as the 3D world needs to make full sense as well as be fun and enjoyable. In a 2D world, this is much easier to accomplish as we readily accept certain standards such as floating platforms. Once these platforms become 3D however, we suddenly wonder how said platform is floating.

Another problem that grew out of the switch to 3D in platformers was the depth of the world. In a 2D game, once the level is designed, it is a simple matter of adding background graphics to flesh out the level’s world. The player never moves into the background, so a simple image works fine. From a 2D perspective, the players character is moving through the world choosing a path.

When platform games made the jump to 3D however, this wasn’t as easily feasible. Background no longer truly existed, as the character was free to move in three dimensions. A background picture wouldn’t cut it alone. Thus developers reached a fork in the road. They could spend extra graphical power, extra time, and extra effort to build a 3D “wall” of sorts that would function as scenery but for any number of reasons be inaccessible to the player. Or, they could simply float the world in the middle of nowhere and have the blank text background. If the player fell off of the world, he simply died.

The second option was one that was widely followed. Simply confine the player to a set path, if he deviates, he falls to his doom, saving the developers time and more importantly processor power, which was at a premium on early 3D consoles.

However, as the power of 3D consoles has increased, developers have tended to stick with many of the bad habits they picked up in those early years, often taking the same shortcuts of design although they are no longer needed, or particularly wanted, as many of them do nothing to benefit the game itself. Take for example the floating world idea. Many games have done this, designing levels which are set floating in the sky, in space, over an ocean (and your character of course, cannot swim) and other varieties of hazardous areas. However, with today’s consoles modern power, there is little reason to do this.

This shortcut is what gives rise to a great common occurrence of modern platform games—the bottomless pit. In older games, from time to time (it varied depending upon the style of the game) you would come across a deep hole that spelled instant doom if you fell into it. However, with the modern advent of the floating level, the hole of doom became the ‘void of doom’, the empty nothingness across the bottom of any level that signified death if you fell into it. Not only would not jumping far enough kill you, but so would jumping too high/low/to the left/to the right.

This is a constant frustration for gamers. Granted it would take a large amount of time and additional thought to remove the bottomless void, but despite the annoyances of design caused by bottomless pits, game developers continue to use them. The reason? I would say that it is due to the gaming public’s acceptance of the design. The acceptance has become so widespread that even modern 2D games sometimes follow suit, de-evolving their design and adding a void below to cut corners.

Some games however, get creative. If you’ve never played Super Mario Galaxy, the latest of Mario’s outings on the Nintendo Wii, then you’re missing out on a great game. The level design is superb, despite the fact that all the levels are is floating constructs in space. The reason for this is the gravity mechanic of the game. Each construct usually has its own gravity, and although there are portions of the game where falling off of the side means death, in many cases it simply means that you will orbit around until you land on the platform again. This makes it possible to miss the jumps and not fear of an instant death, as you will simply need to work your way back to where you were.

Lets face it, cutting corners to save time in the development process is a good thing sometimes. But in the case of most modern platform games, I feel that not enough attention is given to level design, a critical portion of the game at large. However, this is something that can be changed. The public just needs to make its voice heard.

So one of these days when you buy a new platformer game from a classic series, why not try playing the old alongside the new? You might discover some interesting differences.

Comments welcome.

GAMES THAT I AM CURRENTLY PLAYING: Sins of a Solar Empire: Entrenchment (PC) Audiosurf (PC), Gears of War 2 (360), Sonic Unleashed (360), Plants VS. Zombies Demo (PC)

1 comment:

Time Enforcer Anubis said...

Ohhh, Sonic Heroes. You and your endless falls into nothing that ate up my lives like Pac-Man eats up those delicious pellets.

Platforming is a 3D environment is hit-or-miss, literally. You land on the platform, or you fall into endless nothing.

I think just about the best thing that can be done until someone perfects 3D platforming is doing what NiGHTS did and having the character move in 2D through a 3D environment. That way, we can keep the gorgeous graphics while still having good gameplay. Only thing we'll lose is looking around at the beautiful vista that is The Level.