E3: 3D Retrospective
We live in a 3D world. This may sound obvious, but to us humans, it’s quite beyond moment-by-moment comprehension. Our eyes see the world as two upside-down images placed side-by-side, but through the miracle of the human brain, we are treated to a vibrant, latency-free, full-resolution, dimensionally accurate view of the world around us. Then again, nature had millions of years to get it right. Maybe in the first generation of great apes, everyone trounced around wearing goofy polarizing glasses. Such questions may never be answered. However, we are now witnessing the birth of virtual 3D, and the question remains: how does it compare to the competition, millions of years in the making?
Currently, we are treated with two technologies, 3DTV, and the Nintendo 3DS. The former allows for 3D movies such as Avatar to be watched in the living room, with the aid of 3D glasses. Now, Sony has announced that to augment their new line of 3DTV’s, the PS3 will also be supporting new 3D games through a firmware update. This doesn’t mean that the PS3 itself will be transposing the 2D code into the 3D equivalent; games have to be developed in 3D to be viewed in this way. Of course, this assumes you have said 3DTV and goofy glasses, which distinctly limits the current potential audience of this product. It seems Sony is betting the family fortune that 3D technology is the next big mainstream hit, and that people will flock to the nearest Best Buy to replace their year-old HDTV with its 3D counterpart. Ah, what a wonderful world we live in.
The games currently available in 3D include Killzone 3, Motorstorm, and Final Fantasy XIV. Of course, being that these are the first generation of games, and are considered “Pre-Alpha”, we can expect the quality to improve as the technology matures. All of these games suffer from a dimming effect, caused by the game only displaying about half the brightness to each eye. To accomplish the 3D effect, the framerate has to be doubled, which currently means resolution down-scaling. As you can imagine, the overall loss of quality is tangible. That said, the 3D experience is distinctly fresh and adds to the overall experience. Particularly for Killzone 3, there was an added sense of urgency and spatial awareness that is lacking in its 2D counterpart. First-person shooters attempt to reproduce depth with blurring effects, so 3D can be thought of as the next iteration of this. However this brings up the biggest issue I have with 3D gaming, which separates it from 3D movies: as a player, it is natural to try to focus one’s eyes on a specific plane of depth, or object in the world. However, the game naturally creates blur and depth effects based on what the character in the game is looking at. So if you want to look at something in the game, you must not only focus on it with your eyes, but also aim the reticule at that object. This may sound like a small annoyance, but it addresses a larger problem about 3D.
The problem is that 3D is merely creating an illusion of depth. You cannot move your head and see another angle; you are still limited to what the screen is showing at a given moment, which is exactly what it would have shown in 2D, but with some visual augmentation. Your brain is fooled into thinking it has the power to focus on any object or peek around obstacles, but in fact you have the exact same gameplay options as with its 2D counterpart. The illusion is fun, and adds to immersion, and there’s nothing wrong with it. However, when heralded as a brand spankin’ new gameplay experience, it’s being painfully misrepresented.
Despite the lack of glasses, the Nintendo 3DS technology suffers from the exact same problem. In fact, the problem is worse with the 3DS, because when you try to move your head intuitively, the screen often ripples in a way that’s hard to describe but painful to look at. I may be biased in my experience with the 3DS because my eyes are particularly sensitive, but I was not thrilled with Nintendo’s foray into the third dimension. I got to check out the Kid Icarus: Uprising, Animal Crossing, Steel Diver, Samurai Warriors, and Mario Kart. Kid Icarus and Mario Kart were both just watchable gameplay demos, and as such didn’t really give me a very strong idea of how it might feel to play. Mario Kart did have a neat feature which allowed the camera to be rotated around during the demo, allowing the 3D to pop nicely. The console has a 3D Depth Slider which allows the user to control the amount of 3D in real time. This is neat as it allows one to see how the 3D effect is created. If done quickly, however, it poses the risk of shattering one’s corneas, which happened to me on a few occasions.
Overall, the 3D was rather underwhelming. Depth is definitely created, and the lack of glasses is great, but in no way did I feel like my experience was improved watching any of these games in 3D. In fact, I would probably opt to play a few of them in 2D if given the choice, as it is less distracting to my eyes. The graphics on all of these games were quite bland, which may be more indicative of the DS technology than the 3D. That said, when bland graphics are commuted to 3D, the effect is just not very engaging.
Watching Final Fantasy XIV on 3 side-by-side wide screen 3DTV’s, on the other hand, was quite engaging. Even though there were quite a few visual distractions, the feeling of depth while exploring a deep cave was far more interesting to me than anything I could experience on a handheld. Detracting from this experience is the way that objects closest to the camera appear very large, and yet are cut off by the edges of the screen. This creates an effect in which there are often strange blurry chunks of things floating in the player’s peripheral vision.
Overall, 3D has a long way to go, but I do believe that it’s here to stay. Avatar proved that beautiful, widely-appreciated 3D is possible, and as with any leap in technology, the rest of the industry is playing catch-up. With all their technological resources, it’s hard to imagine that at least Sony, if not Microsoft and Nintendo, will soon make 3D games on par with their cinematic counterparts. As of right now, due to pricing and quality of experience, I would personally avoid 3D gaming. However, I hope that developers find ways to take advantage of 3D in such a way that actually augments the user experience. If this happens, then I won’t be surprised when 3D gaming becomes the new status quo.