People love to be distracted. It’s a pretty big part of the reason why people play games in the first place – to distract ourselves from the world. It’s certainly not the only reason nor is it necessarily a bad reason, but people are naturally drawn to distraction. Doctors talk to you when they’re about to do something painful to distract from the discomfort; on the other hand, it’s also part of their job profile. To distract themselves from boredom, people listen to music in the car or play on their phones while waiting for the subway. I don’t think most people would deny that loading screens are pretty boring. Just as real life has many ways to distract people’s attention away from boredom, games should as well, especially games that are an escape in the first place.
Most loading screens happen between levels, or sometimes even in the middle of a level, to load the next section of the game. Usually, that loading screen means the player does nothing until it’s done loading. Especially for more expansive games such as most AAA games coming out today, those loading screens can feel like ages. So how can games distract the player and keep the flow of the game continuing?
One of the difficulties with this is that in order to load one area, the game often has to “unload” the area the player is currently in. The game is swapping out stored data, as it can only hold so much at a time. This is why games can’t just load everything at once at the beginning. Games need a transition area of some sort while the data is being swapped out, which is usually in the form of a loading screen.
The easiest way to keep the flow of the game going is to keep playing the game. In Brawlhalla, for example, while waiting to connect to an online match you are thrown into an offline match against bots to mess around while you wait. This lets you warm up for a few seconds, and most importantly, it feels like you’re still playing the game the whole time. If you want to rest your hands or take a short break while the game is connecting, it’s also not a big deal because the match against the AI doesn’t affect anything. Rayman Legends has a similar loading screen where you chase a heart floating through the air in an area where you can run around. It’s also a very simple landscape and backdrop, so it doesn’t increase the loading time much.
Another option is to pretend the loading screen doesn’t even exist, very literally distracting the player. This is generally the best option if the game can allow for it. It’s known as dynamic loading; the game hides the portions of the game that are loading from the player. Wind Waker is a perfect example of dynamic loading. Even when sailing around the vast ocean to dozens of islands, it has no loading screens. The loading actually happens while sailing between islands. One of the reasons sailing takes so long is for the game to have time to load those massive islands onto the Gamecube’s hardware. However, they turned that into one of the most memorable parts of the game. Some of the most brilliant parts of design come about by limitation, and Wind Waker is one of those examples.
Tell us about your favorite (or least favorite) loading screens in the comments.