I played a game that reinforced an opinion I have. I know, super scientific. I have, and will, substitute this opinion for actual research.
It’s a simple thing, but since this is more or less a notebook to my future self (who won’t go back and read it) I’ll jot it down here.
The most important thing to get right in a video game is control. It’s not graphics, it’s not sound, it’s not even ‘gameplay’. The single most important element of any video game is control.
If you watch a movie, the most important element is editing. If the editing is bad you won’t be able to follow the narrative. Second is sound. The visual quality can be trash, but if the movie sounds good. Mess up on editing and sound!?!? Forget about it. That movie won’t work.
Video games share a lot with movies and TV. They are all primarily visual mediums. They all have to deal with pacing, rising and falling tension, timing with soundtracks. The primary difference, you swap editing with control.
Ever since pong, the feeling of ‘I do this thing with a button or a switch or a knob and something happens on the screen’ has been the primary differentiator between video games and all other media. I do this, the game does that. That feedback loop has to be nearly instant for it to feel good.
Pong is a 2D game where input typically occupies a single plane. You turn the knob one way and the paddle goes up, you turn it the other way and it goes down. Simple.
Modern games have controls that operate on multiple planes with separate fine scale inputs on triggers and paddles and buttons and touch pads and touch screens and capacitive sensors and accelerometers and gyroscopic sensors and motion tracking and computer vision and outside in or inside out position tracking systems.
Exactly the same rules apply. When you do this, the game does that. And it must do that thing reliably and quickly and without disorienting the player. That is the end to end extent of the task. Do the thing, do it quickly, don’t do some other thing the player isn’t expecting.
When a game is bad, it’s almost always because they messed up on control.
Now that games are mostly 3D control often includes two in game entities. The thing the player is controlling and the camera that is showing it to you. It can be easy to imagine that these are separate problems. Like driving a car is the first problem and building a good chase camera is the second. It’s not. Those are the same problem. When the player presses a stick or trigger button the car has to react properly, quickly, and without doing anything unexpected, but so does the camera.
There is often a delay on the camera that lets it float a long lazily behind the action, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t reacting quickly. It needs to respond instantly to player input, and sometimes that means that the camera doesn’t stay right behind the car. Sometimes that means that the camera follows the motion vector of the car or refuses to float back behind the car because, at that exact moment, the car is in a drift and it feels more natural to see the car from the side or front. It is about responding quickly to the player's expectation of where the camera should be going and giving them the best view of the game they are playing.
With great controls, a pretty basic game can still feel fun to run around in. With poor controls, it won’t matter how good the game is. There will always be a certain amount of people that will be turned off and put the game down.
Controls are the editing of video games. Get them wrong, and the moment to moment just won’t make sense.