Why do I make 2D games? Is it because its’s easier? or because it’s the best format for the games I make? It’s the latter and here is why.

For games that involve strategy, humans naturally think in 2D. We exist in a 3D world, but strategically, we operate in 2D. We think about our environment generally on a 2D plane.  We navigate from point to point using 2D maps. Computer operating systems work almost entirely using 2D metaphors (Have you EVER used the flip3D feature in windows vista?).

I don’t think this is surprising. We are descended from apes (creationists stop reading now), whose predators attacked us on land, not from below or above. We spend the vast majority of our time on the same level as those around us. Even if we work in multi-storey buildings, we think of each floor as a seperate 2D space. Unless you are a submarine captain or fighter pilot, your concept of 3D space is probably hugely limited. I’m sure alien worlds with super-intelligent fish and birds are natural 3D strategy gamers, but not us.

And yet some strategy games still try and force us to play them in 3D. Thankfully, most game designers have finally realised that *true* 3D is generally more trouble than it’s worth. For every gamer who embraced Descent or Homeworld as the greatest thing ever, there were hundreds who found it thoroughly confusing. It might make for great screenshots, but not for great gameplay, at least not for everyone.

Sins of a Solar Empire and Company of Heroes are great examples of games whose makers realise that 3D makes for great trailers and box shots, but lousy gaming. Company of Heroes actually restricts the camera into a pseudo-isometric fixed view, allowing you to zoom in for no adequately explored reason other than to take screenshots to show off your graphics card. Every single player of the game plays at maximum zoom, because thats the only way to have any concept of what is going on. Spinning the camera around 360 may make for great GDC trailers, but its entirely unsuitable for actually controlling an army. People lose orientation very easily. Being able to spin the world around you is great in theory. In practice, you just forget which direction is which. (If spinning the map made so much sense, army commanders would have had circular map tables :D)

3D isn’t new or exciting in 2009, It’s just another option in the toolkit. Game designers need to get over the 3D obsession and make more considered design decisions. Some genres work great in 3D, some don’t. Large scale battles work best in 2D and probably will right up until we are all commuting to work in flying cars.

Long live the future of 2D strategy games.

18 Responses to “We naturally prefer 2D (unlike alien fish)”

  1. Colm says:

    A very nice theory – I would have to agree.

  2. […] wo wir schon by State-of-the-Art 3d Engines sind: hier eine Ode von Cliff Harris an 2d Spiele. Lesenswert. Tags » Autor: Dirk Datum: Montag, 26. Januar 2009 11:13 Trackback: […]

  3. I generally agree. It’s a silly knee-jerk reaction to use 3D. There are hardly any games out there that really need it.

    However, a polgon-based 3d engine has some advantages over sprite-based 2D engines. For example, you can do more fluid, dynamic and less memory-intensive animations.

  4. i fully agree. i love a lot of 2D games more than anything 3D. and the 3D games i favor are in some way “plastic” 2D. and it gave me hope as an indie developer, that 2D was still a viable option to realize a game – it saves tremendous amounts of time.

  5. chrizo says:

    Hmm, you almost convinced me there… but I guess its just the way you wrote it. :)

    As it happens, the world we live in can be readily expressed in terms of our concept of 3d. Even though we live on a seemingly flat surface, we actually dont…. Everything makes more sense in 3d. If i cant get around the obstacle, I can go over it, or go under it.

    Its true that some games are best played in 2d like the up coming games, Starcraft 2 and Diablo 3. Both are using 3d engines but the devs decided to cap the camera angles. If its well within the power of the engine to play this game in 3d, everyone (even bethsedia once) asks them why? I guess its because its less frustrating to play the game this way than when you constantly wrestle with the camera.

    There you go, the problem with 3d games is actually your input/output devices, the mouse and keyboard and your monitor are more suitable for tasks that are in 2 dimensions rather than 3.

  6. Karl Katzke says:

    Great. Now will game designers stop making graphics eye candy games and start making some really good 2d strategy games like Total Annihilation that focus on gameplay instead of on eyecandy, role-playing, and poorly thought out network interactions…. !

    I disagree with others that said the problem is the input devices; you can easily control things in 3d by adding one more axis/dimension such as a throttle control or collective (helicopter-style) with the left hand. The problem is that most people are not used to thinking in 3d. Set your average gamer down at the controls of your average 3d design program like Blender and watch them struggle to grasp the concepts of stretching and manipulating points in 3d. It takes some people up to a month. On the other hand, set people who are used to designing and visualizing 3d shapes like carpenters and sewers ARE used to 3d shapes moving in 3d space and don’t find 2d games to be entertaining.

  7. anon says:

    Wait. Descent and Homeworld are my favorite games. Do you advocate nobody creates fabulous games like that anymore? Welcome to the console-dumb-down-world.

  8. Moose says:

    When you talk about military maps, I think of those big tables in the movies surrounded by uniformed totty pushing model planes around with snooker cue rests. Those are 3D, and set up in such a way that people can walk 360 around them.
    American aircraft carriers carry volumetric 3D displays so that they can visualise the surrounding space and look at it from any angle.
    Moving your head is an incredibly useful thing to be able to do when trying to take in a physical situation.

