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Why 2D still beats 3D

Pixels or Polygons?

Pixels or Polygons?
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.

Content overview:
page1: A short History of video games
page2: 2D more beautiful?
page3: 2D easier to play?
page4: 2D putting more emphasis on gameplay?
page5: Art form 'games' limited by 3D?
page6: Going to strike back!

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.

1 EXP -
January 26, 2008 - 10:06 #

From left to right, graphics obviously get better and better. But what about the picture created by your imagination? (Magic Candle, Ultima 7, Ultima 9, Oblivion)

sorry dude, its not ultima 9. this one is from gothic 3.

5433 EXP -
January 26, 2008 - 13:01 #

You are right, stupid error. Corrected, the picture is now from Ultima 9, as intended. Thanks for pointing that out!

163 EXP -
January 26, 2008 - 11:11 #

The simple reason that 3D is such an enormously important factor in today’s games (and not the AI, for example) ...
*sigh* so very true. Harvesters in Tiberium Wars are still as dumb as in the first Command&Conquer.

Apart from that little off-topic comment of mine I just want to say that this article was great, Jörg. I think what's important in games is not how they look but how they tell the story (if present).

2208 EXP -
January 26, 2008 - 11:11 #

the lower picture on page 2 is not displayed in my browser.

but cool article!

5433 EXP -
January 26, 2008 - 13:14 #

The picture should now be shown, you might need a reload, though. Thanks for telling us!

2208 EXP -
January 26, 2008 - 15:07 #

it's fine now, good job (+10 exp;)

Adi-C (not verified)
0 EXP -
January 26, 2008 - 12:12 #

Page 4: "sound und music"
Shouldn't it be "and"?

Great article. Personally, I prefer Final Fantasy 9 style of graphics (it was 2D + 3D character models) over the FF10 (full 3D) because in ff9 every background was SO incredibly detailed, full of various stuff lying around, and in ff10 nothing is better in terms of details, it has, in fact less details than ff9, only that they're in 3D now. No bonus... Only the character models are better, but that's normal due to higher processing power the ps2 have over ps one.

The same goes for Resident Evil 3 and next resi- RE: Code Veronica. RE3 had great, very detailed background 2D images, and in Veronica - well, they're worse... Only that they're 3D, and that doesen't change anything in terms of gameplay, I mean- the transision to 3D wasn't needed. It was needed in RE4 though. That one couldn't be done in 2D.

Great site! Good luck with it!

1838 EXP -
January 26, 2008 - 12:22 #

> Page 4: "sound und music"
> Shouldn't it be "and"?

Fixed. Cheers!

5433 EXP -
January 26, 2008 - 18:57 #

I totally agree with you: 3D is fine -- if it's adding to the game experience, or if the game wouldn't be possible without it. But just having a 3D engine for the sake of it (as Heroes of M&M 5 has, in my opinion) is just lame.

ffxi gil (not verified)
0 EXP -
August 14, 2008 - 09:08 #

Exactly, there is far too much focus on the graphic engine and the aesthetic side of gaming. I'm not suggesting these factors are ignored but focus must surely be on gameplay.

555 EXP -
January 26, 2008 - 15:43 #

Awesome article! Love it and full ack!

Player (not verified)
0 EXP -
January 27, 2008 - 03:18 #

"...That level of detail doesn’t leave much room for our own fantasies..."

Been there, said that more than 10 years ago.


5433 EXP -
January 27, 2008 - 22:58 #

Well, perhaps this needs to be repeated every 10 years or so... Also, 10 years ago, we didn't have the (nearly) photo-realistic look of today's 3D games.

Christopher D (not verified)
0 EXP -
January 27, 2008 - 09:20 #

"...That level of detail doesn’t leave much room for our own fantasies..."

This is almost exactly what Infocom said in their marketing "back in the day" to convince us that text adventures painted a more vivid picture than any Sierra game could hope to accomplish. This is some amount of truth to this statement, and we can see it even today in the somewhat never-ending discussions about 3D graphics and the "uncanny valley." The idea that the traditional smiley face evokes a positive emotion in people where an android that doesn't look QUITE and is smiling evokes horror and disgust. Really, any attempts at portraying a world will be more successful the more they leave to our imagination as we subconsciously work to fill in the details. The more those details are painted in for us, brick by brick and blade of grass by blade, the more detail we expect and then the illusion is instantly shattered the second we walk up to a wall and the texture gets more blurry rather than more detailed, as in life.

