Intuiting Expectations

You are playing an RTS. You have your units selected and you’re ready to roll out. Which mouse button do you use to command your troops to move?

These days, the answer is easy. You right-click to move. Thus it is, thus it has always been.

Except, not really.

Back in the day it wasn’t that simple. When the primary players were Blizzard, producing WarCraft and StarCraft games, and Westwood, who made the Command and Conquer games, the controls were as contentious as any other gaming rivalry of the era. Blizzard favoured a right-click centred control scheme, where it was used to move and to attack, while the Command and Conquer series used a left-click control scheme for movement. Each game’s designers had their reasons, and each scheme had its fans. As they were the major players at the time, many other RTS would cater to both sides by offering both right-click and left-click control options. Over time, as Blizzard’s preeminence became solidified, the left-click controls fell out of favour. Westwood Studios was bought up by EA, who took over the Command and Conquer series, and it wasn’t too long before that series adapted to the Blizzard standard, and right-clicking became the primary mouse command for most actions.

The question is, which one of those control schemes is more intuitive?

In the late ’90s that was an ongoing debate. If you grew up playing Red Alert, if your favourite thing to do in an RTS was a really good medium tank rush, then you would say that, obviously, left-clicking is more intuitive. When you tried to play StarCraft it was clunky and weird, the unit AIs were lacking, and there were no medium tanks anywhere.

On the other hand, if you grew up playing Blizzard games, cut your teeth spamming Bloodlust in WarCraft 2, and thought that there is nothing better than the sweet, sweet sound of Dragoons dying in StarCraft, you probably believed right-clicking was the way to go.

For someone buying a new RTS today and finding that it used left-clicking for movement, how would that feel? To someone who didn’t play Command and Conquer games in the ’90s, there is no debate. Left-clicking is strange. It feels off. It is not intuitive at all. Why wouldn’t the developers just use right-clicks for movement like everyone else?

Intuiting Expectations

This thought struck me while I was messing around with an early alpha build of a game called ProjectRIK, a first-person obstacle-course racing game based heavily on the Quake series and associated mechanics and physics. It happened when I entered the first part of the tutorial intended to teach and demonstrate circle-jumping. I realized there was not a single aspect of this game’s mechanics that would be immediately intuitive to a brand new player.

A lot of that has to do with the substantial changes the FPS genre has gone through over the years. As a Quake player, I once looked down my nose at Counter-Strike players, viewing that game as slow and simple. Now I feel solidarity for Counter-Strike players after seeing how they’re treated by a generation of kids raised on Call of Duty and Battlefield. I remember seeing a review for a Counter-Strike release full of comments complaining about a lack of aim down sights (ADS). Expectations change, and for a Call of Duty player, the idea of playing an FPS without ADS is as foreign as left-click movement is to a StarCraft 2 player. It is intuitive for them that if they want to shoot someone, they are going to need to raise their weapon for steadier aim and a slight zoom on the target. That hip-firing could be just as accurate and useful makes no sense. In their experience, that’s not how FPS work. And now I see Defrag and ProjectRIK videos full of comments about how it looks just like a Team Fortress 2 or Call of Duty mod, and I realize that basic Quake mechanics are as foreign to the current generation of players as accurate hip firing.

That’s the tip of the iceberg. Back to circle-jumping. Used to build speed, this is one of the most basic manoeuvres there is in a Quake game. You will see every experienced Quake player doing it whenever they move. It is second nature. As someone who spent formative years playing Quake games, I circle-jump by default. I do it in every FPS I play, whether it works or not.

But circle-jumping is an arbitrary action that doesn’t have any real-world analog. The idea that by turning steadily into a jump the player will move faster is nonsensical in any other context.

You cannot play ProjectRIK without knowing how to circle-jump. You cannot play Defrag, or most any Quake derivative, properly without knowing how to circle-jump. All Quake players know how to do it, know what it is. To me, the idea of circle-jumping is completely intuitive. I knew how to do it before I knew what it was, what to call it. To someone who has never played Quake before?

The ideas of what is or is not intuitive to a player do not all come from immutable precepts or maxims. A lot of it is based on learned behaviour and preferences, from expectations.

