Sunday, November 22, 2015

The need to let gamers tinker with controls on a non-trivial level, an example

I have the beginnings of a post on game design and how to not fuck it up that I have no idea when I'll finish.  I have a feeling that it's never going to be a top priority so it will grow and become more expansive in the background until I either abandon it or post it.

What inspired me to start writing was playing DMC: Devil May Cry.  Apart from the rampant misogyny and the somewhat less rampant fat shaming it's a pretty good game.  Of course, I say that not having finished it.

The Devil May Cry franchise actually started by accident.

The Resident Evil series had kind of a troubled history.  Resident Evil 2 started off as something with the same general setting, but was completely different in all other ways.  Fans have come to call that completely different never-released game, "Resident Evil 1.5".  For Resident Evil 3 there are some conflicting reports but, basically, what they had planned was completely upended when the PlayStation 2 was announced.  The upgraded what was supposed to be a minor side project game to become Resident Evil 3.

Resident Evil 4 is where we want to go though.  It started off as an idea to take the game in a new direction by setting it in the past.  A time of castles.  A time when you're not going to be saved by a surreptitiously thrown rocket launcher.  As this game developed, though, it changed.  It became Devil May Cry.  The other major contributing factor was a glitch that allowed for prolonged areal battles (even though the character couldn't fly) because you didn't fall while slashing someone with a sword.  The glitch was turned into a feature.  Thus the franchise was born.

A little while back there was a massive sale on selected Capcom games.  Only selected ones, and it was a steam sale and the first two games aren't on Steam anyway, but when I say massive I mean massive.  80% off massive.  I got the reboot, DMC: Devil May Cry.

So we come to why I'm writing this post.

* * *

I have sympathy for the limitations console developers have to face.  Consoles are nigh impossible to upgrade (and people who try void their warranties and are not the intended audience) and there are limited controls.  The plus side of a controller is that it's designed specifically to have buttons arranged in such a way that the game can access all of them quickly with minimal effort.  The downside is that it has fewer buttons than even the most basic pocket calculator.  (I've made a post about this before, though not the pocket calculator bit.)

23 keys on a "four function" calculator*, 12 on a controller if you count the direction pad as four buttons, 14 if you count the non-gaming buttons (the ones that let you start, stop, pause, and such and basically do stuff to the game rather than in the game), 16 if you count pressing the joysticks down.  The joysticks tend to be eight directional jobs, so they will in fact push you over the cheapest of cheap calculators getting you to 32, but only if you ignore the fact that they're fucking joysticks.

One joystick can be replaced by four direction keys (press two adjacent ones to get the intermediate direction), typically the arrow keys for left handed people and wasd for right handed people.  The other could be replaced by another four keys but why would you even consider that when you've got a much better option with the mouse (which is not limited to eight directions)?

Assume a two button mouse and now you've covered all but 14 of the controller controls and have somewhere between 97 and 101 keys left that you could map those controls to.

Except... 47 of those keys change (21 of them drastically) when you use shift and the number pad can also be used for scrolling so make that 151 to 155 keys.

You see the difference; console developers have 14 options, computer designers have ten times as many and change.  Lots of change  Maybe 11 times as many depending on the keyboard.

* * *

The people who made DMC used some creative tricks to get a whole whopping ten weapons into the game.  Ten weapons is a PC game number.  You map them to the number keys.  Always have.  (Consoles games tend to do more like four (by using the direction pad.))

Doing that on a console controller would leave you with ... well four, not counting using the joysticks to look around and move, nor the non-gaming keys.  Yes, counting pressing down on the joysticks.

They couldn't do that.  Instead they split the weapons into three groups (two groups of three, one group of four) and made it so you could cycle through the weapons in each group.

This is ... far from ideal.  It did allow them to get it done only using the direction pad, and two of the four buttons by your trigger fingers.  That left them eight buttons to work with, they only used seven of them.  Sort of.  Actually they used all eight of the remaining but one was only used in conjunction with another one to act sort of like a shift key because ... I don't even know.  Why not just have that button do the shifted function of the other button on its own and thus not need to use two controls at once?

But that's not really important, what does matter is that a keyboard does have the ability to have any of the ten weapons a keystroke away but does not have the ability to make "shift into one of three modes, cycle weapons in mode" anything but an awkward bit of crap.

As I said the last time I touched on this subject:
[Y]ou simply don't interact with a keyboard the same way you do with a console controller. I defy you to try to use a keyboard by holding it in your hands with your thumbs on top and your fingers underneath while playing a game where people are shooting at you, things are trying to eat you, or both.

Console controllers are made so that you can get to an extremely small number of buttons fast and with very little strain on the hands and fingers.  You can quickly hold down six controller keys at once with minimal mental or physical effort and hold that position, more or less indefinitely, without discomfort.  That's their advantage.

Keyboards are completely different.  They have a lot of keys with the idea that most of the time you'll be one keystroke away from what you want, the vast majority of the remaining time it will be but two, and only for really involved things (control alt delete) will you need to hold down three.  They have so many keys that you're almost never going to be forced to take shortcuts and thus can assign every important function its own key.  That's their advantage.

The people porting the game didn't make use of the benefits of a keyboard, basically, because they were lazy.

That's ... well it's not ok, which I was initially going to type, but it wouldn't be that bad if not for the fact that they also took steps to make the usually simple Unreal Engine control binding process so absurdly convoluted and Byzantine that you can't fix it.

I've looked into it, they've buried the controls that actually matter so deep that you'd basically have to take apart the game and then rebuild it just to have a button that means "Equip gun 3".  (Or, "I want the fucking ax, NOW!")

At the surface level the tinkering is trivial at best, and don't dream of using scripting to fix things for you because they're so afraid of people cheating that they've made it so you can't run fucking scripts related to keystrokes when the game is going on.

And the thing is, it has a good game inside of it.  It's not a thing where I can say, "This is great," because well, let me quote what I said at the top of the post, "Apart from the rampant misogyny and the somewhat less rampant fat shaming it's a pretty good game," so far at least.  Like I said, I haven't finished.

The rampant misogyny is largely in the cut-scenes (mercifully skippable) and you can usually see it coming and thus avoid it, which means that this could be a pretty good game, and I say that as someone who doesn't do much in this genre.  Burying the actual control structure so deep that all you can do is the trivial act of, "I'll change this crappy pseudo-control from being bound to X to be being bound to Y," screws it over.

I'll still play (I'm a story person, I need to know what happens, especially to Kat), but after spending much of the day relearning what little I know of computer programming to try to work around the stupidity of whoever made the fucking port only to find out that it won't work, I'm definitely taking a break.


* You can't really get one, even the cheapest crap throws in additive inverse (change plus to minus or minus to plus) square root, percent, and the three memory buttons.  Add in the digits, decimal point, functions, and equals and you've got 22 keys.  Usually the power button takes slot number 23.

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