The evolution of 3D games

11th Jul 2010 | 07:00

The evolution of 3D games

How the third dimension has added more than just depth to your favourite games

A history of 3D gaming

Once upon a time, a handful of pixels madeth the space invader. Graphics were iconic, not representative: a picture on the box or manual showed you what it was meant to look like, and your mind filled in the necessary gaps.

Nobody could have predicted that in just 20 years, we'd be immersing ourselves in realistic living cities, flying over gorgeous tropical islands and going head-to-head with astoundingly rendered characters – and not even being particularly impressed.

But in years to come, modern games like Grand Theft Auto IV and Crysis will look just as dated as the classics we remember from the days of yore. In fact, they'll probably look more so: while the simplicity of a retro game's look has a certain charm to it, old 3D titles tend to flat-out look old. Try almost any hit game of the mid-to-late '90s for proof of that.

3D is about more than just pretty graphics. Done right, it makes gameworlds come alive. A 2D sprite can only do what it's been drawn to do, while a 3D character has a complete endoskeleton and can respond naturally (at least in theory) to anything that happens – the classic example being 'ragdolls', where a fallen enemy doesn't simply slump to the ground in a canned animation, but tumbles off the railing and lands with one arm draped over a step.

You can create worlds rather than merely levels, unlocking the player's ability to truly explore and experience the world as the character would. You can build simulations ready to be poked and prodded, abused and enjoyed. It's phenomenally powerful, to the point that many nominally 2D games are now really 3D ones viewed from a locked perspective, so that they can better use the possibilities of animation, physics and art assets.

Why render hundreds of frames of animation you may not be happy with when you can make a model and keep tweaking it until it's perfect? You may lose some of the old-school charm, but you gain far more.

Battlezone

The first big 3D success was Battlezone, a tank game released in 1980 that used vector graphics to create its work, much like Asteroids. While a simple game by modern standards, it was fiendishly complex for such an early example, offering the ability to go anywhere in an (admittedly featureless) world, hide from attacks and fight enemies.

Battlezone

TANK WARFARE:Battlezone was thought so realistic that the US Army used it to train tank gunners

Not impressive enough? In 1987, the first Freescape game, Driller, hit the shelves. It offered a full 3D world on platforms as basic as the Spectrum, and was an actual game rather than just a tech demo. Next to that, it didn't matter that it was ugly, the frame-rate was abysmal and the game itself wasn't actually much fun – it got lots of attention.

The Freescape engine in its various forms was used in several famous releases, including Castle Master and its sequel, and the all-out 3D Construction Kit. Legend has it that someone somewhere once made something other than a surreal, unplayable mess in this, but we never saw it.

Freescape also made it onto TV, in the form of the absolutely atrocious Craig Charles vehicle Cyberzone, one of the most toe-curling attempts at creating a games-related TV show ever. Thankfully, all that remains of it is a single YouTube clip – and that's painful enough.

Most of the early 3D games stuck to simpler technologies. These days, we think of 3D as free-roaming, real-time engines, but back in the day, simply getting a game to look 3D was impressive.

As early as 1981, games were achieving this feat – 3D Monster Maze was terrifying a generation with its slowly updating screens and roaming T-Rex, and the first Ultima game was offering a very advanced hybrid of block-by-block movement 3D graphics for its dark dungeons alongside a topdown 2D overworld for exploration.

Interestingly, while most developers kept pushing further towards 3D, Ultima ended up pulling back, switching entirely to a top-down sprite-based system for the series' glory days. The 3D element later developed into its own spin-off – the Ultima Underworld games – before returning for the series' sadly disappointing final outing – the buggy, system-murdering Ultima IX: Ascension.

Faking it

The problem has always been the same: the potential of 3D fights with the limitations of current systems, whether it's simply displaying the graphics in the first place or making them look as good as other art styles.

Going back to an early '90s 3D game now is almost painful. Flat faces, non-moving lips during conversations, stick-figure character models, smeary textures and appalling animation... the list of problems goes on.

