Games With Depth

Three months ago I, probably like many of you, could not wait for the latest annoying tech fad to fade into the obscurity it so richly seemed to deserve. Part of it is that I have been through this particular fad before, and I recall with clear disdain how silly and short-lived it was the last time. Which is just about exactly how silly and short lived it had been the time before that. And the time before that.

Entertainers have been trying to make 3D work for mainstream audiences in a meaningful way since the early 1950s, and in the intervening decades the 3D fad waxed and waned with the confident regularity of the moon, prune farmers or Robert Downey Jr's career. Every other decade or so each new generation rediscovers the idea and becomes quickly disillusioned with looking like a jackass in a public movie theater.

From the moment I first put on those cardboard glasses back in the dark ages of the eighties with their flimsy one blue and one red lens I knew this was a giant load of nonsense. It was not unlike how I felt the first time I wore an Ocean Pacific shirt, jean jacket or parachute pants, like some shadowy, pop-culture evil trickster was playing an unkind trick on me and my entire generation. So, when at this year's PAX I was handed slightly fancier looking, but no less inconvenient 3D glasses to experience computer gaming in the THIRD DIMENSION, I was entirely prepared to roll my eyes and proclaim the latest attempt just another in a long string of failure.

Tragically and unexpectedly, I loved it.

I didn’t see Avatar in 3D. More specifically, I didn’t see the point of seeing Avatar in 3D, so really my first experience with this latest round of 3D came when my son took me to see Hubble 3D at the IMAX for Father’s Day in June. Spending a day with my son was terrific, but the 3D experience, while kind of cool in a kitschy proved mostly disappointing, like watching a movie starring Jeff Goldblum. The film was just out of focus enough to mar the quality, much of the show emphasized flat 2D images and I still had to deal with making my regular glasses and the theater's cheap, crappy 3D glasses work in tandem.

A few weeks later I sat down at a display in a local Best Buy to watch a clip of some 3D animated kids movie. The glasses were half broken and tethered uncomfortably to the chair, and the cost of the television on which the show was broadcast reminded me of how prohibitively expensive the experience was. Again, my whelm was decidedly undered.

So, to experience 3D again at PAX, under less than ideal conditions with a mass of humanity milling about to all sides, seemed a recipe for disaster. To be honest I wouldn’t have likely even messed with it, except that the NVIDIA 3D area was the only convenient place to play Civilization V, and my desire to play Civ V was matched that day only by my desire to enact legislation prohibiting men from participating in topless cosplay. By the end of my session, I was as enthralled with the 3D technology as I was the actual game.

Being any kind of advocate for 3D gaming is to me like being the cultural cheerleader for Air Supply or Erma Bombeck books. It's not that a case can't be made. I just don't want to be the guy making the case. After all, wearing a pair of heavy, battery-powered glasses any time I want to play a game seems like the stuff of the most annoying nightmares, like trying to enjoy a gourmet dinner at a taping of Two and a Half Men. And, when it comes right down to it, this is just technology that provides a pretty cool, though ultimately meaningless, optical illusion. It’s hard to imagine how playing in 3D will ever actually improve gameplay.

It’s expensive -- $200 for the 3D equipment and at least another $300 for a monitor that can support it. It’s inconsistently good -- different games have different levels of quality to their 3D implementation. It’s annoying -- not only do you have to do your playing with glasses on, but each game will likely require fine tuning. Most importantly, it’s probably nothing more than a passing trend.

And yet, I finally see now as I never had before why people keep coming back to this kind of display gimmick. When it is working as intended, I can not deny that it adds a deeply unexpected layer to the gaming experience. Ultimately, in tune with the very nature of gaming itself, it excels at fooling our brain into believing that this artificial construct in which we play has legitimate depth to it. 3D works because it is a reflection of the world we live in every day, and for an industry where immersion is a major goal, it’s hard to deny the results.

I’m not saying I’m going to rush out and buy a bunch of expensive 3D stuff for my computer. I'm sure as hell not saying you should either. I’m not even saying that we should expect 3D to stick around and become practical in the long run.

