Game Design Snippet 4: Exposition in lieu of load screens

I’m typing away at various Game Proposal documents right now: fleshing out various ideas I’ve had so that I can pick one to make into a full GDD (Game Design Document) for my class next semester. But since I don’t have any real homework per se, I’m free to finally post my fourth Game Design Snippet:

A lot of game have simple load screens. These simply inform the player that there has to be a break in the action so that the next level can load. In Portal and Mass Effect, the “load screens” are actually elevators that the characters enter and wait for a time. In Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker, the load screen is a quick animation of the main character on a jetski going to the next area.

Most of the alternatives for load screens are not very interesting, or are a little interesting the first time, quickly get as dull as looking at “loading” for 20-30 seconds.

So my proposal is that with games that do have distinct levels, you simply find a spot near the “load point” to do something interesting. A near-universal technique in cel animation is to create scenes that require very little actual animation: walking cycles, lines being said when you can’t see the characters’ mouths, repeating animation in slightly different ways (same walking cycle in a different scene), repeating scenes from earlier episodes, etcetera. By making the filler scenes really simple to animate, the animators can concentrate on making the really important scenes much more detailed.

The resource-budget of a game is different, but we can apply the same principle. Using Half Life as an example (again), right before the load point, Alyx (or the environment or another character) could stop Gordon Freeman and have a brief talk. There are numerous points in Episode 1 and 2 where the characters take breaks and chat with Gordon, but they aren’t used to cover loading times. By coordinating these transition scenes with where the levels need to load, you can make the world seem a lot more seamless.

There are a few games that are seamless. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is a good example. Unlike previous GTA games, the only load times are when you start or load a game. When you move from area to area, it’s constantly loading and unloading things in memory. However, GTA is a relatively graphically simple game with character models and dialogue shared between random characters, all non-customized vehicles of a particular model being exactly the same, relatively simple scenery (HL2’s highways are much more detailed), dead characters and destroyed vehicles simply disappearing, and generally less to load into memory in the first place. But for many games with cutting-edge detail, you don’t have enough memory to constantly load and unload high-polygon models like this.

Likewise, Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker for the Gamecube is also seamless, covering up the loading of islands by having between-island sailing sections. These “between” sections can be smooth sailing or they can involve combat or other events and rarely seem like simple segues between the important places. But many games can’t just insert “between” areas like this so easily.

So if load times are unavoidable with some games, I simply ask that the designers do something interesting to cover up the fact that levels are being loaded.

All Game Snippets copyright (C) 2008 Matthew Mather. Source engine used for illustration.

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