Endangered Games
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2D Or Not 2D

This post is part of the September Round Table, which is about space and dimensions, and takes the form of an inconsequential rant.

Rant_smallFor more than a decade now, I've had a feeling that there was still a viable space in the videogames market for 2D games in general, and 2D platform games in particular. The moment I started thinking about the problem of reaching a wider audience for videogames in terms of the complexity of controls, it seemed to me that there was an insurmountable advantage to rendering a game in 2D (or at least, to rendering a game in such a way that it could be controlled in two dimensions) but it wasn't until New Super Mario Bros. on the DS sold a whopping 18.45 million units that I finally had some evidence to support my suspicions.

Let me put this in perspective. 18.45 million is about 75% of the units the PS3 has shipped (and about 60% of the units the Xbox 360 has sold); it's more sold copies than any game on either of those consoles, the PS2, the original PlayStation, the Xbox, the GameCube, or the N64. In fact, if you look at the top ten best selling games of all time you'll notice a few things: every single one of them is a Nintendo title, 6 out of 10 of them are in 2D, and 4 out of 10 are 2D Mario games. Even the titles that aren't in 2D like Wii Sports (the best selling game of all time), Wii Play, Wii Fit and Nintendogs have very simple controls because having simple controls is the secret of reaching a wide audience.

Those who object to the inclusion of bundled games into the best selling title list, including the wikipedia geeks, should remember that a bundled game is still sold, and if Microsoft or Sony had a game popular enough to sell a decent number of hardware units they too would bundle it for as long as Nintendo. To not count the successful titles because they can shift hardware units as well as software units is rather disingenuous, no matter how much it may offend the die-hard gamers to admit that their tastes are not reflected in the majority. (Of course, shortages of Wii Remotes helped sell Wii Play, but talk to the mass market Wii players and you'll find many that love this game).

Now I appreciate that dedicated gamers don't care about sales figures – except when using them to lord the success of their preferred console over their less successful rivals, or any other context where the sales data happens to accord to their personal beliefs, or can be manipulated to seem to do so. The serious gamer only cares about “gameplay”, which is to say: whatever a game does that most completely juices their pleasure centre. In this regard, videogame reviewers – who are so serious about games they've found away to get paid for playing and mouthing off about them – could save time in calculating their arbitrary review scores by simply measuring their dopamine levels with fast-scan cyclic voltammetry and converting that to a number.

What does this have to do with 2D games? Well, the fact of the matter is that the videogames industry is basically staffed and run by dedicated gamers, who bring their delightfully biased opinions on games to all the important business decisions. So while Nintendo, with their wacky ideas about investigating what people enjoy and giving development teams the resources they need to capitalise on that knowledge make billions of yen on games that apparently don't count because they're too popular, the rest of the games industry keeps making first person shooters hoping to be part of that 1% of FPS franchises that manage to enjoy between a quarter to a half of the success of Nintendo's top titles.

The net result is that despite the phenomenal success of Nintendo's 2D games, publishers rarely if ever bankroll titles in 2D, preferring instead to compete with each other making games which appeal solely to gamers. And to be fair, it's hard to get a game out to a wider audience without getting the gamers to evangelise, and getting a gamer to choose a 2D title over a 3D title is a challenge at the best of times if you don't have the awesome popularity of the Mario franchise to help.

It doesn't help that by investing heavily in high octane graphics power, Sony and Microsoft enforce an assumption that games on their consoles must be in super shiny 3D, except on their download services which barely manage to reach out to the mass market anyway (and even there, I've heard Sony was resistant to 2D games). 2D titles have been annexed to the handhelds, which Nintendo have effectively cornered for decades now – at least until a few months time when New Super Mario Bros. Wii stands ready to demonstrate that a 2D game can work on a home console. I predict that not only will it be a roaring success, it will have no effect on the other publishers, who will continue to pretend 2D games are a thing of the past.

So, 2D or not 2D – that is the question. Nintendo's answer: nearly 2 trillion yen in outrageous fortune. Everyone else seems to settle for the sea of troubles.

Comments

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Is there a reliable place to find out total game sales for free? I'd be interested to see how well Wario Shake did.

Also, I assume there's some source other than Wikipedia to find out the top-seling games?

There are a whole bunch of 2D games on XBLA though I know you consider the online-only factor a deterrent for casual gamers...

Bezman: I have access to some sales data via various clients that is under NDA and can't be shared.

But there is a reasonable source of sales data available at vgchartz. It's not completely accurate, and doesn't really go back very far with its data, but for a free source of sales data it's unbeatable.

I would have thought that the objection to bundled games would be that people buy the package for the hardware, not the game bundled with it. Most of the bundles I've seen, the hardware would definitely be the reason for buying it. Ugh, DSes in pretty colours are always bundled with types of games I can't stand.

