Game cameras

Third Person "over-the-shoulder" games are ubiquitous. Every 3D platformer since Mario 64, every action game since Tomb Raider, has such a camera.

And, to one degree or another, they ALL suck.

Not the games; I’m talking about the camera. I was just watching a review of Ninja Gaiden 2, and once again the reviewer points out how the camera just can’t keep up with the action, or keeps falling behind scenery, so the player dies horribly ’cause they can’t see what’s going on. NG2 just came out! You’d think modern games would know how to make the floating third-person camera work properly, right?

Well, for a couple of years now I’ve had a theory that… third-person cameras are fundamentally broken, and we will NEVER be completely happy with their behavior. I feel there are three reasons for this.

First, I’ve certainly made my share of such cameras, so I understand the algorithms that one would use to code such a camera. BUT, when players encounter a third-person camera, they don’t like to think about the camera itself; they believe it should work just like cameras in the movies (and a third-person camera IS very "cinematic"). But a movie camera is very carefully placed in the scene by a trained human director, and not in real-time, either. So if we’re looking for a camera algorithm that does as well as a human director in all cases, we’ll be looking for a long time.

Second, the "camera" of a 3D game is surprisingly limited. The image on your screen is (at best) 45 degrees of your view, not the 360 degree field of view we have in real life. But Thom, you say, we don’t see in 360 degrees! What are you smoking? Well, you’re right, except that we have swiveling eyeballs, necks, and shoulders, and precise control over them, so we can turn our eyes (cameras) quickly and feel like we can see everything around us.

First-person cameras (FPS games) feel very immersive and natural because we’re substituting our mouse hand for the neck movement, but we still have enough control to look around quickly and build that virtual 360 degree view. Third person cameras, in contrast, give us very little control, very little ability to look around, especially in the heat of combat.

The third reason for my theory is simple; I’ve never found a game review that was totally happy with a third-person camera. The range seems to be "not bad, a few problems" to "utterly dreadful, I can’t play", and since so many games have had a third-person camera, you’d think a developer would have found the magic combination by now.

Having said all this, many games have an acceptable third-person camera, or at least a camera you can forget about while you play. I don’t remember fighting the camera in God of War, and Psychonaughts actually did some really interesting things with its camera. Resident Evil 4 and Gears of War both embraced a very usable fusion between third-person and first-person. But I would argue that the games with the best third-person cameras have very carefully constructed levels and artwork, all designed to minimize camera shortcomings. To get the best behavior out of a third-person camera, developers often have to modify or even sacrifice other aspects of the game.

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