The Player’s Camera Is Everything

Genres of video games are often named by how the camera works, yet we don’t always pay close attention to the consequences of camera design when we create game content.

FPS, 3rd Person Adventure, Scrolling Platformer, Orthographic RTS… Everything about how you make a gameplay space is dictated by the player camera.

Everybody knows this, which is why we forget it all the time.

We Call Them Video Games

(Pardon me while I’m obvious.) Players experience games mostly visually. We have amazing sounds and even haptic feedback, but the vast majority of the information sent to the player is onscreen. The way that the player will encounter the game world and every event in the game is via the game camera. That’s the “video” in video games.

The player will only ever see the game world as it is presented via that camera. The player’s experience of the game world can be made ‘good’ or ‘bad’ depending on how well the camera mechanics and the world design are aligned.

3rd Person: The Level Is In My Way

Third-person cameras focus on the player avatar, so that you can see Enzio’s or Laura’s relationship to the game world at all times. This is really important in games that use the environment in “physical” ways. You need to see if your avatar can reach the next ledge, or if they’re in cover, shielded from enemy fire.

The main consideration when building game levels for 3rd Person is: the avatar has a huge passenger — the Beach Ball of Camera Clearance. Picture your game avatar running inside a large hamster ball. The camera has to go somewhere while it’s watching your heroic avatar, and ‘somewhere’ needs space. The camera must look good, and behave predictably.

For credible game worlds, there’s a temptation to try to apply ‘realistic’ scale. In real life I can walk comfortably through a door that is only 10cm higher than I am tall, and is less than 1m wide. Also, tight occlusion is great for game performance, so level designers and technical artists will always be tempted to optimize the map by making portals and lines of sight smaller.

Low or narrow doorways, plants and hanging cables, overheads signs.. are all very easy to place where they look good and seem reasonable. But tighter scale can lead to bad player experience: the hamster ball will be pushed around more often. Players want to see what is ahead, and the map is in the way. The less often the camera is pushed by geometry, the more comfortable the camera feels.

Most of the time, you’ll find that players have a better experience when you find ways of opening up perspectives to give the player more pixels on what they’re trying to actually see. This is especially true “early” when the player is learning how to play.

FPS: The Gorgeous L-Corridor

In multiplayer shooter design, there is often an L-corridor that connects two areas and turns the player back into the gameplay space. Practically every deathmatch map has at least one, often at the edge of the map.

Once this corridor goes to art, it could be interpreted as an opportunity to make beautiful art in the unused space at the edge of the map. We all love to make good-looking maps.

Problem cases occur when the gorgeous vista is so gorgeous that somebody will look at it during a multiplayer match. As in: the player will turn his/her back on the gameplay space because they have turned their camera towards the edge of the map.

What should happen instead, is that the L-corridor should provide attractive views that encourage the player to turn their camera towards the gameplay.

Let Players See What They Need To Know

If you don’t constantly test in-game, you aren't evaluating the experience the player will have. What if it takes 12 seconds to climb those stairs, and you can’t see if you’re going the right way until you are at the top? Designers should know. Does your game camera allow you to see your enemies when they can see you?

There are many fun challenges in video games, and Try-to-Figure-Out-What-You’re-Doing is not one of them. (Maybe you could make a unique game around this concept, but I’m sure you get the idea.)

Camera comfort is an important consideration for design of controls, player camera mechanics, level design, and level art. If you are a developer contributing to any of these elements, you should be constantly thinking back to the camera and evaluating player experience.

  • Players should be able to see where they want to go
  • Level design should encourage player to look where they should go
  • Players should never be surprised or confused by the movement of the game camera
  • Game camera should allow players to see enemies , challenges, and level elements clearly

If players get lost or perform challenges badly: launch your game, and figure out how much screen real estate contains the information they need to navigate or make choices.

The camera will tell you in really honest terms how much chance you’re giving players to get it right.

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