Friday, 29 January 2010

Editorial: 3D Gaming And Why Gameplay Is Key

Everybody is seemingly talking about the 3D revolution and how it promises to be a completely immersive experience, how it will connect you and the game world together in a way simple 2D projection never could, and of course how amazing it all looks. But aren't we really forgetting something here? The reason we embrace new display technology, and in turn new advancements in graphics, is to surely to capture and create new avenues to explore and play.

Of course, that’s not to say 3D isn’t a largely visual thing. With limits being reached on just how much power can be packed into ever decreasing amounts of silicon, and the likelihood that the next generation of consoles could well be the last to see another extraordinary leap in graphics technology, 3D represents a way forward to take visuals to another level without necessarily increasing the amount of detail on screen as much as with previous generational leaps.

It could also completely enhance most of the games we play with one simple side effect, depth perception. The trick is, is that we need to be careful on how this is implemented, and whether the additional layers actually bring anything meaningful to the table.

Case in point. Games like Super Mario Galaxy or the likes of Uncharted 2 are the ones most likely to benefit from such an upgrade. Especially any title which is either having you making leaps of faith between ledges of precarious distances, or ones which require you to actively find, and exploit areas of surrounding terrain to navigate and scale. In these scenarios, the addition of depth perception created by the 3D effect could by and large help solve the age-old problem of being able to access just how far something is, whether the object you are looking at is an actual functional part of the scenery you can use, or just an impressive feat of bump mapping created to add detail for show.

The game design doesn’t have to change, and by that token I don’t need to see games blatantly making objects obviously jump out at you, directing clearly to an artificially clear-cut path, or simply firing off through the TV screen and in your face, like they trying to replicate Star Trek’s much-fantasised hollodeck.

Ultimately when used correctly, I’d imagine the 3D effect to work as a continuation of our natural stereoscopic vision, creating subtle layers of depth from our living rooms through the TV screen and into the game world. And in that world, the layers are all represented and spaced accordingly to the surrounding objects, by the sizes and distances which govern them. For us gamers if properly implemented, this whole notion of 3D could allows us to approach and judge certain things like we do everyday in the real world, and not like we have to in a current 3D game projected on flat our flat 2D displays. Essentially you can see the sense of scale being used, you can perceive how large something is relative to something else in the game world. It works very similarly to how your vision does in real life.

Take Little Big Planet for example. It’s a game which uses three distinct layers for gameplay, two in the background and one main one in the foreground, which forms the basis of most level layouts. Occasionally it can be difficult to judge which objects in those background layers are just for show between the ones which make up usable platforms for us to travel on. This is especially problematic with some of the homebrew designed creations, which lack both the planning and finesse of the developers own expertly constructed set pieces, but in which depth perception could well help with.

A recent 3D demonstration of LBP showcased to a handful of the videogames media, revealed how Media Molecule have created a distinct level of depth between each plane, and the background only layers used for show, allowing a clean and clear view on which platforms can be tackled on, and which are just there to make up the eye candy.

The same technique is being used to created a real sense of scale in Driving games like Gran Turismo 5, or in the case of Motorstorm Pacific Rift, to allow you gain a better understanding on how fast you are going, your proximity to surrounding objects, and helping you to navigate through the terrain without flying off the edge of that cliff you thought was still 20ft away. A game like Call Of Duty is also another one in which distances and spatial positioning are extremely important, and 3D could make the whole experience clearer for us to perceive, and ultimately allowing us to take an intricate level of mastery even further towards reality. Added depth in every sense of the word.

Arguably it sounds like a trivial matter, but something like depth perception is a fact we take for granted every time we pour a cup of coffee, or attempt to navigate that congested pile-up over by the traffic lights. By having the same advantage in games, we could truly be closer to bringing ourselves completely into the experience, delivering that excessively used immersion factor. Or maybe, to just be able to take things that are natural to us and put them into play in something decidedly unreal.

Granted, some developers may try the quick and easy route of having things fly out of the screen, or explode right in front of your face. But these things become tiresome very fast, and the audience will soon catch on to that fact. In some circumstances having this extreme 3D effect works really well, especially in the case of a grenade exploding right beside you, or debris falling from a dilapidated industrial site. Used in this way, the so called clich├ęd effects can help bring a certain level of immersion previously unseen in standard 2D presentations; certainly when combined with intelligent use of the depth afforded by this new technology. However, being used sparingly is particularly important. These effects only really work when used in context, if the situation actually benefits in a natural and organic way. Displayed in such a manner they should be pretty successful.

The truth is, is that 3D represents both sides of the coin, a visual evolution in the graphical cannon of gaming, as well as the ability for the first time in its history, to take gaming closer to what we consider reality. The first was polygon visuals, the second was 5.1 surround sound, the third was motion control, and now we have 3D bringing depth perception to the table.

The four cornerstones of gaming? Well, we’ll be able to find out later this year when 3D launches along side Natal and Sony’s own motion controller.

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