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.