Lights, Action, Camera

The camera in Neverwinter Nights sucks. This article is about why. I’m telling you what the article is about up front, because I’m about to take a leisurely detour through many seemingly unrelated topics before circling back around to the actual point.

Jungian archetypes "Я" Us

Jungian archetypes “Я” Us

As I think I’ve mentioned before, my mother didn’t like Dungeons & Dragons very much. When I would hang out at Junot Diaz’s house and play all day, she’d always call me after a few hours and harangue me into coming home. This made me bitter, because everyone else got to stay there all day and most of the night playing, and I only got a taste of it. At the time, I was convinced that my mother didn’t understand how cool D&D was, and how creative and fun it was, and she just hated me and didn’t want me to have any friends at all.

Now, with the perspective of many years, I’ve finally come to understand that my mom didn’t hate D&D. She didn’t think it was satanic, or evil, or unbalancing, or immoral. In fact, she probably didn’t know anything about it whatsoever. My mom applied a very simple and sensible test: anything a 14 year old boy is willing to spend 20 hours in a basement doing can’t possibly be a good idea. I can’t really argue with that. Mom was right. There was at least one unintentional side-effect of this, though. By constraining my D&D experiences, Mom turned the game into one of my semi-permanent latent objects of desire. Even though I personally have never had all that much fun playing D&D, either in person or on a computer, I’m convinced that somewhere within the maze of rules, tables, and Erol Otus drawings lies the joyous heart of all ludic pleasure. So, years later, the 14 year old in my head still wants me to purchase Dungeons & Dragons-based computer games.

Mom did let me spend 20 hours a day playing computer games, presumably because of a misbegotten belief that computers would somehow make me smarter.

Eye of the Beholder

Eye of the Beholder

One of the games I spent hours and hours playing was SSI’s classic dungeon crawl Eye of the Beholder. This game still holds up well (under emulation) even today. The rules were simple, the puzzles were surprisingly sophisticated given the limitations of its user interface, and it moved at just the right pace. Eye of the Beholder took everything good about Wizardry and imported it wholesale into a Dungeons & Dragons universe. The first two Eye of the Beholder games are the best computer-based dungeon crawls that have ever been made.

Recently, I heard about a mod for Neverwinter Nights that basically reimplements Eye of the Beholder in the NWN engine. So of course, I have to have it. It doesn’t matter that it won’t be as good as the original. It doesn’t matter that I own the original and can still play it on just about any machine, under emulation.

It’s shinier. I have to have it. The only problem is that in order to play it, I would have to buy the latest add-on pack for Neverwinter Nights, which I didn’t yet own (and suddenly, the reason this module is being touted on Bioware’s site becomes clear: now that’s good marketing).

Since I have a job and the add-on pack isn’t that much money, I bought it.

Before purchasing the add-on pack, I fired up _Neverwinter _just to refresh my memory. And that’s when the trouble began. Now, I’m going to compare Neverwinter Nights to its console nephews, Knights of the Old Republic and Jade Empire. I’m well aware that those are later games, and that they were able to learn from the mistakes made by Neverwinter. But it needs to be said: the single biggest misfeature of Neverwinter Nights as a product is that the camera is terrible.

I don’t work for Bioware. Despite the fact that they liked my little Jade Empire-inspired toy, The Inscrutable Denominator of Heavenly Glory, I’ve never hung out with them, drunk beer with them, or gone on press junkets with them (memo to Bioware: have your people call my people. Let’s do lunch). Despite that, due to my amazing psychic powers, I can tell you exactly how Neverwinter Nights ended up with its lousy camera.

Early in the development cycle, one of the engine programmers produced an internal-use-only demo of the 3D engine. The demo had various 3D objects arrayed around a landscape. To show how cool and truly-3D everything was, he provided some simple controls to drive the camera around via the keyboard. At the same as time the engine was being developed, work on other parts of the product was advancing: 3D models were being created, scripts were being written, and levels were being designed.

