Growing up with an NES, I saw the progress it made year by year, game by game. The teams behind my favorite titles got a better grasp of the hardware as time went on, and I reaped the rewards. Late efforts like Kirby's Adventure made it hard to believe that this was the same system that played Duck Hunt all those years ago. When the SNES debuted, I felt like I understood how things were; the console's "bits" would double, and in turn, the graphics would get better.
While I was half right, I clearly didn't have much foresight, as it wasn't long before 3D became the norm with the Saturn, PlayStation, and N64. Suddenly, instead of improving on what came before, developers had a whole new set of problems to consider. What little 2D we saw at the time was beautiful, but it was few and far between.
It's funny how quick 2D was pushed aside, considering sprites were how some of the industry's earliest works were displayed. Products like the Odyssey brought 2D gaming to the home, while Computer Space and Pong were some of the earliest arcade games. But even then developers tinkered with meagre hardware to produce 3D visuals, such as 1980's Battlezone.
As we transitioned from the Atari 2600 to hardware like the NES a Sega Master System, what we saw on our televisions was no longer a poor interpretation of the boxart; instead we saw the developer's intentions come alive on screen.
2D as the go-to form for games see me destined, with Sega originally building the Saturn as a powerhouse for sprite based titles. But with Sony's desire to bring the industry into the third dimension with the PlayStation, Sega buckled and changed the Saturn's architecture. 2D lived on through handhelds, but even that changed with the DS and PSP in 2004.
3D development is easier than ever now, with tools like Unity and Unreal Engine 4 available for very little cost or even free. So, in a landscape dominated by these 3D games, what compels a developer to look back and continue the work that was forced to take a back seat? Why does any developer work in 2D anymore?
"We love the precision control and beautiful graphics of great 2D games," Yacht Club Games' Sean Velasco tells me. "This style of game is what we loved to play when we were growing up, and it's a genre we really wanted to explore on our own terms."
Velasco made a name for himself at WayForward Technologies, one of the industries best names in 2D gaming. Before leaving to form Yacht Club Games, he and his team worked on titles like Mighty Milky Way, Contra 4, and Double Dragon Neon. Upon its formation, the folks at Yacht Club Games began crafting Shovel Knight, an action platformer forged with the aesthetics of an NES game, but with a dash of modern innovation. "We worked really hard to give Shovel Knight a heart and soul. The design work involved is also very intensive, starting from concept on paper and going through numerous iterations," Velasco explains. "The result is that those simple graphics can pack a ton of emotional punch! I think this is proven by younger kids and other gamers who have never played an NES game, or a pixel game for that matter."
Brjann Sigurgeirsson of Image & Form sees the emotional benefits of 2D artwork as well. "2D has the added benefit of not being 'real'," he tells me, "that gives us complete freedom to create unusual settings and characters. Since they are cartoonish, there is never a discussion of things not looking 'the way they should' - or even that our stories are 'unrealistic'."
Love for 2D runs deep for Sigurgeirsson, as he explains his studio's reasoning for SteamWorld Dig's artstyle as a necessary one. "We've more or less always been a 2D studio, and can make our artwork really shine. Risking to sound as a generalization, I also believe that great 2D art can look better than 'regular' 3D. Of course there is brilliant 3D out there, but I think that many 3D games look more or less the same. Many are striving for something that approximates realism, and that can get very samey."
WayForward Technologies sees 2D artwork as part of their very DNA, a skill the company has honed over 25 years. "We really enjoy flexing those muscles today," says Matt Bozon, the studio's Creative Director, "even though the industry and WayForward have changed quite a bit." The studio's strength comes from a workforce well versed in the ways of hand drawn animation. Bozon himself is a graduate of the California Institute of the Arts, a university founded by Walt Disney in the 1960s to nurture and educate students of visual and performing arts.
While the passion is apparent, there's no denying the role a budget plays in a game's development. Whether self-funded, crowd sourced, or supported by a publisher, developer's have to create with what's provided. Bozon tells me that budget does play a large role in whether the studio crafts a 2D or 3D game, and while it may not always be the case, 2D can cost less considering the teams can be smaller in size. But no matter the budget, the themes, content, and intention behind the game plays a role in what direction many of these studios head in. Jason Canam, a Game and Level Designer at DrinkBox Studios, says he and the studio would never abandon a project that would be better represented in 3D due to a budget.
"The type of games that we've created so far," Canam says,"...have been best suited by being presented in 2D. For Guacamelee!, we wanted the combat to be fast, frenetic and most importantly, responsive." Canam feels that a problem present in many 3D action titles is an inconsistent framerate and attacks from off-screen enemies, both of which the studio believed would be solved with a 2D presentation. Canam reiterates that the studio would never shoehorn a concept into 2D because of budget, and states that DrinkBox "will always do what's best for the game, and by extension, best for the player."
