There's no doubt that 3D was the buzzword of CES 2010. Between big announcements like Disney and ESPN 3D TV channels and the slew of monitors and TV sets that support stereoscopic 3D, however, we have to wonder where video games fit in. On the one hand, 3D could be turn into the format war between HD and Blu-Ray where the video games industry can play a part in determining how we handle the 3D experience. Or 3D could be like the classic virtual reality gaming -- complete with space-age headgear and Power Glove-style gauntlets -- that died out for lack of interest (among other things).
In the wake of CES 3D fever, we're left with a situation in the video games industry where hardly anybody -- not the gamers and for the most part, not the developers -- is really gung-ho about 3D games.
Sony seems to stand alone as the one major console-maker/game-publisher that's completely behind the new format. At their CES press conference last Wednesday night, CEO Sir Howard Stringer made much of the new format and of the firmware update to the PlayStation 3 that would bring 3D gaming to the console.
The general reaction of the gamer audience to that statement was apathy. During the press conference's live Ustream feed, the Social Stream was filled with tweets and Facebook status updates all echoing the statement "I don't care about 3D," -- which is what many of you said in the comments when we reported on the firmware update.
The audience for 3D gaming, however, is only half the story. The other half is the talent -- game developers and studios who produce products for the PS3, the Wii and the Xbox 360 that will ultimately be responsible for making or not making games that use 3D.
We spoke with several developers following the barrage of 3D-related announcements out of CES about their feelings on 3D. Some of them already had games in development or on shelves that support it; some of them aren't even considering it as an option any time in the near future. The one point on which all the developers agree is that the price point has to come down before 3D will get anywhere with gamers.
"I think it's like when the first plasma TV's and the first LCD TV's came out when everyone was like it's a cool as heck TV that I can hang on my wall but it's $5000," said Russell Byrd, president of Panic Button games and producer on Wii 3D shooter Attack of the Movies. "The technology that people are going to need to make it really work well is currently at such a high price point that you just are going to get some early adopters but they are going to have to get that technology price down before it gets more mainstream."
Byrd's game was developed for stereoscopic 3D from the very beginning; something he counts as a huge plus from a development perspective. Other studios with games currently in development are going to have to retrofit their graphics to be 3D, which not only decreases the glitzy glamour of the 3D itself, but also puts a huge strain on a game's typical performance rate.
"The biggest problem that people who are doing [3D] as an afterthought as opposed to from the beginning are running into is that you actually have to draw everything out on the screen twice because you have to draw it in two completely different colors," Byrd explained. "So people who are having frame rate problems, if you are not running at 60 frames per second, the second you turn on 3D you are now running at 30 frames per second which is an acceptable frame rate for a game, but that is like the minimum acceptable level. So if you haven't optimized your game to run at 50 fps all the time, you'll never be able to pull off the 3D version because it'll slow it down by about half."
Aside from graphics, though, there's also a game design challenge to integrating 3D into an existing game. Mike Acton, engine director for Insomniac Games, puts it this way: "A developer that wants to support it needs to decide if they're going to retrofit their display to support 3D, in which case there is clearly zero benefit to gameplay since it was designed completely without a 3D display in mind, or design the game, or part of the game, around the 3D display in the first place, potentially disenfranchising players that don't have access to the necessary hardware or peripherals."
Designing games around peripherals is nothing new for the games industry, Acton admitted. He said that from a game-making perspective, factoring in 3D is not all that different than adding a surround sound option for a game or building gameplay around motion controls.
The bar seems lower for PC gaming, where the technology is already there and gamers seem to be interested in it. At CES, Capcom showed off a PC version of Dark Void that uses Nvidia 3D Vision technology (which comes with glasses) to create stereoscopic 3D. Chris Kramer, senior director of communications and community at Capcom USA, said he wished Nvidia were on the 360 and PS3. "Now I want to play every game in 3D," he said.
That's going to be the real challenge for 3D gaming: finding enough consumer demand to drive development. In a CES interview with GamePro's Dave Rudden, Xbox spokesperson Aaron Greenberg said that while the Xbox 360 is 3D compatible, he's not sure there's enough demand to support widespread 3D gaming. "If 3D becomes more popular with consumers, we'll adopt accordingly," he said; but in the meantime, Project Natal is Microsoft's idea of where the future of gaming is at -- a peripheral where you don't need to buy a new TV for it to work.
Console competitor Sony, however, is plowing ahead with plans for 3D. In the Sony press conference, CEO Sir Howard Stringer said, "We intend to take the lead in 3D. Sony is the only company fully immersed in every link of the 3D value chain."
But we have to ask, where are they leading us?
"People that develop new technology always have the same dream: That you can simply drop it in and it will make everything better and that you'll lose nothing," Acton said. "In practice that's never true."
Additional reporting by Dave Rudden and John Davison.