Words: 818 Approximate Reading Time: 5-8 minutes
I love a good 3D platformer. Platformers in general can be fun, but I quite enjoy the freedom offered by that third dimension. Having grown up when the first 3D games were coming out, when Mario started doing backflips and Link was being annoyed by Navi, I’ve built up a sort of mental attachment to 3D movement. It often feels so intuitive that I will admit to sometimes being a little surprised when I see others struggle with it. But that is only because it has become natural to me over multiple decades of playing these kinds of games.
And yet, there’s one thing about 3D platformers that has always irked me. Well, about some 3D platformers, anyway. It’s about understanding where you are in the game world.
That might not exactly make sense, so let me explain with two examples.
Firstly, imagine that your character is standing on a pillar. There is another pillar in front of you with an item you want. You know that you can run and jump…but can you make that jump? Most importantly, do you think you can make that jump?
The first problem here is one of depth perception, which is hard to get precisely right. It’s about orienting the camera in a way that the player can accurately judge the distance between objects and platforms. It is also about where those objects and platforms are placed relative to one another, so that an accurate judgment can be made at all. Because whether you think you can make the jump is important. If you think you can make it and actually can’t, you’ll likely try over and over again to make the jump because it feels like it should be possible, and you’re just doing something wrong. If you think you can’t make it, then you’ll look around for some other route. A clear communication fostered by both level design and camera orientation is key to helping players understand what they’re doing and how they move about the game world.
Secondly, imagine that you’ve attempted a jump to another platform. But the platform is fairly small, so you could jump too far, or not enough. You need to know when to stop your movement and just land. Do you have a good sense of when you should let go?
This problem points again to an issue of how the camera moves and how the game communicates the character’s position. I am hard-pressed to think of a game that doesn’t place a shadow directly under the character’s coordinates – meaning that if you see a shadow, that’s where the character will land. So the communication part is taken care of. But that shadow doesn’t matter if you can’t see it in the first place. Which means that the camera needs to be positioned in such a way that you can know where you will land, or even correct an error that you’ve made.
These things may seem minor and nitpicky. But these aspects of how the player sees the world impact how they move around it. Good movement is the lifeblood of a platformer, and not being able to properly see what you’re doing affects the movement.
In truth, we could extend some of these ideas to 3D games in general. What a camera does impacts how players react. Certainly any veteran of FromSoftware titles such as Dark Souls knows the pains of a rapidly moving boss that causes the camera to whip around frantically. Or the struggles of using the in-game lock-on system against very large enemies, when the camera aims everything at a body part you might not be able to reach. Hence why so many newer players might bounce off, and why so many veterans may decide to forego locking on and just operate the camera themselves (usually requiring some unorthodox controller holding).
But if players run into these kinds of problems, we should ask if these kinds of problems are really necessary? Could we reconfigure the camera or the game itself in some way to not force them to fight with the perspective? In the case of a 3D platformer, for example, it would be about making sure both the perspective the camera provides and the space between platforms is such that distance feels easily readable and position is easy to determine. We can come up with all sorts of principles about other genres depending on what we are looking for.
This essay is brief, mostly because cameras are a subject that don’t lend themselves too well to abstract analysis. There are too many dependencies. Hence why I tried to make the focus here on a specific genre. But we can start to pull out useful principles of how to analyze these problems that can help us in understanding where things go wrong – just exactly how perspective and distance and everything else impacts how players receive and process information.