Can we just stop talking about 3d games?

Let's do ourselves a favor and just stop talking about 3d games.

Sony recently surprised investors and gamers with by unveiling its newest 3d platform, Project Morpheus, at this year’s GDC.  This puts them in direct competition with the small but significant presence of Oculus VR’s head mounted 3d unit, the Oculus Rift.  While neither product are available for consumers today, both companies are racing to the marketplace with Microsoft apparently poised to release their own similar device imminently.  While the idea of home based virtual reality experience is exciting (and one we’ve been fired up about ever since lame sci-fi films of the 80s and 90s like Lawnmower Man or Strange Days intrigued us with possibilities of completely interactive virtual experiences – can’t wait until I can sort files a la Disclosure complete with an eerily creepy Demi Moore staring over my shoulder), this prospect has been discussed for almost 30 years now and never gained critical mass.

Oddly enough upon further research we found out that while the Virtual Boy still stands out in the embarrassing past of 3d games, it isn’t alone.  In fact almost every other gaming manufacturer has tried this.  In fact Nintendo attempted this before with the Famicon 3D System in 1988 that leveraged LCD shutter glasses and didn’t make it out of Japan.  Sega did the same and actually made it to the states briefly with a 3d version of Space Harrier before it disappeared.  Atari attempted it momentarily with the Jaguar VR in 1995 but it never made it to shelves before Atari folded on the Jaguar.  Sony has been here before with the oddly named Sony PUD-J5A in 2002 that, again, was restricted to Japan.  Even Konami tried their hand at this with the TobidacidSolid Eye in 2006 for Metal Gear Solid 2: Acid – don’t get excited, it was a cardboard cutout you folded and put over a PSP to restrict your left and right eyes to see portions of the screen to create a 3D effect.  Even today Sony and Xbox dabble with 3d games on compliant TVs and Nintendo’s 3DS offers a simulated 3d effect.

We should also point out the invasion of 3d games in arcades in the 90s with the outlandish Virtuality arcade games that typically demanded a significant footprint of real estate in any arcade and cost roughly $5 for 2 minutes of cyber time.  We had a few experiences stumbling over ourselves moving across the 5 rooms with the red, blue, and white tiled floors while cashing out our allowances – not quite the experience Strange Days promised us.  We even have some fond memories of the brief but interesting hologram games like Time Traveler that used mirrors to create a surreal but foggy 3d effect in a Dragon’s Lair-type quick time game.

Ultimately though these games and experiences are fads.  There’s a momentary surge of press releases and perhaps a product makes it to consumers on occasion, but demand quickly declines and these gaming artifacts go back on the shelves next to the SuperScope and Steel Battalion controllers of the world.

But why?  Again we all want to have these immersive experiences yet no one can clearly deliver on them.  The demand is there, but the product isn’t.  We thought we’d consider this question using Everett Rogers’ diffusion of innovation theories and explore why this idea never takes off.  At the risk of trivializing this work, let’s boil it down as follows.  Rogers explains that every customer is an “adopter” of the new technology and as people can vary from “early adopter” to even a “laggard” resistant to the new technology, the viability of the new technology is measured by acquiring a critical mass of consumers and their decision to invest in the technology is affected by 5 attributes: Relative Advantage, Compatibility, Complexity, Trialability, and Observability.

  1. Relative Advantage – How has the latest 3d gaming technology improved over previous gaming technologies?

    • This is perhaps the best attribute for something like Project Morpheus.  The promise of a 3d experience is strong enough to merit chasing this idea for the past 30 years.  We can’t comment on Sony’s new device but have tried Oculus Rift and compared to previous head mounted VR experiences, it was certainly a more immersive experience (we tried an Iron Man simulation and a generic metropolitan environment as well as explored a country cottage with no real purpose other than enjoying the sights).  Developers have not yet figured a great way to allow complete mobility often requiring the combination of head turns AND controller turns to completely turn around – a bit like playing Goldeneye on the N64 where you one interface controlled your body while the other adjusted your target within your field of vision.  While the games are prettier and the devices are certainly less clumsy than the Virtual Boy days, fundamental challenges of mobility still exist.

