The Future of 3D: Gamemaker or Gimmick?


Posted October 14, 2010 - By MonfetteG4

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The Future of 3D: Gamemaker or Gimmick?

In the late 70s and early 80s when red-and-green, paper-glasses 3D were briefly popular in the cinemas, there was little doubt that the optical illusion was nothing but a gimmick, no more artful than vibrating seats, Smell-O-Vision or kitschy insurance forms before 1950’s B-grade horror movies telling you that you might have a heart attack if you continue watchign this film.

We watched as Jason Voorhees slashed his way across camp Crystal Lake in a series of too-obvious stabbing motions, our heads aching, our eyes strained by the colorless, two-toned mish-mash, yet we were thrilled at this marvel of modern technology. But it just a trick of the eye. With an emphasis on trick. Few ever thought it would be the wave of the future, to say the least about defining the next generation of storytelling and, eventually, gameplay.

Even today, in the post-Avatar era of moviemaking, it’s hard to distinguish whether the leap ahead in dimensional technology is still an elaborate display of theatrical gimmickry or a genuine tool for pulling audiences even further into a cinematic or a gaming experience. With the eye-strain mostly gone, the color problem minimized and the level of depth greatly expanded, the near seamless ability to immerse yourself in a 3D, it's become a choice we're faced with more and more often.

But does the same apply to videogames or is the barrier to entry too insurmountable to make 3D gaming a viable and dominating format? At the moment, $3500 televisions with not much 3D TV programming hardly have the same allure as a single, $30 trip to the movie theatre, but with prices on the decline and major titles announcing 3D compatibility – most recently, Call of Duty: Black Ops – it’s inevitable that a cost-effective option will present itself in the next few years. If you factor in the upcoming release of Nintendo’s glasses-free, hand-held 3DS system (which we hope fares better than their Virtual Boy), as well as the promise of that same technology in more fixed-position televisions., and the future of plug-and-play 3D gaming seems bright.

The Future of 3D: Gamemaker or Gimmick?

That said, whether the trend picks up or not will ultimately be determined by the range of titles adopting the format. and the quality (and innovation) of the experience that they bring to the table. Certainly, the release of Call of Duty: Black Ops in 3D attaches the tech to one of gaming’s most popular and best-selling franchises, and while CoD skews toward older audiences, the 3DS will peddle the format to younger players and parents. But there’s no doubt that AAA games and developers will have to make a major play for the hardcore audience at a time when attention spans are already being distracted by the rise of motion-controlled gaming.

We’ve already gotten our hands on more action-oriented, 3D-ready games such as Crysis 2, Killzone 3 and Motorstorm Apocalypse over the last several months, and while the overlaid 3D certainly enhances the visceral experience, we’re even more excited about the prospects of next-gen titles such as Child of Edenwhich deals heavily with spatial geometries, and potential puzzlers like Professor Layton and the Mask of Miracle for the 3DS. While most gamers will likely be satisfied with the added sense of depth in most FPS/action titles, there’s no reason that 3D can’t become a core component of puzzle-solving or exploration, demanding more than just a passive experience from the player. If filmmakers believe that 3D can guide viewers further into the emotional structure of a given film, in addition to simply making it increasingly awesome, then the equivalent in gaming would require designing with another half-dimension in mind.

The Future of 3D: Gamemaker or Gimmick?

While the 3D revolution, if eventually there is one, will likely be driven by the home theatre console experience, the majority of the legwork is currently being done on the PC where companies such as NVIDIA are providing graphically stunning 3D content. At the moment, however, that content is raw, an exclusively visual exercise, but it’s also the most compelling and widely available demonstration of the possibilities of 3D gaming in your living room. With last week’s announcement that developers Epic and Darkworks have partnered to include 3D functionality in the Unreal Engine 3 SDK, developers will now have the ability to exercise their multi-dimensional creativity on one of the most celebrated and popular game engines.

That said, a quick look at some of PC gaming's most dynamic 3D titles immediately underlines the advantages and disadvantages of the format. Titles such as Mafia II offer a realistic, open world environment that successfully roots the character in that time and place. There's a feeling of exploring a real, bustling metropolis, but where the 3D helps to establish a sense of setting, it falls flat during the action. However, when you look at a more sizeable universe like World of Warcraft, the 3D takes the exaggerated fantasy landscape to incredible heights, but at the price of awkward collision and camera problems. Characters passing through the screen or cameras that can't quite squeeze into smaller chambers are likely to make gamers crossed-eyed pretty quickly. But the menu placement in each of these titles -- and the dialogue in the middle distance -- also helped to add another layer of perspective.

More action-oriented games seemed to fare a bit better with regard to providing a visceral experience, and perhaps the most successful combination of atmosphere and gameplay we saw was Batman: Arkham Asylum. The long, stretching hallways and vaulted, gothic rooftops really gained from the 3D presentation, providing a sense of depth and vertigo as we swung about the asylum, but also a sense of impact when involved in combat. Most disappointing, however, was Just Cause 2. The high, mountainous peaks and ever-reaching grapple gun should have made our stomachs churn as we soared through the air, but we only ever got a feeling of half-measures when leaping off high plateaus, a kind of unimpressive, 2.5D.


Super Street Fighter IV 3D Debut Trailer »


Certainly, future titles will learn from the successes and failures of these games, titles which were never wholly designed with 3D in mind to begin with. Designing worlds that'll draw the eye forward and layering the action appropriately is paramount, as will be adjusting gunfire and grenade tossing with a sense of distance and gravity. Simultaneously, avoiding camera issues, so that players can fit into each available area is as important as keeping in mind that in a 3D world, characters simply shouldn't be able to pass through our heroes.

The question still remains, however. Can 3D games ever truly be more than a passing gimmick? Everywhere these days, marketing folks and developers are lauding the possibilities of the PlayStation Move and the Xbox Kinect; advertisements promise an immersive, player-controlled experience; and somewhere in our heads we imagine ourselves running through a battlefield, dodging debris and tossing grenades between raucous rounds of machine gun fire. Sadly, we suspect that’ll never actually be the case, and only time will tell how close developers can come to the experience that we all want motion control to provide, but that same, fundamental doubt rings equally true for 3D.

Will there ever be a beautiful, cost-effective day when our $300 console, our $1000 3DTV and our $50 glasses thrust us into a universe where distance isn’t a trick, but a tool? We certainly hope so. The possibilities for the unholy union of motion control and 3D game design are even more fascinating. For the moment, however, we’re simply riding the wave toward a time when creativity and affordability combine. Either that, or quantum games propel us into the fourth dimension, skipping 3D entirely.

The Future of 3D: Gamemaker or Gimmick?


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