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Flashback: Why 2D Games Should Be Revisited On Next Gen Hardware

This prophetic message board post details how 2D games can benefit from next gen hardware. Graphics are one thing, but analog buttons, surround sound, online capabilities, and HDTVs can mean 2D games can grow beyond their 16-bit counterparts.

Amir Sharar, Blogger

February 26, 2010

23 Min Read

I originally wrote this on March 29/07 on a gaming message board, and though my understanding of the economics of digitial distribution networks has grown by leaps and bounds, I still feel that a great majority of this is largely relevant and accurate.

A lot of this is common sense, much of this stuff you probably already know. But I guarantee that there will be some parts of this that will make you go, "Hmm...I never thought of that."

Secondly, on a humourous note, I submit this as further evidence that I'm right on the ball when it comes to industry trends and ideas.  Many of my ideas in here have been implemented in games like LittleBigPlanet, Braid, New Super Mario Bros on the Wii, and more. 

So for the 3 of you planning on reading the whole thing through...enjoy!


After playing around with XNA for the first few days it was out, I was astonished at the results I had. I’m not a fan of programming, to be honest, and I’ve never programmed a game from scratch before. Despite these things, I was able to have 2 characters jump around the screen. Both being controlled by the same player, with one 360 controller. The left analog stick controlled player 1, and the left trigger made him jump. Alternatively the right stick and trigger controlled the second player. “Stupid Krazy Brothers” is what I titled it, and I used purposefully cheesy art for the graphics, it always gets a laugh out of me when I see them jump around.

This got me thinking… I was able to test out an idea that, to my knowledge, was never implemented in any game before. It only took me 6-8 hours in front of my computer, and I had a rough prototype for a unique game. Me. A poor excuse of a programmer. What if a talented and experienced development team started development of a 2D game for next gen consoles? What kind of new never before seen features would they come up with?

I came up with this new idea not because I’m a genius or anything, that’s only half of it. It was the fact that I was using a controller with features that didn’t exist back in the hey-day of 2D gaming. This extends to other things, like the fact that 16:9 HDTVs are becoming the new television standard. The fact that these new consoles boast limitless 2D capabilities. The fact that online play is so widespread and an expected feature in many games. The fact that new games focus so much on AI and Physics…two things that were very basic for many 2D games made in the past.

So the end result is this little “article”. I really wonder if industry bigwigs have thought seriously about this, and if they haven’t, maybe reading this isn’t a bad start. Most of this is an appeal to those who are creative and would like to see 2D games make a comeback, but I did write a little bit on how such a comeback could fit into the overall picture of this industry, in what fashion it could occur, and explore the issue of whether or not 2D games can be as profitable as any other game.

I hope that this is used as a starting point for serious discussion. I hope that decision makers behind large 3rd party developers will understand that distribution networks like Steam, the PlayStation Network, and Xbox Live Arcade are perfect launching platforms for new 2D content. I also hope that alternatively gamers can see potential in new 2D titles, and feel just as excited at the prospect as I am.

Without further babbling, here it is, my Top Ten Reasons why 2D Games should be revisited on Next Gen Hardware:

First and foremost…it’s cheaper than 3D!
I’ve noticed some discussion on web forums on whether 2D game development is cheaper than 3D game development. I make my argument based on 2 points. Firstly, that 2D engine development is drastically cheaper than 3D engine development, and that 2D content creation is no more expensive than 3D content creation.

The first point is fairly obvious. The move to hidef graphics has prompted developers such as Epic to create amazing new engines that deal with every aspect of game design, down to cut-scene scripting. Japanese developers such as Capcom and Konami have worked on their own amazing new engines, something they plan to re-use over the years to cut down costs. These engines are solutions to the rising costs of game development, and to license an engine like UE 3.0 isn’t cheap, but it is a good economical decision when faced with the alternative of creating an engine yourself. 2D game engines for sale are considerably cheaper, in the hundreds of dollars rather than tens of thousands (if not more for the newer ones). It’s obvious to those that have played around with 3D level editors that there is a whole lot more to worry about when creating a 3D engine. I think this point is fairly obvious so I won’t dwell on it any longer. My next point, on the other hand, has been challenged and is a bit more controversial.