What I am saying is this. No platform to date may be better served by or equipped to work with 3D gaming than the PC, and if the technology continues to improve and overcome the expense and convenience barriers, then there is something undeniably appealing here. Those are long odds to beat, and I have no confidence that they ever will be.

The thing is, now that I’ve seen what can be done and what can be experienced, I’m actually cheering the fad on rather than actively petitioning for its demise. That's the thing about fads -- they gain popularity for a reason. The question is whether the fad can evolve into something worth buying into for the long haul. For 3D gaming, that's still somewhere around the bend and over the horizon.

Comments

By the end of my session, I was as enthralled with the 3D technology as I was the actual game. I'm just not sure the glasses make me look as awesome as I actually am.

FTFY?

I checked out a number of different 3D experiences at PAX and must say the inconsistency of experience really stood out for me. CIV5 was fantastic I agree (as was R.U.S.E. for the record) however anytime a game featured rapid movement the effect was very poor for me (Killzone 3 being the most egregious offender for me given that not only did the 3D look choppy but the graphical fidelity took an expected nosedive as well. Here's to Strategy games in 3D and nothing else please.

I have been playing 3D games for over 10 years now. I had bought an Asus video card powered by the NVidia TNT2 back in 2000 and it came with 3D classes that plugged into the video card instead of using IR to get the refresh rate. I do agree that consistancy is lacking today, but as 3D gets more popular I expect the consistancy to get better.

I haven't played Killzone3, yet alone in 3D and while the implmentation my be choppy or blurry, just imagine what it would be like if the technology worked instead of complaining on how bad it is. I know that 3D is currently in the fad state, but I think that this time around it is here to stay. The technology is only going to get better and I expect most naysayers to be cheering on 3D in 2-3 years.

Wow, for the longest time I had read the title of this article as "Games With Death", which worked with the Dr Who image quite nicely, but not so well with the content.

As for 3D, I still believe that it is going to need to be achieved without the use of glasses, certainly for use in televisions. For gaming, where you are sat close to the screen and tend to be focusing on the matter at hand and not distracted by adverts, making dinner, or cups of tea then sure it can work.

kazar wrote:
I have been playing 3D games for over 10 years now. I had bought an Asus video card powered by the NVidia TNT2 back in 2000 and it came with 3D classes that plugged into the video card instead of using IR to get the refresh rate.

Oh man, I remember those!

Did you really play all PC games in 3D?

I don't think i'll ever come around to 3D technology. It does nothing for improving the story, setting or gameplay because it's passive, not interactive. Graphics are already cool and in a 3 dimensional world. Maybe... just for once, we could spend some time improving the parts of the gaming experience that have been lagging behind graphics over the last ten years? I'd like that, rather than them focusing once more on 'improved' graphical goodness.

As for TV and films... i'm still unsure. I've not seen a good 3D movie (including Avatar). I guess that my stance comes down to: "Having extra fizz in the drink doesn't improve it's taste, in fact, quite often it makes it more acidic and less desirable."

I have questions about the physics of 3D:

Do your eyes have to refocus to see things clearly at different simulated distances? I'm guessing not, since it's all still physically on the same plane. This might kill suspension of disbelief, if everything is always just in focus, or if the game dictates to me what is in focus, and what is not, the way games like Uncharted do.

Second, do my eyes need to stay focused on a certain point for the 3D effect to work? Or will it allow me to go cross-eyed to track objects coming out at me from the screen, without everything else going flat or something?

Also

Does it allow for true bifocal vision? For example can a game like Killzone believably simulate holding a gun scope up to my left eye while still allowing me to see the world unscoped with my right eye? And does it allow for so-called 'X-ray' vision, where I can seem to see through things because objects only block one eye, but not the other? I assume this is possible, and I could see this enhancing the FPS experience considerably.

