The world of 3-D video games, any gamer will tell you, is almost as old as video games in color: Nintendo titles in the late 1980s like Rad Racer and 3-D WorldRunner each had 3-D modes that used red-and-blue passive eyeglasses to produce images that jumped off the screen just like 1950s-era movie monsters.
What's new in 2010 is the prospect of 3-D games running on the new 3-D television sets coming onto the marketplace. Sony is promoting 3-D video games on its PlayStation 3—firmware upgradable to run on 3-D TVs—such as James Cameron's Avatar and Invincible Tiger: The Legend of Han Tao. On the other hand, some video-game makers are holding back, preferring the old-fashioned method that uses colored glasses, in new titles such as Batman: Arkham Asylum and Skate 2.
Perhaps most tantalizing was Nintendo's announcement at the E3 games conference in June that it'll soon be releasing the 3DS, a glasses-free 3-D handheld game player—the follow-up to the company's phenomenally popular DS portable. As Nintendo revealed at E3, the 3DS uses a technology from Sharp that relies on a "parallax barrier," in which ultrathin vertical slits down the display screen mask some pixels from one eye and different pixels from the other. Crucially, the 3-D technique works only in a limited range of viewing angles and distances from the screen, which is why the technology is being rolled out in a handheld device. According to one interview with Nintendo president Satoru Iwata in the lead-up to E3, the company is also considering rolling out a 3-D–ready Wii 2 console once the number of households with 3-D televisions crosses the 30 percent threshold.
As always, a less expensive, less intense gaming experience can be had on laptops and desktop PCs. For under US $1000 you can get a smaller, cheaper monitor and a 3-D graphics card, such as the Nvidia 3-D Vision. As of April, Nvidia's Web site listed more than 100 PC video games that could be played in 3-D.
Scott Steinberg, CEO of Seattle-based tech consulting firm TechSavvy Global, says that despite all the hype, 3-D still doesn't eliminate or even lessen the chief challenge to any game designer: creating great game play. Even the most eye-popping visual effects, he said, will become commonplace. Designing play that appeals to the undefinable "wow" factor that has always set classic games apart from the pack will still be the ultimate goal.
"You can't simply take a 2-D game, throw a 3-D effect on it, and call it a day," he says. "The risk for the game maker is they invest so much in creating such a visually enticing landscape to the detriment of the product's game play." —M.A.
US $300 and up
VIDEO-GAME CONSOLE: With one downloadable firmware upgrade, Sony's PlayStation 3 ($300) will support 3-D video-game titles. As of mid-May, neither Microsoft nor Nintendo had announced upgrades of their Xbox 360 ($200) and Wii ($200) systems to do 3-D gaming on this year's new line of HD 3-D televisions. Of course, old-fashioned red-blue anaglyph glasses—the kind used for 1950s horror movies—can be used for a 3-D effect with any console and any television. In fact, Majesco Entertainment's new shooter Attack of the Movies 3-D ($30 Xbox, Wii) draws inspiration from the 3-D creature features of yesteryear—and gives its users four pairs of kitschy plastic gel glasses for the full dimensional experience.
CONSOLE GAMES: Sony is going all out for 3-D gaming with its PlayStation 3, but "the question is, when will there be games?" asks Seattle-based video-game industry analyst Scott Steinberg of TechSavvy Global. James Cameron's Avatar ($30) is, not surprisingly, an early entry into the still tiny pool of 3-D PlayStation games available. Steinberg said he's seen industry demos of 3-D enhancements to other marquee titles such as the racing game Gran Turismo 5 ($60) and Little Big Planet ($60). But the most impressive console game he's seen yet is a downloadable shooter called Super Stardust HD ($10). "This is Asteroids with better graphics," he says. "It's immediately arresting. There are literally thousands of objects on the screen. So when you add 3-D and depth of field, you can see each object's position in relation to the others."
DESKTOP PC AND 3-D MONITOR: If you like gaming and 3-D, Nvidia is currently offering the cheapest way into the 3-D world with its 3-D Vision GeForce graphics card enhancement package ($200 and up), which with a fast enough monitor (such as the 120-hertz, 22-inch Samsung SyncMaster 2233RZ at $300) would still bring your budget 3-D setup in at well under four figures. With recent model GeForce cards (details on Nvidia's Web site), a 3-D Vision's infrared emitter module plugs into a USB port and chirps its "left-eye, right-eye" syncing signal to Nvidia's active 3-D glasses while it pipes 3-D signals to the monitor. And unlike Sony's PlayStation 3, which boasts only a handful of full HD 3-D games, there are more than a hundred Nvidia 3-D Vision–enabled games for the PC. Some streaming noninteractive content—such as this past spring's golf Masters Tournament—is also 3-D Vision–ready. Of course, whatever desktops can do, laptops will be doing soon. In November, Asus announced the first Nvidia 3-D Vision gaming laptop.