Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Why 3D Matters

As technophiles tend to love jumping on the bandwagon of digital progress as soon as possible, it is therefore difficult, and somewhat surprising, to think of a recent tech trend that’s met with as much consumer hostility and revulsion as the late-2000s and early-2010s reemergence of 3D. Seemingly coming out of nowhere, though most likely bolstered by the runaway success of James Cameron’s Avatar in 2009, 3D seems to be cropping up everywhere these days: Most notably in other movies where it’s been sternly rejected, but also in television and video games as well. Perhaps it’s because of the economic depression or because it’s seen as an antiquated technology that didn’t catch on in the past (Remember 3D drive-ins, anyone?) or perhaps because the development in television came so soon after high definition just barely managed to become commonly accepted, but for whatever reason the new 3D is the only recent technological development I can think of to be out-and-out protested and boycotted by the entertainment industry’s bread-and-butter consumer base.

While I can’t speak for movies and television as much as I don’t follow them anywhere near as closely, the addition of stereoscopic 3D to the video game industry has me genuinely excited and I’m actually surprised more people haven’t seen the potential the technology could add to the kinds of experiences only games can provide. While Sony made the tentative inroads by adding 3DTV support to the PlayStation 3, it was really Nintendo’s release and announcement of the 3DS this year that piqued my interest. While other home 3D systems require a complex and cumbersome series of setups as well as the ever-present troublesome 3D glasses, the 3DS’ promise of portable glasses-free 3D is the first legitimately exciting step forward towards gaining the technology a wider install base. However, Nintendo’s constant mishandling of the 3DS since launch has done little to settle down riled consumers and the recent, frankly unprecedented announcement of a drastic $80 price cut means the 3DS and its alleged usefulness are again in the news. As such, I felt now was the opportune moment for me to explain why I think gaming needs 3D and how the 3DS can be that first step into proving why, provided Nintendo plays its cards right.

The primary difference between a 3D movie or a 3D TV show and a 3D video game should be obvious: In a video game, there is an element of player agency. In fact, it should also be fairly obvious that the focus on player agency is the whole point of the video game medium. It’s here where the addition of the 3D technology is going to be felt most strongly: Whereas I would hasten a guess that 3D in a passive medium like movies and TV would be essentially a superfluous and unnecessary luxury and where a lot of the bile probably stems from (I wouldn’t know as I have seen next to nothing from the new wave of 3D in cinemas), in a video game, by contrast, it could actually make a literal world of difference.

In the medium’s pioneering stage games were pretty self-explanatory: Take one look at the single screen of Space Invaders or Pac-Man and it’s immediately clear what the game is about, what the world is like and what the player is being asked to do. Once games started getting a little more complex with the Atari home consoles we got escalation of these simple concepts, like four explorable screens in things like the Raiders of the Lost Ark movie game. The biggest leap forward came in the form of sidecrollers made fashionable by Shigeru Miyamoto’s Super Mario Bros. on the groundbreaking Nintendo Entertainment System. Players were expected to play through a huge amount of scrolling, iterating levels to reach a story-centric conclusion that was a design revolution at the time. Sidescrollers became the default template for many games over the next two console generations, but by the mid-1990s technology had generatively evolved (in the proper usage of the term “evolved”) in such a way to allow full polygonal graphics in current consoles. Games like Tomb Raider, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Super Mario 64 showed how increasingly lifelike representations of actual virtual worlds could be created with existing game technology. As a result of taking this path, game designers became focused on making bigger and more realistic digital representations, a trend which has continued at least up to this day.

