I’ve said before that games are constrained and often defined by their technological limitations, but I think its clear that the steps in gaming visuals over the last 51 years has been absolutely astounding! From Tennis for Two with it’s green on black on an oscilloscope display, through to the bleeding-edge visuals of Metal Gear Solid 4 on Sony’s latest Playstation; when comparing it to other entertainment mediums, videogames have perhaps shown the highest increase in fidelity over the shortest amount of time. Through just 7 generations of hardware we’ve come from crude monotone squares to fully realised three dimensional worlds in 1080p, but with all of this increase in visual splendour; the competition to model the most realistic environments, convincing facial animations and biggest explosions, are we missing the point entirely?
Around 1996, when Tomb Raider and Super Mario 64 were beginning to show how 3D games could realise a convincing, consistent play environment, the phrase ‘realtime 3D world’ was being bandied about, seemingly attaching itself limpet-like to any title using the 3D processing power of the various platforms at the time. Fast forward a decade or so, and now that statement is obsolete, suddenly games without a Z Axis are seen as extra-ordinary and against the grain of modern game design. The exact moment we, as a group of game players, collectively decided that sprites were no longer the norm and that polygons were the way forward, is impossible to pin down exactly, but it was most likely the late 90’s, with the implementation of dedicated internal 3D chips within modern consoles, and the PC community embracing 3D cards as essential additions to their gaming rigs.
Regardless, my question is this; why is there a resistance from larger developers to create 2D titles for the monolith like slabs of high tech equipment sitting under our television screens? Why has the paradigm shifted from creating something that is visually appealing, to something that is visually accurate?
Perhaps we as a community have a skewed perception of what is ‘next-gen’. Take for example Street Fighter, a series wherein it’s entire ethos and play mechanics are firmly rooted in the flat, and yet the latest iteration has suddenly made the jump to 3D. Why? It certainly wasn’t a move to please the fans, die-hard Street Fighter players were up in arms on Capcom’s official forums over the added plane of perspective. But from a business point of view, it must have seemed the smartest move to entice the more casual market into buying what is essentially now an incredibly niche title, the promotional campaign very much aimed at showing off this next generation title’s added sheen for an older generation of gamers wanting a trip down memory lane. Would it have played less well in 2D? Probably not. Will it age any better than it’s earlier releases? I doubt it. Even with the cel-shading-lite style of it’s ink effects (a graphical technique ironically attempting to make it seem more two dimensional) its impossible not to imagine vastly better looking 3D models in a fighting game a few months from now, let alone several years down the line, and yet our want for the latest visual thrill demands that the game be that little bit sharper, that little bit edgier, that little bit more modern.
But perhaps it is the publishers that are to blame, after all how many publishers are willing to take the risk on actually releasing a 2D title? A little known fact that seems to have been quietly quashed by Sony PR was that around the earlier years of the Playstation 2, Sony’s policy was to release 2D games at a significantly lower price than those of 3D in an attempt to force developers to create games that showcased the hardware capabilities of the PS2. Perhaps Sony were fearful of the Playstation brand going the way of the Dreamcast, a console already teetering dangerously close to the edge of irrelevance, collapsing under the weight of a high price point, and altogether too focused on 2D arcade fighting games with little mass market appeal. This policy remains, with the outfits owning the hardware demanding developers use their advanced graphics cards or face a budget entry.
The industry and gamers alike probably all played their part in this obsession with 3D, but maybe now, as we approach a plateau in graphical fidelity, with a steady increase in interest laid upon relatively underpowered mobile gaming devices, such as the iPhone and DS, and indie developers looking to make names for themselves in a market looking for the next fresh idea, may we start to see 2D, or 2D influenced titles begin to re-emerge. Perhaps, we may see a renaissance for 2D design, picked as an artistic choice, as opposed to a budgeting constraint.