Thursday, April 16, 2009

Game Design: The Evolution of 3D, As Explained By 2D

A lot of times, it seems that us older gamers are too hung up on older systems to care as much about new systems. That's not always true, but I can attest that my thoughts are usually more preoccupied with old-school systems than modern systems. Why is it important to care about these older systems? Why not forget about them and focus on modern gaming? What can they teach us about gaming's past and present?

One of the big reasons is that it can show us where we're going in gaming. Most really old school gamers started with the Atari 2600. It was the birth of in-home 2-D gaming, but it was really primitive. Some of us look back on it fondly, but most of the games looked like this:

Tell me what's going on in this picture. Go ahead. I'll wait.

There's a lot of nostalgia for the Atari 2600, but frankly, most of it is unearned. It's only a big deal because it's the first system we played. I know this sounds like heresy, but fire up a 2600 and you'll see what I mean. I'm hearing some sputtering from the peanut gallery saying, "But...but...but Pitfall!" I answer, yes. Pitfall looked good, for an Atari 2600 game. Most everything else was pretty blah.

The next generation fared better, though. 2D finally started coming into its own, but it was still a bit away from being perfect. There were a lot of problems with screen and sprite flicker. Even a well-optimized and polished game like Super Mario Bros. 3 still had the occasional glitch, and they couldn't really help it. There were still too many limitations in the hardware, but you could finally see the potential.

It wasn't until the 16-bit generation that 2D finally came into its own. Things finally looked the way they were intended to. With games like Super Metroid and Sonic the Hedgehog, you could finally get what the big deal was with 2D. Almost every game was drawn relatively well, even the budget ones.

It was around this time that the first tentative steps into true 3D were being made. Some were okay, but even good games like StarFox ran at 20 frames per second and looked like they were made out of cardboard, and not in a good way. The worst offenders, like Stunt Race FX, ran at about 10 frames per second and should never have been released.

In the next generation, 3D started spreading its wings a little. Sure, a lot of stuff looks pretty jagged, and yes, some of it looks ridiculous now. Even a game as revered as Goldeneye looks pretty bad now.
As the above screenshot from Goldeneye hopefully proves, 3D looked best when it was trying not to imitate real life exactly, but when it was doing a more cartoony look.

When the PS2, XBox, and Gamecube hit, 3D finally came into its own. Finally, you could see the full potential of 3D gaming, and you didn't have to squint in order to pretend that you were looking at a space marine instead of a group of polygons.

So what's the next step? What next improvement will take the leap and start rolling out slowly but surely, improving by degrees until it's finally where it should be? Who knows? It could be gaming with 3D glasses. It could be the perfection of motion controls. It could be a technology that we haven't even thought of. It's just exciting to see gaming grow and change over time, and we're all lucky to be able to watch it.

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