There has been no shortage of attempts to implement 3D into gaming – what with the ability to play select games in 3D on the Xbox 360, PS3, and PC – but only one system has been built with 3D as its primary selling point, and that’s the Nintendo 3DS. The only problem is, it’s no longer a handheld that’s being bought (or having games made for it) based on its 3D capabilities, further reinforcing the notion that 3D in gaming just can’t catch on.
Why is it that the 3D capabilities of the 3DS are, by and large, going ignored? The answer is simple: developers couldn’t find a way to properly implement 3D so it could actually be a facet of the gameplay. Having a display that makes it look like you’re peering into a hole where your game is taking place is kind of neat for a little while, but it adds absolutely nothing to the experience.
There have definitely been fleeting moments in which 3D was used to enhance gameplay, like the perspective-based platforming puzzles in Super Mario Land 3D. But there were only a handful of those within the game (we’re talking less than a half-dozen), and they could be circumvented so as to not force the player to use 3D if they didn’t want to. To top it off, they weren’t even all that challenging, although it was still refreshing to see the 3D being used for something more than a visual gimmick.
For the most part, however, games for the 3DS have little to nothing to do with 3D, at least as far as gameplay is concerned. And it’s almost as if Nintendo knew that it wouldn’t stick, that the interest in 3D, from both a developer and user perspective, wasn’t particularly high: the 3DS includes a slider switch that allows users to tone down or turn off the 3D effect entirely. When your 3D system includes a mechanism that allows you to disable the feature – and its games can be played the exact same way in 2D – that’s quite the indicator that 3D isn’t the crux of the experience, and that you’re not really counting on it to succeed.
Admittedly, it would be risky to have a system that displayed only in 3D and to have games that could only be played in 3D. The parallax barrier technology that’s used to achieve the glasses-free 3D effect in the 3DS isn’t spectacular for the eyes and even gives some people headaches after a short period of time. Meanwhile, for a rare few, the effect simply does not work. To intentionally undercut your user base by alienating those who either cannot see or cannot tolerate the 3D effect would be risky at best and catastrophic at worst.
But that’s why Nintendo shouldn’t have taken a chance on 3D at all; it was too risky to go whole-hog with the 3D angle, but it’s also the sort of technology that won’t succeed in gaming unless the company in question is willing to go all-in on it. Either have a concrete idea of how the 3D can be used to actually enhance gameplay and embrace it fully or else it’s not going to work, as we’re seeing now.
To make 3D an optional feature on the hardware more or less forces developers to do the same with their games. This, of course, discourages the creation of games, or even gameplay segments, that are actually unique in that they are defined by, and therefore require, the use of 3D. Again, they don’t want to lose sales to those who can’t or don’t want to play the 3DS with the 3D turned on.
So this inconsequentiality of 3D that we’ve ended up with has amounted to a device that is primarily bought and played as a 2D handheld, with hardware that’s comparatively underpowered when viewed alongside its direct competitor, the PlayStation Vita. That’s not to say that the Nintendo 3DS is a failure; it has plenty of fun games and has enjoyed a respectable amount of success after a rocky start. It’s just indicative of the state of 3D in gaming when a 3D handheld is enjoyed by the masses in spite of, and for just about every reason except, its 3D capabilities.
It’s not that video games will always be played in the same way and are impervious to change. For instance, ideas like virtual reality (see: Oculus Rift) or augmented reality may still have a place in gaming, though we don’t know for sure. The technologies and concepts are still young and it’s too early to say.
But 3D is wearing out its welcome, especially on the 3DS. 3D in gaming is not a completely doomed idea quite yet, but unless developers find a way to effectively incorporate the technology into the gameplay experience, it will be. And if a system that was built around 3D isn’t a good enough opportunity for them to do that, then maybe that’s a sign that nothing is.
Want to know more about the state of 3D? Be sure to check out additional reviews and articles in our 3D Special Report!