2D Or Not 2D, That Is The Question.

24 06 2009

Street Fighter 4by xeroxeroxero

I’ve said before that games are constrained and often defined by their technological limitations, but I think its clear that the steps in gaming visuals over the last 51 years has been absolutely astounding! From Tennis for Two with it’s green on black on an oscilloscope display, through to the bleeding-edge visuals of Metal Gear Solid 4 on Sony’s latest Playstation; when comparing it to other entertainment mediums, videogames have perhaps shown the highest increase in fidelity over the shortest amount of time. Through just 7 generations of hardware we’ve come from crude monotone squares to fully realised three dimensional worlds in 1080p, but with all of this increase in visual splendour; the competition to model the most realistic environments, convincing facial animations and biggest explosions, are we missing the point entirely?

Around 1996, when Tomb Raider and Super Mario 64 were beginning to show how 3D games could realise a convincing, consistent play environment, the phrase ‘realtime 3D world’ was being bandied about, seemingly attaching itself limpet-like to any title using the 3D processing power of the various platforms at the time. Fast forward a decade or so, and now that statement is obsolete, suddenly games without a Z Axis are seen as extra-ordinary and against the grain of modern game design. The exact moment we, as a group of game players, collectively decided that sprites were no longer the norm and that polygons were the way forward, is impossible to pin down exactly, but it was most likely the late 90’s, with the implementation of dedicated internal 3D chips within modern consoles, and the PC community embracing 3D cards as essential additions to their gaming rigs.

Regardless, my question is this; why is there a resistance from larger developers to create 2D titles for the monolith like slabs of high tech equipment sitting under our television screens? Why has the paradigm shifted from creating something that is visually appealing, to something that is visually accurate?

Perhaps we as a community have a skewed perception of what is ‘next-gen’. Take for example Street Fighter, a series wherein it’s entire ethos and play mechanics are firmly rooted in the flat, and yet the latest iteration has suddenly made the jump to 3D. Why? It certainly wasn’t a move to please the fans, die-hard Street Fighter players were up in arms on Capcom’s official forums over the added plane of perspective. But from a business point of view, it must have seemed the smartest move to entice the more casual market into buying what is essentially now an incredibly niche title, the promotional campaign very much aimed at showing off this next generation title’s added sheen for an older generation of gamers wanting a trip down memory lane. Would it have played less well in 2D? Probably not. Will it age any better than it’s earlier releases? I doubt it. Even with the cel-shading-lite style of it’s ink effects (a graphical technique ironically attempting to make it seem more two dimensional) its impossible not to imagine vastly better looking 3D models in a fighting game a few months from now, let alone several years down the line, and yet our want for the latest visual thrill demands that the game be that little bit sharper, that little bit edgier, that little bit more modern.

Above: A brief history of the evolution of gaming's visuals

Above: A brief history of the evolution of gaming's visuals

But perhaps it is the publishers that are to blame, after all how many publishers are willing to take the risk on actually releasing a 2D title? A little known fact that seems to have been quietly quashed by Sony PR was that around the earlier years of the Playstation 2, Sony’s policy was to release 2D games at a significantly lower price than those of 3D in an attempt to force developers to create games that showcased the hardware capabilities of the PS2. Perhaps Sony were fearful of the Playstation brand going the way of the Dreamcast, a console already teetering dangerously close to the edge of irrelevance, collapsing under the weight of a high price point, and altogether too focused on 2D arcade fighting games with little mass market appeal. This policy remains, with the outfits owning the hardware demanding developers use their advanced graphics cards or face a budget entry.

The industry and gamers alike probably all played their part in this obsession with 3D, but maybe now, as we approach a plateau in graphical fidelity, with a steady increase in interest laid upon relatively underpowered mobile gaming devices, such as the iPhone and DS, and indie developers looking to make names for themselves in a market looking for the next fresh idea, may we start to see 2D, or 2D influenced titles begin to re-emerge. Perhaps, we may see a renaissance for 2D design, picked as an artistic choice, as opposed to a budgeting constraint.

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3 responses

24 06 2009
Wayne Shayler

Ah, a subject close to my heart. I raised this subject on the boards a while ago, that although not as pleasing to look at, a sprite based 2D game offered a ‘purer’ gaming experience…and I was shot down in flames. 2D games, whether platformers or shoot ’em ups for example, were incredibly simple in design and mechanics, but they were also incredibly hard to beat. With all the trophies and achievements these days, we’ve lost some of the innocent ‘inner’ pride that used to come from completing a game. Now the world needs to know, but that’s just a sign of the times.

I still stand by my point though, and I may also point out that I do enjoy all sorts of games, it’s just that I’m playing through Super Metroid from 1994 at the moment. I’m just as engaged in it as I have been with any recent game. It’s just tons of fun.

Fighting games just seem to highlight this fact. Tekken and Soul Calibur are both excellent games, but nothing gets the primodial blood pumping like a good 2D fighter. Street Fighter 4 is still effectively a 2D game, albeit with modelled characters, and it justs lends weight to the fighting rather than adding a ‘z’ axis to wander round in. It truly is ‘old school’ with a modern twist.

I think more developers should take a leaf out of Capcom’s book and turn the clock back slightly. There’s hundreds of great games out there that a lot of people won’t get to play because of the sprite based graphics. Nintendo seems to do wuite well by that philosophy!

25 06 2009
Balaenidae

Whilst I wholly agree that 2D games are making a renascence and this is no bad thing, I can’t help but feel that the question is not why aren’t more games being made in 2D but why aren’t appropriate games being made in 2D?

Making a 3D game is perhaps the default decision being made by developers, are they wrong to do this, most of the time no, Call of Duty, Left 4 Dead, GTA, these are all games that needed 3D in order to realise their ambitions. Sports games require this de facto and even in pre 3D graphics used isometric views to accomplish this, racing games as well using sudo-3D to render a racecourse, Micro Machines may have been fun but it wasn’t aspiring to the same type of game play as Virtua Racer. When 2D is appropriate games such as Little Big Planet or Braid use this to their advantage, only using 3D to render the graphics.

Shooters are a harder category and can fit into either perspective but produce very different games as a result. Metal Slug couldn’t have been as good as it was if it was in 3D, just as Call of Duty only works because it is 3D.

Mirrors Edge is interesting to look at as anyone who has played the flash game online can attest to it being as good if not better than the 3D game. Only having two dimensions brings a simplicity to it that complements the idea of flow in the game. Mario as well is as good in his 3D as his 2D outings.

Multiplayer games on the level we know them wouldn’t be possible without 3D The complexity that it allows gives more and more people a role, previous to 3D the biggest multiplayer game you would be able to find is Worms, nothing compared to the 256 player complexity of MAG.

When it comes down to it, 3D and 2D are just different genres allowing for a different type of game play. 3D is chosen more often for two reasons, people love immersive game play and 3D brings the player deeper into the world with less suspension of disbelief, secondly more is possible in 3D, it literally brings a new dimension to a game. 2D may give a simpler and purer experience but is that always what developers are after? Perhaps this is why casual games are more likely to be in 2D than other games.

2D isn’t dead with The New Super Mario Brothers DS, Metroid: Other M, Little Big Planet, Shadow Complex and many others to be available soon, perhaps developers got excited by 3D and wanted to explore what it has to offer but 2D hasn’t been forgotten, it’s just waiting for the right games.

26 06 2009
Deadman XIII

Is it possible 2D has been exhusted of ideas, while 3D games have a greater potential for new experiances.

even the best 2D titles of today are strongly rooted in the past, are they even capable of giving us truly revolutionary new ideas?

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