Prepping the 3D Audience

Nintendo’s slow sales announcement is a clarion call, not a death knell, for publishers and developers to better persuade the industry and consumers of the opportunities that 3D gaming has to offer.

While Nintendo’s 3DS launched with a great deal of fanfare and excitement, recently announced sales figures reflect a fading enthusiasm for 3D gaming. While 3.61 million units is nothing to laugh at, the number falls a good deal short of Nintendo and Iwata’s four million sales goal. Although gamers are not inundating retailers to snag the 3D gadget, the future of 3D entertainment is assured. Nintendo’s slow sales announcement is a clarion call, not a death knell, for publishers and developers to better persuade the industry and consumers of the opportunities that 3D gaming has to offer.

As early a few years ago, 3D held no secure place in the film industry. Some live action major motion pictures featured portions of their films upconverted to 3D, but most of its use remained within niche animated films. The first time I that actually enjoyed 3D effects was during Coraline in 2009. For some time, many considered the revival of 3D a temporary fad, a gimmicky last-ditch effort from the movie industry to boost theatre revenue by charging a few dollars more per film. Now few can deny the permanence of 3D film making. Whether you find Transformers: Dark of the Moon palatable in 3D or not, the technology is here to stay.

If the 3D film market is doing relatively well for itself, why is the 3D gaming market still so vacuous? One obstacle immediately comes to mind: 3D technology is still expensive. The Nintendo 3DS will cost you a hefty $250, a remarkable price considering a PS3 or Xbox 360 will cost you only slightly more. If you are interested in 3D televisions, a high-quality 3D home theatre system could cost well over $4000. However, like most electronics, these prices are temporary. Television prices are plummeting, and the cost of 3D technology along with it. You can find a lower end 3D TV for less than $1000 and come the holiday season, 3D home viewing will become even more consumer-friendly. Similarly, most computer producers have launched 3D ready laptops with prices also on the decline.

With increasing advances in 3D technology, the growth of the 3D gaming market depends on publishers building a sense of trust and excitement with developers and gamers. According to Nintendo President Satoru Iwata, looking to excuse his companies less-than-stellar sales figures, “There is no easy road to making people understand the attraction of glassless 3D images and making Nintendo 3DS widespread” (Nathan Brown, “Iwata admits 3D Sales Dissapointment”, Edge, 27 April 2011). The allure of glassless 3D is obvious. The necessity of wearing glasses remains one of the biggest obstacles to the enjoyment of 3D visuals. Eyewear, particularly those used in movie theatres, can be uncomfortable and annoying. They may also darken a movie going experience, something games can overcome by allowing players to increase brightness manually.

3D gaming’s biggest obstacle is not ignorant consumers but a lack of game marvels and designer spokespeople. The film industry owes 3D’s success in no small part to James Cameron and Avatar. This movie’s inane story aside, its visual effects were deservedly praised. Since its release, Cameron has been a vocal supporter and innovator of 3D technology. His excitement is infectious and his financial influence enormous.

Martin Scorsese’s as-yet-unreleased film Hugo also represents an important contribution to the 3D market, whether or not it becomes a commercial success. Such a recognizable name and undoubtedly accomplished director fervently attaching himself to a 3D project bestows more than credibility, it reflects a willingness by talented artists to play with and to innovate with 3D film making. In an interview with The Guardian, Scorsese describes the process as follows: “Every shot is rethinking cinema, rethinking narrative -- how to tell a story with a picture. Now I’m not saying we have to keep throwing javelins at the camera, I’m not saying we use it as a gimmick, but it’s liberating. It’s literally a Rubik’s Cube every time you go out to design a shot, and work out a camera move, or a crane move. But it has a beauty to it also” (Mark Kermode, “Martin Scorsese: '3D is liberating. Every shot is rethinking cinema’”, The Guardian, 21 November 2010).

The 3D gaming industry needs spokespeople as passionate, inquisitive, and respected as Scorsese and Cameron. Microsoft honed in on the need for developers to represent for the Kinect at their E3 press event, which featured several game developer luminaries toting the hardware’s potential. Even with his reservations, Ken Levine’s interest in the technology does a lot to excite interest. As he states, “I try to be honest about struggling with this. I think there's an opportunity. I'm going to try to succeed at it. If I fail, for you, for an individual, that's going to be firewalled off. But if I succeed, give it a shot. Maybe I won't succeed, but for the audience, there's no risk. We've had really interesting discussions.” (Charles Onyett, Bioshock Infinite and Beyond”, Edge, 11 July 2011)

Yes, 3D gaming will thrive or languish based upon the quality of software. Yet before we can know whether 3D can enrich our gaming experiences, designers must keep an open mind and take collective risks. Publishers should be searching for a 3D gaming representative, a game design auteur who can capitalize on the technology's potential and build excitement for the product. With 3D capability hardware becoming increasingly accessible, our 3D gaming future is all but certain. The quality of that 3D future, however, remains to be seen.


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