Another example: You fire up a brand new FPS on your PC. Straight from the main menu to a new game, and the game gives you the opportunity to move your character for the first time. Which keys do you use?

Quake 1 required a console command to activate mouse look (the ability to aim in all directions with the mouse). Seems odd now, but at the time it was expected that many players would be coming from games like Wolfenstein 3D and the Doom series, which were played with keyboards and didn’t have truly 3D vertical spaces. The idea of using a mouse to aim, that it would even be necessary (those older games had generous auto-aim), was new and novel. It certainly wasn’t intuitive to players who learned to play FPS with both hands on the keyboard. I played my first multiplayer match of Quake 2 with only a keyboard. After someone standing above me on some stairs killed me, I made the switch to mouse aim and never looked back. But I had to learn how to do that from the ground up.

When Quake 3 was released in 1999, the default for movement was still the arrow keys. The WASD method was only an alternative. The game had a strafe modifier and the default controls included turn keys for players not using a mouse.

Take a look at your keyboard. What is more intuitive for moving a character left and right: A and D, or a left arrow and a right arrow? If part of being intuitive is analogy between the real world and the virtual, what possible sense does it make to choose seemingly arbitrary letters over clear, descriptive keys?

It was a process, getting from there to here. I continued to use arrow keys for a long time when playing FPS, and even after making the switch to WASD (something that all players at the time had to do deliberately by setting their controls up in the options of every new game, as arrows keys were the default), I still used the arrow keys for a few games, like Rainbow Six and Rogue Spear.

It’s not as if there weren’t abundant alternatives, either. I knew a guy who played a highly competitive Half-Life 1 Deathmatch mod, and he swore by the numpad. He would take up an entire desk for the extra arm space needed when he shoved his keyboard way to the left and played with his arms splayed. I saw a Quake 3 player who used a configurable gamepad for movement while aiming with a mouse (From what I remember, he started playing Quake 3 on the Dreamcast.). There were more than a few Quake 2 (and even Quake 3, at least in the beginning) players who had left-click bound to forward movement and used space to fire their guns.

The issue with the arrow keys is not that WASD is more intuitive in any visual sense, but that it worked better as games became more complex and players demanded more comfortable controls. Try placing your hand on the arrow keys while also holding your mouse. It’s cramped and awkward playing like that, which is why that Half-Life player had to move his keyboard far away from his mouse and take up all that extra space. But even with the keyboard in a more comfortable position, the next thing to notice is that there aren’t any other keys within easy reach of the arrow keys. Quake 3 alone demands upwards of 9 different keys just for switching weapons, and other games came along with extra keys for alternate fire modes, reloading weapons, throwing grenades, peaking around corners, laying prone, sprinting, opening purchasing menus, calling up mini-maps and objectives, and many other things. There was no way for arrow keys to accommodate these needs, and as multiplayer became faster and more demanding, it wasn’t practical to be lifting a hand away from the movement keys to hit a key on the other side of the keyboard whenever necessary.

Even the WASD option was mildly controversial amongst those who swore off the arrow keys. Some players made compelling arguments for ESDF being a better alternative to WASD, as it had more available keys nearby without having to use clunkier options like Ctrl and Shift (or accidentally hitting Caps Lock), and was also the natural finger position for typing. In an alternate reality ESDF might be our default, or any of those other options I mentioned.

What is Natural

Quake 3 had a public beta, called Quake 3 Test. It was used to hash out bugs and balance concerns. At one point it was possible for players to use certain (later to become cheat protected) console commands on multiplayer servers. For example,  the /timescale command, which effectively allowed a player to change their personal game speed. They could crank it up so that they would zip around the map so fast that they outran rockets. That mistake didn’t last very long.

At another point, John Carmack stated, “Characters are supposed to be badasses with big guns. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sigourney Weaver don’t get down a hallway by hopping like a bunny rabbit.” The next version of the Test enforced a short cooldown between multiple jumps, which eliminated strafe-jumping. Player outcry was immediate and strong, and the change was reverted right away. To John Carmack, one of the creators of the Quake series, strafe-jumping was a source of constant bemusement. To him, it was the furthest thing from intuitive or realistic. To those who played and loved the Quake series, strafe-jumping was as natural as walking–better than walking, even, as it was much faster. There was no getting away from that, even for Carmack. By Quake 3, everyone had learned what to expect from a Quake game.