I'm a 3D believer! Seriously, I even like 3D movies, and from what I can tell, that makes me some sort of card-carrying radical. I've never been interested in a DS until I heard about the 3DS, now I'm considering getting one once they're out. Do I need help?

@Mr. Sands: Nice read, as usual.

Chairman_Mao wrote:
I have questions about the physics of 3D:

Do your eyes have to refocus to see things clearly at different simulated distances? I'm guessing not, since it's all still physically on the same plane.

As I did not have a chance yet to experience this myself I can only mention the following: The computer magazine I read had a short article about this recently. Here's my abstract of it as I recall right now:

Apparently the thing is, that your eyes do NOT need to refocus, but your brain tells them to do so. The problem is mostly based around the fact, that with 3D displays, your eyes do not have to focus on the objects they see, but on the display pane. So, if a 3D display makes an object stand "behind" the display, your eyes want to focus further behind as well just like they do in the real world. And then they have to readjust as your brain notices that things get blurry, and your eyes refocus on the display pane to get things sharp again. So what happens, is that your eyes/brain first focus like they are used to, realize that it is not working, and then the eyes adjust. You and up with a status where your eyes are being strained because they focus "wrong", but since you realize that the picture is sharp this way, you keep it this way.

This is a somewhat "unnatural" way of using your eyesight. It gets more and more problematic, when you have 3D scenes which make your eyes wander around a lot, especially on the Z-Axis, as then the aforementioned "refocus" cycle kicks in. This is currently believed to be one of the main problems which gfx-designers have to consider when using 3D.

This also matches what other members have posted above, stating the the "calm" strategy games work well with 3D, and the action games do not. The aforementioned magazine explictly mentioned Wipeout HD 3D as an example for a game that is almost unplayable, because of the constant shifting of your sight between your vehicle, your contenders, and the elements on the track like e.g. the speed pods.

Pop out effects are also very problematic, especially in a living room situation where the screen typically does not embrace your complete "field of sight" (sorry if this is the incorrect term, I don't know the correct english term). In a cinema, there is no "border" or at least it is very far out to the edge of your sight. When you sit in front of your 42" TV those edges are a lot more to the center (at least if you are watching from a reasonable distance). What happens is that pop outs might simply be "cut off" when there 2D-counterparts reach the edge of the screen. This also makes for a somewhat strange impression.

Hope this gives you a better idea of the physics involved.

Can't tell anything founded about your second question, sorry. But my guess would be, that indeed it is possible. You "just" need to render two completely different scenes for the left and right eye.

bye, Michael

Don't think so. The 3DS as a concept sounds way cooler than 3D glasses. I'm also not yet sold on this. It's actually placing another barrier between the person and the game. We already have complicated input mechanisms, and the 3D glasses are awkward, especially to people who already use glasses. 3D by itself? Cool. Having to get yet another device, or 3, to make use of it? Not cool.

Augmented reality. I would love to have simple glasses that placed a context sensitive overlay depending on where I would focus my eyes on. Like looking at my keyboard and seeing all the valid keys available to me in a game, like the hotkeys on a new RTS, or what button does what in a console shooter. Something to facilitate new coming players, without "dumbing down"/streamlining the gameplay. And once you felt you no longer needed them, you could place them aside.

Graphics as the end-all and be-all of gaming isn't really the issue. I agree that more money and effort spent on game-play is far more important (consider Minecraft!!) however... why bash something that will eventually improve if it gets enough support? Where would sci-fi be without hardcore die-hard supporters to help it through the inevitable growing pains?

I don't find 3D adds much to anything at this point. If we keep boycotting it though, the large companies won't invest in developing it; that would be a real shame.

(Did I mention Minecraft?)

Minecraft has a 3D setting. I have a pair of 3D glasses somewhere, I must dig them up and give it a try.

I said elsewhere that PC gaming is one of the few places I can see 3D actually working, interesting to see how it works out.

One problem is that I think the industry is pretty good at establishing depth on the 2D screen, or making games so that it's not important to be precise. If it needs to be used anywhere it's probably third person perspective games with jumping puzzles.

