Does 3D have a future in mobile gaming?
I took the top 24 apps in the Apple App Store and identified those which are 2D, 3D and 2.5D (3D with a 2D perspective). Here are the results:
- 2D games dominate the top charts. The top 5 games in every category are all 2D.
- 2D games generate more revenue than 3D games.
- The majority of top 3D games are by big studios.
- There are hardly any 3D games in the top free charts, with the majority residing in the top paid.
What happened to 3D?
Is it simply because developers haven't invested enough in 3D games for mobiles?
From my experience, many 3D games I play on mobiles don't match the standard of console games in terms of scale and polish. If you look at games even a decade ago on consoles such as the PS2, N64, or even on PC you see that there is a lot of room for improvement in the mobile space.
As someone who has spent the past 2 years developing a 3D mobile game, it's not a walk in the park. The app store is an indie haven, and many indies who don't have much of a budget tend to develop 2D games. That's why right now the Gamelofts and EAs dominating the 3D space. But there are now tools like Unity 3D, so it's getting easier.
It is quite clear that the most grossing apps tend to be FarmVille-esque 2D games. To me, it's a world of copycats and trends. Developers should try to stay one step ahead of the competition, not imitate it. What's stopping 3D games from having the same effect?
At the end of the day, it's not the graphics that are preventing success. People don't care if your game is 2D or 3D, as long as they find it fun and addictive. But are there really enough fun and addictive 3D games out there? Maybe it's because 2D games tend to be of a higher standard in terms of polish and gameplay.
The Nintendo 3DS is a great example of how 3D games can be successful on a handheld platform, but hey, it's Nintendo. They're good at that. So why can't developers on iOS / Android / [insert platform with an app store] be good at producing successful 3D games?
Reasons against 3D adoption on mobiles
Higher development time and cost
3D games naturally take more time and effort to develop than 2D games.
2D games are more successful (for now)
As the charts show above, 2D games are clearly more popular and bring more revenue.
2D games have a wider appeal
Casual gamers may be put off by the 3rd dimension - 2D games are simpler to pick up and play.
The small screen is limiting
The 3rd dimension makes it harder to create a decent gameplay experience on mobiles, especially with the small screen and lack of physical controllers. For example, touch-based controls cause many 3D games to suffer (how many people like virtual joystick controls in FPS games?).
3D games tend to be larger in size: maybe this puts people off downloading, say, on a 3G network. Or they may not have enough room on their device for too many 3D games.
Reasons for 3D adoption on mobiles
Competition is low
The number of quality 3D games in the app store is very low in comparison to 2D. This leaves an open field for both new and existing developers.
3rd dimension means more diverse and immersive games with more possibilities.
Graphics are a selling point
It's true, there are many people who only buy games because their graphics are cutting edge. Infinity Blade was one of the biggest selling mobile games for this reason.
Devices are getting faster
Devices are becoming increasingly powerful and rapidly catching up to even last generation consoles.
As an extra note, tablet PCs such as the iPad may see a faster growth and adoption of 3D gaming. The bigger screen and powerful processors are a more attractive option for 3D games.
So will 2D games remain dominant forever? Looking back through history, consoles evolved from 2D to 3D, who's to say mobiles won't go the same way? There are certainly more challenges to overcome for 3D games on mobiles, but I think it's a natural step and developers and gamers will want to make the most of cutting edge hardware in the years to come.