  9. cliffski says:

    Yeahbut the american military is obsessed with using the most complex tech possible for no real reason. It doesnt explain why they are beaten by low tech methods even in their own wargames
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Millennium_Challenge_2002
    People assume 3d is the best way to visualise a situation, but it’s not natural for everyone. For fighter pilots yes, and maybe for ships that can be attacked from above and below.
    I prefer the 2D uniformed totty to tom cruise waving his arms around anyway

  10. cliffski says:

    …. deleted two comments from some kiddie who thought calling me four letter words and slagging off my hat was the best way to make his point that ‘I am a shit programmer that can’t do 3d’. Clearly I’m a shit coder which is why I stack shelves for a living. hold on…

    Sad really isn’t it?

    Maybe I got one of his torrents deleted or his warez forum closed, and he wants to throw his (stolen) toys out of his pram :D
    AND BTW I say I’m from England because I *Am* from England. I don’t need lectures from some anonymous troll on how to pronounce the country I was born in.

  11. spen says:

    Yeah but why call it England when most people call it UK or Britain, as I rightly said you’re sucking America’s cock with your “LONDON ENGLAND” style.

    Now then, back to my point, you are shit, you can’t do 3D, that’s why you had to delete my comments. You were so furious and upset by them they had to go.

    The truth hurts. Now where was I?

    Oh yeah, you’re going to get all your future shit cracked and spread.

    Whenever find any of your shit publically available and not free of charge I will happily join any efforts to free it from it’s shackles and set it loose.

    As for kiddie, like all arrogant programmers you enjoy the word kiddie (inventing your own put-downs is too difficult especially for someone who struggles so much with 3D) so you copy from your peers (shame you can’t copy their 3D knowledge which as we’ve discussed – your Achilles heel lol).

    Anyway if you ever release anything commericial I’m going to be at the forefront of making sure everyone’s got it free. Hooray!

  12. spen says:

    Also, why are you using the Neopolitan font?

    The most tired, exhausted overused font online?

    Is it because local brothels, car-washes and supermarkets have started using it for their logos because it conveys a vague sense of “future now” ?

    Wow how future of you Cliffski, you’re…..space age! Wait a minute, wasn’t that something we said in the 80’s to sound cool? Suits you then Cliff.

  13. spen says:

    Help me, I can’t code 3D, I’m a big 2D wuss who can’t cut it and cannot compete!

    Please help! Please buy my argument that 2D is the new 3D !

    Please don’t see through my shallow attempt to convince you all the 3D is a passing fad!

    Please believe me, without your belief that I am a hip indie developer who photographs himself in color and then desaturates into moody black and white I am going nowhere and that scares me.

    Please believe that my failure to compete in a 3D market is born out of my eccentricity and brilliance and not my lack of talent.

    Please believe Cliffski I beg you!

  14. Stephen says:

    Spen,

    UK/Britain = England/Wales/Scotland. If your from England, you say your from England. We don’t go round saying that “I’m from Britain”!

    Furthermore, what has been your contribution to this world so far? I’m guessing you have the 3D engine guys quaking in their boots with your vastly superior engine ready to rumble?

    Come on – get over yourself dude.

  15. Tyler says:

    I respect your argument, but I disagree. Some games are better suited for 2D, but I just cant see myself playing games like the Half Life series in 2D. The suspense and immersion goes way down when your looking at 2D sprites and not 3D models.

    On the other hand, strategy games are usually best suited for 2D.

    In my opinion 3D games can do things 2D games can’t, and the developer just has to choose which one will suit the game best.

  16. cliffski says:

    I agree. Half life is best in 3D. The thing is, spyhunter, gauntlet and platform games are best in 2D, but some people in the industry still try to force everything into the 3D format.
    Its the assumption that 3D is retro that bugs me. Shaders and clever lighting could be used in a 2D perspective, but nobody tries :(
    Thankfully games like world of goo show there can still be serious innovation in 2D

  17. Paul says:

    So, you’re using the “Khaaaaan” theorem then? ;)

    I remember all the new games coming out (on the C64 amongst others) which introduced a moving background to give a parallax effect and thus “simulate” 3D. We have two eyes specifically for depth perception, after all. The main argument for 2D strategy games is that the Earth’s surface is to all intents and purposes, flat, and our brains would need to adapt to 3D. My response is that if we did play more 3D strategies and suchlike, then perhaps the flying car I was promised as a child might actually happen…

  18. Damocles says:

    There is a diffrence between
    “A 3D game”
    and
    “a 3D gameworld”

    Having a 2D gameworld (like in most RTS) does not mean that
    it cant be rendered in a 3D engine.

    The meaning is, that as long as you dont just control a single character
    (like in an FPS or Flight-sim) its hard to imagine all of your units
    in a 3 dimensional space.
    So I agree that an RTS / Strategy game should be in a 2D gameworld.

    I played Homeworld, and also found it hard to grasp what is actually where.

    A rotating cam sould be an option, but the static angle the default.

    I worked on a big RTS before, and the company decided to
    limit the “zoomout” quite a lot, for the whole purpose that
    the players should see “all the details we put into the artwork”.
    This was a stupid choice, as it was hard to grasp what was going on on the map.
    And having the option to see the fingernail of the units does not help
    me when 50 Enemies are about to attack from an unknown position.