Chairman_Mao wrote:
Do your eyes have to refocus to see things clearly at different simulated distances?

Yes you do and that's one of the main problems with 3D on 2D screen projection. It's not just focusing that's the problem but eye positioning as well. This is most troubling when there is a sharp cut between scenes that have a focal point at a radically different depth.

Chairman_Mao wrote:
Second, do my eyes need to stay focused on a certain point for the 3D effect to work?

No. In fact the content should be forcing you to focus on different points, as they are trying to direct your attention.

Chairman_Mao wrote:
Does it allow for true bifocal vision? ...And does it allow for so-called 'X-ray' vision, where I can seem to see through things because objects only block one eye, but not the other?

Depends on the content creation. If it's true 3D content creation, then all those things are possible. Each eye should have its own content generated, with the proper interocular distance. Allowing for objects in the virtual world to obscure one eye, but not the other.

If it's 3D recreation, based on visuals for one eye and something like a 3D depth map, then the 'x-ray' vision would not really be possible.

barbex wrote:
kazar wrote:
I have been playing 3D games for over 10 years now. I had bought an Asus video card powered by the NVidia TNT2 back in 2000 and it came with 3D classes that plugged into the video card instead of using IR to get the refresh rate.

Oh man, I remember those!

Did you really play all PC games in 3D?

No, it was more inconsistent back then but I would try most games in 3D just to see what it looked like.

Duoae wrote:
I don't think i'll ever come around to 3D technology. It does nothing for improving the story, setting or gameplay because it's passive, not interactive. Graphics are already cool and in a 3 dimensional world.

Thats like saying having a monitor or sound does nothing for improving .... 3D adds one more level of immersion. It makes the games feel more real which is important for story, setting and gameplay IMO.

Duoae wrote:
Maybe... just for once, we could spend some time improving the parts of the gaming experience that have been lagging behind graphics over the last ten years? I'd like that, rather than them focusing once more on 'improved' graphical goodness.

I don't disagree here that too many games have huge flaws that need to be worked on that is more important, but the interesting fact is that most games have to do no work to be 3D. If the game uses opengl or direct3d, it is already 3D ready with no additional dev time required. Most of the issues that 3D games have is with 2D graphics such as the HUD or cross hair. If it isn't drawn properly in 3D space, you would have a hard time focusing on it. Another problem is some developers like to use 2D effects overlayed on the 3D frame and that usually looks horrible in 3D. It is rare but some games do it (L4D for instance uses it for the glow effects on items).

Duoae wrote:
As for TV and films... i'm still unsure. I've not seen a good 3D movie (including Avatar). I guess that my stance comes down to: "Having extra fizz in the drink doesn't improve it's taste, in fact, quite often it makes it more acidic and less desirable."

Maybe you aren't able to see 3D using the glasses properly. I know people that put on 3D glasses and don't see 3D, or see it but not as well defined. I saw Avatar twice and the 3D in that movie was amazing. It didn't distract from the movie but it did help with immersion.

3d is a so so for me. Until it becomes consistent and practical for the price I am not all that interested. It has been on the working bench for such a long time compared to other technologies. And what ever happened to VR. It was the latest and greatest in technologies. Now days it not much further then where it was and you rarely ever hear of it.

Now when Holodecks come out. sh*t son I am all in.

kazar wrote:

Maybe you aren't able to see 3D using the glasses properly. I know people that put on 3D glasses and don't see 3D, or see it but not as well defined. I saw Avatar twice and the 3D in that movie was amazing. It didn't distract from the movie but it did help with immersion.

I just disagree with some of your other points (having text in colour and embossed on paper does not make the story any more engaging.... nor does a game that has worse graphics become less engaging because of them) but maybe you're right about me not being able to process the 3D effect they utilise. I don't know. I have "perfect" vision as far as normal seeing is concerned but 3D in movies just doesn't do anything for me and, although things were 'coming off the screen' in the showing of Avatar i saw, i was not blown away like the two other people i was with.... nor did i think that the film's story and acting were fantastic (as they also did). In fact, i would have been just as happy watching Avatar in 2D and it wouldn't have made it a worse or better film.

