Thursday, June 16, 2016

"Tank controls" in video games

3D games are actually surprisingly old. Technically speaking some games of the early 1970's were 3D, meaning they used perspective projection and had, at least technically speaking, three axes of movement. (Obviously back in those days they were nothing more than vector graphics drawn using lines and sprites, but technically speaking they were 3D, as contrasted to purely 2D games where everything happens on a plane.) I'm not talking here about racing games that give a semi-illusion of depth by having the picture of a road going to the horizon and sprites of different sizes, but actual 3D games using perspective projection of rotateable objects.

As technology advanced, so did the 3D games. The most popular 3D games of the 80's were mostly flight simulators and racing games (which used actual rotateable and perspective-projected 3D polygons), although there were obviously attempts at some other genres as well even back then. It's precisely these types of games, ie. flight simulators and anything that could be viewed as a derivative, that seemed most suitable for 3D gaming in the early days.

It is perhaps because of this that one aspect of 3D games was really pervasive for years and decades to come: The control system.

What is the most common control system for simple flight simulators and 3D racing games? The so-called "tank controls". This means that there's a "forward" button to go forward, a "back" button to go backwards, and "left" and "right" buttons to turn the vehicle (ie. in practice the "camera") left and right. This was the most logical control system for such games. After all, you can't have a plane or a car moving sideways, because they just don't move like that in real life either. Basically every single 3D game of the 80's and well into the 90's used this control scheme. It was the most "natural" and ubiquitous way of controlling a 3D game.

Probably because of this, and unfortunately, this control scheme was by large "inherited" into all kinds of 3D games, even when the technology was used in other types of games, such as platformers viewed from third-person perspective, and even first-person shooters.

Yes, Wolfenstein 3D, and even the "grandfather" of third-person shooters, Doom, used "tank controls". There was no mouse support by default (I'm not even sure there was support at all, in the first release versions), and the "left" and "right" keys would turn the camera left and right. There was support for strafing (ie. moving sideways while keeping the camera looking forward), but it was very awkward: Rather than having "strafe left" and "strafe right" buttons, Doom instead had a toggle button to make the left and right buttons strafe. (In other words, if you wanted to strafe, you had to press the "strafe" button and, while keeping it pressed, use the left and right buttons. Just like using the shift key to type uppercase letters.) Needless to say, this was so awkward and impractical that people seldom used it.

Of course all kinds of other 3D games used "tank controls" as well, including many of the first 3D platformers, making them really awkward to play.

For some reason it took the gaming industry a really long time to realize that strafing, moving sideways, was a much more natural and convenient way of moving than being restricted to only being able to move back and forward, and turning the camera. Today we take the "WASD" key mapping, with A and D being strafe buttons, for granted, but this is a relatively recent development. As late as early 2000's some games still hadn't transitioned to this more convenient form of controls.

The same goes to game consoles, by the way. "Tank controls" might even have been even more pervasive and widespread there (usually due to the lack of configurable controller button mapping). There, too, it took a relatively long time before strafing became the norm. The introduction of twin stick controllers made this transition much more feasible, but even then it took a relatively long time before it became the standard.

Take, for example, the game Resident Evil 4, released in 2005 for the PlayStation 2 and the GameCube, both of which had twin stick controllers. The game still used tank controls, and had no strafing support at all. This makes the game horribly awkward and frustrating to control; even infuriatingly so. And this even though modern twin-stick controls had already been the norm for years (for example, Halo: Combat Evolved was published in 2001.)

Nowadays "tank controls" are only limited to games and situations where they make sense. This usually means when driving a car or another similar vehicle, and a few other situations.

And not even always even then. Many tank games, perhaps ironically, do not use "tank controls". Instead, you can move the vehicle freely in the direction pressed with the WASD keys or the left controller stick, while keeping the camera fixated in its current direction, and which can be rotated with the mouse or the right controller stick (and which usually in such games makes the tank aim at that direction). In other words, direction of movement and direction of aiming are independent of each other (and usually the tank aims at the direction that the camera is looking). This makes the game a lot more fluent and practical to play.

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