I claim that 2D content creation is no more costly than 3D content creation. That is, sprites with their animations, and game artwork for the backgrounds and such, is just as cheap as 3D content creation. There are some that claim that for hidef graphics, getting artists to draw all animations and sprites would result in costs that would compare unfavourably against the now very inexpensive work of 3D artists. They would claim that the only way to reduce such costs is to outsource the animations to an overseas company, very much like how television cartoons go about this.

It’s a very traditional point of view, and does not factor in how modern day technology can aid creating 2D sprites and animations. One solution is to have 3D artists create and animate the characters. These could be modelled in any style, and could have shaders applied to them to make them look hand-drawn (referred to as “cel shading”). Sprites can be easily captured, and the animations could be captured at any framerate (even at 60fps if one so desired! Though for obvious reasons that would be a bad idea). With this sort of 2D content creation paradigm, hand drawn art seems a step backwards.

And so factoring both of those costs, 2D games are cheaper to develop than 3D titles. I haven’t yet factored in testing, R&D, physics and AI solutions, and networking, but I think it’s fairly clear that 2D games would be cheaper as they are simpler to begin with. 2D physics in comparison with 3D physics…there’s clearly a lot less to worry about. This could be my weakest argument in this entire article, and that is due to the fact that I don’t feel like researching this extensively when I think it is common sense for the most part. If I am wrong, it will be because I under-estimated the costs in making a 2D engine that would support all the things that I propose in the rest of this article.

Graphical Processing Power
Obvious to most people, but I feel that the ramifications of this could be overlooked by some. An incredible number of high resolution sprites at 32-bit colour are the most obvious benefits to those with the old paradigm of 2D game development. Today, new 2D animation algorithms allow for real-time image morphing, adding a very dynamic look to 2D game animations. Dynamically altered vector art is also a possibility afforded by the processing power of next gen consoles.

That’s not to say that traditional 2D game development will remain stale looking without radical new animation techniques…the amount of scrollable backgrounds, sprites, and particles are nearly limitless, allowing artists to proceed unrestricted. Alpha blending and sprite distortion are now trivial and can be used without hesitation. Attaining photorealism is a trivial endeavour, whereas in the past it was bogged down by hardware limitations.

Image quality issues are also trivial. One could apply 16X anti-aliasing with ease, making the game look extremely slick on high definition televisions. With 512 MB of RAM, there is no excuse to have a situation where a low resolution sprite would be stretched to look blurry.

Particle effects can be used more generously, giving the graphics a more dynamic look. Sonic the Hedgehog used to use animated sprites to represent smoke emitting from Sonic’s shoes, or the sparkle effect when he grabbed a ring. With current day technologies such animations could be replaced with particle effects that would rely on Sonic’s speed as a variable.

This is all pretty obvious, but the point I wanted to get across is that even with traditional methods of animating 2D games, there’s going to be many new ways of doing things, all because of the raw horsepower available.

Shaders…adding another dimension to 2D graphics
Imagine 2D side scrolling platformer in which the main character is in a densely vegetated level (highly colourful with fantasy plant life, of course), that has recently seen a rainstorm, and now the clouds have parted and allowed the sunset to shine onto the landscape. We can see a rainbow in the distance, a very soft lens flare effect from the sun, and a little bit of fog coming off the vegetation, all afforded by alpha blending. With shaders, a soft look to the entire scene could be added, there could be a bloom effect used as the sunlight bounces off the clouds, and there could be a little bit of drizzle falling on the “screen” in the form of tiny water drops. The character could then walk through some ruins, blocking out the sun, and high dynamic range lighting effects could kick in, as the area looks dark initially but gets brighter as the character’s eyes adjust. All the while motion blur adds more flavour to the character’s movement and animations. Shaders in 2D games are a relatively unexplored concept that has a lot of potential, and is something that I see as almost vital to making new 2D games looking the best they can.

