Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

With Great Power Comes Greater Demands

Posted by Rampant Coyote on August 17, 2011

Long before anybody was talking about the “Uncanny Valley,” I was informed about the issue at my first post-college job, at the then new start-up Singletrac. I was one of the few “fresh” faces hired, as many of the employees were from the simulation industry. (It’s amusing that they went from simulation to games, and here I am, years later, having gone from games to simulation in my day-job career field).

One of the programmers explained to me the problems that they’d encountered as the graphics became more and more realistic. The customers began complaining more. For example, runway lights were now the “wrong shade of blue.”  Nevermind that they’d taken the shade directly out of photographs (which looked fine to the pilots) – in the simulation, they looked wrong in the context of the rest of the world. As the graphics became more realistic, the inconsistencies from reality became increasingly noticeable.

This had nothing to do with human-like models. I actually came to understand this better when I read Scott McCloud’s book, Understanding Comics. The less realistic graphics allow us to treat them as abstract representations – iconify them – so that we can project our own imagination into them.  We “fill in the blanks” with our minds, and that’s enough to satisfy us. But as we approach realism, that same mental trick works against us. We still “fill in the blanks” with our expectations, but then the object behaves in a way contrary to those expectations. And that bugs us.

It’s not limited to realistic graphics. Anything that is supposed to model reality can annoy us with even minor failures. Physics issues are a great example. Or it can be something like the cost of a real-world item. The less iconic and more like the real-world analog an object is, the more the deficiencies annoy us.

Unfortunately, it can cut both ways. Falcon 4.0 had a not-undeserved reputation for bugginess on release.  Unfortunately, this caused a lot of realistic elements included in the game to be dismissed as “bugs” even though they accurately modeled real-world behavior. It took some real-world F-16 drivers and military experts to convince some forum-dwellers of these facts, and even then the latter often accepted this information only grudgingly.

Even complex game systems (an increasingly rare beast) that don’t really attempt to model “reality” can generate these kinds of demands.  If one aspect of the game offers a great deal of visibility and control to the player, then all systems are expected to be as consistently transparent and interactive. Where consistency with reality may not be a mandate, internal self-consistency then becomes the rule.

Put it all together, and you have Minecraft getting away with AI behavior that would be unforgivable in a more ‘realistic’ first-person shooter or 3D RPG.  You have accepted limitations in 2D games that would confuse or even infuriate players in a 3D game.  For indie developers, this means they need to pick their level carefully based not just on what they can do, but where they want to set the player’s expectations and manage the demands. Otherwise, they can quickly grow out of control.

 


Filed Under: Design - Comments: 6 Comments to Read



  • Maklak said,

    This is off-topic, but one thing about uncanny valley just bugs me. I fail to comprehend, why some people even bother to make these abominations, like that Replee robot. What is their purpose anyway? I’m fine with factory automatons (robotic “arms” on assembly lines), and research into AI personal assistants, adaptive rovers, and such (not kill-bots, like the US Army has, tough). But why oh why make these things into human or animal likens ?!

  • Kevin Jackson said,

    This is one of the reasons I fell in love with the SNES Final Fantasy games, and part of the reason my interest diminished as the more recent iterations came out. It’s nice to see some companies these days recognize that photo-realism is not necessarily the ideal. Team Fortress 2 is a wonderful example of how non-photo-realism can help a game (by making the characters icons, as you said), even one with so little story and character.

  • Incindium said,

    The graphics thing is probably the major reason Disney’s “Mars Needs Moms” flopped so badly in theaters. My kids watched a Redbox copy of the movie and the animated humans in the movie just creeped me out. They used real actors with motion capture info to animate the computer models but something about the results just ends up being weird and creepy where your standard big budget animated movie(Toy Story, Kung-Fu Panda) doesn’t.

  • xenovore said,

    Consistency with reality should never be a goal for video game design, simply because it’s impossible to achieve 100%. Something will always feel “off”. (And quite often, particularly with animation, you don’t want realism anyway because it ends up looking/feeling dull and lifeless.)

    Internal consistency, however, is paramount. Any inconsistency — whether in the world setting, the game mechanics, the visuals, or the UI — can and will detract from the game quality and experience.

  • Barry Brenesal said,

    “This had nothing to do with human-like models. I actually came to understand this better when I read Scott McCloud’s book, Understanding Comics. The less realistic graphics allow us to treat them as abstract representations – iconify them – so that we can project our own imagination into them. We “fill in the blanks” with our minds, and that’s enough to satisfy us.”

    Absolutely. It’s also true, I think, about voicing in games. When there was no voicing, nobody missed it, because the endless mute characters was a convention everybody could accept. But when voices became essential (to some people), suddenly it became a matter of voices being appropriate or not, well-acted or not, recorded expertly or not. Artwork, too: the early Might and Magics had great fun with silly, over-the-top monster types. But as soon as they moved to 3D and turned the art-tunish world real, the characters became dull and realistic. And people became far more critical of what they were seeing.

  • Weekly Update: Dying Is Easy | Line Hollis said,

    [...] With Great Power Comes Greater Expectations. Rampant Coyote extends the concept of the Uncanny Valley to realism in game design, for a thoughtful discussion of how the demands of players shift with a game’s presentation. [...]

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