Posted by Rampant Coyote on May 16, 2013
This question was posed in the “Ask Me Anything” Reddit yesterday, and I thought I’d cross-post and elaborate on my answer here: Why are most indie games done made with 2D graphics instead of 3D?
Obviously, I’m something of an exception to the general rule, as I do 3D games (at least, the ones I’ve done commercially are 3D). That’s mostly my background. The games that thrilled me the most as a kid were the primitive 3D games of the era – arcade machine like Star Wars, Red Baron, Battlezone, Tail Gunner, Starfire, horrendously slow flight sims on the Commodore 64, to the wire-frame dungeons of Wizardry or the iffy solid and textured walls of Ultima and Bard’s Tale, or the pseudo kinda-sorta-feels-like-3D of the C64’s Forbidden Forest. I was always about the virtual worlds, dude, and few things made the virtual worlds feel more real than a 3D perspective.
Then I made 3D game development my career for many years, starting fresh out of college on the Sony Playstation – the first console IMO truly built from the ground up to be a 3D gaming console. Sure, the older consoles had some ability to pull it off, and the Sega Saturn could actually pull off 3D pretty well, but it wasn’t inherent in the system. The Playstation was all about 3D, and the guys at my company – SingleTrac – knew 3D as well as anybody. So I was steeped in it. I’ve been working with 3D worlds and 3D graphics ever since. I’m hardly a guru – I am easily outclassed by anybody who really considers themselves a “graphics programmer” in the modern world. But I know enough to know where to look for help when I’m stuck. So for me, working with 3D – as a programmer – isn’t a whole lot harder than working with 2D graphics. It’s just an extra layer of skills. Now that I no longer have to write my own 3D engines, it’s … pretty easy.
So why am I an exception to the rule? Because I have loved 3D games since childhood, and because I’m pretty familiar with both 3D games and 3D game development. I tend to imagine games in 3D, or at least using 3D technology to make it work. But it’s not a preference based on belief that one technology is superior to another.
I would be happy to work on the right 2D game. It’s my opinion that the mainstream games biz was quite a bit premature jumping on the 3D bandwagon. For a period in the mid 1990s (which hasn’t completely left us), it was “the thing.” 3D showed off the technological advantages of the new consoles. It was new and hot. It was novel. Suddenly, a publisher trying to get approval on a console for a purely 2D game that only looked marginally better than what could have been done on a last-gen console might find themselves facing an uphill battle. So everybody abandoned 2D in pursuit of the new shiny. Bummer.
So for other game developers who aren’t me… why 2D?
1. Familiarity and Lack of Special Skills
First of all – it requires greater know-how. 3D requires additional skills for programmers, and a LOT of additional skills for artists. Making 3D content requires a ton of new technical and artistic skills, not to mention expert knowledge of your tools. Sure, anybody can learn it… but it takes time and practice. So there are simply more people with the skills to put together a 2D game than a 3D game.
2. Ease (and Speed) of Development
Secondly, making a 2D game is generally easier and faster than making a 3D game… marginally or significantly depending upon your approach. There are a few things that I feel are actually easier to do in 3D than 2D, but not enough to really change the equation. There’s no easy, obvious metric to use here – so much is dependent upon the style of game, camera perspective, etc. So I’ll just go with the rule of thumb that 3D games are somewhat harder and more time consuming to make, and leave it at that.
A third reason, brought up by others in the AmA, is that indies tend to make the kinds of games they love. Today’s indies are products of the Nintendo and Sega generations, and the games that inspired them tend to be the classics of those home consoles.
That’s probably why we have such a plethora of 2D platformers right now – that was the dominant genre of the late 80’s and early 90’s when many of these developers were introduced to the medium. Those were the games that fueled their creativity and imagination, and so we’re seeing a new generation of games that are running with those classic concepts.
4. Lack of Mainstream Competition
A fourth reason is that indies tend to gravitate to niches ignored by the mainstream publishers. With the Great 3D Migration of the 1990s, most publishers abandoned 2D technology and 2D game styles. That means no competition from the mainstream developers. That means there’s plenty of room for indies to play, and plenty of demand that might not suit a AAA publisher’s mass-market requirements, but which are perfectly awesome for indies. So, naturally, indies go there.
5. Cheaper Multiplatform Development
There’s a fifth reason, perhaps, and that goes all the way back to technology. Most business-oriented indies soon discover that their best chances lay in not putting their eggs in a single basket… making a game for multiple platforms is king. Right now, the capabilities of these diverse platforms are… let’s just say, “varied.” 2D art can scale a lot easier between the lowest common denominator and more powerful systems than 3D assets usually can. If you don’t have money to burn (and unless you are Mojang, you probably don’t), going 2D is a far cheaper route to releasing a game on the largest number of platforms possible.
So there you have it. Perhaps there are more reasons than this (in fact, I’m sure there are), but I’d wager these broadly cover most of the reasons why 3D indie games are relatively scarce.
UPDATE: Number six
I actually had something like this mixed in with an early edit for #3, but a lot of people have spoken up on this one. Another issue is that I kind of lumped together 3D and what is sometimes called “2.5D” – where 2D gameplay is represented with 3D models but doesn’t really use the 3D space. But that’s a whole ‘nuther topic…
6. Most Game Designs Work Just Fine in 2D
There are a lot of game designs – possibly the majority – which do not need to be represented with 3D graphics. They work just fine in 2D. Most of the time, 2D gameplay can be handled with 3D graphics, but many times that may be an overkill or actually a distraction. Would we really need the gems in Bejeweled to spin and tumble in place as 3D models? It might look cool, but it also might distract the eye and detract from the game. While the AAA games biz is often all about showing off and providing the biggest spectacle for the player’s money, the indie world is about being lean, mean, and fast to market. Just making objects in 3D isn’t enough to wow people anymore… and may really not justify the added cost over using quality 2D art.
Filed Under: Game Development, Indie Evangelism - Comments: 22 Comments to Read