Topic : 2D vs. 3D: Fight of the Century?
Author : Geoff Howland
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2D vs. 3D: Fight of the Century?

By Geoff Howland

For the past few years there have been heated debates about whether 2D has died and 3D now reigns as the only way for video games to be made. If you looked at many the line-ups in development companies, you may very well come to this conclusion. However, the top sales chart seems to disagree with this.

Top 10 Best Sellers for PC Entertainment Software June 1998

1. Starcraft (Blizzard)                                           2D
2. Unreal (GT)                                                     3D
3. Final Fantasy VII (Eidos)                                   3D
4. Deer Hunter (GT)                                             2D
5. Police Quest: SWAT 2 (Cendant)                       2D
6. Rocky Mountain Trophy Hunter (GT)                  2D
7. Cabela's Big Game Hunter (Activision)               2D
8. Diablo (Cendant)                                             2D
9. Myst (Broderbund)                                           2D
10. Titanic: Adventure Out of Time                        2D

The top selling game and 8 out of the top 10 selling games are 2D. What does this say about the theory that 2D games are dead? It certainly says that game buyers apparently haven't heard the news yet.

What is the difference between 2D and 3D?

To understand anything you must know what elements it possesses. An easy way to determine something's elements is to compare it to something else and find out what's different.

2D and 3D are both ways of displaying data to the player. Both are viewed on a 2D screen, the monitor. The difference begins with data storage, to display 2D images the mainstream method is to store all of the data in pre-drawn image files. To display 3D images you store information about an object, such as its vertices or polygons that make up the object.

3D objects can be viewed from any angle on the screen by doing a series of mathematical equations to rotate and scale them. The more vertices or polygons that make up the 3D object, the more equations that must be done. There is additional data storage needed to store 2D images that will be "textured" on to the 3D object to make it look more realistic.

To view an object drawn from a 2D image from more than one angle you must pre-draw the 2D object at the different angle and load it out of a different image file. If you consider that to rotate a human out of 2D image files will take at least 8 different angles worth of image files you can see that these will begin to add up. Especially when you normally want to animate the objects as well, this can be many times more than an object saved in a 3D format.

Judging just from the data files and how they can be displayed, immediately the difference that 3D holds more flexibility in drawing images can be determined.

3D is very flexible in three very important ways. The first way is the way in which the player sees the world presented. 3D games can draw the world at any angle and can have the player walk in any increment of steps they choose. Obviously, this can not be done from 2D images alone as there can be millions of possibilities in just a small area. Games such as Quake have shown the possibilities of drawing environments where you can move anywhere.

The second way that 3D's flexibility can be seen is also demonstrated by Quake, in the animation of 3D objects. To animate 2D objects in such a way would be very limiting in the angles they could be viewed from and the space for storing all of the animations could grow quite prohibitively. 3D animations also have the ability to be done on the fly. 3D objects can be given rules for deformation or movement that allow possibilities for being drawn that were not inherently programmed in to the game. This freedom is a major advantage over 2D games but has not been used very much in games currently.

The third way that 3D is flexible over 2D games is that objects can be created very simply by using mathematical equations or by placing primitive objects together to create new objects on the fly. This is the direct opposite from the way 2D works, however this advantage of 3D has never been used during the gameplay of any game that I am aware of. Game editors allow this in creating new levels or items but it has never been implemented in gameplay as of yet. Look out for this in the future though as it holds a lot of possibilities, most easily visualized in worlds such as 3D MUD's (Multi-User Dungeons).