[PAX East 2010] Three Dimensions: The Future of Gaming?

One heavy lifter at PAX East 2010 was without a doubt NVIDIA. In addition to the usual line-up of top-notch graphics cards, high-powered laptops, and ain’t-it-cool gaming rig setups, the big news of the hour was their 3-D gaming station on exhibition. I got a chance to check out their demo of Just Cause 2 in full 3-D glory and I was pleasantly surprised by the results.

The demo was limited to mostly racing down highways, stealing cars, and otherwise being a reckless badass, so I can’t speak much to the game itself. That said, Just Cause 2 in 3-D was astonishing. The 3-D added depth and created a very immersive gaming experience. Unlike in most 3-D movies, nothing popped out at you or seemed to reach forward at you. Instead, the background receded to create the sense of a real world out there. While driving, the vehicle you were on was crystal clear as the surroundings zoomed toward or away from you, but it never felt nauseating or disorienting. Most importantly, the 3-D didn’t change the game: just the experience of playing it. It worked here because the game wasn’t about the 3-D, and nothing about the game was altered to draw more attention to it or otherwise distract from the play experience. It was an added dimension, both literally and figuratively—an addition rather than a transformation. And that addition made the story feel more absorbing and made otherwise static background art spring to life.

So, is this the future of gaming?

I can see how 3-D could add a lot to many different genres of games, as long as it’s used to create depth and not just jump out at you. (A Left 4 Dead 2 3-D experience might leave me twitching on the floor and traumatized for life.) The possibilities for racing games, flight simulators, and dogfighting games are particularly intriguing. Can you imagine a World War II dogfight with actual dimension?

But I don’t see the point in much else—RPGs and anything with more stylized art would just look bizarre and awful, as the art creates all the depth and immersion you need. Action-adventure games could easily become disorienting or too difficult, and there’s always the fear of motion sickness. Even the demo I saw left me with the impression that after about half an hour you’d probably walk away with a killer headache from trying to focus your vision on multiple planes. The thought of something like Mirror’s Edge in 3-D makes me sick just thinking about it.

Then, of course, is the cost, not advertised anywhere at the booth. A quick search of their site shows us that an introductory 3-D Kit will run you about $200—and that’s without the 3-D-capable monitor and the high-end graphics card you’ll need to actually render it all. Ouch.

Not to mention selection: there are only seven games right now considered fully 3-D ready, with a few dozen others able to be transformed and stereoscopically rendered in 3-D through backwards compatibility. What kind of quality you’ll get out of the transformation I can only guess, because they weren’t demoing any games not intended specifically for 3-D.

I have historically looked on 3-D very dubiously, and I have rarely been persuaded that it’s anything other than an expensive gimmick. But what I saw this weekend made me wonder if there isn’t a future in it after all. The possibilities are there, particularly for a few subsets of games (like racing and flight games) that I think have a lot to gain from it. But will it materialize? And would you even want it to?

So what do you think: is 3-D the future of gaming, or just another gimmick?

Torie Atkinson didn’t sleep much last weekend, but it was worth it!


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