The history of 3D internet gaming
There are gamers today who would not have had the experience of gaming when it was first conceptualized and had gameplay with some pretty bad graphics by today’s standards. So let’s rediscover how far the industry has come and just how much better the graphics are now!
Many of us know one of the most retro games out there, Space Invaders but did you know it was the first-ever fixed shooter game to be invented? The game was created by Tomohiro Nishikado in Japan in 1978, it was manufactured and sold by Taito in Japan, licensed by Midway, a part of the Bally division in the US, it was the first fixed shooter game and a template that led into the first-person shooter genre.
40 years later no one could have anticipated the gaming world. Fully captivating realistic open worlds, with breathtaking graphics that will transport the player into the heart of the game. Fully fleshed out character designs and storylines that have multiple endings depending on your choices. The industry has come a long way and has lots to show for it.
It’s amazing to think that in another 20 years how much further gaming will be from this point as well. Classic arcade games have a retro aesthetic that we can all give a nostalgic smile too, although most ’90s haven’t aged all that well.
The 3D world as we know it today is a totally encompassing experience as a gamer. You journey through a game with mind-blowing graphics and character designs that have both realistic human textures (think hair textures and how clothes move on the character) and pretty “human” natural responses to what happens in-game.
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Gaming has come a long way to keep you immersed in the story of what you are playing (if it is story-driven) so the limp “ragdoll” effect of enemy characters has also been addressed. A more realistic fall or death in-game, keeps you immersed in what you are doing; rather than bringing you back to reality when you notice a character just falling flat on one side!
World exploration is now possible with 3D gaming, as well as games that have an open world aspect. Once levels have been unlocked you can go back and free roam the character’s world as you want. Building your own world in games such as Minecraft or characters in World of Warcraft have an investive experience and can be rewarding, frustrating and amazing all at the same time.
The 1980’s saw its first successful 3D release in the form of Battlezone. This game used wireframe vector graphics which essentially create the mountains on the horizon, a crescent moon in the background, various geometric shapes floating around and an erupting volcano. Although simple in design by the gaming standards of today, it was a great example of the possibilities of a free-roam world as a first example.
Following on from Battlezone was 1987’s Driller. This was the first game from Freescape that could be played on the Spectrum. You could have a 3D world experience, on what was a pretty basic platform. Although the game wasn’t aesthetically pleasing, it was slow and clunky to play and the idea of the game was really relatively boring, it still gained a lot of traction when it was first released.
Freescape released notable games like Castle Master, Castle Master 2: The Crypt, 3D Construct Kit and 3D Construction Kit 2. Freescape even made it to TV with the programme Cyberzone. This virtual sporting world luckily only had one season and all that’s left is an awkward clip of the whole thing on YouTube.
Living in the modern age we are lucky to be able to experience 3D gaming with a free-roaming aspect. Achieving 3D in itself was a feat in itself when gaming first came into being.
To go back a bit, in 1981 games had already achieved this. The Monster Maze with a wandering dinosaur and the dungeon world Ultima had leading graphics (for the time) with 3D visuals that gamers could experience and explore.
Ultima tried something different when gaming developers pulled forward. Ultima created a top-down sprite solution for a nod to the good old days and stayed where it was. By comparison to the direction of other games, it had pulled backwards. Ultima Underworld had a series but It was an interesting move and one that had a disappointing finale: IX – Ascension had a system that just had too many problems with it to fix.
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There had always been a problem with 3D and some drawbacks of the systems at the time. Making them look as well presented as the concept art and making it enjoyable and as realistic to play was a challenge. The ideas were all there but the tech wasn’t, yet.
Looking back to games from the early 90’s it’s clear to see how far the gaming industry has come. Most graphics when we look back to early examples of 3D characters are interesting to say the least. Stick figures, face without 3D features and mouths that didn’t move when the character spoke.
Core Design’s immortalized character Lara Croft is a great example of a game that could get past the graphics issues. Lara Croft became internationally known as a sexual icon despite the triangle chest she had been given. It was the future and that’s what gamers wanted to play and be a part of in the community, the movement into the 3D world of gaming, despite the platforms not fully being able to keep up with the games at the time. 2D looked better but 3D had the allure of change and the future was bright for those that got on the bandwagon early.
A lot of it, in the beginning, was simply a trick of the eye. Getting the game to give the illusion of 3D without actually building it. But it was enough to transport you as a gamer and the seed was set for making free-roaming worlds a reality.
A really good example of this illusion is the earlier Wing Commanders. You had the feeling of flying through the air when in reality you were in the air in a fixed position and the world moved around you.
3D worlds were initially mazes, the flat and relatively easy design of walls and edges were simple enough. Monsters, on the other hand, were challenging to create to look realistic.
As texturizing advancements came in, areas in games started to look more realistic, like the game Catacomb 3D.
Art styles also really varied across genres. The fast-paced movements of Shooter style games were kept relatively simple. Some games did away with textures altogether, like those from the Core Designs Corporation.
Going back to Ultima Underworld 1992, was up against Wolfstein’s first-person shooter based in a Nazi castle with basic textures that got straight to the point, the door opens you walk into the room and shoot baddies.