This isn't to suggest that I don't like modern games... far from it... just think this point is worth mentioning in such a discussion.

equalizer9 (not verified)
0 EXP -
January 27, 2008 - 13:34 #

Great article!
As a matter of a fact, this is what I've been thinking about some time ago. Choosing between 2D and 3D is not just a choice of evolution, it has a vast impact on the player-game-relation. That is basically why a lot of people miss the feeling of "old games". Not only did they probably live their imagination because they were children or teenager at the time playing, additionally a 2D-engine forces you to adapt your real-life perception to a simplified structure: That's where all the magic happens.
Discussions about kids being less and less creative, that were still quite accurate in the 90s prove to be somewhat wrong. 3D-graphics show, 2D represents, but this doesnt mean, teenagers would be less creative than the generations before, they just dont use it for a lot of their activities. (On the other hand that being one possible reason, why the very large variety of today's music plays such an important role)

Sven (not verified)
0 EXP -
January 27, 2008 - 14:13 #

I'm a little sad that this debate still exists like that. As if it's some kind of binary choice: Either/or. In an ideal World, decisions like that should spring from an initial vision rather than anything else. Including arguments that desperately try to point out how one technology would be inherently inferior over another one.

That's bollocks. And you know it.

"...That level of detail doesn’t leave much room for our own fantasies..."

THIS is something worth of an article all of its own though. :)

5433 EXP -
January 27, 2008 - 22:56 #

Sven, as you might suspect, the arguments are binary for the sake of the article's structure. I hope it comes across in the special that neither 2D or 3D is considered to be the "good" technology, but that 2D still has much to give to games, and 3D could be overused.

Helios (not verified)
0 EXP -
April 16, 2008 - 20:02 #

I could seriously never get sick of 2D games. I started gaming many years ago, probably back in 1993 or '92, and my first games were 2D in nature. 3D games are good, but really, sometimes restriction is a good thing. Sometimes removing one dimension of freedom will add to your enjoyment.

Andromedar (not verified)
0 EXP -
January 28, 2008 - 01:24 #

You seem to be mixing up terminology that describes concepts for drawing graphics with rules that govern gameplay. Don't be a luddite if you're writing an article like that.

5433 EXP -
January 28, 2008 - 16:13 #

Andromedar, do you believe that the technology and the gameplay are separated? Take 3D engines for RPGs or turn based strategy game: The designers could limit the camera to a fixed south-to-north-perspective, which would make it easier for the player. But they don't, "because the 3D engine can". My point exactly is that concepts for drawing graphics do govern gameplay, and even more, could govern how our imagination works when playing the games.

4474 EXP -
January 28, 2008 - 15:55 #

i really enjoyed reading through your article. great topic, good written. but i didn´t really get the thing with the moral, that in fallout 2 you could be this evil character etc.
i held that the used engine is of no interest thinking of moral. the best example i can give (i hope it doesn´t annoy someone that the games are from the same developer) is baldur´s gate 2 vs knights of the old republic. kind of the same idea behind it and i can really identify with the protagonist, and even better, we got both a 2d and 3d engine.
but that was not really what your article wanted to say anyway, just thought i add this little comment, otherwise: nice work

5433 EXP -
January 28, 2008 - 16:21 #

gross.tim, I was trying to give an example for Thesis #4, that the constant technical advancement of games, for which the evolution of 3D engines is the most prominent example, could indeed limit the "advancement" of games in general (as Garriott put it). I do believe that, right now, games do not take big steps to address more serious topics, they don't seem to "mature" except in their presentation. But you're right, there are of course 3D games raising moral questions, as KotOR does, as Bioshock does, and several others do. So my Fallout example may be misleading, as you've pointed out.

555 EXP -
January 28, 2008 - 20:57 #

I think, the marketing people believe that the vast majority doesn't want deeper games.

That graphic-hype is fueled by game magazines and hardware enthusiastic overclocking benchmarks.
I hate reviews that talk pages about the graphics and only scrape by sound/music, ambience, story, gameplay etc.

