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A new dimension: Tracking the arrival of 3D gaming

A new dimension: Tracking the arrival of 3D gaming

Over the decades video games have historically been expected to keep doing more; to be bigger, prettier, and more intricate with each year that passes.

In the 1990s and early 2000s gaming magazines obsessed over the dawn of photorealism. Review scores put a great deal of emphasis on visual fidelity and graphical flair, as games grew in size, soon stretching to hundreds of hours long. Today, in 2022, there is happily much space for more diversity in the medium; more games that celebrate retro pixel art, or are heavily stylised, or even deliberately lo-fi. There are the short and artful and experimental and obscure. But for years, much of a game’s potential success depended on how capably it dallied on the cutting edge.

The reason for that is simple. Games are a marriage of art and technology. They are made and played on computers, and as such, have a deep connection with technological progress. And the technological leap forwards that had the most influence, changing the medium for good while birthing new genres that would quickly become stalwarts of the medium? That surely must be the arrival of 3D; a moment that would ultimately birth the first-person shooter (FPS), and its profound influence on so many other titles. It’s a story told in tremendous detail and with insight from many leading FPS figures in our new book, I’m Too Young To Die: The Ultimate Guide to First-Person Shooters 1992–2002.

 I’m Too Young To Die: The Ultimate Guide to First-Person Shooters 1992–2002

In fact, 3D games have now been around for most of the medium’s history. While you can point to electro-mechanical shooter titles like SEGA’s 1969 release Missile as examples of first-person gaming from before the rise of pixels and screens, it almost certainly started with Maze – AKA Maze War. The 1973 title was created in an academic context for mainframe computers, offering real-time movement through a 3D environment, albeit it locked to a grid. Through updates Maze would eventually support eight players simultaneously, and enough shooting elements for many to see it as the prototype for all FPSes. Its life on mainframes like the PDP-10, however, means that it saw little exposure. Maze did, however, prove that computers could put out interactive 3D worlds, and a scattering of first-person mainframe releases followed in the 1970s, such as space sim Spasim. Ultimately, though, Maze’s legacy in popular culture would come many years later, when the 1990s FPS boom arrived.

Battlezone, Atari

The first major success realised in three dimensions, meanwhile, came a little later in 1980, when Atari debuted the arcade version of tank shooter Battlezone. Like the iconically flat Space Invaders, the absolutely 3D Battlezone used vector graphics to realise its world, and at the time it was remarkable, letting plasters move just about anywhere in its arenas, take cover, and hunt down foes. Battlezone presented something not too distant from an FPS, and at the time was considered so impressive that the US military pushed Atari to release a training simulation version for military use. That version became known as Bradley Trainer, with just two units being produced.

In truth, 3D graphics as a broader concept had emerged in the 1970s, debuting in the mainstream by the decade’s second half. The 1976 movie Futureworld – a rather flawed sequel to the famed sci-fi western Westworld – arrived as the first commercial, mainstream movie to use 3D computer-generated-imagery. It was a fleeting, rough-around-the-edges scene, but in that moment, 3D had arrived in popular culture. It’s worth noting here that Futureworld’s 3D animation actually began life in the 1972 experimental short film A Computer Animated Hand, co-produced by Edwin Catmull, who would go on to co-found Pixar, and change the future of animated entertainment forever.

Soon after, in 1978, Kazumasa Mitazawa would release a package of 3D effects for the Apple II computer named 3D Art Graphics, putting the potential of the third dimension into the hands of creators (the Mac computers themselves, of course, had their own immense influence on the future of video games). However, until the early years of the 1990s a great many game makers focussed on creating the illusion of 3D, rather than the kind of true 3D real-time worlds seen in almost every contemporaryFPS (and debuted years earlier in a more limited form by Maze and its ilk). 1981’s now infamous survival horror maze game 3D Monster World, for example, arrived on the Sinclair ZX81, and demanded a 16kb memory expansion to run. 3D Monster World looked 3D, and played in three-dimensional space. But in truth it simply offered a two dimensional landscape that presented the illusion of 3D. And to get this, out of a ZX81, it had to run at a stuttering six-frames-per-second. It was hardly fluid, but on release it proved to be one of the Sinclair machine’s most popular titles, in no small amount thanks to its technical showmanship.

