The Next Visual Leap in Gaming

by Nick Dinicola

16 October 2009


A couple weeks ago I wrote that graphics simply can’t get much better, and while I firmly believe that, I also believe that gamers are constantly awaiting some new leap in visuals. It’s something we’ve been conditioned over decades of consoles to expect, and we still expect it now. But if graphics can’t get much better, is a new visual leap is even possible?

In September Resident Evil 5 was released for PC with an interesting new addition: It could be played in 3D, the kind of 3D that has things popping out of the screen, the kind that requires special glasses, a special monitor, and a special video card. LG, Samsung, and Sony have released or plan to release 3D HDTV’s, and Sony has plans to release a patch for the PS3 in 2010 that will allow the system to display 3D games.

There are already a surprising number of games available in 3d on the PC. NVIDA’s GeForce glasses are compatible with DirectX 7, 8, 9, and 10 games, automatically converting the normal 3D to work with the glasses. So this technology is not particularly new, but as usual consoles lag behind, and in this gaming age unless 3D catches on there it won’t catch on at all. So far, the only developer to try and break this new ground has been Sucker Punch, with their game Sly 3 Honor Among Thieves.

Sly 3 uses the now antiquated red/blue 3D glasses to make certain scenes pop out at the viewer. Given the nature of this old technology, it should come no surprise that the change is almost imperceptible at first. The 3D only becomes apparent, and even then only barely, after one starts looking closely at Sly and his position relative to the rest of the level. The effect of the glasses is less “pop” and more like a series of moving 2D images placed on top of each other; you begin to see the level in layers. In the first level the 3D was only obvious when I came to a thin ledge with moving lasers I had to sneak past. The source of the lasers was off-screen, above the camera, which seemed to be just over my head in the real world thanks to “pop” of the 3D. Overall, the 3D didn’t change the experience in any fundamental way, but it did add a new and interesting visual flair to an otherwise typical platformer.

Of course the biggest hurdle facing any implementation of 3D is the skepticism. Is it necessary?

It wasn’t necessary for Sly 3 because it didn’t add anything to the experience. Even if I exaggerate the effects of 3D in my head, I can’t imagine it’d make jumping around any more or less fun than it already was. But I think it could add to the experience of a game like Dead Space: Extraction. In that game enemies must run towards the screen in order to hurt the player. The entire game relies on enemies moving through that third dimension of depth that 3D showcases so well, making such a game the perfect vehicle for the technology. After all, 3D and horror go hand-in-hand since those “boo” moments of something jumping at the screen are only made more shocking if the monster seems to be actually jumping towards the player.

I believe it would add to any game that could exploit this added depth of field: First-person shooters for example, in which there’s always a gun hovering in front of us, and we’re constantly looking down its sights; racing games, where inferring the distance between cars is important, and the details of the cockpit view would stand out just a little bit more; but for a fighting game or any 2.5D game it would only serve as more background eye-candy.

Without going too far down the dangerous road of speculation, I imagine 3D can be very compatible with motion controllers, since it’s easier to move a character in 3D space if you can move the controller in 3D space as well. Combine it with the promised full-body tracking of Microsoft’s Natal, and you could have a truly unique experience unlike anything that has come before. But that’s getting a tad too far ahead of things, and ignores my previous question. Is it necessary?

While I think certain genres would benefit from the added depth the simple answer is no, games will play the same either way. At least motion control changes the way we interact with game, but going 3D only makes them more pretty (or less pretty if you don’t like the new look). Gamers do expect to be wowed visually, and the longer this console generation goes on the less it will wow. So if the next visual leap is not from 3D to 3D, than what will it be? Will there even be a leap? I certainly don’t know, but what I do know is that Sly 3 is fun whether in 3D or not.

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