Sunday, September 11, 2011

A wider point of view, the inverted Y-axis.

My first foray into PC gaming was called "Falcon" on an Amstrad 8086. It wasn't really a game as such but an F-16 combat flight simulator. At the time, and at the mere age of 7, I wanted to be a fighter pilot. Being so young a pilot, some of the flying had to be done for me. So taking off was done on auto-pilot. So was navigating, engaging and landing. All I mostly did in between was steer the plane with the joystick. Whenever things got a bit too hot for comfort, I would press the "a"-button and the game would take care of business.
A while later I got a new PC, a 386, and was given MS Flight Simulator by a relative. Soon hours would be spend in a Cessna zipping around the Detroit city skyline, making a game out of flying between the skyscrapers at breakneck speeds without crashing. This time though, all of the flying was done by me. The sim had an auto pilot but it was too complex for me to configure.
Another PC upgrade to a 486 brought with it another flightsim: Falcon 3. This is the game that would seal my fate: I was going to be a military pilot, because the sim trained the player to be one. I got the game in the deluxe edition, which added an F/A-18 and a MIG-29 sim using the same engine. It had a very thick booklet on how the F-16 works. It had a booklet about how the air force works. It had a booklet about how weapon systems work. I doubt anything like it could be printed today without looking like a wikileaks publication and being treated like one. The box containing all the books and CDs was a treasure trove to my eyes and felt like it too - I could barely lift it. Hope and destiny carried most of the weigth all the way to my father, who was waiting for me at the cash register. The treasure cost accordingly, but my father was somewhat of a flight buff himself and he must have seen a great pilot through my trembling arms and the tears welling up in my eyes. So he bought it for me. In short, yes, the game sealed my fate. As a PC gamer.

Later, my flying carreer came up to speed when I also got Chuck Yeager's Air Combat, and when Pentium came around, expanded with EF2OOO and even later with F22 Air Dominance Fighter from the same company. Flightsims were my thing and I strove to know everything about air combat and fighter jets.
I knew all about navigating airspace using pitch, yaw and banking. And I would use them to great effect in barrelroll, Immelmann, Split-S, and cobra turn manoeuvres. I was in perfect control.

Control is what this post is really about. Control is crucial.
When one plays flightsims one controls aeroplanes like this: push forward on the stick to move the nose downwards, pull back on the stick to pull the nose upwards.
Translated to mouse controls means that pushing the mouse forward, which is perceived as an upward motion when you look at the mouse from the top down, results into the nose going down - not up. This reverse effect along the Y-axis is what lends inverted controls its name. The mechanics of a plane make the controls inverted by their very nature. Knowing about these makes inversion very logical.

You should watch the following clip if you want more info.

After the flight sims came the shooters. Doom revolutionised gaming and introduced the first person shooter genre in a big way. In those early days mice weren't as common as you might think, it was the joystick that accompanied every gaming PC. Gaming in those days was mainly done in arcades the PCs were trying to emulate. Not to mention mouse support in software was almost as rare as the hardware.

Doom was no exception and was played mainly with just the keyboard, in the game there was no actual use for looking up or down. Aiming was done only on the rotation of the player and shooting would result in a hit regardless of the target's height, as long as the shot was neatly lined up.
When online gaming finally swooped me up I got into playing Dark Forces 2: Jedi Knight. The game was often showcased as the game to play while using a force feedback joystick. Of course, I had to make do with the stick I already had. Through the power of imagination the flight stick became the handle of a lightsaber. But it wasn't very long before I realized there might be a better way. The gun play was too slow to be competitive, because with a stick you need to steer your aim. So I switched to a mouse, which offered the needed speed and precision.
Ever since, I have been pulling back on the mouse to point the camera upwards in the virtual space of a shooter. Just like I always had with the stick and still was in the new flightsims.

Some of you will like a mechanical explanation, so I'll give it a shot. Just to make the point even clearer. More proof, I hope, that inverting the Y-axis has a working, logical explanation. You're steering the virtual camera as if it was your virtual head. A real life comparison would be if you would replace the mouse with the top of your virtual soldier's head and you were pulling his head backwards to make him look up. I threw together an animation to show just what I mean:

In contrast the non inverted control works as if one is pointing the cursor in a 2D environment like windows. If one was to translate this to a 3D space you'd be pointing towards your target on a 2D pane or a windshield. The emphasis is on the pointing. As in a lightgun game or a shooter on the Wii or PS Move. Perhaps this control scheme comes more natural if you have a background with these.
Simply put, you're steering the virtual camera by pointing towards targets.

As it stands today games offer both control schemes, and if the people designing them are capable this will remain to be the case. But gamers shouldn't take the abuse of uneducated people calling them crazy for inverting the Y-axis. The fact that this is happening at all, where it used to be common practice to invert, is a sign of the times. And that many, mostly younger gamers, have no connection to how things used to be. Or in other words, are unincumbered by old ways. Either way, one shouldn't remain ignorant about why the option is there in the first place. But in the rare case of games that feature fighter jets with un-inverted controls, we're dealing with a decision informed by either popular opinion or by ignorance that degrades both every game maker in the industry and the intelligence of the players. And that would be truly crazy. As crazy to me as having a car go left when steering right.

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