That may sound like a silly question, but it’s an important one if you want to tackle the complexity required for skill-based gaming with emergent play. Before we can create a world full of incredible, unpredictable moments of fun, we must take our first step – or leap. Many of them, in fact, as it turns out there’s a lot of things ‘jump’ can mean in a game, and each one forms the foundation of a completely different player experience.

What Jumping Used to Mean

One of the most common ways of simulating a jump is to put a force on the bottom of the character when a button is pressed. Couple this ‘impulse’ with some gravity, and it sure seems like jumping. Only it’s not. Jumping doesn’t only mean movement up and down. Nobody jumps from a standing position because a magical force suddenly lifts them skyward. So that’s not jumping yet, not really.

We could do the version where we define the distance a player can jump. Then we build animations that support that pre-packaged jump. A leg moving a certain way, arms flailing…thanks to Unreal, we can make these animations blend super well. You might even think it’s a jump. But it isn’t really. It’s the same canned response to a button press, now covered up by talented animators. Ultimately, what you can actually DO in the space has been reduced to a single motion. It feels systemic, but the jump is always the same jump. That’s still not really jumping, is it? More importantly, it still doesn’t allow for emergent gameplay, which is key to providing a thrilling, rewarding, and uniquely human experience.

None of This Works

A game with a high skill ceiling requires layers of systems interacting so people can’t quite predict what’s going to happen, forcing them to deal with a truly unscripted event. This is more like how the real world works: jumping may be something we take for granted, but anyone who’s tried to hop a turnstile knows it entails a whole sequence of intentioned movements. Every muscle in your leg engages in perfect order and in different ways, ankle, hip, and knee joints hinge or rotate appropriately, all while tubes in your head transmit readings to help you balance. So how closely can we really model a jump, and how does striving to do so enrich gameplay?

The real people who are best at jumping aren’t consciously operating all these mechanics. Instead, through practice, they’ve developed a trust in their body that makes what they do seem effortless. Someone who’s jumping a hurdle in parkour will put their hands out to brace themselves lightly, but they don’t catch themselves or think too much about what they’re doing. They just move through a flow of cues that trigger other cues, managing the whole thing based on physical feedback. That’s a pretty complicated way to think about jumping, but it’s also true to life – and more fun. That’s the feeling we want to convey, so that’s how complicated a system we need to begin with.

What does it mean to jump? Let’s try to get a fix on things by measuring them. How high do you think someone who’s good at jumping is able to jump? How far? How does that vary based on getting a running start or nailing the jump angle or push-off? We know folks who can get themselves up well over a yard in the air, so maybe that’s a good baseline. Of course, there are people with shorter legs, longer legs, different joint placements, a tendency to favor one foot or the other. In every case, we know they have to push themselves forward at some point in the jump, so let’s simulate that by having the player press W to go forward. That’s all, just W, and their legs and feet work automatically like in the real world. They don’t push different buttons to move different feet unless they’re playing QWOP, a game that actually proves the point of this blog post – virtual jumping is more complicated than we think.

To further develop our simulation, let’s add a Spacebar press that makes the character push down off the ground, causing it to push back up on them and propel them into the air. Of course we’ll also need some gravity, so they reach a sensible height and fall back to earth. To make jumping skill-based, we also need to simulate that biofeedback we get from all of our senses when performing any kind of move in the real world. We mimic that input by providing the user with information via UI elements, color coding, sound design and effects, glowy-shit, everything. Now they know if each jump did what they wanted it to and can practice at becoming a better jumper. Now the system is complex enough to even allow for better jumpers and worse jumpers. Now we have a game.

But jumping in a game can’t be entirely the same as jumping in real life. For example, in real life, as you near an edge you plan to jump from, most people instinctively look down real quick to make sure of the placement of their last step, the push-off. In our games, you won’t do that. We tried it, you won’t enjoy it. It’s not fun. Looking down at your character’s foot briefly before a leap – even gamifying where that foot lands and whether you nail the ledge – not that fun. Then “what does it mean to jump?” also implies a host of artistic decisions. The way you move in a game is, or should be, a bunch of very conscious choices made by the development team. It’s kinda hard to rebuild gaming from scratch, tbh.

Speaking of that moment at the ledge, did you know lots of games gloss over it by making you Wile E. Coyote? Just like that poor hapless bastard, your character model is able to run just a bit past the edge of a cliff and still trigger a jump if they need to. It works to push our brains past that moment of unreality, but it remains, in some sense, unsatisfying and incomplete. We still haven’t fully answered the question: what does it mean to jump?

When you’re about to jump, your body compacts and you become a slightly smaller version of yourself; no one leaps with their legs straight. This primes your joints and muscles to expand again, so you can aim all that energy groundward in a burst and blast off, briefly defying gravity and spitting in the very eye of God. To simulate this aspect of jumping, how about instead of pressing Spacebar you hold it for a semi-arbitrary length of time, and that represents how much oomph you’re putting into each one? Now you can perform a small skip, a light jump, or a huge leap, and build games that require that level of precision and attention to succeed. Mechanics like this invite us into the game, into a moment of focus – into a state of flow.

By taking nothing for granted and rebuilding what it means to jump, to run, to attack, to play, we can use the latest tools to honor the richness and complexity of actual physics, and therefore expand the range of skill growth and satisfaction available to a player. Easy to learn, hard to master, fun to play – that’s what we want Consortium9 games to be. So next time you’re gaming, next time you hit that Spacebar, ask yourself: does this jump mean enough? Could it mean more?

What does it mean to jump? It means going for it. It means energetically moving forward with the trust that you’ll be able to stick the landing. A jump, once undertaken, is something you can’t take back until it’s completed (or unless you’re Prince of Persia circa 2003).

For us, NOR is a big jump. We hope you’ll make it with us.

Brooks Brown

CEO, Consortium9