The blurry nature of 3D images is quite distracting to me.... along with film-maker's propensity to put pointless things in the foreground at the periphery of the screen. The only instances in real life where that sort of 3D effect happens is when you're tucked up in bed with different parts of the sheets being seen from different perspectives with each eye..... or possibly if you're doing some work in a confined space (like in a PC!) and you've got an annoying wire just by one eye..... or you're spying on someone through the bushes and there's this annoying twig or leaf swaying gently in the wind right next to your face when you're trying to focus on the object of your affection.

Duoae wrote:
I just disagree with some of your other points (having text in colour and embossed on paper does not make the story any more engaging.... nor does a game that has worse graphics become less engaging because of them)

I think this was kind of my point. 3D is just like playing games in color instead of monochrome. Sure, the games made 30 years ago were great, and still are IMO, but that doesn't mean that color games were a waste of time and shouldn't be done. 3D is just the next evolution of gaming technology.

Duoae wrote:
The blurry nature of 3D images is quite distracting to me.... along with film-maker's propensity to put pointless things in the foreground at the periphery of the screen. The only instances in real life where that sort of 3D effect happens is when you're tucked up in bed with different parts of the sheets being seen from different perspectives with each eye..... or possibly if you're doing some work in a confined space (like in a PC!) and you've got an annoying wire just by one eye..... or you're spying on someone through the bushes and there's this annoying twig or leaf swaying gently in the wind right next to your face when you're trying to focus on the object of your affection.

That is what I call gimmicky 3D. When I see something in 3D, I want to see the depth, I don't want things floating in front of my faces. The point of 3D for me is immersion. I want to feel what it is like to be in that world and 3D takes me one step closer. The problem we face with something in the fad state is developers and movie makers like using these gimmicky effects to show off 3D. The reason I liked Avatar is there was very little of this. It is even more rare in gaming because most games so far don't even consider 3D when they make the games. I fear that games will become gimmicky.

kazar wrote:
Duoae wrote:
I just disagree with some of your other points (having text in colour and embossed on paper does not make the story any more engaging.... nor does a game that has worse graphics become less engaging because of them)

I think this was kind of my point. 3D is just like playing games in color instead of monochrome. Sure, the games made 30 years ago were great, and still are IMO, but that doesn't mean that color games were a waste of time and shouldn't be done. 3D is just the next evolution of gaming technology.

I get what you're saying but i think in my analogy you've confused 'old' with 'additional'. An example of this is an indie monochromatic game... or maybe something like Killer7 or that black and white murder gameshow game on the Wii (i forget the name right now). There was such a move to make all games more realistic through the NES-SNES-N64-PS1-PS2-360/PS3 eras with a minority of games eschewing the graphical upgrade with each generation of processing power. What we're seeing now in this second half of the 360/PS3 generation is a move away from chasing pure realism and instead looking at making things look stylistically good.

Neither way of doing things makes the games more or less immersive. In fact, many games are essentially reskins from the PS2 era (and before that on PC). Maybe for some people the ever advancing realism meter is important and 3D is another step in this direction.... but i've been happy with the level of graphics available since the PS2/Xbox/GC and (if we take the Wii as a factor) i think a large portion of the population who never got into the whole graphics arms race because they didn't ever really do gaming do as well.

I just don't see how 3D benefits gaming when the game worlds are already primarily in 3D. You're already navigating a 3D environment and stuffing an extra layer of confusion on top of that just makes it harder to interact with those worlds and that's because our control is not 3D.

Don't you guys think games lose something as the abstraction layers get thinner and thinner? I remember playing Fallout 2 and having the most bad ass images going around inside my head. When I got into Fallout 3, the game sure got a ton more immersive, but I wasn't imagining stuff anymore.

