When Avatar figuratively exploded onto the scene, many of us were taken aback by the re-introduction of decent 3-D effects in film. The exquisitely developed depth, glossy holograms, and delicious visuals quenched our appetites for a new form of visceral experience.
But in the usual, ridiculous overreaction by almost everybody in the media and general populace to what can almost definitely be defined as a fad, 3-D has re-emerged as the buzzword for the early part of this decade. Once again, content producers and hardware makers alike begin to rub their hands together with glee, as rabid tech nerds and people with too much money begin buying TVs in the hope that will will get to play Modern Warfare 2 with slightly more cohesion.
There are two types of product innovation – one that takes something that already exists and improves it, and the that other invents a technology and tries to find uses for it. James Cameron spent ten years developing a camera that could create the film he had wanted to make for years. Samsung and LG developed 3-D televisions because people seemed to like Avatar. Hmm.
Don’t get me wrong, innovation within our industry is integral to its future success and viability. But every 10 years or so the industry constantly finds avenues to push the same useless and expensive technologies (Virtual Reality, anyone?) that provide a very basic and almost frivolous purpose. 3-D is one of them.
The reason I even have an issue with 3-D at all relates to the same reason I have (albeit less) issues with motion control and the absolute obsession with HD graphics; games will cost more, be shorter, and take longer to develop. In the case of 3-D, a game will spend months and millions of dollars in post production to develop an effect that, frankly, gives you a headache after 15 minutes and requires that you stare almost intently at the middle of the screen.
About 6 months ago, before Avatar was released, I had the unfortunate experience of playing the game on a prototype 3-D TV. Headaches aside, it’s a mechanism that requires you to wear glasses and sit in a particular position to get the faint illusion of depth or, in reality, blurry and dark out of focus shapes that are excruciating to watch and even more irritating to play.
What happened to creating games with more intuitive gameplay? When did we start falling back into the leaky boat of stupid gimmicks? Back in the early 90s, Sega went broke creating useless and expensive add-ons to their consoles to provide the illusion of progress, but when people quickly realised that their Sega CD and 32x provided nothing extra besides a hole in their wallet, they started walking away from their products.
“But wait, James!” you might say, sitting forward in your computer chair. “None of the major players are focusing on 3-D right now, aren’t you jumping the gun?”.
I wish I was.
Nintendo recently leaked plans for a 3-D successor to the DS. Sony‘s already started wasting money on creating designer glasses and a new range of Bravias that they want you to pay thousands more to replace your perfectly awesome 50″ LED TV. Microsoft quickly ran out and spruked that the Xbox 360 is “fully capable of providing 3-D”.
It’s inevitable that within the next 3 years, the focus will have left the real innovation of how we genuinely interact with our games, only to be replaced by the ability to see Ekans dance across your screen (OMG ITS LIKE I CAN TOUCH HIM) in the next iteration of Pokemon.
It’s such a shame, too. While indie developers experiment with new, exciting, and inexpensive techniques for immersion by using already refined sound and video techniques, major technological innovators default to old and previously failed tech to squeeze even more money out of you instead of improving or augmenting what is already available.
Let’s take Natal. Natal takes existing technology and augments it at a fraction of the cost that nu-3D is asking. As a result, you’re offered a significantly more immersive experience with the entire body mapped and exploited; your voice and even the direction of your eyes and minute features are taken into account.
Still not convinced? What about the completely unexplored use of binaural recording? Through the exploitation of how your brain decodes sound, you can create virtual channels that make it seem like someone is stalking you from behind or even throwing objects at you from the front.
I’ll just go out and say it, if it hasn’t been clear enough already: 3-D is a fad. Television makers have been waiting for a success like Avatar to quickly seize a bewildered and excitable community with regrettable purchases. But maybe I’m giving the industry too much credit, after so many years of genuine improvements to video and audio clarity, physical interaction, and gameplay mechanics.
3-D is a 60-year-old misdirection on an epic scale from developers and hardware makers to actually innovate. It’s a distraction (like HD) from developing interesting, original and creative gameplay experiences. It’s a gimmick, and a particularly boring and unimaginative one at that. It exists simply – and only – to make money, not advance technology; although it seems everyone is keen to take a big long sip of Snake Oil.
If this monochromatic 3-D is really the future of gaming, I’ll eat my hat. Hell, I’ll even eat a pair of 3-D glasses for dessert, as long as I don’t have to actually use them first.