As I implemented navigation in my 3d world, I had a set of choices to make about how navigation should work. There's a camera with some position (x, y, z) pointing in some direction (θ, ρ) and some type of lens (field of view). That gives me 6 variables for the player to control, and that seems like too many.

  • Scrolling (Panning). If you scroll “up”, what direction does the document go? In most GUI systems, the document goes down. Try it out in your web browser. As you drag the scroll bar up, the document moves down. However, some types of documents move the opposite way. Try visiting Google Maps and drag the map around. As you drag the mouse up, the document (map) moves up. The difference is in what you are dragging. In most applications (including web browsers), you are dragging the view. If you move the view up, you move towards the top of the document, which means the document moves down. If however you're dragging the document, it goes in the other direction. I have been playing Black and White 2 lately, and in it you drag the map. I initially chose to drag the document (map), but then changed it to dragging the view (camera).
  • Scroll controls position or velocity. If you drag the mouse pointer, does it control the position of the scrolling or the speed? If you have Firefox or Opera, try the autoscroll feature and compare it to using the scrollbar. Autoscroll controls the speed; the scrollbar controls the position. The advantage of controlling the position is that it feels easy to control, especially when combined with dragging the document. The advantage of controlling the velocity is that you can move around the entire game world without repeatedly lifting the mouse, dragging across the screen, then lifting the mouse again. Some applications offer both. Google Earth and some OpenGL demos let you drag to control the position, but if you let go while still dragging, it sets the velocity. I find this very hard to control. I chose to make mouse dragging control only the velocity.
  • Rotation. The camera direction has two degrees of freedom, whether you use angles or vectors, so you need two controls for full control of it. Some games restrict the camera, and thus may only need one or zero controls. I chose to fully allow rotation around the z axis and offer minimal control over rotation of the other axis (looking up and down). Given rotation, there is a choice of rotation point. Black and White 2 is unusual in that it rotates and zooms around the position you point to with the mouse. It gives more control but I found it disorienting. I instead chose to rotate around the center of the screen. The best rotation point is likely to be something closer to the camera than what I've chosen, but rotating around the center of the screen is easier to implement.
  • Type of zoom. There are two approaches to zooming. You can change the lens. A “telephoto lens” has a small field of view and corresponds to “zoomed in”; a “wide-angle lens” has a large field of view and corresponds to “zoomed out”. (I'm being a bit imprecise; see this article and the comments if you want the details.) You can also change the position. Moving the camera close to the subject makes it “zoomed in”; moving it far from the subject makes it “zoomed out”. These two approaches are not equivalent. I chose to keep the lens fixed and move the camera around for zooming. Dragging the mouse up or down moves the camera up or down, which also rotates the view somewhat. When the camera is up high, it's rotated to point top-down; when it's near the ground, it's rotated to point forwards.

I started with 6 variables to control. Dragging the mouse occurs in 2 dimensions, allowing control of 2 variables per button or modifier. For a typical strategy game, god game, or city builder, the player can move around the entire map, so you probably want to control camera position (2 or 3 variables), camera direction (1 or 2 variables), and zoom (1 variable). For a first person shooter, the camera must remain at the player's location, so you'd probably want to control camera rotation (2 variables) and zoom (1 variable). For a third person RPG, you probably want camera rotation (1 variable) and zoom (1 variable).

My game is a simulation, so I want to move the camera in at least 2 dimensions, plus 1 variable for rotation and 1 for zooming. I don't allow changing the camera lens, so instead zooming involves changing both the camera height and rotation. That leaves me 4 variables to control with mouse drags. I'm reserving the left mouse button for interacting with game objects. I've chosen to assign the right button to scrolling (2 variables); and the middle button to rotation (1 variable) and zooming (1 variable). These mouse dragging rules make the mouse dragging always control the camera, not the map. They're simple and self consistent. They aren't perfect, but I'm happy with them so far.

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