To second the comment above by Bezman, there have been some very popular 2d platformer releases on the Xbox Live Arcade lately - Bionic Commando: Rearmed, Splosion Man and Shadow Complex to name a few.

I don't think the 2d platformer will ever die. It has a casual appeal that will probably retain a place in the leisuretime of a lot of humans for decades to come, while fully 3d games demand too much attention - too much stress, they're too much like reality for the casual market, while the hardcore market like it for that exact reason.

Regarding Nintendo, I'm skeptical as to the actual value of design in their games. I think they got lucky, early, and as is the nature of human affection/obsession, the pebbles tumbled and set loose an avalanche.

The bigger it gets, the bigger it gets. The more people love it, the more people love it. One of those fundamental guidelines.

Adam Saltsman posted some other insights about controls in 2D games, Gravity Porn that:
http://gamasutra.com/blogs/AdamSaltsman/20090523/1446/Bytes_Gravity_Porn.php

Chris G.: thanks for the link!

Katherine: "I would have thought that the objection to bundled games would be that people buy the package for the hardware, not the game bundled with it."

That is the usual objection... I am objecting to that objection on the grounds that (a) the bundled game is still sold and (b) the truly successful games are bundled in order to help shift hardware, and to discount them as best-sellers *because* they were able to do so is more misrepresentative than to include them in lists of best-selling titles.

Jakk: the appearance of titles on the service doesn't prove they've sold in good numbers. :) I don't get to see Xbox Live sales figures, but knowing that GTA4 had to release its DLC in a retail version as well tells me that the numbers are not as good as publishers would like.

I do agree that 2D will always have a place in games, though. That's kind of the thrust behind this rant. :)

As for Nintendo, from what I've seen of Nintendo's design process, I believe game design is very important to Nintendo. Indeed, Iwata-san spent his last GDC keynote explaining how Nintendo have thrived by giving the resources to teams to allow them to get the game design right, rather than just shipping early. Perhaps you just dislike Nintendo - there are many reasons why one might do so. :)

Best wishes!

A big 'hardcore' gamer hurrah of agreement with this post Chris. :-)

Personally, I still generally prefer 2d games - one reason perhaps why I buy more games on XBLA than anywhere else. And I even like simpler controls at times too, where I feel they are appropriate.

Amusingly I'm currently fighting a (probably) losing battle on a fighting-game forum of which part of the disagreement is that 'easier commands' = worse game in the eyes of the self-proclaimed 'old school' players. :-/ I completely disagree with this, and think it's an amazingly blinkered attitude. I can understand that the controls themselves have to be complex enough to induce flow & the challenge a hardcore gamer desires, but the vast majority of fighting games just go WAY too far with unnecessarily complicated commands, even for me!

XBLA sales figures do seem impossible to come by, but articles like this do give some indication:

http://www.gamasutra.com/php-bin/news_index.php?story=24773

Rik: thanks for the comment, and the link!

I can't handle fighting games at all, mostly because of the complexity of the control space. I like a game which gives me a small number of atomic actions and asks me to use them well, not a game that requires me to memorise/learn a complex control scheme. :)

Best wishes!

Chris - whilst I'm likely not as far along that scale as you are, that's pretty much precisely the reason I prefer older "simpler" fighting games like Street Fighter 2 - the recent 'HD Remix' of it made it even easier to actually perform moves - to certain players chagrin) over newer ones which just add massive layers of complexity to the things. The decision tree in most fighting games doesn't tend to get that much more complex than SF2, but they just seem to add huge amounts of layers onto the difficulty to actually remember & perform the optimal parts of that decision tree.

I don't feel either is better, it's just a matter of taste really of how much you slant towards the more strategic side of making the optimal decision(s) and the execution side of making it hard to actually perform those decisions - and even take decisions away from players of lesser skills, so they might know what to do, yet can't do it.
I personally believe even the 'simplest' ones like SF2 are already far too difficult to execute for the vast majority of players. I'm good enough to have won local tournaments and am ranked around the top 300 on XBox Live skill ranking, yet I still find many moves too difficult to do.

Rik: I remain fascinated by discussions of the mechanics of fighting games, because this is a genre I have never been able to find any way to enjoy (outside of the hack-and-slash games, like Dynasty Warriors). I'm always amazed at the discussions that fighting game fans are able to have about the mechanics!

I wonder, in this regard, if the difficult to execute moves are part of the appeal of these games to some extent - that a player feels especially gratified to have mastered a difficult move precisely because it was difficult to learn.

This might not apply to every player, but if any player is gleaning this enjoyment if might explain why the mechanics have moved into this space.

