You may have seen the gameindustry.biz article last month, featuring our own Russell Kay joined by well-known GameMaker developers, all discussing the future of 2D gaming. Below we have the extended version of this article, we think you might find it interesting.
I remember when I was a child playing Manic Miner and thinking, “this will never not be fun to me.” And you know what? Even with my not fully formed, malleable kid brain, I was totally right! Manic Miner is still fun today, though there was a time where games of its ilk, by which I mean 2D games, were going the way of the dinosaur. Around the late 90s and early 2000s, all of the most treasured video game franchises has transitioned over into 3D. Mario, Zelda, Donkey Kong, Metroid, Sonic, Castlevania, Metal Gear, and even Monkey Island had traded pixels for polygons as we entered this strange, new world.
Thankfully, 2D gaming later saw a resurgence, with most of these AAA series receiving 2D (or at least 2.5D) entries. And now we have popular indie games like Nuclear Throne, Hyper Light Drifter, and Super Meat Boy paving the way forward for what was nearly a lost art. Trends are always changing, however, and in a world smitten with blockbusters like Red Dead Redemption 2, Fortnite, and Overwatch, one can’t help but wonder how 2D gaming will persevere going forward. So, to help us predict the future, we asked our panel of 2D game developers how they see this early form of gaming evolving.
But before we get to the future, first we need to understand the present. Why is 2D gaming still so important in the modern era? To that end, there we were given a range of reasons. YoYo Games head of development Mike Dailly believes that 2D gaming has persevered due to its accessibility. “It’s still the fastest way of making games, and still the simplest interaction for casual users,” he said. “2D interfaces are everywhere, so casual gamers will always find these games simpler to use and more fun to play. The frustration of a 3D interface will drive many casual users from an app, not just games.”
This sentiment was echoed by Seth Coster of Butterscotch Shenanigans (Crashlands, Levelhead). “I can't tell you how many times I've seen someone with very little gaming experience pick up a 3D game, and spend the next 10 minutes staring at floors and ceilings, frustrated because they can't figure out how to look in the correct direction,” he said. “But with 2D, we tend to not have those kinds of problems.”
2D gaming is not only more accessible for players, but for developers as well. Fabrice Breton of CowCat Games (Riddled Corpses Ex, Xenon Valkyrie+) said “2D games are easier to program - you only have to handle two coordinates instead of three. And it makes sense because all our monitors and TVs are just that.”
Dan Johnston of Chequered Ink, makers of GameDevDan vs Life, echoed this sentiment. “2D games are easier to visualise and prototype quickly for developers,” he stated. “You don't have to build a big, complex environment in a beefy game engine to get an idea of how your game idea is going to look. You can also make 2D games with a smaller and less experienced team.”
Sebastian Nigro from Studio Eris (Don’t Sink) added “2D games help developers to avoid the extra layer of complexity that comes with 3D. Keeping things simple in my own experience has helped me focus on the design rather than the implementation.”
Dailly likewise felt that 2D gaming is faster and easier to produce. “They are so much simpler and quicker to make,” he said. “You can get your idea out there in months, not years, so it’s definitely the best bang for the buck.”
This isn’t to say that 2D gaming is exactly easy to develop. In some ways, it can be even harder. “I think it’s a huge misconception that it’s ‘easier’ or ‘cheaper’ to make a 2D game,” said Household Games (Way of the Passive Fist) founder Jason Canam. “There is no shortage of challenges when making a 2D game. Art is often the biggest challenge. Levels need to be hand-drawn (even in pixel art) and minor changes always require updating and working with the art. There’s no easy lighting adjustments, no camera tweaks. If it doesn’t look good, it’s being redrawn, no way around it!”
Coster offered a more specific example of how 2D gaming can actually be even more labour intensive than its 3D brethren. “One of the disadvantages of 2D is the massive amounts of texture space you need if you want to do something big,” Coster explained. “Instead of a 3D model with one texture, you may have the same character rendered 300 times in different poses. This puts some limitations on just how detailed you can get, or how high of a resolution you can make your sprites, without bogging down GPUs.”
