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