If you haven’t heard, we’re living in a 3D world. At least, that’s the world that a few tech companies want you to inhabit. But as much as I pine for a dimensional gaming experience of my own, it’s hard to justify the purchase of a 3D-anything without at least a glimmer of hope that a market exists to support the technology.
Instead of dreaming about 3D Peggle or the SSV Normandy hyper-jumping its way into my living room, I settled for counting down the days until my new work laptop arrived. You can imagine my delight when a pair of active polarized glasses were included in the new computer swag that made its way to my desk. Truth be told, I have absolutely no business use for a 3D-enabled laptop. But far be it from me to pass up a research opportunity. In the last month, I’ve run through bits of Champions Online, Portal, Mirror’s Edge and Batman: Arkham Asylum to get an approximate idea of the current state of 3D gaming. The verdict?
If you can tolerate it, nothing to really work yourself up over.
Of course, this opinion comes with an arsenal of asterisks, the most obvious being that none of the games I mentioned above were actually designed with the dimension in mind. A number of games certainly support the technology, but implementation is not crafted equally. When it comes down to it, the experience is most like watching a movie which has had 3D added in during post production: You get an interesting glimpse of something now and again, but nothing to really wow you or justify the expense. It’s just kind of there.
Also worth noting is the fact that I don’t usually suffer from motion sickness due to games or 3D films. I’ve never felt nausea while running through a first person shooter. I sat in the fourth row during Avatar with a bag full of popcorn and didn’t hurl. I’m pretty much a prime candidate for 3D anything. Even so, the active shutters can give me a slight headache or cause some noticeable strain on my eyes. I have friends who are very sensitive to video-induced nausea, and they won’t even put the glasses on to look at the tech demos. When the best thing you can say to a potential user is “I haven’t thrown up… yet,” it’s a pretty difficult sell.
The 3D effect gives game textures a decent bump. The folds of a coat or seams of a shirt feel a bit more authentic if they’re done correctly. But if a corner’s been cut, you might be able to more easily pick up on the lack of care. In Batman, I could tell that the Joker’s shirt basically fused itself to the fabric on his pants, which is a bit of a letdown, considering how much care was given to the rest of his ensemble.
So far, it’s been the atmospheric and particle effects that make the technology interesting. Portal’s portal blobs are pretty neat to watch. I stood around for a bit, firing particles in the air and watching them fall. It makes me wonder what kind of little attention-grabbing light shows or environmental effects could be designed for the tech. But if I’m gushing over the fancy embellishments instead of the actual content, you know something’s up.
One of the main drawbacks to the 3D experience is the lack of immersion. This may seem counter-intuitive, but the effect is more like looking at a world through a window or porthole and less the kind of pop-out-at-you intensity you might expect. This may not seem to be such a deal-breaker when sitting in front of a 65-inch television or planted smack dab in the middle of a pseudo IMAX screen, but for a relatively modest laptop, the limits can be pretty obvious. The world is often constrained by the screen. In Mirror’s Edge this kind of works. You look down and you see feet, you run and your arms swing. You don’t have to worry about someone popping up in your line of sight. For Batman, the placement of the camera is directly behind Bats’ shoulder, so a part of him seems cut off at times. I also felt like Robin: Boy Cinematographer for a majority of my playthrough, watching the Dark Knight work, but not especially being a cause of the action.
And let me tell you something: Nothing breaks the simulated sense of dimensionality like a pre-rendered cinematic.
I’m also sad to report that there’s essentially no difference in my ability to judge distances in games. Mirror’s Edge and Portal don’t suddenly become a cakewalk because I can now tell the difference between an in-game meter or three. Jumps don’t become more accurate, ledges don’t become more ledge-y. You may gain a more nuanced geometric appreciation of the land, but you likely won’t get much more.
Also problematic are certain shadows. I’m not sure if this is an error with the rendering engine or a glitch that will get ironed out later, but character shadows are almost universally horrible. I’m not an expert on light sources, but I’m pretty sure that putting my hand in front of my face doesn’t result in dark spots over my left and right profile.
Another unexpected problem has to do with the way our eyes fix themselves to an object of interest. You can scan the horizon, fixate on something a few inches from you or anything in between without too much stress. If I focus on something far away, objects in my foreground tend to become twin images. The strain between looking at action and reading words in the foreground just makes my eyes twitch in paroxysms of confusion. After some research, I found that tweaking the simulated distance can make this problem go away, or at least create less of a disorienting presentation. I came away with the impression that HUDs and information displays need to be seriously reconsidered as design aspects if the game is going to support 3D.
This text problem is pretty novel to me. Because traditional games don’t have to worry about the perception of layers of space, the HUD is essentially flat, with all its information being on the plane of the screen. In a game where one is asked to look at distance, this flat approach becomes obtrusive. In a worst-case scenario, the player is asked to choose whether they are interested in placing their focus on the display or on the game. In Mirror’s Edge, I had to disable the HUD dot that serves to orient the player, as it floated, frustratingly, in my line of sight. Instead of guiding me, the dot served to break the illusion of depth. For Champions this made it difficult to read the names of characters and party members.
In the five years that I’ve owned my television, HD has gone from fringe to mainstream, from a geeky someday standard to something built into our entertainment vocabulary. I’ve definitely got an eye on 3D as a potential addition to the gaming experience, but the question of its longevity (as well as utility) has kept me from making any rash purchases. The 3D laptop is proving to be a valuable learning experience, since nothing I’ve seen has really sold me on the idea. It’s a novelty, more akin to HD-DVD than HD imagery. A gimmick, not a generational leap.
All the gripes add up to a decidedly unenthusiastic opinion of 3D technology today. There’s little benefit to being an early adopter. If you disagree, just try to name a few games built with 3D in mind. If you absolutely must be part of the 3D gaming revolution, you might as well go and pick up a 3DS. You’ll trade portability for a smaller screen, but your investment will also be substantially lower. If you decide the technology just isn’t mature enough (or your eyeballs are too precious to wreck), you can walk away without having a thousand dollar albatross on your neck.