Friday, October 13, 2006

2D or not 2D?

For the foreseeable future I’m going to be concentrating my game design sensibilities on 2D games. Before I get into my reasons, I’d like to clarify what I mean by a 2D game. It’s not necessarily one in which the representations are strictly in 2 dimensions, but one in which the game space does not rely on 3 dimensions in order to work. To choose a recent example, Nintendo’s Pikmin is practically a 2D game. Although everything is represented in 3D, the map is 2D, and wherever situations there are that rely on height – throwing 10 Pikmin onto a paper bag to squash it for example – could be conveyed perfectly to the player using only 2D graphics.

The more 2D a game is, the more precise control can be exercised over what the player sees on screen. And the more control there is, the easier it is to infuse the game with charm. Compare one of the original Lemmings games to the later 3D version for an excellent example of this.

With a 3D game, the designer has many complex issues involved in working out what the player will be able to see of the gameworld at any one time. And this complexity passes right along through the production process, through level design, programming and art.

The artist on a 2D game has far less to worry about with regard to what transformations will be applied to their work. Loco Roco would have considerably less impact were it a 3D game.

There’s probably a workable analogy between cinema and games here: compare the amount of control the director of Disney’s Cinderella (insert your favourite traditional animation here) would have over the finished film, to the director of any live film today, with the large number of outside influences, technology and actors to deal with. It just has to be a lot harder to achieve artistic perfection with cameras and lights and action.

So what about the most important people in this argument - the players? Well, I’d certainly accept that 3D games are more immersive. The more you can make the game look and behave like the player’s real life experiences, the easier they will find it to become caught up in the world, get the sense of ‘really being there’.

But I’d argue that there isn’t a terribly convincing relationship between immersion and fun. A 2D playing space (and/or representation) hasn’t hurt games like Chess or Backgammon. I saw Will Wright talk in London recently, and he was asked what his favourite game was. Before answering, he defined his terms, which were that he considered the quality of a game to be measurable by the ratio between the number of rules and the complexity or depth that those rules provide. On this basis, he chose Go, with the smallest number of rules, that provide for an incredible wealth of playing styles and strategies.

As someone with a DS and a PSP, a lot of the best games I’ve played recently certainly don’t need to be 3D to succeed, and in most cases would be inferior in 3D. (short list: Loco Roco, Advance Wars, Electroplankton, Metroid Prime Fusion). In fact I’d go further and say that some genres are inherently flawed in 3D. For example, there will never be a 3D platform game that’s as good as the best 2D competitor – a game that predominately involves jumping from surface to surface in a series of parabolas simply doesn’t lend itself well to a 3D representation, and wonderful games like Jak and Daxter get around this issue by bending the rules of what a ‘platform game’ is, until, for my tastes, it becomes a different genre altogether (a 3D action-adventure, or whatever).

Finally there are the pragmatic reasons why I’m avoiding 3D stuff for now. As a developer working for a small independent and someone making games in their own time too, I need to maximise the amount of functionality and fun I get from every line of code I write. The only truly 3D game I made was called Cluster, and it was basically Magic Carpet set inside a computer, inspired by the marvellous Darwinia (and why has no-one re-released Carpet yet?!). One day, if I ever have a large team of artists and programmers at my disposal, Cluster may be resurrected, but for now, I think 2D games better fit my mantra: smaller games with bigger brains.

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