Widescreen High Definition TVs are great for 2D games
The only exception being vertical shooters, of course. At the same time it’s very clear that a platformer or horizontal shooter would benefit a lot more than a traditional puzzle game. Though there are some benefits that apply to all genres.

It goes without saying that platformers would thrive on a 16:9 setup, but I’d like to point out that games like Sonic were purposefully limited in the sense that the levels had to feature less baddies and obstacles during moments where Sonic was meant to go through a speedy portion of the level, mainly because gamers would not have a visual on the oncoming obstacle in time to react. For this reason, the gameplay of the handheld Sonic games (that were on a tiny low resolution screen where the character size in relation to the screen size was larger than on the consoles) were originally very different from the console versions. A widescreen set (at high resolutions) would alleviate such an issue that affects not only platformers but also horizontal shooters. In a 4:3 game, you could only see 10 or so “steps” ahead of the character (an arbitrary number based on the width of the character), whereas in a 16:9 game, you can see much further.

The extra real estate can help fit more action onto a screen, as well fit more players. 4 players playing a beat ‘em up can now fight a large number of bad guys with far less clutter than what we were used to. The X-Men arcade unit with multiple screens demonstrates that developers understood this issue, and now with HDTVs slowly becoming the standard, all developers will be afforded this benefit.

Another alternative is to now allow gamers to play on their own separate subscreen on the same TV. That’s right, split screen multiplayer for 2D titles. With the increased resolution at 1080i/p and the wide aspect ratio, gamers will have 960 by 540 pixel screens to play around in…a resolution even greater than standard definition TVs. Players can be in different parts of a platformer, for example, and aren’t restricted to playing on the same screen (which could slow down gameplay). Sure, this is a bit unorthodox, but it just goes to show how 2D games could be reinvented simply due of the use of HDTVs.

Next Gen Processing Power benefits 2D physics and AI
Again, very obvious, but I mention it because this topic has been relatively unexplored. There can be a new level of interaction that goes beyond the collision boxes and simple physics of the 16-bit games. A game that thrived on a unique fully functioning physics system was Sonic the Hedgehog, and I consider that the one aspect of the game that made it unique among the droves of platformers that were available at the time. Sonic interacted with the background in never before seen ways, and also interacted with objects and gadgets using the same physics system.

With today’s processing power, characters no longer have to jump on a swinging vine that happens to swing for no apparent reason. They can jump on the vine, and use their momentum to make it move. If swung improperly, they can cause a whiplash effect that slows them down. New Super Mario Bros. had something akin to this, albeit extremely basic. Characters can now use a more convincing jetpack power-up to propel themselves around a level, rather than using some rather simple physics algorithm. Of course, this is done not to simply add more “realism” but to add to a game’s challenge and learning curve. Environmental physics in the form of wind, water, and air can make the game’s levels more dynamic and exciting.

Artificial intelligence for baddies is another obvious benefit. This concept has been taken further and further in 3D titles, but relatively unexplored in 2D titles. Imagine if bad guys were able to swing on the same vines and use the same jetpacks that you could…the game would be totally different from anything we’ve seen before. We have become too accustomed to seeing baddies walk along their pre-set paths…making each time we’ve played that level very predictable (which is good or bad, depending on what the developers are aiming for, but I argue that using AI rather than scripting can make one level infinitely replayable, i.e. Pacman…and I do realize that this would be doing away with “speedruns”).

There have been some interesting ideas in 3D games that have been implemented many times over, but have been rarely used in 2D titles. For example, the idea of time control has been seen in Blinx and Full Auto, but I’ve never seen a 2D platformer featuring such a skill. Psychic powers are another concept done in many 3D titles, but I haven’t seen one 2D game with the same sort of psychic interaction. I could be wrong and there could be a few, but the point is that these concepts can again be explored and, more importantly, executed in a better fashion with superior hardware.

A return to real time audio synthesis
Ever since CD based consoles became the norm, Redbook Audio and/or MIDI were the only considered methods for background music. The days of chiptunes were over.

