The following is my thesis for Full Sail's Game Design Master's program:
Find me @Sky_Dojo
Movement, or "An act of changing physical location or position" (Received from Lexico Dictionary) is an inherit trait possessed by every living being. Even the most stationary of animals like the tube worm weave and dance gracefully at the ocean floor. Movement is what defines us as being "alive" and is the basis of creative expression. So, it would make sense that movement being the most basic yet crucial of mechanics in a video game and can make or break the entire experience.
(B, 2008) "Parkour is the art of moving through your environment using only your body and the surroundings to propel yourself. ...the goal is to overcome obstacles quickly and efficiently, without using extraneous movement." - Dan Edwards
This seems like a no-brainer concept; that movement should feel fluid and unrestrained. Yet too many current AAA titles struggle with creating a player controller that moves fluidly through their environment. This article will go into detail on what maneuverability is, why it is important for any game, and how it can affect the player.
Maneuverability in video games is how seamlessly the player's character can traverse through their environment. It is limited only by the player's mechanics, the environment the player is in, and the player's creativity. There are two primary components of maneuverability: speed - how fast it is possible to move in a direction, and control - how well you can turn while moving at a certain speed. Acceleration and deceleration - how quickly you can build up or lose speed, are also important factors in maneuverability.
Control and speed are linked because without control you can only move in a line, and without speed you won't get anywhere. This is not limited only to ground based movement and any additional mechanics (like weight being attributed to air movement); can affect a player's maneuverability, but regardless speed and control are the main components. Finding a balance between the two is what creates a dynamic feeling player controller.
This is where many AAA titles struggle to create a convincing third person controller that feels dynamic and responsive. Too many instances have occurred where a basic action like turning around to avoid oncoming attack required a slow turn around animation, or tank-y horse controls when trying to get past a tree. This is most likely due to the developers aiming for realism, but people don't move like sluggish puppets in real life. On the other hand, I find that many indie titles take a different approach to movement; while focusing on delivering a fun experience first and realism second.
Two games that exemplify maneuverability well are Zineth and Driftforce. The former, is an open world platformer where you take control of a cowboy dude and his mech as you skate and jump through a city in the middle of a desert performing different tasks. You can repeatedly click to skate, eventually reaching a min speed cap, jump, grind either on rails or horizontally on walls which both rapidly increase your speed, and lastly rewind, stop, or fast-forward time, if you messed up a jump or lost a lot of speed.
These simple mechanics paired with a huge dense environment with multiple pathways allow the player to learn for themselves the nuances of the world, without overly punishing them for messing up, thanks to the time control system. Being a proof of concept, this game doesn't have much of a story/plot, or ending; but it does have some neat level design and a cellphone menu that can be used in tandem with the main gameplay. The cell phone lets you do a lot like play a pocket monster type mini game where you can fight other NPC's around the map, change the game settings or change your color, check twitter (yes actually), and change your current mission - amongst other things.
While this game doesn't have an ending, the closest thing to it is the final mission which is to reach the moon. Doing so requires mastery of all your core mechanics as you scale the city walls, jumping through hoops at every corner. Eventually rewarding you with a speed hack that allows to you multiply your speed with each button press. While Zineth may not be the most visually appealing game, it does a decent job of selling speed by overlaying wind sound effects, when moving through the air or zooming out the camera the faster you move.
(Figure 1. Screenshot of Zineth)
In Driftforce you control a futuristic racer drone that hovers above the ground while moving at Mach speeds. It being a endless runner, the longer you stay alive, the faster your speed. This could be troublesome if it weren't for the handling of the drone. Turning feels smooth and responsive without being so sensitive that it's easy to crash if you're not precise, and for added precision there are strafe buttons that move the vehicle from side to side. Also, if you ever feel like the game isn't moving fast enough there's also a boost meter that fills up slowly over time, or you can collect boost orbs, or strafe into these green walls to build it quickly.
To compliment how fast you're moving, the game uses other methods of conveying speed. Such as speed lines and screen shake that become more intense when you boost, as well as sound dampening to replicate that feel of blasting through wind, a wide FOV and fisheye lens to show the world warping around you. An agile player controller that feels responsive, coupled with the immersion techniques previously listed convince the player that they're experiencing what the protagonist is experiencing.
(Figure 2. Screenshot of Driftforce)
"...The brain responds to a white-knuckle ride by triggering the release of a potent cocktail of biochemicals to deal with the body's stress, including more adrenaline (epinephrine) and norepinephrine which can suppress pain and boost the glow of euphoria that follows" (Highfield, 2006). Utilizing high speed in 3d games is an underappreciated practice. However, when thinking about how fast a player can move, the second and most important thing to think about is the character's speed curve. Speed curves are how much speed an object gains over time. It's what makes any transition feel fluid and natural. Many confuse a "stiff" speed curve (that is one that reaches max speed instantly) for a precise one, when it doesn't provide any more accuracy than a dynamic speed curve. Take Super Meat Boy for example; it's a precision platformer yet it has a somewhat long speed curve, but it is easy to turn and micro adjust because of the light weight and high acceleration.
"...Physics tells us that there isn't really any absolute speed that we can measure. Everything-real and virtual-is relative" (Hill, 2019). Since speed is relative, and most games that have very fast characters need to have huge worlds in order to compensate for that speed. One concern is that if the game environment the player is in has multiple high-quality art assets, then the engine won't have time to render them quickly enough because the player is too fast. However, a less realistic art style with simpler, lower-poly assets would work well for larger maps that the player will blast through.
More developers should invest in different mobility options, faster mobility options, and momentum where it is appropriate. There's a huge lack of fast-paced character action games with movement as a focus. Everybody can relate to expressing themselves via movement and rollercoasters are ever proving that people find speed exhilarating and fun, so finding an audience would not be a problem. Having a player controller with high maneuverability adds to the player's options, and speed if done well can effectively and consistently get the player into a flow state. If the player feels like they have options that can significantly change the outcome this yields a meaningful experience.
Developers should study animals and environments of all kinds when concocting new player movement. The more variability we have in our games, the larger the pool of reference material the industry has access to.
Maneuverability that feels flexible and agile can only help your game. The more dynamic the player movement is the more gameplay opportunities will present themselves during development, and the more a player can express themselves and their personality.