I think the Wii is a good step away from this graphics mania.

4474 EXP -
January 29, 2008 - 12:25 #

hey phlexomance, that´s a good notion there. the wii really is a phenomen, just as wow or the ds. let´s do some hyponymy (sorry, studying linguistic) and put those games/platforms under casual games. it would be great idea for gamersglobal to create a new special, contrasting casual games (and their success) with "real"games where players actually invest hours to get good or whatever aspects you want to use. because casual games are mostly more profitable, please think about that (if s.o. in charge read this^^)

4474 EXP -
January 29, 2008 - 12:28 #

i want to add to my previous comment that wow is not a casual game, but that many casual gamers play it

Drakonis (not verified)
0 EXP -
January 29, 2008 - 21:15 #

I'm all for either....but I have a huge problem with this article for one reason. It's not the graphics that are the problem, it's not the games that are the problem, and it certainly isn't the material that's the problem. The problem, to me, seems to be that we as gamers have given the wrong impression to companies. Majorities tend to sit there and gawk or stand in awe, spewing about how amazing the graphics of a game are. We also have a good percentage of people using the 360's in-game dashboard to play their own music for games. These things unfortunately, drawback from people mentioning much of music, and putting more emphasis on graphics. It draws away from sound or gameplay. We need to start sending that message that even if it looks pretty, we want it to play great as well. I mean both with controls, and general gameplay. If the game has great gameplay, but terrible controls...we just can't enjoy it properly. For me, Lair seems to be a prime example of looking pretty, but suffering greatly from controls.

To my next issue,

I've played my share of 2D and 3D games, and more often than not, the 3D helps. Could you picture yourself playing something like World of Warcraft in 2D? How about playing Oblivion in 2D? I don't think it ruins the imagination process of the game at all, as it's still in your own hands how your self-portrayed characters are in such games. First Person Shooters, Action games, any game that gives you a pre-defined character, you're playing that game for the designers' story. It's really nice when you get to choose how that pre-defined character acts, but it's just as nice when you see how he would REALLY act as well. I do not believe 2D or 3D graphics impacts anything toward imagination or the depth of a game. And who's to say we need deep, mature games? Don't people just want something to escape to for awhile as well? I've played my share of those emotional, deep, mature games. I love them, but more times than not, I want to just escape from it all. We have games for each niche, each desire. I've ran on along with this enough, I'm sure my point is clear. 2D or 3D is not the issue, what the developers/designers choose to do with them, is what makes the difference.

5433 EXP -
January 29, 2008 - 21:34 #

>>2D or 3D is not the issue, what the developers/designers choose to do with them, is what makes the difference.<< That is a very good point! I also think that no gamer will disagree with you on Lair. Regarding WoW: Could it be that WoW's not very detailed (low poly count), not exactly likelike, but quite unique look acts in a way like those 2D games I've mentioned, leaving room for our imagination?

4 EXP -
January 29, 2008 - 23:09 #

Nice article, but the first sentences make me think about the games of 1998. Was the majority really still in 2D? 1997’s Total Annihilation introduced 3D units on a 3D collision terrain with a 2D terrain picture and from then on more and more strategy games used 3D elements, since Tomb Raider the action-adventure genre was more or less 3D and that came out in 1996 iirc. Ok, I currently don’t have an example for RPG’s of that area, as I can currently only think of the Baldur’s Gate series, Planescape:Torment and Diablo. Bad examples to prove my point. ;)
As for the question about 3D graphics being harder to program, as a programmer I have to object slightly. This depends extremely on the kind of game and the techniques that it has to support. Certain things are easier to achieve in 2D, certain things are easier to achieve in 3D. With the help of powerful tool sets and libraries, it’s not so hard to create 3D games in general. The hard part is to make a huge world that’s fully interactive and has the eye-candy of Crysis, while still running playable on normal computers (as opposed to Crysis ;)).
The rest of the article was quite enjoyable, I especially liked the pictures of the old games. I always enjoy to look back at my childhood. ^^
Interesting to read, what the designers think about the whole thing. Your choice of interviewees is very nice. :)

5433 EXP -
January 30, 2008 - 00:23 #

Pre-rendered 3D, when used in a pixel engine like most of the strategy games you're hinting at (but not T.A.) did, would be still considered "2D" by the logic of the article. Your objection against the thesis that 2D is automatically easier to program/design is shared by the corresponding antithesis in the article in some detail: If you need to "fill" a 1080p screen with 2D art, that probably is no less demanding in terms of team resources than a 3D engine.