Dramatic and unplayable

Neverwinter zoomed in: dramatic and unplayable

At some point, a year before the game was released, in mid-February – these things always happen in February, no one knows why – a meeting was held to determine what camera angle should be used in the actual game. The modelers and artists wanted a low, tight camera so that the beauty and detail of their work would be apparent. The programmers wanted a god’s-eye view so that the player could plan their strategy. The producer wanted a view between those two extremes because that seemed the least likely to cause a mutiny in his ranks. The level designers were insistent that if the angle of the camera was too low, the player would never figure out where to go and their game would be ruined, ruined! The graphic designers pointed out that if the camera was zoomed out too far, the game looked like a much less attractive version of Diablo. Harsh words were said. Snarky emails were exchanged. Finally one of the engine programmers, figuring he has already spent the time making the flyaround functionality work, says “Let’s just leave the demo controls in. Then the player can figure out the best view for himself.”

The result, of course, is that despite its advanced graphics engine and nice shiny modeling, Neverwinter Nights looks terrible compared to Knights of the Old Republic and Jade Empire. It plays worse, too. I probably spend about 25% of my time in Neverwinter dorking around with the camera. I’m not doing that because I want to, but because I have to. The game’s levels haven’t been designed with a single fixed camera perspective in mind. Knights of the Old Republic and Jade both allow some camera control, but much less than offered by Neverwinter. And they are stronger games for it. (The game also loses dramatic potential because it doesn’t have the over-the-shoulder medium shots during dialogue that the later games have, but that’s a separate issue.)

Boring and emotionless

Neverwinter zoomed out: boring and emotionless

Worse, since Neverwinter has a three-dimensional camera, I have to worry about the zoom level. The part of me that wants pretty shiny toys wants to be zoomed in all the way. The hardcore gamer who only cares about “winning” always wants to be zoomed out all the way. Whichever one I choose, I have made a part of myself unhappy. Sure, I could try to set the wheel somewhere in the middle. But first, a UI element that requires me to hit a target “somewhere in the middle” is clumsy. Secondly, it would have been better if that view had been set for me, and then I wouldn’t be obsessing about whether I have set it wrongly.

The camera in a 3D game needs to operate without the players’ supervision. Whenever possible, it should give them a sufficiently close view of the action so that they can enjoy the pretty pictures. When a more strategic view is necessary, it should be presented to the players without their intervention. The best of all worlds is for the levels to be designed such that moving the camera around to achieve a strategic view simply isn’t necessary. Level design should conform to the realities of the in-game camera, not vice-versa. Requiring the players to move the camera to play the game well reminds them that they are above the game world, and not a part of it. In the text adventure milieu, we’d say that this breaks mimesis.

Software developers see certain patterns of screw-ups again and again. Some of them are just coding mistakes, but some are more fundamental questions of design. One of the most common mistakes you see made by software teams, especially those that don’t have the benefit of having their butts regularly kicked by competent UI designers, is what we here at Tea Leaves call “violating the axiom of choice.”

The axiom of choice comes into play when software engineers on a team disagree about some fairly trivial but user-visible behavior of the product. They will have a few meetings about it, where they will make a lot of grunting noises, but won’t be able to come to a decision. Eventually, one of the software engineers will say “Well, why don’t we just expose this as an option to the user, and let them choose which behavior they want? That’s easy.” Everyone will be relieved at not having to make a decision, and the meeting will end.

The end result of this is an inferior product.

The hard part of software development is not, it turns out, writing code. The hard part is deciding in advance how the product is going to behave.

Lest you think I’m picking on Bioware, let me reiterate that the good things about the game overcome the lousy camera (by which I mean “I am obsessed with trying to relive my childhood”). The product is good enough that after all these years and all these complaints, I’m still giving them money. And it’s not as if Bioware is the only group to ever release a software product with a lousy UI. Hell, axiom of choice violations are practically a time-honored tradition for open-source projects.

I just hope that when I line up to buy Neverwinter Nights 2 like a good little consumer drone, someone has actually made a decision and chosen a camera angle for me.

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