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Weekly Musings #40 – In Defense of the Crate
Author: Michael Ahlf 
Date: June 6th 2005

Okay. We've all seen the Old Man Murray review, we've all seen the Twinkie thing. Crates in video games are getting a bum rap.

Crates in videogames are here to stay. Face it, they are. People are always going to have storage spaces, they're always going to have boxes they put stuff in. If you're looking for realism, try walking around outside in the sunlight for a few minutes. We don't play videogames for realism.

No, Crates in video games actually do, and have, served a purpose. They exist in games partly because designers want to put them in, and partly because players expect - and even want - to see them in the games. Face it; you would find something wrong with a Super Mario game in which he couldn't jump up and cause coins to magically spill out from a question box suspended in midair, so why would you complain about crates/boxes and all sorts of breakable items in first-person or third-person shooter games?

No, Crates serve a number of purposes. To start with, look at what a "crate" represents. It's a six-sided object with lots of empty space inside. Think about that. For game designers trying to work with shaders, lighting systems, bump maps, or anything else, crates are wonderful. A crate is one of the few constructs in their video game world that can be represented by a mere six-sided cube. All that's left is crafting a texture and bump scheme, shining a light on the box, and seeing what happens. It's a basic building block for learning how to use their tools; small wonder that after spending tons of time practicing with their tools and making what they feel is a beautifully rendered box, game designers would want to throw a couple of gross, or even a great gross, into their game world.

Crates are also highly useful for testing out a physics system. Again, they've got six sides - tossed at various angles with their properties and/or the game's properties adjusted correctly, and it's pretty easy to compare them to a simple video of someone throwing (for example) a cardboard box down a flight of stairs. Objects like basketballs are decently hard to pull off due to their spherical nature, but game designers can create something sort-of-approaching reality by using crates as a quickly generated test object. When we get to the point where all objects will have self-deforming polygons to approximate physical damage, you can bet that the first thing the designers will do is draw up a create, insert a gun, and shoot it repeatedly to see what happens.

But wait! It's not over yet. For the level designer, crates are cheap and worthwhile. I mean "crates" in a generic sense of "breakable objects that dispense swag" here, of course. They can be used to block hallways, provide cover (permanent or brief) from enemies, or as a signal to the player to explore the immediate area. In real life, a bunch of crates stacked against a wall is a bunch of crates stacked against a wall. In a FPS video game, a bunch of crates stacked against a wall is a big signpost saying "smash these to find something." In games where enemies do not drop ammunition, the presence of either (a) ammunition lying everywhere or (b) crates with ammunition in them is a necessary evil. Players must be supplied with provisions, whether it's laying around on the floor and stuffed into nooks and crannies like most adventure and survival horror games do, or in a bunch of boxes like most FPS titles do.

For players, finally, despite the recent outcry against crates, players love them. The more a game is a run-and-gun fragfest, the more the players will like them. Why? Because it's about carnage. Being handed a stack of crates, in which there may or may not be anything to take, is the equivalent of being handed a piñata and lacking a blindfold. Players will gleefully shoot, attack, bludgeon, and smash every crate they come across. Why will they do this? Because it's a game. Especially in FPS titles, real life does not apply; smashing things in order to carry extra provisions is perfectly acceptable. Designers know this, they recognize that there's a certain amount of glee in players smashing something and getting a prize for doing so. It's so strong, and so well-taught, that simply putting a crate on an "unreachable" shelf or location in sight will cause players to quickly exploit every option, cheat, and bug they can find just go get to the crate and break it so that they can find out what's inside.

The crate is here to stay, because it's too useful to ignore. Even were a designer to never put a "crate" into a game, they'd have to put something in place to give the players their items. Be glad your FPS games have crates, rather than floating blocks that you have to jump at and hit with your head to open up.

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Musings #40: In Defense of Crates

Added:  Monday, June 06, 2005
Reviewer:  Michael Ahlf


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