For Bozon and WayForward Technologies, publishers come to them requesting the studio work their magic, which was the case with Majesco when it came to 2011's Bloodrayne: Betrayal. But outside of those situations, Bozon is clear that gameplay is the deciding factor of the game's looks. That's not to say it's always been easy, with Bozon noting that during the Game Boy Advance's lifetime, publishers wanted to impress consumers with 3D visuals. Bozon expressed concern, considering the hardware wasn't designed with that sort of presentation in mind. He admits that times have certainly changed for the better, "These days there's a greater acceptance that games are games, and they come in a wide variety of styles, and you can't guarantee success based on 2D, 3D, long or short games, tough or casual...it's a refreshing time to be a game developer!"
With the industry and consumers as accepting as ever of 2D games since the launch of the PlayStation, the biggest concern is the future. With 3D development tools like Unity and Unreal Engine 4 costing little (and in some cases provided for free), our budding designers are born into a polygonal world.
Velasco expresses concern over the video game programs of some colleges and universities, noting that he finds most programs focus on 3D. "Lots of students are making Unreal Engine mods and making models in 3D Studio Max and Maya, which is great for 3D games, but not applicable to what we do. Overall I see too much emphasis on learning tools, and not enough on learning the concepts, workflow, and teamwork that is required to develop a game in the real world." Velasco wants students to join any available Game Development Club, stressing the importance of a team experience.
Fortunately, programs and professors that understand the importance of 2D development do exist, and Oakville, Ontario's Sheridan College Institute of Tech and Advanced Learning plays home to both. Cindy Poremba, a Professor of Game Design at the college, tells me that 2D development doesn't fall by the wayside in her program. "We use Unity for both 2D and 3D, as well as tools like Photoshop, Illustrator, and Flash for animation, and Processing during the introductory programming course.These skills aren't just taught then pushed aside for lessons in 3D, Poremba notes that students develop several games during the program, with last year's students assigned to creating a 3-level, 2D game for the Android platform.
"The idea isn't that 2D games are simply a stop on the road...to 3D development," Poremba explains. "It is simply easier to give [students] the skill set to create 2D games than it is to create 3D games, and we want to get everyone up and running quickly so that they can focus on the craft of making good games." She keeps a close eye on the intentions of the students, recognizing what styles might be a more appropriate choice for their game designs.
I think about my own introduction to games, and how 2D was all I had for years. Maybe my fondness for the form is due to this upbringing, and perhaps today's youth don't have that same attachment to 2D titles. Thankfully, I couldn't be more wrong. "I think a lot of our students are inspired by (particularly) indie game developers doing amazing work in 2D. Others are influenced by 2D art and animation styles (for example, vector, anime, or pixel art) that tend to be 2D. So we definitely have a good number of students who come in wanting to make 2D games." With so much potential on the horizon, I think it's best if these industry vets share not only to the finer qualities of 2D development, but its difficulties too.
In regards to pixel artwork, Bozon states that a little goes a long way, which means more time can be spent on the game experience. Although, he adds that it's an abstract medium. "It's very difficult to make changes when dealing with hand drawn animation...3D is far more flexible in that sense. I have seen a lot of developers do incredible things in either 2D or 3D, because that's where they excel. So it also depends on the people you're working with, their talent and passion, and what inspires them."
For Sigurgeirsson, the best part of 2D is how in control the artist is, "...there are no real-time settings that will affect or downscale your art." Unfortunately, the nature of the medium means he can't walk around and study his character from different sides. But, as Sigurgeirsson puts it, "...that doesn't affect the quality of the experience - 2D is meant to work that way."
Something that gets under Canam's skin is the notion that 2D means your game is retro. "Hearing people make comments about how games like Guacamelee! and Super TIME Force 'look like it's on Super Nintendo' is terribly incorrect....Modern games like these are more sophisticated and complex (but of course, not necessarily better) than games for previous generations." While he fights this misconception, Canam is delighted in the fact that 2D allows the creator to control what the player sees. "A 2D environment can more easily convey information to the player. Everything can be right there. You know what the player will be looking at, so you can more easily predict how they'll play the game."
While I may not be surrounded by the 2D worlds I once was, there's no denying that there's still plenty to go around. What makes this period so interesting is that those who make use of a 2D aesthetic now truly want to do so. There's a passion in their work that's undeniable. While I pine for the days of the SNES and Genesis, the truth is those developers had to go that route. Outside of outliers like Star Fox and Stunt Race FX, there really wasn't many opportunities for studios to enter the third dimension. The developers above respect the art form, and it comes through in their work. While 2D may not be the dominant force it once was, it's certainly not going anywhere.