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Vol.32 No.2 May 1998

Do Computer Games Need to be 3D?

Richard Rouse III
Leaping Lizard Software

If you ask a random computer game professional what the most important innovation in computer games has been in the last couple of years, more likely than not you will be told that it has been the industry's move toward 3D graphics and environments. Take, for instance, the following quote from the January 1998 issue of Next Generation magazine:

“If there is such a thing as a videogame Holy Grail, it is not greater interactivity or improved design, despite what certain game-design gurus would have gamers believe. Instead, for better or worse, the perennial object of desire for developers and gamers is the creation of realistic 3D worlds. The crucial extra dimension is the key to a whole new breed of game.”

Almost everyone involved in making games seems to be thinking about how to take old game designs and transform them into hot new 3D properties. Some of these efforts have resulted in exciting new game breeds that engage the player in an experience all but impossible without 3D technology. Witness Mario's jump to the 3D world in Shigeru Miyamoto's Super Mario 64. But then again, witness the dismal failure of games such as Frogger 3D, a title which most everyone will agree is less entertaining than its early eighties predecessor. So this brings us to the question: Are all games better in 3D?

Before proceeding, clarification of just what I am talking about is in order. When I refer to a 3D game, I mean one in which the player is able to move "anywhere" in a given space. The computer dynamically recalculates what the player's view of the world should be, and draws it accordingly. Games such as Super Mario 64 or Quake are 3D games. A game such as Myst is not, using this technology, a 3D game; though its graphics are rendered using 3D models, they are all static images and the player cannot move freely through the world.

Certainly, 3D technology allows computer game designers to create gaming experiences for the player which could not exist otherwise. Take, for instance id Software's Quake. Design purists might argue that the gameplay in Quake, for example, is little more than that in Gauntlet, which was released in 1985. But the 3D technology in Quake allows for a level of immersion and excitement that was not found in 2D games. Spinning around a corner at high speed, not knowing what threat one might find there provides a visceral thrill that is altogether missing in Gauntlet (though that beloved game certainly has its own appeal). In Quake's case, the 3D technology created an entirely new game. I could make similar arguments for the originality of games such as Tomb Raider and Super Mario 64 which take 2D games (Prince of Persia and Super Mario Bros. respectively), add 3D technology and create a distinct and unique experience for the player.

I certainly enjoy a lot of 3D games, and from my praising of Quake, Tomb Raider and Super Mario 64, one might conclude that I am thoroughly convinced we should do away with 2D games immediately. But what of a game like The Curse of Monkey Island or, for that matter, either of its predecessors, The Secret of Monkey Island and Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge, both designed by Ron Gilbert? These are games where the hand-drawn, cartoony nature of the game's characters -- including the player's surrogate, Guybrush Threepwood -- is as inherent to the game's charm and appeal as the 3D engine is to Quake's. What if you replaced these characters with polygon based creatures -- like those found in Quake -- and rendered the world with assorted texture-mapped surfaces? Certainly the game's flavor, reminiscent of classic Warner Bros. cartoons, would be destroyed and a much less appealing game would remain.

Or how about a game such as Sid Meier and Bruce Shelly's Civilization, where the appeal of the gameplay is based on careful strategic planning and viewing an entire world at once? How could 3D graphics add anything to the game's appeal beyond fancy window-dressing? For example, Civilization II added the ability to "view city," whereby a player can take a look at his favorite city from a close-up, aerial view. This provides a nice looking glimpse of what a given city's layout looks like, with its coliseums, harbors, Wonders of the World and so forth. Though it is visually pleasing, does anyone really use this feature more than a few times? Probably not, for it provides no data that is at all helpful in playing the game, and serves only as a pointless distraction from the player's main goal. So, too, would a 3D engine distract from what the game's about without adding anything of value to the playing experience.

So my argument against 3D graphics as a technology all computer games should embrace has two fronts: the first is an aesthetic one, maintaining that rendered 3D graphics will never be able to create the look some designers may want for the games; and the second is that a 3D engine will not necessarily enhance the play of every game it is applied to, sometimes making the game worse by adding distracting fluff on top of an otherwise solid game, such as a hypothetical Civilization 3D.

