Lights, Camera, Distraction: The Problem with Virtual Camera Systems
How we view a game is of paramount importance to how we play it—but it’s not uncommon for that communication to fall apart.
The average gamer rarely notices the camera, and when they do it's usually to complain about what's wrong with it. This is in spite of the camera being the most important tool for communicating a chosen situation to the player. Done well, its presence can be almost imperceptible, framing the action perfectly. Done poorly, it can ruin the experience, causing frustration and disorientation.
Of all the concerns associated with video game cameras, arguably the most pressing is choosing the right type of camera for a game. There are many different kinds of that appear throughout games set in a 3D space, including dynamic, fixed angle, and first-person. It's vital that the developers know which will benefit them the most, before committing to one style over another.
John Nesky, the dynamic camera designer for Thatgamecompany's Journey, states in his 2014 GDC talk '50 Game Camera Mistakes,' "Dynamic third-person cameras are the hardest to design." He advises developers not to feel embarrassed to choose one of the simpler options, as getting a dynamic system wrong can make a finished game significantly worse.
One major issue with dynamic camera systems is maintaining line of sight throughout. The player must be able to see all of the information that's valuable to their progression, at all times. But the environment often makes this difficult for developers to attain. This is why some 3D games prefer to go for a fixed angle, like Super Mario 3D Land and the 2015 version of King's Quest, as it bypasses this problem and gives the creator more control over what's being exhibited to the player.
Jonas Kaerlev, senior designer on the 3D collectathon A Hat in Time, explains: "Very rarely are you allowed to break line of sight in a video game, because if you do the player gets disorientated or confused about where the character is."
Kaerlev and his team got around this in by making certain obstacles fade out when they get between the player and the camera, and by ensuring the player is always visible in silhouette whenever a wall blocks their view. These tricks guarantee line of sight is always maintained, despite the surroundings.
Not every game is so cautious, though. In last year's The Last Guardian, the player's view is frequently impeded by the screen-filling non-playable character, Trico. This occurs whenever you try to climb on top of the creature, as well as when you attempt to navigate narrow corridors with the beast. In these types of situations, the player becomes completely obscured by the surroundings, causing confusion as you try and reposition the camera. This can prove extremely problematic, and incredibly annoying when it keeps happening across several sections of the game.
Line of sight isn't the only concern. Another area that demands careful attention from developers is player intent. If the player wants to move the camera's focus in a particular way, it's commonly believed that they should be able to, as their intentions are more important than the demands of the in-game camera.
"The player doesn't want to wrestle with the controls," Kaerlev says. "If the player wants to have a specific angle, even if the game thinks that angle is absolutely terrible, you should let them have it. Because it's so much more satisfying to just see the things you want to see in the way you want to see them, than have the game simply say no."
He uses Super Mario 64 as an example of a video game with an uncooperative camera. In the Nintendo 64 launch title, if you try to move the camera into a position it doesn't like, it defaults back to the starting position. This is infuriating and can provoke several headaches for the player, as you line up the camera prior to a jump only to be denied agency over it.
On the other side of the coin is Journey. In that game, the camera is nearly always in the best available position. But should you want to adjust it, you're able to. This grants the player a feeling of mastery over the camera, facilitating exploration and platforming. This is why the game feels so intuitive.
"We found players, more often than not, just focus on one thing while playing." — Jonas Kaerlev
In his GDC talk, Nesky argues: "It's important to always honor the player's intent. If the player wants to turn the camera one way, the camera must turn that direction, otherwise the player will get very frustrated."
Motion sickness is also something for developers to be wary of. Sharp angle changes, screen shake, and wild movements are to be avoided wherever possible, to limit this. Developers should also consider including menu options to tone down these effects, if necessary.
"It's very jarring for the camera to go from one angle to another really quickly," says Kaerlev. "The player gets disorientated. Because, when I'm standing at one spot and I'm ready to jump to another and the camera just freaks out, then I need to readjust it again."
While making the ocean-exploration game Abzû, Giant Squid Studios paid careful attention to camera movement for this reason. Among the areas they realized they needed to improve were the gestural movements, such as flips and loops. This is because the camera would swing wildly about, trying to predict the player's next move, potentially inducing simulation sickness. Their solution for this was to locate the specific areas where this would happen and to design around them.
Max Kaufmann, a gameplay programmer for Abzû, writes on Giant Squid's dev blog: "Through playtesting, we identified these moves and added special detectors which hold the camera steady, dollying out to frame the acrobatics." This resulted in the more fluid system present in the finished game.
One title that inadvertently had players reaching for sick bags was Batman: Arkham Asylum. During the combat segments, the camera constantly shifts. The thought process behind this is likely for it to evoke the dramatic shooting style of an action film, but it can be nauseating to keep up with. To avoid situations this, some studios have the camera focus on one goal at a time, positioning it in the best position for that action alone rather than struggling to find an acceptable middle ground.
"We have a thing called a 'What am I looking at pointer'," Kaerlev comments. "The name makes it very clear what it's about. It's the thing that the player is focused on. It's not just the player character, but what the player is focused on. Because we found players, more often than not, just focus on one thing while playing. You want to get to that one collectible. You want to get to defeat that one enemy. Even if there are all these different elements, you usually have one goal you're trying to achieve."
There are lots of considerations that need to be taken into account regarding video game cameras. Many of these are exclusive to the medium. Line of sight, player intent and motion sickness stand out, alongside depth perception and whether or not inputs change depending on the camera angle.
With all of these pitfalls, it's shocking to see this element of game design so often ignored by an audience, because everything's working just right. So next time you load up a game, why not pay attention to the way the camera moves? You may be surprised by the ingenuity that's been hiding right under your nose.