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The Devil Is In The Details

June 21, 2008

As a long-time film critic, one of the most important aspects for me in a movie is the oft-overlooked tiny details that, when done right, are completely unnoticeable, yet contribute to a successful film. Of course, when they’re done poorly… they can tank a movie without you knowing exactly why. I’m talking about sound cues, editing, facial expressions, the soundtrack… the 1,001 decisions a director has to make every day while filming and piecing a movie together. For instance, last night I saw Get Smart with my wife, and I noticed a very wonky detail — some of the action sequences, especially inside an SUV, looked like they switched from normal movie film to soap opera-ish visuals (think: camcorder). These were quick cuts, almost undetectable, except that a subconscious part of my mind flagged it for notice.

The devil is in the details, as they say (“they” being a great older couple I know that lives on the east side). MMOs are full of thousands of unnoticed details — unnoticed by the average player, mind you, not the developer who spends countless hours working them in only to have Joe Swordslash run through this content with tunnel vision only for the next kill. Without perfect details — the music, the sounds, the animations, the background art, the lighting, the world movement — MMOs become more lackluster, and people can’t quite put their finger on why.

I’d go so far to say that details are really what takes an MMO from its spreadsheet-slathered pen-and-paper brethren and gives it full life.

That said, I wanted to go through a few new gameplay videos that IGN posted and ignore the “big stuff” for the little details. Come with me, won’t you?

CHAOS – Ignore the action, close your eyes, and listen to the sounds of this video. In most MMOs, you spend ungodly amounts of time whacking away with a weapon, and thus are subjected to the same animations and weapon sound effects thousand and thousands of times. It’s an important detail how many variations on the animations/sounds there are, in addition to how well they’re done. This clip has a guy swinging an axe, which makes a metallic ring with every swipe — along with an accompanied meaty thud when it connects. You’ll notice that the metallic rings have different tones, almost like in fighting, you’re playing a song. Another visual detail is how the character jerks back when hit — hit animations are essential to giving combat a more visceral feel.

ENVIRONMENTS – Music can be used for much more than just a tub-thumping score — it can convey a very tangible emotion the directors want you to be feeling at the moment. Listen to the music here: is it friendly or border-line horror? What mood does it evoke in you? What does it tell you about the city the character is traveling through? How are sound effects (thunder, a bird) used to heighten this feeling?

CRITICAL HIT – MMO combat is not turn-based combat, where you select an attack and just hang back until it resolves. Neither is it real-world combat, where the action and consequences might be a bit more subtle than exciting. MMO combat utilizes a lot of visual cues to keep a player informed as to the tactical situation. Bad guy raises a sword and a tone plays? He’s probably charging up a special attack. Lens flare on an enemy? You made a hit and he’s now paying for it. Dark cloud seeping out over the battlefield? You’ve just launched an AOE attack. We simply don’t have the time to read or deeply analyze what’s going on in combat, ergo visual cues give us a fast-and-dirty rundown on the events unfolding.

FIRESTARTER – Art and animation are the unsung heroes of MMOs, in which fans typically stampede by these features to focus on classes and skills and loot. Look at the lodge that the Chaos guy is burning down. How much art and detail went into making this structure have a great “feel” to it? What about the thatched roof, or the carved wooden totems?

LOOKS DANGEROUS – Use this last video as a test, and then we’ll dismiss class for the day. What sound details do you notice? What visuals? What animations? How are the details being used to tell a story?

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One comment

  1. very nice article, you bring up some good points.



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