Over time, more pseudo 3D games arrived, and many thrived. All this happened at the same time that pixel counts and colour palettes climbed ever skywards, and soon it was cemented that the ‘best’ games were the most advanced; at least, large audiences and swathes of marketers and publishers seemed to agree that the future of games laid in the introduction of a third axis of movement. 1990’s space sim hit Wing Commander offers one of the most famed examples of pseudo 3D, using a scrolling background and fixed cockpit foreground to create a sense of moving through the vastness of space. Over in the world of 2D games, meanwhile, isometric had been getting plenty of attention from devs as a shortcut to suggest a third-dimension, with the likes of Zaxxon, Q*bert, and Marble Madness all using the technique to great success.

Over time, the arguably more ambitious takes on pseudo 3D evolved. There was a tipping point with titles such as id Software’s 1992 hit Wolfenstein 3D, and the same year’s Ultima Underworld. Both used a heap of tricks to simulate 3D rather than give the player true full roaming freedom, but they played well, and sold well. Well enough to assert that 3D had arrived properly, and was worth taking seriously. 1992 marked a turning point, where the effort and investment in both 3D games generally and FPSes specifically increased dramatically.

Quake, id Software

18 months after Wolfenstein 3D, id released another future icon with DOOM, which mixed a 3D environment with 2D ray cast sprites. Again, it wasn’t true 3D, but it moved things forward a significant amount when it came to the fluidity and pace that the emerging FPS genre demanded if it were to meet its potential. Inspired by the learnings and success of DOOM, in 1996 id changed everything with Quake. Quake wasn’t perfect, and hasn’t aged without fault, but it was one of the first games to offer a truly fluid feeling 3D that didn't rely on too many tricks from the past. It showed what was possible, and its sales proved that the market had an appetite, ushering in the era of 3D graphics cards.

Players wanted ever more performance, and hardware manufacturers started to see that there was an opportunity to deliver cards that would expand a PC’s ability to run 3D games. As those became standard, more developers committed to the then-contemporary 3D, until it became the standard for so many genres.

Over in the world of console, a similar story had played out. Nintendo had already been releasing game cartridges bolstered by the Super FX chip, which let titles like Star Fox and Stunt Race FX dazzle players with impressively pacey three-dimensional experience. SEGA, meanwhile, had worked hard to bring the power of their arcade systems over to home platforms with the Virtua Processor chip, although its high manufacturing costs meant it was only ever released in one game cartridge; 1992’s Virtua Racing. Later planned Virtua Processor games would have to wait until the arrival of the Saturn.

Star Fox, Nintendo

When the PlayStation and Saturn arrived in 1994 and 1995 respectively, they brought much more in terms of 3D chops, bolstered by the potential of their disc format. By the late 1990s, 3D was very much the standard, with 2D relegated to a handful of genres and oddities – until the indie dev boom and game mediums' furious increase in breadth many years later saw a lasting renaissance for pancake flat visuals.

But from Maze on, it was the FPS that championed 3D; and 3D that championed the FPS. The genre grew to the point that it is now home to a great many gaming titans, from Call of Duty to Halo via Medal of Honor and GoldenEye 007. Its size and scope gave the FPS the critical mass to influence so many key elements of general game design too, such as conventions around HUDs and in-game user interfaces (UI), systems for matchmaking and multiplayer lobbying, level design and maps, and the expansion and infrastructure of esports and competitive gaming more generally. The FPS might not be able to take sole credit for most of those things, but it played a critical role; a role you can learn more about in the aforementioned, I’m Too Young To Die: The Ultimate Guide to First-Person Shooters 1992–2002, which picks up around the point titles like Wolfenstein 3D arrived.

There are a great many other gaming forms that owe much to the arrival of 3D, of course. But few genres are as entangled with that history as the FPS.

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