Regarding the "choice of interviewees", and just to avoid false implications: Although I met all of the four designers who are mentioned in the article, none of the citations used were made by them specifically for this article. I am mostly citing from my own interviews with them, though.

1470 EXP -
January 31, 2008 - 18:36 #

Two things, on Page 2 it reads
"as gems like Shadowgrounds] prove. ... is Fantasy Wars (see our mini review[LINK])" after "shadowgrounds you closed the bracket for the bold text once to often and where it says mini-review, there is no link.

And secondly I just would like to point out, that the argument that 3D is simple more costly, is countered (to a degree) by the fact that you can use and reuse your 2D hraphics in cut-scenes for example. See the cut-scenes in Tomb Raider, (e.g. Legend) once the level and the models are created you can reuse those, for tremdiously long cut scenes, all you need is moving the model and the camera, and get some voice overs. And now think back to the cut-scenes for Diablo, they could reuse nothing, I bet these weren't cheap. I'm not saying you're entirely wrong, I'm just saying that good quality is almost never cheap.

One last point, maybe it's darn obvious for everybody, but I would have liked to see the following argument in the article: The Games that come out, are made to (more or less) fit our hardware, people would really complain loudly, if more 2D games would come out. They would ask why the heck they bought a 3D Accelerator for several hundred bucks.

555 EXP -
January 31, 2008 - 21:33 #

And the people who don't have the latest graphic boards will be happy.
Don't they make up quite a big percentage?

About the costs of developing a 3D game:
Don't developers get support from nvidia?
I thought they even send them some developers.
Also a lot of engines are being reused in other games.
Just look at what they made out of the Quake3 engine (Call of Duty).

1470 EXP -
February 1, 2008 - 13:50 #

I know what you're saying, but
a) no 3D doesn't mean the game will run on every system.
b) I never said anything about needing to have the latest model, but 3D Cards are around for more then 15 years now, everybody has them, even Laptops these days, the people with the most expensive cards will simple complain the loudest.

555 EXP -
February 1, 2008 - 19:12 #

ad a) I didn't say so, you must have misunderstood me
ad b) Do people bitch about driving only 50 km/h with their cars which can go up to 200 km/h ?
Some do, but not that much. I think it will be the same with games.

Ryam BaCo
20 EXP -
February 7, 2008 - 11:16 #

excellent work, jörg!

found two errors which might be corrected:

on page 1 - missing link:
For example, in Turn-Based Strategy, is Fantasy Wars (see our mini review[LINK])

on page 2
alternative text in the nwn 2 vs bg 2 graphic: rifht --> right ;)

5433 EXP -
February 10, 2008 - 21:55 #


thank you, I am correcting the mistakes now. The missing link is quite embarrassing, like the typical HAVE YOU CHECKED THIS?! -ED. found in magazine articles, sometimes...

1470 EXP -
February 28, 2008 - 20:49 #

told you a week before he did. Guess you missed it.

As long as we don't let other people proove-read everything we write, things like that will happen, but this is a comminity-site after all.

Jacob Klein
2 EXP -
February 23, 2008 - 00:06 #

Interesting article, excellent write-up. But I, personally, really prefer 3D (In an rts game, 3d is simply better imho because it offers way more opportunities to micro your units. Blocking and sorrounding in a 2d rts game is meh, in warcraft 3 those are standard manouvers). And for me it's also better in rpg games, mostly because i prefer games like the Gothic and Elder Scrolls series over games like Diablo and Titan Quest (for games like this, 3d makes no sense I think, Sacred could have had much more detailed effects and had probably also had a better performance if it had been all 2D). I think the 3rd dimension in an rpg like Gothic or Oblivion is important, because it allows you to dive lakes, climb mountains and enjoy the nice view of a (hopefully) big and beautiful world. It allows you to enter the world on a more intense level not just storywise (should of course be no excuse for a lame story in a rpg) and that is what makes one of the most interesting aspects of Oblivion and Gothic possible, the hidden locations :) But I'd like to see a really well made jump 'n run in 2D in 2008, that'd be awesone.
...Maybe Ron Gilbert's Deathspank is going to be 2D (it's going to be great for sure, so that would most certainly help 2D back to it's old popularity).

