Monday, 19 October 2009

It's the little details that count

Games are huge. From the sprawling expanse of Oblivion to the high concepts of Half Life, modern games – and I’m talking the big ones, those with budgets that run into the millions – are pretty damned massive and, often, all the better for it.

Of course, taking a keen interest in the big picture means that plenty of games miss the finer details, letting incidental information slip by the wayside and forgetting the little snippets of life that make a big sandbox seem like a living, breathing environment.

My adventures in Aion have highlighted this fact very nicely. Once you’ve reached level 10 and ascend to the ranks of the Daeva, who come with a very nice pair of wings, your character is allowed to begin exploring the wider world.

First stop is the region of Verteron, which is governed from the impressive-sounding Verteron Citadel. It looks suitably lavish, too, with a huge tower rising from the exterior walls and building towards a glistening gate to the Abyss.

It’s busy, too, with both players and NPC characters. Several staff shops, selling weapons, shields, potions and manastones, and plenty mill around, sweeping streets and talking amongst themselves. A small group of children weave through the legs of full-grown Daevas, laughing and playing games.

But they can’t possibly live in Verteron Citadel, as there isn’t anywhere for them to live.

You see, for all of its charm and magnificence – because, so far, it’s one of the biggest settlements I’ve come across – the only buildings in the Verteron Citadel are shops, military installations or temples. Yet NPC characters talk about living in the Citadel, how it’s safer than the world outside, and how happy they are.

See what I mean? That little detail, not relevant to the game at all, still manages to prevent my imagination from being suspended and still robs Verteron of a chunk of its humanity. It’s a little detail, sure, but it definitely matters.

Aion isn’t the only game guilty of this, either.

As a sports simulation, FIFA 10 relies on its depiction of real life being as perfect as possible – and, by and large, it’s one of the best out there thanks to fantastic graphics, realistic gameplay and fluid animation. It’s obvious that EA’s motion-capture budget has been well spent.

However, a couple of little things instantly bring the illusion of reality crashing back down to earth - even if they're the tiniest of tiny details.

Take goal celebrations, for instance. If you score, your player will run off to celebrate - that's a given. However, more often than not, they'll run into the goal itself. The camera will then cut to images of the scorer and his teammates celebrating on a different part of the pitch.

Also, intercepting opponents' free kicks is simple: stand in front of the nearest player, and their kick taker will more than likely pass to them. A real footballer will notice this and won't let the ball go anywhere near you.

Both of these things are obvious, and I've noticed both of them after around a dozen matches on FIFA 10. They can't have gone unnoticed during development and testing, and fixing them can't be too difficult.

The rest of FIFA 10 is superb and, as I stated yesterday, Aion's world is lush and fantastically realised. But, when you're committed to providing experiences like these, the little details are crucial - and, more often than not, it's the little details that let the games down.

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