And I certainly agree with you that even a "simple" (!) fighting game like SF2 is far, far, too complex for a mass market audience. But then, these aren't mass market games, with the single notable exception of Super Smash Bros. which sells in the 5-8 million range - unheard of figures for fighting games.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

:) Clearly I find the discussion fascinating too. ;) Veering wildly off topic here, but when I eventually get the time I'm working towards a discussion of SF4 on my blog which I'll go into all of this in more depth. Despite the fighting game resurgence 'caused' in part by SF4, I do think it will remain such a niche market, precisely because of the way the big ticket 'headline' games like SF4 fail to even really attempt to broaden the accessibility of these titles (outside of false advertising).

Your point about the appeal of mastery of execution is extremely astute as usual :). I think this is a big part of the 'flow' that a fighting game player can achieve; the problem is the vast majority of people will end up stuck in the frustration (despair?) zone, and the worst thing is these games make so little attempt to even help these players. I hit my "flow" point most often in SF2, and many other fighting games are just too hard/too fast and too complex for me, which I really find a shame. What I find tragic (as a fan of the genre) is that good training modes and good online matchmaking & handicapping could do so much to make these games fun for many more players, no matter the level of play - yet these features are still glaringly absent.

What I also find interesting though, is that at the very top levels of play at these games, at least for SF2, everyone can execute everything with very high %'s of success. So making moves 'easier' for lower level players, really doesn't change the top-level game at all.
Right, I really ought to write this up properly. ;)

I enjoyed Soul Blade/Calibur's 'adventure' modes' variance and as you suggest, something similar could be employed to help 'train' players to make special moves. Maybe making some opponents/challenges almost 'Super Punch-Out'-like in that they'd require a specific subset of moves to overcome, other moves at the wrong time maybe even having bad results.

By making it clear that only move X is effective (and maybe only during certain time frames), it could be a fun way for folk to gain the gratification of progressing through a series of levels whilst also faining the experience and ability to perform the moves.

For the record, I've never actually completed SF2 on the default difficulty. I'm a bit rubbish at most videogames, though...

Rik: please drop by and leave a link if you do write this up on your blog.

I must say, I am doubtful that fighting games could reach a far wider audience even if accessibility issues were addressed (which is not to say that they wouldn't reach out to more players if they did, just that there would be a ceiling to this reach).

The appeal of this kind of intense direct competition is going to be limited on the one hand to people who either enjoy or are not threatened by extremely competitive situations, and on the other by people with the reflexes to participate (which I suspect sets an age limit on the appeal).

In fact, although I have not seen the data, I'll wager that the appeal of fighting games is squarely in the 13-25 male demographic (with maybe 5% women in the audience as well).

I do agree with both you and Bezman that adequate training would widen the accessibility of these titles (this, I think, is true of any game) - but I don't think we're talking about the capacity to double the audience.

Which, if I'm right, means that fighting games are, on the whole, servicing their audience rather well. :)

Best wishes!

Thanks Chris :) Well this is all waaay off-topic really now, but since you asked, I'll post anyway :)

I did start off getting some of my thoughts down in blog format. I'm afraid some of it's a bit heavy on the in-jokes and fighting game terminology, but hopefully it's readable :) I intend to go on further, using your multi-part blogs at Only A Game as inspiration (and because I was ending up with 6000 word epics I never got finished if I didn't break things up).

Part '1' if you like:
http://agoners.wordpress.com/2009/09/30/challenge-me-angel/

Part 2:
http://agoners.wordpress.com/2009/10/09/versus-flow/

You can probably see how I'm going to move onto training modes and better ways of organising competition (especially online) when I get the time to do so. There ARE things afoot that are moving towards what I'd like to see (mostly on the PC though).

I do agree that you probably won't double the audience in total numbers, but you might well double the fun for a whole lot of players, something that's a worthwhile goal in it's own right to me at least. Theoretically this would eventually bring greater commercial success too. One to watch might be how Blizzard do on this front with Starcraft 2 - which is going to be quite interesting given it's going to be an intense competitive game selling to their current "WoW" 'social' audience. I maybe naive but I think it can be done!

Incidentally the 'average' fighting game player in my experience is quite a bit older than 13-25. The top players at competitions generally start in their 20s at the youngest. Now obviously I'm not seeing the silent majority of players here, and my taste is slanting it, but I beleive the reason for this is that the heyday of these games for competitive play was still the arcade culture that younger players these days (outside of East Asia at least) have simply never known. Online has a chance to replace that, and it is getting there with vastly improved netcode in games the last few years. But I feel it will need more changes to the mechanics too (BlazBlue interestingly made a few 'odd' design choices that seem purely aimed to decrease the weaknesses of online play).

Thanks for the links and the continued insight into the fighting game niche! I can easily believe that competitive players are 20+, but on the basis of the numbers I've seen I still think the audience for fighting games begins in the teens. I doubt such young players enter tournaments, though, and your point about the heyday of the arcade is well made. I'll check out your posts when I get a chance.

Cheers!

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