Tuesday, August 2, 2011

3D Day Dreams

I've been thinking about the 3D since reading Jorge's post on 3D gaming's lack of high-profile proponents. Between the 3DS' lackluster debut, the shaky 3D movie market, and the relatively small number of 3D television sets in people's homes, the future of 3D technology still looks a bit blurry.

Jorge called on people like Ken Levine to lead gaming into the third dimension. Ken seems like a busy guy, so I thought I'd throw out a few ideas as to how to integrate 3D in meaningful ways. I'll preface this by saying that I am in no way an expert on the technological capabilities of 3D technology. For all I know, these ideas might be technologically impossible. This is more about theoretical design applications. However, if 3D technology can't at least implement parts of these ideas, I think we should ask some hard questions about what 3D has to offer the medium in the first place.

With that being said, here are some of my 3D day dreams:

1. "Reaching" with avatars

While playing Super Smash Bros. Brawl recently, I was reacquainted with the smash ball and the frantic chaos it brings to a match. I started to think about widening the range of the smash ball's movement with 3D. Although Smash Bros. has a 2D perspective, the characters and stages have depth. Perhaps 3D would allow for players to "reach" into the foreground just as they can dodge into the background? The auto-grab button could be converted into the 3D grab/attack button to allow players to strike at things drifting outside the screen.

The problem with this idea is that most of it could be accomplished with simple perspective work (make the ball bigger to suggest it is "closer" to the player, just as making something smaller suggests it is more "distant"), which suggests that 3D is not crucial to implementing this idea.

2. "Deep" platforming

2D side-scrollers often have platforms that glide left and right. I'd be interested in whether 3D displays could simulate platforms that glide front to back. Ideally, as a platform moved into the foreground, it would seem to disappear from the screen and exist mainly in the player's room rather than the TV screen. The player would then have to time their jump to coincide with the platform's return to "inside" the screen.

The problem with this idea is that it is basically necessitates a hologram rather than a screen-bound image. 3D is an illusion drawn from objects on the screen and what I'm envisioning requires the on-screen platform to almost completely disappear as it moves towards the player. Without an on-screen platform, I doubt a 3D platform could exist.

3. Split screen gaming

In my opinion, the most promising and practical application of 3D technology is exemplified by Sony's forthcoming TV that will allow two players to see separate images on the same screen. True, such technology is still bound to irritating, expensive, and goofy looking glasses, but the idea of having multiple parallel game states running goes beyond the simple visual tricks commonly associated with 3D.

Sony is touting its TV as a great solution for multiplayer gaming, but I'm just as intrigued with its single-player possibilities. It would be cumbersome to continually fumble with glasses, but a game like Henry Hatsworth on the Nintendo DS offers a model of how 3D technology might be put to more dynamic uses. Just as Henry Hatsworth has players switch between side-scrolling action on the top screen and match-three puzzles on the bottom, games with polarized glasses could offer experiences that simultaneously mix disparate art styles and genres.

Of these three admittedly half-baked ideas, only the last one has strong gameplay applications. I'd say the first two fall into the rut 3D already finds itself in: they are visual gimmicks. In his article, Jorge quoted Scorsese who said that, when filming in 3D: "Every shot is rethinking cinema, rethinking narrative—how to tell a story with a picture." Scorsese may have unwittingly articulated the reason 3D gaming hasn't taken off: "video games" rely on more than visuals to tell their stories.

Polygonal environments, force feedback, motion control: all these successful technological advancements did more than change the way games look; they changed how they "feel." Designers and critics have spent countless hours arguing that gameplay tells a story that is just as important as the ones told by art, sound, and dialog, if not more so. This is what makes the current 3D fad so worrisome: no one is talking about its mechanical applications. The mainstream industry is lurching halfheartedly towards a new technology without a plan, simply because it seems like the thing to do.

At this point, I could see 3D following the trajectory that full motion video followed: a brief boom followed by the realization that it is only useful if applied judiciously in highly constrained situations. Hopefully, I'm wrong and someone more talented than me will find a way to integrate 3D in way that is as functional as it is ornamental. Today's 3D technology is a fancy visual illusion created to suggest that things exist when, in reality, they do not. This is fine in movies, which are only meant to be watched. Games, however, are meant to be touched. If 3D can't add anything to the interactive, dynamic process that is playing a game, its ultimate importance is more illusory than the images it creates.

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