Why 2D still beats 3D
Even the classic 2D game Pac-Man was brought into the third dimension. Nowadays, nearly every RPG, Strategy game or Action-Adventure uses 3D graphics. But in quite a few instances, 2D is the better (and better-looking) choice. CliffyB himself said that key elements in Gears of War are just classic 2D features transformed into the three dimensions. So read on as this feature explores retro games and examines modern game design.
Ten years ago, most genres, notably Adventure, Strategy, RPG and Action-Adventure games were typically 2D, often using an “isometric” (bird’s eye) view. Today they are based, with few exceptions, on a 3D engine (such as the Unreal Engine, CryEngine, a proprietary inhouse system or even an open source engine). 3D graphics have been around for some time now, and 2D games are clearly following the Elves of the Third Age into obscurity. Why should anyone still bother with 2D?
Because 3D isn’t the best solution for all games. Polygon based games may be less beautiful and more difficult for the player to navigate. 3D games are more difficult to produce. This is one of the main reasons that NextGen video games are more expensive than previous generations. They require more programmers and artists, and take a lot of effort to develop. Most importantly, 3D graphics – and the never-ending technical progress they symbolize – might be limiting the development of computer games as an art form.
We’ll present four arguments and counterarguments to you on the following pages, repeatedly citing three experts on the issue: Koji Igarashi has been director of the Castlevania series since 1997 and is a strong supporter of 2D games. He espoused his preference in a well-received lecture at the 2007 Games Developers Conference. Richard Garriott transformed his tile-based Ultima (which featured early “3D” dungeons) into one of the very first open-world 3D games, Ultima IX. Finally, Cliff Bleszinski (CliffyB), the director of one of the most successful and best-looking 3D action games, was a Super Mario Bros. fanatic while growing up. He readily mentions the influence of early 2D games when talking about the game mechanics of Gears of War. But first, let's have a quick look at the 2D/3D story so far.
A very short History of video games
36 years after Atari released Pong as an arcade machine, Take 2 will publish a game which still has basically the same concept (TopSpin 3, PS3 version).
From the advent of video gaming, well into the games’ third decade of existence, games remained two dimensional. Many call Spacewar! the first true video game, running on a mainframe computer at the MIT as early as 1961. The highly successful Pong, created by Al Alcom for Atari, was released as a coin operated arcade coin machine in 1972. In 1975, the game reached North American homes as an electronic box for the TV. For the next two decades, most new games shared Pong’s two dimensionality. The resolution got more detailed, more colors were added, “hardware sprites” were introduced (one of the main reasons for the success of the Commodore 64 home computer, together with its unbelievable 16 colors). But apart from the odd space shooter and the occasional flight simulator, 3D wasn’t an option. Even the early games that looked three-dimensional were typically 2D games in disguise. They often used visual tricks to emulate a 3D appearance or used 3D graphics without any real ability to movement on the z axis. Take Wolfenstein 3D or the first Doom, for example. In these games, you couldn’t jump or even lift or lower your gun. Although computers and consoles got faster, simulating a 3D environment filled with complex objects and more than the most basic textures remained outside their capabilities.
In 1996, optional boards with graphics processors began to conquer gaming PCs: Suddenly, the best looking games would only run smoothly, if at all, on a computer with a graphics card from 3Dfx (Voodoo), Rendition (Vérité) or VideoLogic (PowerVR). Later, companies like Matrox, S3, ATI and nVidia joined the competition. In 2000, the latter company acquired the intellectual properties of pioneer 3Dfx. Are you using SLI to link two GeForce cards? The concept was introduced, under the same name, by the 3Dfx Voodoo2 in 1998. Quickly, 3D boards became a standard feature of every gaming PC. Even pure business notebooks now feature onboard 3D chipsets like the lowly Intel 945G, which still performs tremendously better than earlier graphic boards, of course.
Now let's start our reasoning why 2D is superior to 3D even today - at least in many cases.