3d games

The evolution of 3D games

Once upon a time there was a handful of pixels that form the space invader. The graphics were iconic, not representative: a picture on the box or manual showed you what it should look like, and your mind filled in the necessary gaps.

No one could have predicted that in just 20 years, we’d be immersing ourselves in realistic living cities, flying over beautiful tropical islands, and battling stunningly rendered characters – without even being particularly impressed.

But in the years to come, modern games like Grand Theft Auto IV and Crysis will look as dated as the classics we remember from yesteryear. In fact, they’ll probably look older: while the simplicity of a retro game’s look has a certain charm, old 3D titles tend to look old. Try almost any hit game from the mid to late 90s to see the proof.

3D is much more than pretty graphics. Done right, it brings game worlds to life. A 2D sprite can only do what it was designed to do, while a 3D character has a full endoskeleton and can react naturally (at least in theory) to anything happens – the classic example being “ragdolls”, where a fallen enemy does not. He simply collapses to the ground in a canned animation, but falls off the railing and lands with one arm draped over a step.

You can create worlds rather than just levels, unlocking the player’s ability to truly explore and experience the world as the character would. You can create simulations ready to be poked and prodded, abused and enjoyed. It’s phenomenally powerful, to the point that many nominally 2D games are now truly 3D games viewed from a locked perspective, so they can make better use of animation, physics, and gameplay possibilities. artistic assets.

Why render hundreds of animated frames that you may not be happy with when you can create a template and keep tweaking it until it’s perfect? You may lose some of the old-school charm, but you gain a whole lot more.

battle area

The first major 3D success was battle areaa tank game released in 1980 that used vector graphics to create its work, much like Asteroids. While a simple game by modern standards, it was fiendishly complex for such an early example, offering the ability to go anywhere in a (admittedly unremarkable) world, hide from attacks and fight enemies.

battle area

TANK WAR: Battlezone was thought so realistic that the US Army used it to train tank gunners

Not impressive enough? In 1987, the first Freescape game, Driller, hit the shelves. It offered a full 3D world on such basic platforms as the Spectrum, and was a real game rather than just a tech demo. Next to that, it didn’t matter that it was ugly, the frame rate was abysmal, and the game itself wasn’t exactly fun – it got a lot of attention.

The Freescape engine in its various guises has been used in several famous releases, including master of the castle and its sequel, and the complete 3D construction kit. Legend has it that someone somewhere made something other than a surreal, unplayable mess, but we never saw it.

Freescape also made it to TV, in the form of the absolutely atrocious Craig Charles vehicle. Cyberzone, one of the most exciting attempts to create a TV show about games. Luckily, all that’s left of it is a single YouTube clip – and that’s bad enough.

Most early 3D games stuck to simpler technologies. We think of 3D these days as free-roaming real-time engines, but back in the day just making a game look like 3D was awesome.

As early as 1981, games achieved this feat – 3D Monster Maze terrified a generation with its slowly updating screens and roving T-Rex, and the first Ultimate The game offered a very advanced hybrid of block-by-block motion 3D graphics for its dark dungeons alongside a top-down 2D overworld for exploration.

Interestingly, while most developers kept pushing further towards 3D, Ultimate eventually backed off, switching entirely to a sprite-based top-down system for the series’ glory days. The 3D element later developed into its own spin-off – the Ultimate Underworld games – before returning for the sadly disappointing final outing in the series – the buggy, system murder Ultimate IX: Ascension.


The problem has always been the same: the potential for 3D combat with the limitations of current systems, whether it’s just showing the graphics in the first place or making them look as good as other art styles.

Going back to a 3D game from the early 90s is now almost painful. Flat faces, unmoving lips during conversations, stick figure character models, messy textures, and terrible animations…the list of problems goes on.

Some games have surpassed that, sometimes bizarrely – most obviously Core Design’s legendary heroine Lara Croft, who has managed to become an international sex symbol despite her appearance as a pointy-chested Pinocchio. Most survived simply because playing a 3D game felt futuristic, although the lack of polygons our PCs could push meant that 2D games were generally much more detailed.

Lara Croft

GRAVE Raider: The realism of the, ahem, gameworld has certainly come

For much of 3D history, the trick has been to get the third dimensional effect without having to do it for real. The beginning Wing Commander the games gave the illusion that you were flying in 3D space, but in reality they just scaled the sprites up and down.

In first-person shooters, it quickly became clear that walls were easy thanks to their incredibly simple geometry, but snarling hellbeasts dripping blood from their fangs were asking a bit too much. So developers compromised.

The worlds themselves were created in 3D, initially as mazes. Then, as the texturing became more advanced, more realistic looking areas were created, such as those in 3D catacomb.

Interestingly, the state of the art varied greatly between genres. The shooters had to be fast and smooth, so they were simple. In the case of early games like Core Design societythings were stripped down so much that the engine didn’t even care about textures.

The first success of Id – Wolfenstein 3D in 1992 – had textures to represent the interior of his alleged Nazi stronghold, but all maps were completely flat and interaction was limited to opening doors and shooting enemies. Ultimate Underworldwhich was released the same year, had slanted surfaces, advanced lighting effects, dialogues, puzzles, magic systems, physics, 3D objects, a real plot, the ability to look up and down instead to have your view locked straight ahead and much more Suite.

Ultimate Underworld

TRADE: For Ultima Underworld games, the payoff for this level of 3D quality was poor performance and a small viewing window

Ultimate Underworld could afford to push those limits because, as an RPG, it was inherently slower than a shooter, and audiences were more willing to accept the necessary limitations, like the small viewing window. It didn’t hurt that while publisher Origin’s official motto was “We create worlds,” its unofficial creed was “Your PC will cry.” It never cared about system requirements…