Skulk view rotation, from the archives
As I mentioned on the last podcast, Charlie and I came across an old video while checking the Natural Selection backups for a file. The video is a demo I sent to Charlie back in April 2003 of the first person Skulk view rotation I was working on.
As most of you probably know, we decided not to include the first person effect in Natural Selection, so this video is the only surviving example of that feature. The decision not to include the view alignment when walking on walls was motivated by the simple fact that we could never get it to work well enough for our tastes. This isn’t totally apparent in the simple test map in the video, but take my word for it.
There were two main problems getting the view rotation to work in Natural Selection. The first problem was that, as a mod, the Half Life engine was a black box that we couldn’t see into or modify. Figuring out the appropriate rotation for the view requires examining of the world geometry around the player and figuring out which direction is "up" or perpendicular to the wall you’re walking on. This isn’t hard to do in theory, but in practice it gets complicated. Ultimately we found the engine didn’t afford us enough access to the world geometry to get it working the way we wanted.
The second problem was that this feature was being developed after the first version of the game shipped. To improve the wall walking ability, we considered modifying the maps (by adding invisible hints for the game and smoothing out tricky spots), but we decided this wasn’t practical since we’d need to patch all of the existing maps.
Aliens versus Predator 2 was a popular game at the time which featured a view rotation similar to what we were working on. This of course was something we looked at closely, but my conclusion was that even though it was developed under much more ideal conditions (presumably), it still didn’t behave perfectly in all cases. This was fine in the context of that game, but even if we had gotten it working as well as they did, it would have still been problematic adding it to Natural Selection at that stage. Wall walking is a big part of Natural Selection and the effectiveness of the Skulk is critical to the balancing of the game.
So ultimately we decided not to include view rotation in Natural Selection, although the rotation of the 3rd person model seen toward the end of the video was included.
I know what you’re thinking — why didn’t we make it an option so that people could decide if they wanted to use it or not?
In his book, Joel Spolsky writes that an option is when a programmer (or a designer) fails to make a decision. Obviously not every option fits this description — in particular options that change "continuously" like resolution, font size, etc. are great for different users — but options that make big changes in functionality typically are unnecessary. Giving the user the ability to tailor their own experience sounds great, but often what you’re really asking them to do is compromise. This probably sounds like an insane and radical concept since it’s quite opposite the current trend in software. But if one way is clearly better than another, why include the option? And if that’s not the case, maybe you should be rethinking the implementation of that particular feature so that it always works great without requiring the user to tweak it.
In the case of the Skulk rotation, it was clear the rotated view made it more difficult to orient yourself, attack enemies and would probably have been nauseating for lots of people.
When confronted with an option, people don’t always make the best decisions for themselves (check the leading causes of death in humans if you don’t believe this one). Some people may have chosen the rotated view option because of the increased immersion and overall awesomeness, despite the clear shortcomings when it comes to game play. They may have become frustrated with the game and instead of enjoying it, would just spend the rest of their days hanging out on our forums and telling us how we ruined the game.
Having proper view alignment for the Skulk is something we’ll probably be revisiting for Natural Selection 2. Both of the major hurdles we had originally no longer exist, and I like to think we’re a little bit smarter now too (maybe that was the third, unidentified hurdle). One of the things that really sets Natural Selection apart from other games is how different the alien side feels from your standard first-person shooter experience. Watching this old video gets me pumped to take that to the next level!