It makes sense to return to real-time synthesis of music considering the vast array of VST instruments (virtual synthesizers) and their implementations in modern day music. VST technologies are, for the most part, relatively easy on the processor. These virtual instruments have also mimicked real instruments fairly well, with virtual wind and string kits readily available.

Music in games can expand beyond playback…into the realm of dynamic arrangement and dynamic synthesization. Picture a situation in a platform game that gets more hectic, and the result would be the percussion getting more intense and complicated. A lead synth sound would filter higher or perhaps get a little louder. As the action dies down, so does the music, going back to simpler percussion and a more subdued lead instrument. Going back to the rainy level idea, when the clouds part, allowing the sun to come through, another lead could add itself to the arrangement, and as the clouds cover up the sun again, that lead portion fades away.

With today’s processing power, one could master the track in real-time by implementing VST effects in the form of compressors, equalizers, and mixing tables. This would maintain a high quality standard that includes sound effects into the mixing and mastering process.

Implementation of this requires ingenuity on the part of programmers and audio designers, but the end result can rival movie soundtracks in terms of representing the mood and action onscreen. Secondly, it is obvious that any game, whether 2D or not, could adopt such an audio system, but I think it’s more feasible in 2D titles because there is more flexibility in using more processing power for audio than in a typical 3D game.

Benefits of being online, disregarding online multiplayer
Online gaming in 2D games did exist on home consoles in the form of X-Band and it was very common on the PC, but in the present there are a few more concepts that were not very widespread in the past. Namely, the concept of online distribution to the extent we see on Xbox Live and Steam (though SEGA Channel for the Genesis was all about this, it didn’t last long), the concept of episodic content, and the concept of “achievements” and “leaderboards” as information viewable by anyone in the World.

3D titles are now reaching incredible sizes that they may need multiple DVD discs, whereas 2D games seem to remain a fraction of the size, making them great for online distribution. This, coupled with the idea of episodic content, holds a lot of potential for 2D titles. We’ve seen some titles in the past with holiday themed levels, but not many. Because of the low costs in 2D level design, these sorts of things could be a lot more common. Other features, such as new character skins (sprites in this case), and differing times of day (perhaps just a palette tweak on existing background sprites), could be offered, and are obviously very easy to create.

Achievements and Leaderboards add another layer of competitiveness, to even single player games. This sort of competition, one could argue, did exist in the 16-bit days, with speedruns and glitch hunting getting a good amount of attention on BBSs and fanzines. 2D titles seem to be more suitable for speedruns than newer 3D titles, perhaps due to the fact that newer titles are extremely large in scope and require a larger time investment to finish, whether it is a particular level or the entire game itself.

Another idea that could add longevity to any game is the idea of releasing an easy to use level editor that would allow gamers to create and, more importantly, give them the ability to distribute these levels to their friends and to anyone online. This exists for many 3D titles…creating one for a 2D title could be relatively trivial.

2D online gaming…2D plane = less bandwidth?
2D games are, because of their nature, simpler games. I am not an expert on the programming and network side of online gaming, but I think it is safe to assume that it would require less bandwidth as far as sharing vital information such as player position (including the direction they are facing). I also estimate that collision detections and the like would be trivial, on the server side of things. These things would, I hope, allow for much larger online games than what we are accustomed to. 128+ online players in a Star Control-esque game (with clan support, of course) is the sort of 2D online games I hope to see.

2D online gaming holds a lot of potential that has yet to be realized. I have yet to see a 2D platformer that sports a 4 player Co-Op mode. How about a 2D wrestling title that supported 30 players simultaneously? There are some obvious ideas, like having a Streets of Rage rip off with 4 player Co-op, but I’d like to see these ideas evolve into having a gang war type game where it would have 32-player Co-Op with 4 opposing sides. How about a mode where 4 players play the protagonists and the 28 other players play as weaker opponents and attempt to prevent these 4 from finishing the level?

Like a lot of these ideas, it could be implemented into 3D titles. But, I think a very important thing we all must consider is that due to the low costs of 2D game development, risks can be taken a lot more often. Unique ideas can start to take shape because it would take weeks to implement, rather than months.

