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Stereoscopic 3D Game Leaders Look Beyond 'Cheap Thrills'

Stereoscopic 3D Game Leaders Look Beyond 'Cheap Thrills'

September 23, 2011 | By Sterling McGarvey

September 23, 2011 | By Sterling McGarvey
More: Console/PC, Design, Business/Marketing

At the 3D Gaming Summit in Hollywood this week, some of the biggest supporters of 3D gaming met to discuss the future of the format. And with all the advancements in the tech, there's still much to learn.

Pal-Kristian Engstad, lead graphics programmer on Naughty Dog's Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception, elaborated on how his studio has incorporated the technology into its upcoming, high-profile PlayStation 3 game.

"The way I see 3D, it's a different kind of experience, it's a closer experience. You can use it to get closer to the player. We use it so that you understand that if you step off a ledge, you might hurt yourself. It's not a sacrifice, it's an additional component to the game in our view."

He also was careful to point out one of the most prominent technological hurdles of stereoscopic 3D game development: "But when you're trying to max out the potential of a console, [keep in mind] you have to render things twice. If you have an engine that can't render as fast, you're going [to suffer] from running twice as much data at once."

Jeremy Nikolai, senior programmer at Ready At Dawn, developer of God of War: Origins Collection for PS3, confirmed a similar development experience to Engstad's. "For God of War: Origins Collection, we had to make some adjustments. The 2D game runs at 60 frames per second in 1080p. But because of the rendering associated with 3D, it runs in 720p at a lower framerate. If we were starting from scratch [instead of adapting the PSP games to home console], it would've been different."

Cheap Thrills Or Smart Implementation?

Panel moderator Shane Satterfield with cited lower-brow Hollywood films' use of 3D effects for "cheap thrills." He asked the panel what they felt the difference was between "smart" and "cheap" use of 3D effects in games.

"We were working off a remake, but we think we used it intelligently," said Nikolai. "You have to use it right. We have to be careful about 'window-in violations' and not breaking the fourth wall too much. Everything has to come through the center instead of breaking that dimension from the sidelines," Nikolai said. He also mentioned that the team established a "virtual bubble" to ensure that any flying 3D effects came from within specific areas to enhance gameplay, rather than provide cheap thrills.

Naughty Dog's Engstad elaborated. "We initially just implemented 3D, then all of the designers got really impressed and started thinking of what they could do to make it better. It's paying off now."

"It's important to use the medium appropriately," added Simon Benson, Sony Computer Entertainment Europe's senior development manager for its 3D team. "It's not just video, there's more you can do with it. [At Sony] we start by making sure teams understand the technical boundaries of 3D. It has its own set of rules. It's a high quality video mode, and once you hone the technical boundaries, you then implement creative."

"It's a two-phase process. 3D on PS3 is only 12 months old," he said. "It's still new. We still have 60 games. At this point, people are learning to implement the creative elements now that all of the technical work has been established."

3D's Low Adoption Rates

Moderator Satterfield cited an NPD sales figure that reported that in 2010, only 4 percent of televisions sold in the U.S. were 3D-capable. With a softer market, he shifted the attention away from creative implementation to the challenges facing the 3D market.

What it boils down to is creating content that convinces consumers that investment in 3D is worth it. "For our technology to work in games, [we] must work directly with teams from the outset to design titles that utilize it," noted Guy Matteotti with 3D middleware company TriOviz. His company's tech can be seen in games including Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, Batman: Arkham Asylum Game of the Year Edition and Gears of War 3.

There's also the accessibility factor. Although Nintendo's 3DS launch hasn't been as strong as its handheld predecessor, Satterfield cited it as an important step in bringing 3D gaming to a wider audience. He asked panelists if they thought that glasses-free 3D gaming would be the means for the format to succeed.

Sony's Benson was unsurprisingly skeptical of competitor Nintendo's approach. "People are projecting their issues with other media onto gaming. When you play a game, you're not looking away from the TV like watching a film. Gamers are also more comfy with peripherals compared to the average consumer," he said. "Maybe people could be looking at other ideas in the future, like a headset that gives you both 3D glasses and fully 3D audio to deepen the immersive experience."

David Nalasco, senior technology manager at AMD, pointed out one issue that had been generally overlooked by the panel up to that point: a lack of standardization. "Everyone has their own 'good idea' for 3D gaming, but until there's a standard, the market will be soft. It'll affect users and content creators until there's a uniform standard."

Benson said Sony has taken proactive stances, and the HDMI 1.4 standard has helped automate the process for games. He believes that at this point, "buying the right glasses for the right TV" is a huge issue, but one that Sony is working to resolve.

TriOviz's Nikolai believes that standards will allow the technology to advance, and from that, developers can keep making games so that should glasses-free 3DTV ever arrive, today's games can run on the format.

Importance Of Standardization

Benson believes that with time, 3D will inevitably become standard. "If people just bought an HDTV, they'll be hesitant. But when that TV breaks down, they'll upgrade to a new TV, and it'll likely be 3D-ready. The cost of glasses and standard tech will come down in the next five years. They'll have a vast array of games to enjoy in 3D, because we're establishing the content now."

AMD's Nalasco believes that cost, content and accessibility are key to adoption. "We need to lower the barrier of entry for the consumer...When you bought an HDTV, there wasn't a lot of content. [Consumers] were being asked to buy TVs that made their existing content look worse." he said.

"When you can buy something that looks as good as a 3DTV in HD, people will be interested in your TV because it offers a feature set that is a bonus," he claimed. "Even content that isn't created in 3D can be converted. Having the middleware in place allows them to try games in 3D, even if it's not necessarily as good-looking as games designed natively in 3D. Low-cost solutions like middleware, and driving cost of hardware down will be key."

Naughty Dog's Engstad added, "We're still learning [this new format] but we've already gotten very far and we can already tell people 'hey, look at this in 3D, and you'll see why this is so much better. It's not that hard; a lot of devs can do it. It's here to stay, it'll be great for gaming in general."

Nikolai was more succinct: "I bought a 3D TV after working on God of War. You can't go back."

Ultimately, Benson got the last word in: "People play games for immersion and suspension of disbelief. HD added that extra detail that made games feel more immersive, more real. To quantify what 3D brings in is to say, 'Finally, you see the game world how you see the real world.' It's the biggest sea change in generations of gaming. You'll only go that route if you've experienced it yourself to understand the immersiveness."

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