The Call of Duty games were built using id Tech 3, the Quake 3 engine (Back when they were still set in World War 2, I remember importing my entire Quake 3 config file into one of the games and only having to rebind a few keys to get it working.), and until recently they contained artifacts of the old physics.

What is strafe-jumping, though? It’s not what Call of Duty players think it is–that’s plainly circle-jumping (As seen in the earlier video.) I find it telling that the strafe-jumping tutorial levels in ProjectRIK are the only ones missing instructions, because strafe-jumping is about as obtuse as you can get, to the point where it annoys some people. While there is abundant math to back it up (and also for circle-jumping), it is not the sort of thing that comes across well in text.

To me, that’s as natural and intuitive as FPS movement gets, but to most others, it’s the sort of thing that needs 15 minutes of explanation to cover the basics.

I can only imagine what strafe-jumping, let alone parts of the gameplay that are even weirder, would be like for players who learned FPS with controllers in their hands, or even those who have simply never played Quake before.

I didn’t immediately wonder about something like stair-jumping, because I’m used to the concept, but the more I considered the odd mechanics in ProjectRIK, the stranger they became. Even in-game, it makes little sense to use stairs for something that has nothing to do with what stairs actually are. The only reason stairs are involved is because Quake games have stairs, and sometimes that’s how they’re used. It’s a cultural artifact, a trope.

What Feels Right

There is some sort of sympathetic reaction in the brain when it comes to perceiving virtual spaces and artificial physics. I know that because when I’m moving in ProjectRIK, or any Quake game, I can feel it. I sense the velocity with my body, I carry the momentum with my hands and fingers. Visceral is a good word for it, and I am certain it’s the same for others. It is for those I’ve discussed it with. To me, as someone who spent years navigating virtual environments with those physics, strafe-jumping feels right.

To a new player, strafe-jumping may seem strange, or even impossible, at first, but once the muscle memory has been learned it never goes away. After having not played Quake at all for years, I took to ProjectRIK like a fish to water. A bloated, out-of-shape fish, as I’m rusty as hell, but my fingers and wrists still perform all the movements automatically.

It’s a matter of perspective. For someone who has never ridden a bike, the idea of balancing like that seems strange and looks improbable, if not impossible. While learning, they will fall and become frustrated. After learning they will have established skills that never go away. After that, riding a bike feels normal, and quite pleasant.

I play other FPS and they don’t feel right. I know that’s me, and not the games. I don’t begrudge them different engines and physics. I don’t expect them to conform to my ideals. The point is not that any game is right or wrong, in an absolute sense, but that every player comes to them with their own expectations. The trick there is to be able to get past that initial hurdle and to engage with them on their own terms.

When I played the Dirty Bomb beta a while back, I had to confront some of my own ingrained prejudices. This is even a game that’s meant as a throwback, but I still struggle with the more modern aspects of the mechanics and gameplay. I had to carefully and consciously change the way I played to match the game, and after doing so I found moderate success and even some enjoyment. A major reason why I don’t feel comfortable giving opinions on many games is that I’m keenly aware they’re just not for me, and that I’m woefully out of touch. And that’s fine.

I would encourage anyone who finds the intentions of a game like ProjectRIK or Defrag interesting to have the same approach. Do you like Mirror’s Edge for the racing and thrill of quickly navigating through the environment? CloudBuilt? Spire? If the idea of first-person puzzle platforming and racing sounds like something you’d like, then don’t let a few odd mechanics keep you away from a series with such a strong and lasting legacy.

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4 thoughts on “Intuiting Expectations

  1. Really interesting read, your basics video helped me better understand the ideas too. I’ll definitely need to dig into some of the actual mathematical mechanics behind why these things work. I can’t say I was playing these types of shooters when I was younger, in fact I can’t remember much of my FPS experience early on on PC but I think since I played a mix of both these classic titles as well as the more modern stuff that I’m maybe able to understand the ideas a bit easier than some.

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