Rivals of Aether developer Dan Fornace noted that environments can be difficult to keep interesting in a 2D game where the player scrolls by them quite quickly. “One challenge of making a 2D game is picking an art style that is able to be produced consistently throughout the whole game, (that) also stands out when compared to other games,” he explained. “It is easier to make a mockup than it is to make a fully animated game with lots of content. The background style you did for a single piece might not be feasible in a giant game with exploration. So picking a style that you can actually finish that still looks great is a challenge.”
When asked what factors go into deciding whether to make a game in 2D or 3D, our panellists generally agreed that it came down to two things: the game concept, and target market. “The rise of games like Flappy Bird – or even Snake back in the day, shows there is a monumental desire for simple, pick up and play gameplay,” said Mike Dailly. “So, when building a new game, first think of what you’d like to make, then think of the target audience, if it’s a game for the masses, you’re wasting your time – and more importantly, money, making it 3D.”
Johnston felt like it depended on the genre and could tell right away which perspective would work best for a game concept. “Whether a game will be 2D or 3D is one of the first things you think of when you imagine a game concept, I think. If you're making a side-scrolling platformer with no need for a 3rd dimension, you'll probably make life easy for yourself and pick 2D. If your idea involves a player exploring a detailed environment in three dimensions, with 360 movements on the ground and climbing/jumping, then you'll probably want to use 2D. I don't think I've ever had a project where it wasn't immediately obvious whether I should use 2D or 3D.”
While 2D gaming has a lot of advantages in terms of accessibility, for developers and players alike, it’s worth noting that not everything can be well implemented in 2D. When asked about this, the main comments we got were about immersion not being the same. This is understandable, as we experience the world in 3D, so 2D gaming has always been an abstraction.
“3D has always been about realism and immersion. If you’re trying to make a player believe they are in a world, then yeah, 2D won’t work,” Dailly said. “Most puzzle games are actually far better in 2D as it’s easier to pick up, and platformers and shooters have been on both for decades now. Really, the choice is what game do you want, not ‘can’ it be in 2D.”
Another common answer we got regarding the limits of 2D involved racing games and aerial combat games. “It speaks to the power of 2D that there are few genres that would just flat out work better in 3D,” said David Galindo of Vertigo Gaming (Cook, Serve, Delicious 2!). “The only one that really comes to mind is racing. That was always a genre that was held back by its technical limitations, and while Super Mario Kart is still as fun as ever I think most players would easily be drawn to Mario Kart 9 than, say, another SNES Mario Kart type game."
Coster felt this way about “any kind of 3D combat game,” like a flight simulator or dogfighting game. “You can try to approximate the movement on a 2D plane, but the feeling of flying around in 3D space is just something that you can't really create a 2D substitute for.”
This makes sense as both racing and aerial combat is about simulating a sense of speed as your surroundings fly by you in first (or close-third) person. Let’s call this the “whooshing effect”, and it seems pretty specific to 3D gaming. To wit: there’s no doubt in my mind that someone could make a quality Spider-Man game in 2D, but it would definitely lose something in translation from the way Insomniac implemented it in 3D. Conversely, a 2D Spidey game would also be easier to make and entirely fun in its own way. (I imagine it would play like a mix between Hollow Knight and Bionic Commando, which sounds awesome.)
In terms of the cultural cache, 2D gaming has, our panellists couldn’t agree on whether 2D gaming is given the same level of respect as its 3D counterpart.
Galindo believes so. “I think we've finally gotten past that mental barrier of ‘cheap $10 small experiences’ and now big 2D indie games are going for as high as $30 and players don't bat an eye! That speaks to the level of acceptance that the audience has for 2D titles, and it just lets us create newer and bigger things,” he said. “And higher prices for a lot of these experiences show just how much audiences treat them as any other game on the market. It really has replaced that middle-tier price range of games that don't exist anymore on the retail shelf. I have to give a lot of credit to the Switch as well, which finally gives these games a proper portable home that just feels so good to be able to take with you anywhere.”