Ultima Underworld had wonky surfaces, lighting textures, character dialogue, a magic system, 3D objects and the mechanics to be able to look, rather than a locked viewpoint. This was wrapped up into a storyline, too!
To dive deeper into Ultima Underworld, they kept developing their role-playing games. It was slower than the aforementioned shooter games that were also out at the same time but the target demographic seemed to be more accepting of the limitations of the game.
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Games seemed to be stuck in 2.5D, always creating the illusion of D but not quite getting to its final 3D form.
2.5D maps in the game were flat still and areas couldn’t be raised or lowered, it wasn’t until later games such as Duke Nukem 3D sloped. This added texture gave a more realistic feel to the game but still, you could not have floors between buildings, or one level on top of another.
There were games that tricked the gamer into the “3D” by teleporting through doors and gateways.
1995’s Descent was a 3D world made from polygons, it was pretty basic at best. The series had a system of sprawling mineshafts. Star Wars – Dark Forces had rooms above rooms creating levels inside structures but did not offer anything innovative to the shooter genre and used the same display style as other shooter games as well as sprites.
There was a growing issue with sprites. Level design in the mid ’90s was already far more exciting. By our standards today the Duke Nukem Forever opening cinema level was relatively featureless, however to the gamers of the era it must have been amazing to play. The military corridors and castles were as realistic as they could be due to the limitations of the tech at the time.
The advances in gaming technology gave almost all games the ability to save the 3D world that they had created. The characters had been previously drawn as 2D images and were subsequently pasted in the game. This did not create as seamless a finish as one may have thought. There were issues with the characters and the scenery they were in as well as looking pretty square up close.
Sprites offered the scale a player would need for dealing with distance, getting up close or moving further away from the character. When the ability to move the character to look up and down came into play, it quickly showed the limits of the surroundings of the game.
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There was a disconnection from what the games wanted to be and what they were due to the limitations in tech at the time. As games became more and more advanced the graphics couldn’t keep up with what the number of movements needed for the full 3D world experience. The game Quake gave this a go and had a full 3D world experience but the visual simply couldn’t keep up and made for a visually fractured game.
All be it technically there were improvements, and those changes came in the way of animation – one that many gamers will remember is the snarling enemy that launches through the door to attack the player head-on!
The world though was still washed out and had no aesthetically pleasing qualities. Not to mention enemies that looked like they had been through the proverbial mill. People didn’t realise at the time that they needed a dedicated video card to work in conjunction with a CPU. With what was available at the time to put it simply there wasn’t one that could handle the needs of the vastly improving graphics.
You could buy games with a high-end mode and not have to buy additional hardware and high-end mode became the norm. This was long before video cards were mandatory for PC games. This transition was a slow one and not a marker for the industry to change all at the same time.
3D games cards came in around 1997 or thereabouts. There were several brands that were trying to reach the top spot. The most successful was 3DFX with the Voodoo card.
Today low-end standard motherboards will have to have a separate 3D card, this is still very much mandatory for most games. The DirectX’s sovereignty means that you needn’t worry which card to buy though.
What the 3D card could offer in terms of abilities wasn’t particularly exciting. The functions at its core were clipping and lighting, This meant that the card worked out where you as a player could see items and how they should be lit.
A big advance that shortly followed was shaders. Shaders were an extra render that worked on the pixels of the item, worked out the verticals and geometry of the object to add textures and transform the image of what the player was looking at. Great examples to work out shaders or where to place shadows is how a flag would move in the wind or adding a shadow to a hill. This texture gave the illusion of both raised and lower levels without the extra work of adding in polygons. Shaders grew in advancement and could create motion blurs, soft shadows on objects and volumetric lighting.
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The new bottlenecks
The manufacturing of cards meant the burden had eased somewhat on the tech.
Game developers focused on pioneering skeletal-based characters rather than working on keyframe animation.
Games like Half-Life and Ritual created interactive objects, like hackable computers.
The new realism of games that were coming out of technological advances meant that developers could really channel their skills into genres that they had previously not been able to. The world of first-person shooters had opened up with games like Grand Theft Auto III that gave players a living city with moving cars and people walking the streets that you could interact with. Had they solved the problems? Not quite, more like they had simply been replaced
The issue was how to create it all. First-person shooters worked based off of maze design, these games could be turned around in a year. World-building, however, demanded an enormous amount of assets to be included.
Nowadays games are much shorter in comparison. It’s a simple case of working smarter, with more moderate thinking involved because of the cost of making games.
Developers can create shortcuts for themselves when building a game, they can generate a forest quickly by using Speedtrees for example. This saves developers time but if they want something more specific they will have to create it for themselves.
The year 2020 sees the gaming giants Playstation and Xbox set with their latest machines Xbox Series X and Playstation 5 to be released later this year. With smart TVs and surround sound connected to a 3D open-world, we have never been so invested in immersive gameplay.
The history of 3D internet gaming: Conclusion
With the advancement of tech to the level that we are so used to and expect as modern gamers, our standards have been set very high. We want to be fully immersed in the characters we are playing, with relatable character traits and story arcs, multiple-choice endings with plot twists that both shock and delight us as players. We are spoiled with cinematic cutscenes and emotional tugs on our heartstrings, they draw you in even closer and make it seem possible, that one day 3D virtual “ matrix” style world could truly be possible.
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