Recently I tried pitching a game design to a number of publishers. Though I can't go into the details of the design itself, it combined the gameplay elements of Sim City and Railroad Tycoon in a unique setting. It was definitely a game where the gameplay was in no way dependent on a 3D engine, nor would such technology have improved the player's experience in any meaningful way. In the design treatment I described an isometric Age of Empires type engine as the one the game would use. I showed the document to one industry-savvy friend, and he pointed out that I might want to discuss what 3D accelerator boards the game would be supporting. When I countered that the game was not intended to be 3D at all, he said "Well, you should see what you can do about making it 3D." Later, a potential publisher I showed the document to said that he liked the design, but wondered if the game's engine couldn't be 3D, so that the game would be able to compete technologically with other games that would be available when my game was released. When asked how that would improve gameplay, he was hard-pressed to think of a way, but insisted a 3D engine would be necessary nonetheless.

And these two people were, from their frame of reference as businessmen, correct. It is hard to communicate "compelling storyline" or "highly refined gameplay" on the back of a box, while a hot 3D engine communicates easily via glitzy screen-shots. Having your game be 3D is a "money in the bank" sort of guarantee that makes investors feel more comfortable, just as a film's financial success seems more likely if it has a big-name star attached to it, or a new book's potential profitability greater if John Grisham were to praise it on the dust jacket. As businessmen, publishers need to show profit for the money they invest in getting games developed, and if having them all be "hot 3D" games seems to make that more likely, then some would argue it is their responsibility to make sure all their games are 3D, regardless of the needs of the gameplay.

But I am not a businessman; I am more interested in creating good games which appeal to not only established, hard-core game fans but also to a wide spectrum of the general public. I am one of those "game design gurus" (or perhaps just a guru-in-training) that the Next Generation quote I started with refers to so derisively. Without doubt the most popular game of the last several years is Myst, which, as I explained, is nothing like a 3D game. Myst has an elusive quality to it, which has escaped the designers of its countless imitators, none of which has come close to its level of financial success. Though the game was universally praised by critics on its release, it is almost as universally despised by the same critics now, who contend that it is some sort of mass marketing fluke. I think Myst has something to it which "real" people (i.e. non-gamers) find appealing, and the game community's derision of it is just so many sour grapes. As these non-gamers play Myst, do they think "Wow, if only this was true 3D!" Hardly! The game survives on the strength of its beautiful graphics, strong storyline and compelling gameplay; a fully 3D engine would do nothing to improve the storyline or gameplay, and would almost certainly make the graphics uglier.

Right now, some readers may be saying "What do you mean, make the graphics uglier? It'd be real 3D, dag-nabbit." To the hard-core gamer -- call him what you will, aficionado, hobbyist, fanboy -- the game might be more impressive, as they would probably agree that Quake's graphics are much better than Myst's. But to the lay-person, the graphics in Quake look, well, horrible. To the non-gamer, Myst's are obviously superior. Take a minute and look at a Quake monster -- look at those angular polygons sticking out all over the place, with a texture mapped octagon posing for its head. I hate to burst anyone's bubble, but that is not what the general public considers visually appealing. Myst's graphics were 3D rendered as well, true, but notice that the few times characters appear they are actually filmed humans. The Miller brothers -- the creators of Myst -- were smart enough to know that 3D models cannot create a good looking human being, so they all but left living creatures out of their game.

Take the success of the Disney distributed, Pixar-created movie Toy Story, which used 3D-rendered animation and was a massive financial and artistic success. "The public certainly liked those 3D characters, didn't they!" the 3D graphics pundit will say. But again, Pixar was very smart. They must have asked themselves "What characters can we create using 3D models that we can make look like they do in real life?" The answer, of course, was toys, which are not real in the first place, so one can create a very compelling and realistic Mr. Potato-Head using rendered 3D graphics techniques. The humans in the film, instead of trying to look realistic, appear as very stylized creations, and many would agree that they are the least-appealing aspect of the movie; Pixar was smart enough to keep their screen-time down to a minimum.

