Advantages of 3D graphics not related to gameplay

Just read a small remark in Greg’s post about Europa Universalis III that I found interesting:

3D? Oh yeah, everything has to be 3D these days. But from what I can tell from the screenshots, this means that the soldiers standing atop your provinces are 3D models instead of sprites. That is to say, no impact on gameplay, and really, why bother.

I think 3D graphics can have many advantages that do not impact gameplay, either positively or negatively – advantages that make it worth doing in my opinion.

Personally, if I were to make a game, it would probably have 3D graphics with a 2D camera. Why? Process intensity. The computer knows something about what it’s displaying, so it can manipulate it. With a 3D model of a soldier, I can re-use animations, I can change the colours of clothes, swap out pieces of clothing and accessories (weapons, typically), I can construct random soldiers out of individual bits. (Spore is a good example of what you can do if you take this to extremes.)

This is hard to do in 2D. I’ve seen the development of pre-rendered / hand-pixeled games. The Settlers 2 (not the remake… damn I’m old) had insane amounts of tiny tiny bitmaps. Several directions per settler, several animation frames for each animation, and each settler could carry any of, what, a dozen? different objects. Custom graphics compression and display routines had to be written. One of the later Settlers games basically exploded the repository that was used to hold the data. A similar thing goes for role-playing games, where you often want to re-use enemies, give them different colours and weapons, etc. In some of the RPGs I worked on, we changed colours by remapping the colour palettes. It worked, but it was limited. And of course we had all of our 2D characters in 4 directions… all hand-pixeled.

None of the advantages of 3D I listed above have a direct impact on gameplay, but they can give the game designer more options because production limitations are reduced. And being able to dynamically change graphics can make interfaces clearer.

Comments 5

  1. Pag wrote:

    You argue that 3D graphics would make development faster. While your arguments do sound valid, in my experience 3D games always take longer to produce than equivalent 2D games. You rarely see teams deciding to make a 3D game instead of a 2D game because they’re worried the 2D game would require too much work… Do you agree? Why do you think that is?

    Posted 01 Oct 2006 at 15:05
  2. JP wrote:

    Depends more on the specifics of the game, of course, but yeah it’s entirely possible for 3D games to be easier to make than 2D games.

    The most labor-intensive art tasks these days are 2D painting (textures or sprites) and 3D character animation. If your game has neither of those, 3D is probably faster and easier. Most top-down and side-scrolling indie shoot-em-ups (shmups) make these days use 3D because of this. Introversion’s Darwinia also has minimal character animation and fairly stylized 2D art.

    On the other hand, 3D engines generally take a lot more time and skill to make (Darwinia took ~3 years, a lot of which was tech development) than 2D engines.

    If you like 3D games with 2D gameplay, I highly recommend the Klonoa games for PS1 and PS2 respectively. In gameplay terms they’re similar to Yoshi’s Island, with neat quirky environments.

    Posted 01 Oct 2006 at 17:07
  3. Greg wrote:

    Sure, if you have a lot of different behaviors, 3D rapidly becomes more cost-effective from a development perspective than 2D. Although I’m not sure it applies to EU, since there aren’t all that many behaviors–“marchhing,” “in a battle,” and “in a siege” are about it, I think.

    Posted 01 Oct 2006 at 17:09
  4. Jurie Horneman wrote:

    I do not argue 3D graphics would make development faster. I argue that it allows one to do certain things which are hard to do with 2D graphics.

    There are various reasons why 2D can be the better choice. When I was at JoWooD Vienna and we were asked to produce several smaller titles in one year, it made more sense for us to stay with 2D, as we had a lot of experience there. We made games that worked well in 2D, and they turned out very nice. We had a shared engine, so that kept down costs. The games ran on a wide range of PCs. In the case of ‘Neighbors From Hell’ we would not have been able to do that in real-time 3D in that time and for that budget. However, we would have been able to make a different game in 3D, even with a 2D camera.

    I tried to list some concrete examples where we did things in 2D that were hard or problematic, and which would have been much easier in 3D, or – and this is really just saying the same thing – we decided not to do certain things because we were working in 2D. I don’t think teams make the exact decision you describe: I think they try to make games that fit their technology, basically.

    I don’t know if 3D games always take longer to produce than equivalent 2D games. Perhaps you are right, although I would insist on comparing teams with equivalent experience in either approach. My point is that it doesn’t make sense to make an equivalent game, but that you should make your game design fit your capabilities. Typically, your team’s capabilities are much harder to change than your game. In my experience, going from 2D to 3D is a high-level, long-term strategic choice, more so than which game you are going to make. You need to buy new tools, license engines, train pretty much your whole team, etc.

    In the case of UE3, they might get the ‘sexiness’ value of 3D, some additional freedoms, some production optimizations and a more beautiful game. (Note that I said ‘might’ and ‘in the case of UE3’ – these are not general statements about 3D vs 2D.)

    Posted 01 Oct 2006 at 17:20
  5. Jurie Horneman wrote:

    Greg: Of course, if they have a small number of units and behaviors, it’s probably not worth it. (I guess one more reason for 3D in UE3 might be as a form of training for the developer. If they do ‘a bit’ of 3D, add a little low-risk value to UE3, while gaining experience as a team – that could be worth it. But this is pure speculation on my part of course – for all I know it’s a braindead attempt to create questionable eye-candy.)

    I find it interesting how production factors and game design interact. I was going to say I didn’t mean to talk about cost effectiveness but about creating different possibilities, but then I realized these are really two sides of the same coin.

    I should probably play a UE game before saying more about it. You are the second person to speak highly of it. Personally, I am hoping they succeed in making it easy to get into…

    Posted 01 Oct 2006 at 17:32