Also, I think that much of the 2D games' charme/atmosphere comes from the oldschool-feeling you have when playing em. The design of Secret of Mana is, just like in the 2D Final Fantasy games, a joke. But the old memories that come up with it make up for it. Also, I think that games were much closer to being art 15 years ago. Nowadays, it really is an industry - there are still a lot of great, unique, atmospheric and interesting games out there, but also a lot of crappy run-of-the-mill games that offer nothing special but nice 3d graphics. What I mean is that when you play games like the old Final Fantasy games or Fallout, you can feel the "love" the developers put in the game. You get that feeling with Blizzard game, Portal is also a great example. The clever unique design is what videogames were all about when there wasn't a new generation of 3Dcards coming out every 3 months. Look at King's Quest. It was revolutionary back then, nowadays every 6th grader could make a better looking game using paint. It's not just the fact that you have to imagine a lot of the stuff happening in the story, but also that the focus wasnt so much on graphics but on gameplay and story. You have also mentioned it in your article, but I think it really is more extreme. If you are honest with yourself, the cinematic atmosphere in crysis comes from? The Graphics. And what makes up for the bad level design? The Graphics. And what is the reason that everyone knew about this game as soon as the first preview had been released, and what's the reason that everyone gives it such a high rating altough multiplayer and singleplayer are a joke compared to Bioshock (Singleplayer) or UT3 (Multiplayer) or COD4 (both)? It's the freaking graphics. And I've played Crysis to the end. I can definetly tell that Call of Duty and Portal are way better considering singleplayer and that Call of Duty and UT3 have a way more unique and cleverly designed multiplayer. Even Gothic 3 was following the generel trend and made the same mistake as Oblivion.. a incredibly big world at the cost of real content. Gothic 1 and 2 was just unique location after unique location. Gothic 3 is 20% really nice Gothic RPG and 80% mmorpg quests, empty locations and the same looking city over and over again. So I'm really sorry, I can't stop whining about the trends in the industry, the way that the Publishers try to sell games and the way that the big masses actually buy those games... at least until Mass Effect comes out
for the PC ^^

24 EXP -
April 2, 2008 - 15:32 #

I'd like to agree on your argument that 2D games have a lot of charme for nostalgic reasons. Still, why is Castlevania (to name but one example) still so popular? Also, most fighting games are still "feeling 2-dimensional" despite of their 3D engines -- it's simply easier to play them from a sideways view.

Banana_Joe (not verified)
0 EXP -
March 25, 2008 - 10:35 #

page 4, sentence 3 says "by far" twice. I think once would be enough :-)

erandur (not verified)
0 EXP -
April 9, 2008 - 16:29 #

Gameplay over graphics, whether those are 2D or 3D. Konquest is an excellent example of that, gave me hundreds of hours of gaming pleasure. While Age Of Empires 2/3 barely reached 20. But besides from that, it should depend on the genre, RTS's should have a 2D engine, or 3D engine that looks 2D. FPS's CAN'T have a 2D engine, as the 3 dimensions are too important there. RPG's should be there in both kinds, 3D might be more fun to explore, but 2D gives a better view of your surroundings.

final fantasy xi gil (not verified)
0 EXP -
November 4, 2008 - 13:20 #

Most of my absolute favorite games are 2D...even the 3D "current" versions don't hold a candle to the greatness of the originals. Call me an old gamer, but for Mario, Sonic, Metroid games....2D is the only games I really loved. Yes, Super Mario 64 was a good game, but by far, I don't see it as the best Mario game, I personally think SMB3 was the BEST mario game. Metroid Prime? I hear it is a great game, but I still think Super Metroid was superior in all gameplay aspects. Sonic? *****...almost all the 3D Sonic games sucked...Sonic ruled the 2D universe.