The advent of this type of game brought with it a number of unforeseen problems, however. While present in all such polygonal games, the biggest drawback was most evident in platformers like Super Mario 64: Since Mario was now in a fully 3-Dimensional world where previously he had been limited to a 2D plane; players now had to redefine their concepts of motion in a video game. Moving about in digital space became more akin to moving about in real space, thus adding that extra level of relation. However, video games still lacked two things that actual people in real life have when moving around: Firstly, and most obviously, polygonal graphics based games lack Kinesthesia, the sort of intuitive feeling your body gets when it’s in motion telling it that it’s in motion. Secondly, as such games are essentially 2D approximations of 3D space, players lack the stereoscopic eyesight they would have in real life, meaning playing one of these games is analogous to walking everywhere with one eye closed. These are two very important concepts for maneuvering in 3D space and I think they are far too often taken for granted. While we might not be able to do much about Kinesthesia at this point, we can do something about viewing a 3D game world the way it’s supposed to be viewed and here’s why we must:

The problem with trying to visualize a 3D world from a 2D perspective should actually be pretty obvious: Just like walking around with one eye closed, not seeing a 3D environment in 3D means it looks flattened out and, as a result, near-impossible to judge distances accurately. Here’s an experiment to try at home: Close one eye and keep it closed for awhile-At first it will seem like not much has changed, but that’s only because we’re accustomed to seeing things in 3D so it takes awhile to adjust. Once your eye becomes used to doing double duty, try walking around your house without bumping into things. You should find it’s much more difficult this way because you have zero depth perception. That’s why humans evolved stereoscopic vision in the first place, so we can move about in our environments, find each other and hunt properly without constantly smashing into things. Playing a modern polygonal graphics-based game without 3D technology gives you the exact same problem. This is something movies and TV don't have to think about because the audience isn't expected to actually move the main character around in a pseudo-3D space in those media.

When gamers first got their hands on games like Super Mario 64, they quickly realised that controlling Mario had become far more difficult, not helped by wonky cameras that didn’t always provide the best angle and both of these points were common complaints leveled against Super Mario 64 and its brethren when they first came out. However, as time went by and these games became more common, gamers eventually developed a new visual system for moving about in the game to compensate for this to the point we no longer noticed it. Developers also tinkered with camera systems to make them slightly less cumbersome, with mixed degrees of success. In short, gamers got used to the drawbacks of the new system and game makers fiddled around to help ease the transition. The inherent problem has never gone away, however.

Which brings me to the crux of my argument as to why stereoscopic 3D actually makes a great deal of sense in video games and why, believe it or not, we need it: I daresay many of the 3D dissenters are hardcore gamers in their 20s and 30s who have been playing polygonal graphics games since they first came out. If you grew up on Tomb Raider or Super Mario 64, played any of their innumerable sequels and remakes and followed the industry as this type of game became the de facto standard for all new games in the past three generations, you’re used to all these issues I raised to the point you no longer notice them. However, this does not mean they are no longer there, nor does it mean that whole new groups of gamers just now getting into the medium on the swell of the casual boom of the past six years should be expected to not realise them.

I have a younger sister who I’ve been trying to introduce to the medium. She’s played quite a few games, mostly casual-oriented things and classic 2D platformers. Awhile back I got her a copy of the Nintendo DS remake of Super Mario 64 with a glowing recommendation. She found the game incredibly difficult to visualize and became so frustrated she never got beyond the first level. She’s not the only one: I’ve tried to show some of my favourite games to other people, both young and old, who didn’t grow up with mid-90s gaming and the reaction is the same: To them, the worlds all look “flat” like a “colouring book” and they can’t figure out how to move around in the faux-3D space. This isn’t the way classics should be introduced to the next generation.

Even so-called “core” gamers occasionally run into this problem, though they perhaps do not realise it: In 2008, EA and DiCE released a unique and interesting experiment of a title called Mirror’s Edge. In it, gamers play as a parkour expert named Faith who lives in a dystopian future where entire cites and communication media is heavily monitored. Faith uses her parkour skills to hand-deliver messages to members of an underground resistance seeking to restore freedom to the city. Mirror’s Edge was a visually stunning game with a specialized control system that aimed to be a full-on first-person parkour simulator with one of the most innovative concepts in years. Nevertheless, it was a commercial flop, leaving the future of this exciting new IP in serious jeopardy.