Back to the issue at hand, 2D online gaming may very well open up possibilities in terms of the number of online players involved. With 16:9 HDTVs in the equation, more players won’t be a source of clutter or annoyance. I’m sure I’m not the only one who could envision a game like General Chaos in where everyone is being controlled by a player, in a large 128 player battle.

Current gen controllers can take 2D games to another level
Dual analog sticks, pressure sensitive triggers, more buttons in general…all of these things could have a profound impact on new 2D titles. As I mentioned earlier, my little XNA demo featured analog control of 2 players simultaneously. It took into account how hard the stick was pressed, and if I wanted to, I could have done the same for their jumping (ie. Pressing the trigger slightly results in a small jump). Games like Geometry Wars seem to have adopted a control style that mimics past games, but the analog sticks give it far more refined control.

Taking a look at the analog sticks, there is a wealth of new possibilities, some that are obvious, such as firing a weapon in that particular direction. And then there are ideas that are less orthodox, such as inventory management, or camera control to look ahead in the level (or up and down…or zooming in and out). This concept has been unexplored, and so I see many inventive uses for the right analog stick.

The same applies to triggers and analog buttons…these concepts were not widespread during the 16-bit days, and so we should see a lot of ingenuity when it comes to their use. I also hope that they add some more depth to 2D games, and so it would require a bit more skill than in previous 2D games.

Industry in a unique position, 2D games are an acceptable risk
A lot of things have changed since the 16-bit days, where 2D games were everything. Not only that, but a lot of things have changed recently, mainly due to Nintendo and their risk in changing the way we perceive handheld and console gaming. Brand new genres have been born since the 16-bit days, which could be translated into fun 2D titles. Consumers seem to be open to very simple games, and it seems to be some value in these “non-games”, as some has labelled them.

As 3D games matured and became less restricted by hardware, we saw titles labelled as “Sandbox games”. Ironically they were born out of their 2D precursors, but I think this genre could be reborn if revisited in 2D titles. Coupled with online play, this genre could really take off in 2D.

We also see that the market is open to simple games, with Flash-based gaming on the internet doing very well (I won’t say in terms of sales, but in terms of how open people are to playing them). There is no negative connotation with the term “2D” and it isn’t seen as being obsolete, as long as it’s fun.

I have no evidence to support this next statement, but I do not think that it is a bold claim to say that most people perceive 2D games to be worth less than 3D titles. That is, a brand new 2D title found on store shelves would not sell that well at $59 (unless it was universally acclaimed, perhaps). Flash games get a lot of play because they are cheap (free in most cases) and convenient.

But perhaps the issue isn’t that simple. Perhaps consumers are not willing to spend more than $10 for retro games offered on the Wii because they don’t see that much value in these older titles as they lack online play, leaderboard support, hi def graphics, etc., whereas if they saw a brand new “New Super Mario Bros. Wii” with all the modern day bells and whistles, they would pay over $40 for it. Maybe it’s not about whether a game is 2D or not…but rather if the game has the depth and richness of 3D titles and whether or not the game offers a lot of fun.

Online distribution services like Valve’s Steam, Microsoft’s Xbox Live Arcade, and Sony’s PlayStation Network can assist developers in convincing gamers that their games are worth what they are being sold for. On Xbox Live Arcade, gamers can download a demo and are shown the price of the game. Judging from sales charts, it seems that gamers are open to buying 2D titles. Judging from online activity, it seems that many are playing them online as well.

I think that the more extravagant these 2D titles get, the more value a consumer would see in it. It’s not only about the graphics anymore. Games that can provide a rich online experience will get the attention of gamers, and with the amount of hours these gamers put into some online titles, I think they will see the costs for such games to be negligible.

So the market has obviously changed…and it seems that gamers are open to 2D titles, but we will never know how open they are to large scale fully featured brand new 2D games until developers start releasing them. By taking advantage of the incredible processing power in modern day consoles, with their new controllers, with features like online gaming…these 2D titles can offer a whole lot more than what the older games offered, and I think gamers can see the value in them.

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