Tuesday, 20 October 2009

3D Is Dead, Long Live 2D!

One thing that's been on my mind recently is the 3D vs. 2D debate, which is quite an old one. I'm quite comfortable programming and designing games in both 2D and 3D, and I'd say that at this point in my life I've probably worked on roughly equal numbers of both. I think a lot of people don't question it these days - they sort of assume that since the invention of 3D rendering, 2D would increasingly become seen as quaint and outdated, a vestige of limitations of old technology. I'm not sure that's the case at all.

"Why would anybody make a game in 2D these days?", the strawman in my head asks. Well, for indie developers in particular, there could be a few reasons:

  • 2D is easier to program. Not a big deal for me since 3D isn't too much of a stretch, but when people are just starting out in game development it can be a lot to learn.
  • 2D runs on more stuff. A lot of indie games run on limited platforms - Flash, the iPhone, older non-gaming PCs, whatever. Pushing the technology limits your potential audience to only people that have machines that can cope with it. This also applies to some types of games where the tech is processor-intensive enough without even getting into the 3rd dimension. Our game is definitely a case of this - right now my monster development PC gets a thorough workout every time I run a paint simulation through it, although more optimisation can always help with this.
  • 2D art assets are quicker, cheaper and easier to produce. Budgets are Serious Business for indie devs, so this can't be overlooked. A sprite sheet is a LOT easier to put together than a skinned, animated, textured mesh put together in a 3D art package.
  • People like the "retro look". Pixel art is a big deal in certain circles, and can gain you street-cred among a certain "hardcore indie" crowd. I'm not so into that (as detailed below), and I'm hoping that this game is going to look much more hi-fi than lo-fi, but some people dig the pixels, and that's okay.
All of the above is true, but there's something else as well. There's some stuff you can do in 2D that is just better than it would be in 3D, and some ideas that don't even make any sense in 3D. Let's take some of my favourite games, some of which I've already mentioned in other contexts - Braid, Defcon, World of Goo, the first two Oddworld games, Worms, Chaos, old LucasArts adventures, Glum Buster, Bomberman, Passage, the early Sonic the Hedgehog games... What do they all have in common? These are all games that look and play brilliantly in 2D. In some cases, 3D incarnations of those games have been attempted, and have been dismally bad.

If I want to play the retro-but-undisputably classic card, how about Tetris? Pacman? Space Invaders? Want something more contemporary? I think the aforementioned Goo and Defcon suffice pretty well, and both of those games have clever art direction seeping from every pore. But there's another one now. Machinarium. If you've not heard of it, go play the demo. Then buy the game. Then finish it. Then come back. I'll wait.

Done it? Good. Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't that the most visually stunning game you've ever seen? To me, it's jaw-droppingly beautiful (and it's a pretty bloody good game to boot). I don't know if we'll ever have the technology for it to be viable to make something that looks that good in 3D, or if there's even any point in trying. If a Flash game - a Flash game - can be that mindblowing, then why have we been wasting our time on 3D at all?

Take your polygons and shove them up your asset pipeline. 3D is dead; Long live 2D!

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

The "X"

I don't know how widely known this is, or if they still subscribe to this policy, but Electronic Arts used to (and perhaps still do) have a kind of Zen mantra that they applied to all of their game designs. They call it "The X". The idea is that they come up with a single sentence that describes the Unique Selling Point for any given game. They do this for every game - every throwaway film license game, every iteration of Fifa or Madden, the lot. The X might be character-based, like "Be James Bond in his world of international espionage", or based around gameplay elements like "Battle the forces of Hell with the power of your Rock", or "Parkour across rooftops to overthrow the Authorities", or something. I made these examples up, but I daresay they're not a million miles away from what might have been actual X's for games. Depending on how imaginitive the marketing department are feeling, the X might even end up written unchanged on the back of the box.

The idea behind The X is to provide a common reference point for EA's vast teams of people with all their disparate skills and viewpoints. It's not just the dev team that are made aware of it, but the publishing and marketing folks as well, from the lowliest level scripter right up to the head honchos of the company. It helps to keep a team focussed towards a single goal, and it informs decisions - game design elements which support the X tend to get approved and worked on, whereas extraneous stuff that doesn't fit the X is discarded.

Now, someone who is not a fan of EA games, who heard about this and was feeling uncharitable might argue that The X contributes to the feeling of blandness that comes with many of EA's titles. Their games tend to be incredibly polished and slick, but a bit shallow. They can feel a bit like one-trick ponies, with a single gameplay "hook" that gets pushed in your face, and which may or may not be actually fun, and meanwhile everything else in the game can feel a bit cookie-cutter and tame. Worse still, EA occasionally act as a publisher for exquisite titles developed by other studios, but their normally brilliant marketing team fall flat when they have no X with which to sell the game. Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath fell foul of this, and the Oddworld Inhabitants team basically gave up making games shortly after, when the game failed to sell well.

Some games these days seem to wide and complex for an X. The likes of Fallout 3, or Grand Theft Auto IV would be considerably thinner experiences if the developers and publishers had chosen a single thematic or gameplay element and pushed it forward to the exclusion of everything else.

So, it's easy to be down on the concept of The X. It clearly came into being as a way to keep a behemoth of a company focussed when trying to get huge teams to crank out games, so how applicable could it be to apply this approach to tiny indie games?

As it turns out, it seems very applicable, but for different reasons. Primarily it works because indie games are incredibly restricted in terms of manpower, time and budget, and as such need to get right down to presenting the bare bones of what's cool about their game without wasting time on any of the fluff around the edges. Introversion's Defcon is one of my favourite examples of this, and feeds back perhaps to the earlier discussion about "purity" of design - the game is about global thermonuclear war (to quote Wargames, "the only way to win is not to play"), and the game's tagline of "Everybody Dies" sums up the game rather nicely. Although Braid is thematically quite deep and ambiguous, the gameplay has precisely one hook, which could be expressed something like "A Mario game where you can reverse time at will". The Experimental Gameplay Project take this idea even further: For every game, The X is whatever new toy or method of interaction the game demonstrates, and all that's added on top is just enough goals to give that X context and meaning, to turn it from a toy into a game. Experimental Gameplay, of course, spawned Tower of Goo ("Build the highest tower you can from squishy goo balls"), which then spawned the utterly excellent World of Goo. Contrast this with the foolish pitches you hear from wannabe indie devs who want to make "An MMO where you can go anywhere and do anything, and there are 10 character classes and you can customise all your equipment and it's set on Planet Zzryg'Yon...". These ideas have no focus, no single defining feature to underpin the development, and as such are far too ambitious and scrappy to ever see the light of day.

Our game will have an X. It might not be in the form of a specific sentence (although we might formulate one if we feel the need), but the paint physics is what will define this game, at least in terms of the gameplay. A puzzle/platformer is hardly a unique concept in and of itself, but that's okay because I know how to put those sorts of games together, what makes them tick. The platform/puzzler isn't the X. The X is in what kinds of things become possible when your main platform/puzzle element is paint, and I think that the kinds of scenarios we'll be able to present to players is what makes the R&D time developing the paint physics worthwhile.