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2D vs. 3D Games – We Don’t Need No Stinking 3rd Plane [Gamer by Design]

If you follow the history of console video games, it has generally followed this (very) rough progression:

  • Low resolution 2D games of the Atari and Commodore era
  • Rich, colorful 2D experiences with Nintendo, Sega Genesis, etc.
  • Early 3D with the N64
  • 3D for ever and ever from then on, with increasing graphical detail

But, we can add to the long list of disruptive changes made by iPhones and similar devices the title of “2D revamped.”

We’ve seen iphone hits like Cut the Rope and Angry Birds make more money than some 3D console games that cost many times more to make. Most console shooters, like Call of Duty, cost above the 30 million mark to produce, and that game is the exception; most don’t recoup their budgets. We could go into a whole conversation about the market’s shift from console games to mobile devices, but that’s a whole ‘nother ball of wax. Today, let’s talk about some of the great aspects of 2D games, and why they persist and even thrive nowadays.

Unmatched for jumping and platforming

The best way to approach this is to consider some remakes of 2D games that were made 3D. For example, Bionic Commando. This game came out at about the same time as a visual refresh of the original Ninendo game. When the smoke cleared, people really liked the refresh in 2D, but were disappointed by the new shiny 3D version.

Metroid: There's a reason why that generation of games still holds up. Sometimes genius is in the limitations.

Think about it. You have a game that’s based on grappling and swinging, then try to add 3D? By adding that 3rd dimension, there is the added complexity of aiming in the right direction to grapple.

Bionic Commando, in a 2D view, allows for easy calculations of distances and timing.

The second disadvantage of 3D here is visibility and obstruction. Even in a 3rd person 3D game (where you see the back of your character with a follow cam), you still can’t really see where he’s going like you can from the side. That leads to the next point…

Depth Perception Doesn’t Translate

In jumping games that are 2D, you can easily see the distances of gaps and the heights of obstacles.You also naturally learn the jump distance of the character. This makes the focus more on the challenge of the gameplay. In 3D, you don’t have the depth perception, since you’re looking through a single camera. The only way you really guess depth is by comparing the sizes of objects as they get farther/closer. This generally leads to some really frustrating jump puzzles.

The Benefits of 2D Graphic Design

In 3D, making the game look great is mostly dependent on modeling work for the 3D art, beautifying textures, and laying out the environment well. Since it’s 3D, it’s usually better to think of it as a world or a movie set. 2D games, on the other hand, can be worlds, yes. But they can also resemble more common media from other art forms, like paintings, websites, or books.

2D games have the benefit of years of established graphic design. One example is the iPhone game Letterpress. It is very simple in its look, and it looks more like a really slick website than a video game. Making this look good is more the result of a talented graphic designer and less the result of expensive art.

Flight Control: It needs a 2D camera so you can see the whole game board. Also a good example of using established 2D graphic design techniques.

Conclusion (or what about FPS games)

This article was ┬ájust to point out some of the advantages of 2D, so maybe some day I’ll write a 3D edition to balance it all out. But briefly, let’s talk about FPS games (first person shooters, like Halo and Call of Duty) because it proves a point. We talked about the lack of true depth perception in a 3D game. The reason FPS games have always worked so well is because they are primarily aiming games. 3D is perfect for that. You need to know less about your character’s exact location on the terrain (which is a common gripe with 3D), but more about the location of enemies.

In that manner, you can determine for yourself what’s the best way to display your game. 2D is ideal of games in which you really need to judge distances or know exactly where your character is on the terrain. A good example of that is our game Zig Zag Zombie. It’s based on geometric angles, and the bird’s eye view is perfect for that type of play. 2D is also great for elegant, clean graphic design in games that don’t have a character (like word or puzzle games).

More to come on 3D in an upcoming article, but it’s best used for rich, immersive experiences. Games like Legend of Zelda (in my opinion) got better when they became 3D, because they hinge so much on the principles of mood and environment.

featured image credit: farnea

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