Some games got past this, sometimes bizarrely – most obviously Core Design's legendary heroine Lara Croft, who managed to become an international sex symbol despite looking like a pointy-chested Pinocchio. Most survived simply because playing a 3D game felt futuristic, even if the lack of polygons our PCs could push out meant that 2D games were usually much more detailed.

Lara croft

TOMB RAIDER:The realism of the, ahem, gameworld has certainly come on

For much of 3D's history, the trick has been getting the effect of the third dimension without having to do it for real. The early Wing Commander games gave the illusion that you were flying through 3D space, but really they were just scaling sprites up and down.

In first-person shooters, it quickly became clear that walls were easy thanks to their incredibly simple geometry, but snarling hell-beasts dripping blood from their fangs were asking a bit too much. So developers compromised.

The worlds themselves were made in 3D, initially just as mazes. Then, as texturing became more advanced, more realistic-looking areas were created, like those in Catacomb 3D.

Interestingly, the state of the art varied dramatically across genres. Shooters had to be fast and fluid, so they were kept simple. In the case of early games like Core Design's Corporation, things were stripped down so much that the engine didn't even bother with textures.

Id's first breakout hit – Wolfenstein 3D in 1992 – had textures to depict the inside of its supposed Nazi castle stronghold, but all the maps were completely flat and the interaction was limited to just opening doors and shooting enemies. Ultima Underworld, which came out in the same year, had sloped surfaces, advanced lighting effects, dialogue, puzzles, magic systems, physics, 3D objects, a real plot, the ability to look up and down instead of having your view locked straight ahead and much more.

Ultima underworld

TRADE-OFF:For the Ultima Underworld games, the payoff for this level of 3D quality was poor performance and a small viewing window

Ultima Underworld could afford to push these limits because as a role-playing game, it was inherently slower than a shooter, and the audience was more willing to accept the necessary limitations, like the small viewing window. It didn't hurt that while publisher Origin's official motto was 'We Create Worlds', its unofficial credo was 'Your PC Will Cry'. It never did worry about system requirements...

Two and a half dimensions

For performance and sales reasons, most games were stuck in what was dubbed 2.5D until the launch of Quake in 1996. Quake wasn't the first genuinely full-3D shooter in the modern style, but it was the one that made 2.5D officially obsolete.

These faux 3D or 2.5D games were flat maps, where areas could be raised and lowered (and in later games like Duke Nukem 3D, sloped), but you couldn't have one room on top of another.

Some games pretended otherwise, but it was generally a trick – the player would be silently teleported as they crossed the room's threshold. Descent provided a full 3D world made up of polygons in 1995, but only a basic one – it was a series of sprawling mineshafts. The Star Wars game Dark Forces offered rooms above rooms, but otherwise stuck to the standard technologies on display in any other shooter of its era, including sprites.

Sprites were a growing problem. By the mid '90s, level design was getting more and more impressive. By modern standards, the opening cinema level in Duke Nukem Forever is empty and unconvincing, but to an audience used to bland military base corridors and castles, the realism was incredible.

Almost all these games were able to do this because they saved their 3D for the world. Actual characters were pre-drawn 2D images, pasted in to the game. Not only did they increasingly look weak, not part of the scenery and incredibly blocky up-close, but they also didn't fit.

Games could scale sprites to deal with the player getting closer to and further away from them, but when they started offering the ability to look up and down (first made popular with Heretic, a 1994 fantasy game) the effect showed its limits, with sprites shearing and increasingly looking like the cardboard cutouts they were.

A little voodoo magic

Games had to get more advanced, but the performance wasn't there. Quake brought full-3D worlds and enemies to the field in 1996, but at the cost of visuals.

Quake

3D GAME CHANGER:First-person shooter bosses like this were unheard of before Quake was released in 1996

Technically, they were better, and the improvement in animation was stunning – an early sequence where a snarling Fiend leaps out of a door to attack the player directly is one of many gamers' fondest memories, to say nothing of the first episode's room-sized, lava-throwing monster Cthon. But the world was still drab, ugly and simplistic, with enemies that looked like they'd been knocked into shape with a sledgehammer and textures that would have lowered the tone in a morgue.

