Development, video games

3-Dimensional pitfalls – Why 3D in casual games is a bad idea

September 2010

Many equate evolution in the game market with a process of constant technological innovation and improvement, but the reality is messier and imperfect. This month I’ll analyse the wisdom of companies planning to use 3D game environments to solve what are seen as the deficiencies of the largely 2D social and other casual games markets.

I remember a phase back in the mid 90s when I received a number of business plans for companies claiming they would revolutionise the internet with 3D web sites, 3D shopping etc. Whilst the technology was interesting, the plans were fundamentally flawed because 3D added nothing of value to end-users and indeed actually made the browsing and shopping experience more cumbersome, complicated and annoying. Over the last year I have experienced déjà vu from a wave of business plans claiming companies will revolutionise social network gaming and other forms of casual gaming with 3D technology and “advanced” 3D games. Whilst not as hopeless a concept as 3D e-commerce, the business plans all fail in my eyes because they are predicated on the erroneous belief that all games markets are destined to evolve towards high end gaming experiences, growing ever more sophisticated and technologically advanced.

This is a belief that is held almost exclusively by life-long hard-core developers who have witnessed what they believe is an inevitable evolutionary process in the hard-core console, handheld and PC games habitats. “Just imagine Farmville, but with a proper games engine, decent graphics and experienced games designers” is the sort of refrain I have heard old-school games developers say on more than one occasion. Likewise for Club Penguin whose basic 2D world was sneered at for its 8bit production values and casual download games such as Diner Dash and Cake Mania, never regarded as “real” games by hard-core games developers due to their 2D VGA resolution graphics and simplistic designs. Such critics are completely missing the point. These games neither need, nor do their players want, sophisticated 3D graphics.

Over the last ten years, the casual PC download market has spawned dozens of companies with turnovers in the tens of millions of dollars and around half a dozen with sales over $100m such as Real Arcade and Big Fish Games. Despite the vast sums generated by this market, a comparison between today’s best selling games with those of a decade ago would reveal only modest increases in gameplay depth and little more than minor cosmetic and functional user interface improvements. This is a market that is populated by older players in their 30s and above, mainly women. For them, cute, clean and intuitive interfaces combined with fun gameplay are paramount. 99% of the best-sellers, as a result, remain to this day 2D and low-res. Developers have tried (and continue to try) 3D titles but these, with only a tiny number of exceptions, flop. Not only do they cost more to develop but they sell in significantly lower numbers compared to 2D titles. I would wager that this status quo will still be the case in another decade.

Several large-scale surveys of social network gamers this year have quantified what the leading companies in the space have been saying anecdotally for the last 18 months, that the core of the social network games market also comprises older, female players. One survey put the typical social network gamer at 43 and female. Just as we’ve found in casual download games, these gamers have little interest in 3D, especially if playing a 3D game necessitates a plug-in or application installation. There is not a single 3D Facebook title in the top 50 games and none of the leading developers have 3D titles. This is not because there has not been a supply of them; dozens of Unity or other 3D-engine powered games have been released on social networks. It is simply because 2D and (isometric) 2.5D are perfectly sufficient. I am not suggesting that there will never be demand for them (we believe that the younger and male gamer demographic is seriously under-served by social network games developers – but that is for another article), only that trying to tempt players away from cash cows such as Frontierville using 3D is a fast-track to failure.

The other major demographic that is not subject to graphical arms races is young children. One of the first children’s virtual worlds was Disney’s Toontown, a cartoon massively multi-player 3D environment aimed at children under 10. Despite great fanfare during its early years, Toontown was eclipsed by a later title, Club Penguin, that eschewed 3D for the most basic of 2D worlds developed with a production budget a fraction of that of Toontown. Club Penguin triumphed because, not in spite, of its simplicity. Post mortems of failed 3D virtual worlds targeting this age group have repeatedly revealed how young children are easily confused locating objects in and navigating around 3D environments; problems not faced by the 2D/2.5D environments popular with leading children’s virtual worlds.

So, the next time you look at a successful 2D or 2.5D game and think, I can improve this with proper 3D, take a close look at the game’s user base and ask yourself whether their players actually want such a game. You may well have the skills and technology to do cool-looking 3D but that is not sufficient rationale for making it and could lead to a painful lesson in Darwinian evolution. If you want to make a game for the mass casual audience, invest instead in creating something that is simple and fun. And 2D.

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