Johnston agreed. “To be honest, I think gamers have always treated 2D games with respect,” he mused. “Some types of games just work and feel better in 2D. It was obviously tempting for developers to use 3D wherever they could when it first became available - it was a novelty thing. But the original Donkey Kong, Kirby, and Sonic games were always far more fun than the attempted 3D outings and I think the fans of those series let the developers know that they wanted to go back to the classic 2D style of gaming.”
“Most 2D games are made by indies, and we just don't have the same marketing, unfortunately,” said Breton. “There's still hope though - I'm pretty sure a lot of children have played the likes of Undertale or Stardew Valley!”
Canam, however, disagrees, believing that the general populace still thinks of 2D games as “lesser” in value. “Honestly, I don’t think the audience considers 2D and 3D games to be of equal value. Even though some 2D games have proven to be the highest rated, acclaimed and best selling of the past few years, the truth is they all occupy a different headspace, and price point, as the high budget [3D] blockbuster games,” he said. “I think that nothing stops 2D from garnering a great deal of respect, as seen in many GOTY nominated 2D games from the past few years), but the value isn’t considered equal.”
Coster feels like this disparity is platform specific. “I think it depends on the platform! Mobile and Switch gamers don't seem to care too much whether a game is in 2D or 3D. They tend to focus a lot more on the substance of the game itself - the gameplay, the humor, the stories,” he said. “But on the more ‘hardcore’ platforms [PC, Xbox, PS4] that tend to push graphics and realism, I think 2D will still be lagging behind for a good long while.”
Looking ahead, a lot of developers are excited about 2D gaming. One of the most exciting developments we’ve seen in the medium has been how 2D aesthetics have evolved over the years.
“I'm glad to see many games experiment with new art styles and breaking away from traditional styles like pixel art,” said Galindo. “Games that come to mind are Nidhogg 2, Dead Cells, Battle Chef Brigade. These all have unique styles that are instantly recognizable with a screenshot! I think we're going to see more unique looking games like that in the years to come, especially as it gets harder to break out of the large volume of game releases and a unique look can help stand out from the rest.”
Canam added “I think what we are already seeing is 2D games that aren’t presented in pixel art. There are lots of art styles to explore. Because that’s what pixel art is, an art style. We’re seeing amazing things done in watercolor paints, razor-sharp vector graphics and so much more. I think that the art styles that are used will evolve just like game mechanics do and we’ve yet to see some truly beautiful and unique looking games.”
Coster similarly felt like the visual variety possible in 2D will set it apart more and more in the days to come. (Just think of how many accolades Cuphead received last year!) “I think in the next decade, we'll see the level of detail and polish creeping up and up in 2D games, such that we get to experience games with gorgeous, high-resolution, hand-painted imagery,” Coster said. “It's going to be great, and it'll really set 2D apart from 3D in a big way.”
But it’s not just about aesthetics, as there are new gameplay systems in 2D that are still being discovered all these years on. “I feel like we've barely scratched the surface on what we can do in 2D,” said Galindo. “For me, being able to take a gameplay concept and focus squarely on one plane lets you polish it and make it work in such a way that few 3D games can really master. That's why some of the best action/adventure games can feel tightly designed (like Dead Cells) that would have otherwise been hard to pull off in 3D.”
“This generation has done a good job showing us that the art style needs to fit the gameplay and the game's context,” explained Fornace. “Papers, Please would be a very different experience with any other art style and is a perfect marriage of graphics and gameplay. I think we will see more creative stuff done with 2D as time goes on.”
Vlambeer (Nuclear Throne, Super Crate Box) co-founder Jan Willem Nijman felt similarly enthused about the future possibilities in 2D gaming, now that development tools are more readily available and experimental games are easier than ever to prototype.
“As making games is getting more accessible, and more people are getting access to making games, we'll be seeing all kinds of exciting new things pop up,” JW said. “I'm hoping for a whole new generation of people using games as a simple form of self-expression, just like drawing or making music. Just the fact that we have no idea what kind of stories and experiences will be told in the future makes me super excited, and I can't wait to play it all!”