Like all graphics technology, this quickly improved over the next few years, but it was increasingly obvious that simply throwing more CPU power at games wasn't going to cut it. Not alone, anyway.

Most people didn't really see the need for dedicated video cards at first because, to put it bluntly, there wasn't much of one. Games increasingly offered a high-end mode that offered a higher resolution and additional effects without a specific need for extra hardware – bar a hefty processor.

This high-end mode slowly became the standard experience, yet it was a long time before video cards became mandatory for playing PC games. Even technical showpieces like the original Unreal would run in so-called 'software mode'. There wasn't one big game that marked the transition, more a slow giving into inevitability.

Dedicated 3D cards came into their own around 1997, with several competing, mutually incompatible brands fighting it out for dominance. By far the most successful was 3DFX with its Voodoo cards. Even now, with built-in low-end 3D a standard on motherboards, a separate 3D card is mandatory for most games. On the plus side, the dominance of DirectX means that you don't need to worry too much about which card to buy.

Individually, the abilities offered by 3D cards don't sound too exciting. In the late '90s, the core functions were transformation, clipping and lighting – in short, getting the card to work out where items in the world were and how they should be lit.

Faces

BODY LANGUAGE:Realistic character and facial animation is a surprisingly recent addition to gaming

The next big advance was the addition of shaders. Shaders are additional calculations thrown into the rendering pipeline that work on individual pixels, vertices and pieces of geometry to add effects and change the final image.

Examples include working out appropriate shadows, making a flag flutter or adding bump mapping (a texture that gives the illusion of raised and lowered areas on an object without the need to add polygons). More advanced shaders include motion blur and bloom effects, soft shadows, depth of field and volumetric lighting.

The new bottlenecks

With the technology burden eased (or at least partly passed onto the card manufacturers), developers could focus on making the most of what they had. Valve largely pioneered skeletal-based characters rather than keyframe-by-keyframe animated enemies in Half-Life, and Ritual went out of its way to create interactive elements such as hackable computers in the realworld environments of Half-Life's closest rival of the time, Sin.

Ragdolls spread to every new game until the games that didn't offer them felt stodgy and ancient in comparison. Most importantly, the new realism of these games finally let developers sink their teeth into genres that they'd never have been able to do as traditional corridor shooters. Grand Theft Auto III gave us a living city. A million games brought the horrors of World War II to life in glorious cinematic style. Problem solved? No, just replaced.

Now the issue became one of creating all this in the first place. A simple maze-based 3D shooter could be churned out in under a year by a competent team, but building cities, battlefields and other real-world elements requires an immense number of assets.

Games are much shorter than they used to be, not because they're more complicated – in most cases, the features are more advanced but the thinking is more conservative – because of the amount of content required, and the cost of making it.

There are shortcuts for some things, like the Speedtree libraries for procedurally generating a forest in a hurry (used in, among many others, Grand Theft Auto IV, Elder Scrolls: Oblivion and Fallout 3), but in general, if a developer wants something, that developer has to make it himself.

Technology itself has also reached a plateau, not because there's nothing more to do – nobody thinks that – but because right now, the big money is on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Both are relatively old machines, but that doesn't matter. PC ports often allow for higher resolutions and sometimes let you switch on better graphics (Metro 2033 looks much better for instance, as will Crysis 2 when it lands) but it's usually a token gesture.

Crysis 2

THE FUTURE:Crysis 2 is the current state of the art: explore New York in the wake of an alien invasion

To put the graphical difference into context, many PlayStation 3 games don't even use anti-aliasing to smooth out the edges of their polygons, and games on both platforms typically render at a lower resolution than the high-def numbers you'd expect from the systems' marketing.

The big change on the way is that 3D is about to become... 3D. Unlike films, games can create a stereoscopic image on the fly, with PlayStation 3 currently being updated to take advantage of this. You'll still need the silly glasses and a new 3D TV, and it's likely to be a headache-inducing gimmick for the most part, but a bit of depth in the right place could make it an interesting concept.

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First published in PC Plus Issue 296

Liked this? Then check out 3D gaming: everything you need to know

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