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days - they sort of assume that since the invention of 3D rendering, 2D would increasingly become seen as quaint and outdated, a vestige of limitations of old technology.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!

1 comment:

  1. Sorry to respond to a 3-month-old post, but I found my way here via your TIGSource sig and wanted to leave my two cents on the 2D/3D thing, since I think your approach is wrong.

    First, it’s important to differentiate 3D graphics and 3D gameplay. The wildly popular Smash Brothers series has 3D graphics but is very much a 2D game. Likewise, many popular strategy games have 3D graphics but their gameplay operates in 2 dimensions, just like a boardgame. Even some first-person games such as the beautiful Zeno Clash basically play on one, flat plane. No matter what happens to the graphics, 2D “games” will always be around because many gameplay premises just work better that way.

    Second, it’s important to recognize that in actuality, there are no games with “3D graphics”. Even when the graphics are calculated in simulated 3-dimensions, they are presented to the player on a flat screen, meaning the same rules about visual composition that apply to 2D art apply to the visuals produced in a 3D game. Games like Mecharium and Braid are beautiful because the players only see characters and backgrounds from one angle, and the artists drew that angle themselves. With a 3D game, however, there are infinite angles every object can be viewed from, leaving no guarantees the player will see something that looks as good as your concept art did.

    So why do people “waste their time” on 3D, if it gives so much less control over the visuals the player receives? I think it’s the complete opposite of what you said: 3D art is actually much easier and cheaper to produce. You can make a model for a character once and then apply any animation sequences or modifications you wish to it. Some indie games like Iji that appear to have pixel art actually rendered the characters in a 3D editing program because it was easier than drawing every frame by hand.

    If you think a 3D game can’t be jaw-droppingly beautiful, though, I think you’ve just been looking in the wrong places. Some of my favorites include...

    Half Life 2 Episode 2: http://images.bit-tech.net/content_images/2007/10/half-life_2_episode_two/wide00.jpg
    Team Fortress 2: http://www.halflife2.net/wp-content/uploads/2008/08/05_lumberyard_1.jpg
    Zeno Clash: http://www.dignews.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/01/zeno-clash-08.jpg