Don't know if it's just me, but my mind tends to fill the gaps left by the game, and so I create a stronger connection with it. 3D, for immersion sake, feels like it takes away another thing for my subconscious to process.

oMonarca wrote:
Don't you guys think games lose something as the abstraction layers get thinner and thinner? I remember playing Fallout 2 and having the most bad ass images going around inside my head. When I got into Fallout 3, the game sure got a ton more immersive, but I wasn't imagining stuff anymore.

Don't know if it's just me, but my mind tends to fill the gaps left by the game, and so I create a stronger connection with it. 3D, for immersion sake, feels like it takes away another thing for my subconscious to process.

Immersion takes more forms than graphics

Crap, I don't know if you agree with me, disagree, or are just adding something extra :S

oMonarca wrote:
Crap, I don't know if you agree with me, disagree, or are just adding something extra :S

He's doing all three at once!

That's hardcore immersion right there then.

I suppose another way of saying it is that to immerse a player, you need to do more than just use the latest tech buzzword of the moment. It's a tool that will likely be valuable to some projects, but it's not a magic wand.

The way I like to think about it is to remember the origin of the word, think of immersing an object in a bowl of water. How can you take someone who has their hands on some controller, staring at a screen, maybe headphones on, maybe in a room with a dozen other things to look at, and presumably with 3D they'll be wearing silly glasses, and get their mind where they are in that world the game has made.

It'll takes more that just something popping out of the screen to do that, but I can see it as a gentle hint to help all the other visual aspects. It seems whenever there's any new technology or technique in games or movies it's initially overused and stands out a mile, it takes a few years usually before developers learn how to use it properly and it becomes a natural part of the game.

I agree with that, but fact of the matter is that 3D has been around for quite some time, and nobody has yet figured how to use it in a way that's either effortless (like color in film), or the experience just can't exist without it (peripherals in the Guitar Hero/Rock Band games).

So far, 3D, like photo-realistic graphics in games, hasn't been much more than eye candy.

barbex wrote:
kazar wrote:
I have been playing 3D games for over 10 years now. I had bought an Asus video card powered by the NVidia TNT2 back in 2000 and it came with 3D classes that plugged into the video card instead of using IR to get the refresh rate.

Oh man, I remember those!

Did you really play all PC games in 3D?

Bah, remember Magic Carpet (1994)? I played it with those cheapo 3D glasses on (red and blue, just like in the IMAX theatre) and loved it. And then my head hurt like hell. It also had this stereoscopic setting, but I was never able to discern anything in it. Still, it was 3D with no hardware acceleration and in 320x200 (or 640x480 if you were a millionaire with this newfangled Pentium processor).

oMonarca wrote:
I agree with that, but fact of the matter is that 3D has been around for quite some time, and nobody has yet figured how to use it in a way that's either effortless (like color in film), or the experience just can't exist without it (peripherals in the Guitar Hero/Rock Band games).

So far, 3D, like photo-realistic graphics in games, hasn't been much more than eye candy.


I agree to an extent, but I think the current push for it is the largest effort I can remember. In terms of adoption I see three real problems, the glasses, the fact that the back catalogue is 2D and the struggle to move development and viewers over. I'd put my money on holograms before 3D on a 2D screen catches on (as in, everyone watching 3D all the time)

I have found that 3D in general when done well (rarely) is incredibly awesome. When done poorly, it gets in the way of what might have been a good experience. This is 3D in general, video games, movies etc..

Sometimes 3D is being added to schlock. Big surprise it does not make schlock better. in fact often it makes it more painful.

i personally am looking forward to more consistency and for technology to make the leap to affordable 3D without the glasses requirement. Being a wearer of regular glasses, the 2nd set of glasses is tough to overcome and where/react with comfortably.

We are used to accepting games as they are and as they have been. Wringing one's hands over the advent of 3D strikes me as similar, as has been mentioned, to complaining about TV adding color. Yes, grandpa, it was perfectly fine before, but that doesn't mean it couldn't be better.