I have a friend who is a pretty typical non-gamer; she has no bias against games, and will enjoy some titles such as Civilization or Pac-Man. I recently showed her some screen-shots from the recently released Blade Runner game, in particular those from the 3D-rendered cut-scenes, featuring 3D models of humans. "What do you think of these graphics?" I asked her. "They look ugly" she replied, not a doubt in her mind. Though critical response to Blade Runner's graphics has been near-universally positive, and everyone marvels at how nice the 3D rendered cut-scenes are, to the non-gamer they still look substandard and unattractive. And these are the prerendered cut-scenes I'm talking about here, not the actual gameplay graphics. One day, when we have the processing power at our disposal to create 3D graphics as nice as Blade Runner's cut-scenes on the fly, in real time, they'll still look ugly to the vast majority of the population. So if we want to put characters in our games, and we want our games to appeal to as many people as possible, is it really the best option to make these people out of polygons?

Of course, clever designers will be able to turn a disadvantage into an advantage, and will use the blocky look of 3D rendered characters to create a specifically stylized appearance. For instance, Tim Schafer, designer of the forthcoming LucasArts adventure game Grim Fandango, said the following in the November 1997 issue of Computer Gaming World:

“Mexican folk art has primitive depictions of skeletons, and it would be great to see them come to life. I thought it was the kind of thing that would look really good in 3D, unlike a realistic human figure with the low poly count that you are sometimes restricted to. Realistic art usually just doesn't look that good. Instead of fighting the tech limitations of 3D, you have to embrace [them] and turn them into a style.”

By setting the game in "the land of the dead" and evoking a Mexican folk art look, Schafer made a similar decision to Pixar's, exploiting the limitations of the technology to his advantage. But not every designer will want to adopt a stylized folk art look for their game. So must every designer have to use 3D models of humans for their characters, or make their games character-less as the Millers did?

To make another comparison to movies, think of a 3D engine as similar to the use of special effects in films. Consider it this way: a game's 3D engine acts as a central and constant special effect throughout the player's gaming experience. Special effects in movies have come a long way in the last 20 years, and a film such as Starship Troopers would certainly have been impossible without them. But does this exciting new computer imaging technology mean that absolutely every movie has to use it? Will other movies that do not have such special effects be criticized for their lack of computer-generated insects? No. It seems like as many people, if not more, are interested in seeing a no-tech movie like As Good As It Gets as want to see Starship Troopers. It is patently absurd that any critic would say "As Good As It Gets is an impeccably written and deftly acted film, but its special effects just cannot compare with those found in Starship Troopers." Why is it any different for computer games? Why does every computer game need to have the 3D engine special effect?

Richard Rouse III is a computer game designer and programmer whose games to date include the Macintosh titles Odyssey -- The Legend of Nemesis and Damage Incorporated. He has recently started working for Leaping Lizard Software, where he'll be adapting a classic 2D game into a new 3D incarnation, hopefully adding instead of detracting from the original game's appeal.

Richard Rouse III
Paranoid Productions
P.O. Box 1216
New York, NY 10276-1216

The copyright of articles and images printed remains with the author unless otherwise indicated.

I asked a game-industry friend of mine recently if he had gotten a chance to play Final Fantasy VII, a game whose sales numbers indicate it has significant mainstream appeal, certainly in Japan. My friend replied, no, he was not interested, since Final Fantasy VII was not true 3D. This way of thinking is absurd to me. Consider this: the archetypal forms of computer games are the games that people have been playing for centuries.

Take, for instance, chess. You can buy a chess set at your local drugstore for three dollars, and it comes with cheap little plastic pieces and a crummy cardboard playing board. Or you can go to a chess specialty shop in beautiful New York City, buy lovely marble chess pieces and a suitably fine leather board to accompany them. In the latter case you will have a significantly more visually pleasing chess set than in the former. But when you are over at your nephew's house and he wants to play chess on his drugstore-purchased set, should you refuse? "Sorry lad, I only play with marble pieces." Your nephew may play as well as Bobby Fischer, but why bother? His pieces are made of plastic, and they're ugly.

Of course it is foolhardy to make a one-to-one comparison between computer games and traditional games, or computer games and films. But I think the above analogies do hold some truth, and I think the industry's growing mentality that if a game is not 3D it will not appeal to consumers is a foolish one. I am personally glad that every movie coming out of Hollywood is not loaded down with special effects, though I can still be delighted by Starship Troopers. Gamers and game developers should not limit themselves to high-tech thrill-rides, when the subtleties of a Myst, Monkey Island or Civilization can be as much, if not more, rewarding.