  2. CompatibilityWhat is required to adapt this new technology into our lives?

    • This one is tricky.  Really we’re talking about two types of gamers: the PC enthusiasts vs. the couch console gamers.  PC gamers likely don’t need to adjust much to enjoy this experience.  Already they’re experiences are usually solo (albeit with a large online presence with countless other gamers) on devices tucked away somewhere in the home.  Migrating from a monitor to a head mounted device wouldn’t be that much of an impact however we're not confident the responsiveness PC gamers are accustomed to with the mouse and keyboard would be easily recreated in a simulated 3d world.  Granted experience so far are largely tech demos, but precision shooting this is not.  After we got past the initial euphoria of seeing our own feet in the Iron Man game, we starting cursing the lagging gameplay which quickly caused us to step right off the skyscraper we spawned on – we did manage to activate our hand boosters just in time to accelerate our plummet into the pavement.

    • Console gamers are different monster and undoubtedly even harder to convert – tragically they’re also where the money is for game manufacturers.  We’ve already resisted numerous attempts to convince us to buy 3d TVs – we blame it on the complex nature of including new peripherals to watching TV.  Console gaming is by its nature a casual experience (couch gaming) despite however many times you’ve prestiged in Call of Duty.  It’s also often a social experience too as you invite buddies over for some Smash Brothers or to do a boss raid on Borderlands.  Tossing on headgear restricts your ability to socialize.  Unless 3d games are more responsive for PC gamers or developers find a way to include the entire room in the experience, it’s going to be hard to encourage the masses to sign up

  3. ComplexityHow easy is it to use the new technology?

    • The obvious reaction to this is that it’s simply not easy – at least in its current design.  As mentioned earlier, Oculus Rift and presumably similar products like Project Morpheus include a hybrid interface wherein you still control much of your characters movement and actions through a controller while your view now adjust through your head movement.  It’s counterintuitive for gamers that have spent decades controlling avatars every move through a few button interfaces and takes a while to get used to it.  This is not insurmountable, but it is a learning curve.  We also can’t answer how complex the device is to use in the home simply because there are no products on the market to discuss. It would be unfair to judge the experience based on the tech demos we tried that required a computer to run the simulation (that crashed frequently) and Wii-like sensors in the controllers that only partially reacted to our movements.

  4. TrialabilityHow can we test the new device?

    • Unfortunately for most, we can’t.  It will be a while before we see these devices in the wild at places like Best Buy or Gamestop to try them out (and if they do arrive for demos I can’t image they’d survive long with grabby customers).  If you’re willing to wait in line or have the ability to go to conferences like GDC or E3 then perhaps you’ll have a limited window to experience it.  Otherwise you really won’t have much to go on and instead will have rely on the word of gaming journalists.  I don’t really see a way around this.

  5. ObservabilityHow visible is the device to others?

    • I see this as a problem only if there’s not an aggressive marketing campaign to go along with it.  Granted that takes resources but right now as everyone still tries to understand why we need a next gen console, perhaps this attribute is in your favor and making this observable now through online and commercial ads would do a lot to cultivate (more) interest in the next gen consoles.

We’d also like to inject one more key attribute affecting adoption rates for game consoles – obviously the games.  That’s a major concern when it comes to the 3d platforms.  As it’s becoming more and more cost prohibitive to make quality games, developers who need to turn a profit find it harder and harder to create games limited to one unique console experience that can’t translate to other platforms – just look at the Wii U.  The result is that games are usually watered down for one medium or the other or require additional development time (and $$$) to add in specific features tailored toward that device.  Only a few developers are capable of that balancing act so the potential library of quality games is going to be very small.   We all know the next gen consoles deliver more viscerally impressive experiences, but until there are more games to play, many of us are waiting.  Same goes for 3d platforms.

So why do we have to keep talking about 3d games?  Well it is a tough sale for the home and a major uphill battle for game developers but apparently one worth going through year after year after year.  We want to be as hopeful as anyone else but deep down we can’t help but think these announcements will just more forgotten gaming history for trivia years down the road.  If nothing else, perhaps we’ll see more spectacularly bad decisions from major companies worth a good laugh and maybe something will one day supplant the Virtual Boy as the most laughable platform ever marketed to the home.