Why did Mirror’s Edge fail? Many reasons have been cited, from poor marketing, thin storylines, awkward controls and confusing platforming where it’s uncertain where you can and can’t jump to. The thing is, from where I stand, almost none of these criticisms are actually particularly valid: Firstly, speaking as a parkour practitioner myself (though admittedly nowhere near as skilled a one as Faith), there is absolutely nothing wrong with the control system used in Mirror’s Edge as far as I'm concerned: DiCE did a great job mapping the various subtle moves to an intuitive system of button combinations. It is, in essence, a parkour sim. True, the level design is not always particularly clear in regards to what you can and can’t leap to, but then again the game relies to some extent on being aware of your own abilities and limitations, much as in real life (the second half of this argument, that the game renders only certain things that are graspable when bits of the background look equally reachable, is a design flaw I’ll concede, however).

Though poor marketing may have played a role in the game’s unpleasant fate, I think the biggest problem gamers had with Mirror’s Edge boils down to something very simple: It’s impossible to judge distances when making precision jumps. As I hope is now clear to my readers, however, this is a problem that is not endemic to Mirror’s Edge because it is the exact same critique leveled at Super Mario 64 nearly a decade prior. This is not a problem that is brand new and just started with Mirror’s Edge, it is a problem we’ve had since the day video games started using polygon graphics to create 2D representations of 3D space. All Mirror’s Edge did is change the perspective from third- to first-person, making the already preexisting problem all the more self-evident.

And herein lays the problem: So long as games with polygon graphics continue to use 2D approximations of 3D worlds instead of true depth-of-field now offered by stereoscopic 3D technology, this problem will continue to persist. Older gamers are used to it, but new gamers aren’t and are more likely now to abandon such games then grit their teeth and bear with it until they get used to it then they would have if they were in our place 15 years ago. The reason for this, quite simply, is the exploding casual game market on smartphones and tablets. Why continue forcing yourself to sit through a confusing polygon-based faux-3D AAA blockbuster when you could just as easily pick up something like Angry Birds which is incredibly simple, intuitive, easy to figure out and addictive? This is a market we didn’t have in the early-to-mid-90s, and new gamers won’t have the patience, or the obligation, to take the time to figure this sort of thing out to stay in the medium.

I recently picked up the 3DS remake of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, a game I am intimately familiar with, and was simply blown away by how much easier the true 3D made moving around and how much vaster it made the world of Hyrule seem. The difference between this version and all previous versions I played is so dramatic there's no contest. This is why we need true 3D then, and why I desperately hope the 3DS succeeds. It offers, unlike any other console currently on the market, the potential to finally fully realise the visions designers had almost two decades ago and actually make them playable and accessible to newer fans, not to mention making something like Mirror’s Edge actually click completely. Take notice, Nintendo: You’d be a fool not to contact EA and start talking about a 3DS Mirror’s Edge remake.

Precision platforming is not the only justification of 3D, however: In my opinion, it serves as one pillar of a whole new strategy that could change the way we view and interact with games forever. One other application is this fascinating new 3DTV Sony announced at E3 this year. What it does is broadcast separate 3D feeds tuned to certain goggles, essentially meaning each player will see a different 3D picture: Anyone who grew up, as I did, on split-screen multiplayer should immediately be seeing the practical applications of this technology. There is another, even more important way 3D can help enhance games however, and that’s something I’ll touch on a little later on. I’ll be returning to Zelda and Ocarina of Time in particular in the near future to elaborate. At the moment though, I need to take a little detour to talk about how I think we should read games…

Sources: Destructoid, GamesRadar, Nintendo World Report

Have I convinced you to give 3D gaming a shot? If so, why not check out The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D for yourself? I think it's the best example of how stereoscopic 3D can enhance a game right now and if you buy it from that link, I'll get a little money which would be much appreciated. You could also get Mirror's Edge too, if you want to see how important depth perception and kinesthesia are. It's a good game to boot!