Monday, November 14, 2005

A Small issue of Great Scale

One of the real benefits of 3D and the power of consoles and PC platforms has over the last couple of years proven to be size. The notion of complete freedom has become more and more pronounced, and it spiked with the likes of GTA3 with its steaming cities and plethora of options available to you. Far Cry made a big deal (a suitably sized deal) out of its giant islands and the ability to go almost anywhere to proceed through a mission, and it did that well. Half Life 2 also tried its hand at scale, using scripts ala 1998 but with bigger things and thus to 2005'ish impact. Well, in theory anyway.

Even before all that, games like Tribes did the scale thing really well, with 64 players and huge teamplay modes on giant battlefields. The rush of emerging from an underground base in that game and realising you could fly anywhere on this giant map was intoxicating, and it worked really well from a gameplay standpoint, too. To this day, Tribes remains many people's favourite game.

The Inherent Problems of Making Small Things Big

Fact of the matter, though, is that apart from spanning far into the distance, the maps of Tribes weren't really big in the real sense. They were for all intents and purposes stretched versions of small maps. The notion that a game like Grand Theft Auto is big comes from the fact that it takes a long time to travel from point A to point B.

If you were to take a slice out of GTA3 representing the area of a game like Half Life, you'd notice how incredibly sparse the GTA3 world really is. In fact, I would pretty much compare GTA3 to a game like Duke3D if judged entirely on the complexity of the game world.

Yet we consider this a leap, and in some ways it certainly is. It was a rush gripping that PS2 pad, getting into a car and just driving for like 5 minutes in GTA3 with the city streaming by. That said, did it tap into that real sense of scale? No it didn't. I don't think anyone got the feeling that it did.

Why?

Well, it's because the cities in GTA3 are basically big small things. Let me demonstrate with a couple of images.

Let's give a brief explanation too, for.. you know.. logic's sake.

A. This is how a conventional game looks. This is the confined game world of a conventional shooter where you move around in a small, detailed area that's convincing as a real physical space. The canvas is small, but the painting is detailed.

B. This is the GTA game world. Travelling from one point to another in this world takes longer because the canvas is bigger. The painting however remains the same. Definition is lost, detail is lost, and the feeling of physical space is greatly decreased. Houses are basically shoe boxes in this world.

C. This is where things get real. The canvas is bigger but now the painting is bigger aswell. The content in this world has actually increased. The definition is there, the detail is there, and the feeling of physical space is there too, resulting in an overwhelming sense of scale.

When Half Life 2 was at its best, it offered that tangible sense of scale. That's because it was built from the perspective of a conventional game (example A) and continually expanded naturally. This is true for Shenmue aswell, perhaps even more so with its insane attention to detail.


Big stuff in Half Life 2. (Don't kill me, gamespot!)


Our brains are pretty clever devices, they notice these things even if we can't intellectually pick them up. Until games are actually built with as much attention to four in-game square metres as 400 in-game square metres we won't really get that dizzying sensation of scale. The good news is that technology is getting to a point where that's possible, the bad news is that developers are human beings and the amount of work that must be poured into achieving something like that is absolutely huge, and it's debatable if a truly free roaming game on that level is even neccessary or neccessarily any good.

That is rather irrelevant in this article though, which is more of an observation than anything else.

One thing that can be said about all of this, however, is that there's more you can do with graphical power beyond just drawing stuff in incredible detail on the canvas you have. When people say graphics aren't important and that conventional games have reached their limit, they are wrong. They have not reached their limit, and graphics play an integral part in moving forward.

Now a question for you; Is this article example B or example C?

Yeah?

Cheeky sods.