February 23, 2010 12:00 PM | Simon Carless
[In this development-oriented opinion piece, Game Developer magazine editor-in-chief Brandon Sheffield lays out some all-too-common bugbears that have plagued games for too long.]
With 2009 come and gone, we enter a new decade of new challenges. But some of the old pet peeves still linger in modern games, and most of them can be fixed now. We needn't wait until 2011!
Lack Of Stereo Downmixing
I still play games on a two-speaker television, and so do a whole lot of other folks. Until the entire world has 5.1 surround sound -- which might take a while -- there needs to be a viable two-speaker option.
It surprises me how many big-budget games have this problem. Just the other day I was playing Army of Two: The 40th Day, I didn't realize until halfway through the intro cinematic that there was a narration track, because it was buried so low in the mix.
The in-game cut-scenes were a bit better, but not by much; critical dialog about what to do and where to go was hard to hear unless I turned my character to the side of the character speaking. From blockbusters like Far Cry 2 to smaller titles like BlackSite: Area 51, games continue to ignore the default audio setup of the average consumer.
Contextually-Different UI Buttons
You know those Windows Mobile smartphones that map the same buttons to different options in different contexts within the same program? And you know how everyone hates that? Consider that when designing menus and user interfaces, because a lot of games look a lot like Windows Mobile.
I love Dragon Age: Origins -- I put more than 60 hours into the Xbox 360 version -- but its menus are atrocious. Switching which buttons do what depending in whether I'm in a store or in the field, not allowing use of items in organizational menus but setting them to a separate subset of a different menu wheel -- these are not great ideas.
It says something about the maturity of our industry that a game can have an interface with that level of inconsistency and still be critically and commercially successful -- and which I will play through to completion anyway.
Poor Texture Streaming
Storage has increased over the years, in terms of physical disc media size as well as RAM and hard drive capacity. So why are we still waiting several seconds for normals and textures to properly appear in many big-name titles?
Texture pop runs rampant through the industry, even when it comes to the largest and most accomplished companies. Some teams can do it, some can't. It does depend on what type of game you're making at times, but really, I'm not sure there's a context in which a studio absolutely couldn't fix this, given the time and dedication.
It's amazing that in this day and age, some games still don't offer proper tutorials. Tutorials that are fun and properly integrated into the narrative are ideal, but even something that just tells me how I should play would be great. Some games simply throw you to the wolves.
To pick on Dragon Age again, the game presumed a certain level of knowledge which, when combined with the confusing menus, led to me not knowing how to use an item to heal my injuries until about 10 hours in. I just decided to fiddle with menus until I could find the option. The game did inform me that I should heal, but gave me no indication of how I should do it.
Some players made fun of the gated tutorial in Halo 2, in which you had to independently test your left and right analog sticks before proceeding into the single player campaign. But just last week I played Left 4 Dead 2 with a person who had never touched a twin-stick first-person game before. For him, such a tutorial would have been useful. Even though he intuitively knew where he wanted to go and where to aim, never having used both sticks before, his learning curve was very steep.
Long Load Times On Consoles
I thought I'd end with something to make everyone feel a little better about themselves, because this is tough to fix, and it's easy to shift the blame onto console makers. Load times are incredibly difficult to get rid of, and I don't expect they'll go away anytime soon. But there are things we can be doing with background loads, loading during cut-scenes, using more advanced streaming, or even reusing or recombining assets as is often done in open-world games.
In the old days, we used to fear the "juggling monkey," the animated monkey that appeared on the loading screens of old Neo Geo CD games. Back then, we were waiting for several of megabytes of data to load. Iin the Dreamcast and PlayStation 2 era loading came down a bit, but now it feels like I'm staring down that old juggling monkey once again.
High Fives For A New Future
Games are getting more engrossing, more varied, and more complex, and I think the industry is moving in impressive directions. Every once in a while, though, it's good to take stock of the things we still haven't fixed before we move on to what's next. And this was only a fraction of what we need to work on. As luck would have it, there are only so many words I can fit in one article!