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April 21st, 2011 by Troy Goodfellow · 8 Comments · Consoles

It was a dark and lonely night and I had writer’s block and wasn’t in much of a mood for anything.

Then one of my best friends plopped a 3DS on my table. “You need something to write to about. Get it back to me later this week.” After asking how many versions of Civilization one person needed, I should have ignored her. But I took the advice as well as it was intended and thought I would write up a token post to show that I noticed and that I listened. A throwaway post to just get things moving.

I mean, what could the 3DS really say to me or what could I say about it? It has nothing to do with strategy gaming.

Which is something worth writing about.

I hate it when she’s right about my blog. It is very annoying and it keeps happening.

Anyway, as I dabbled in Pilot Wings and tried to make sure I was holding the damnable thing just far enough away for the 3D effect to work, I realized how much I loved my DS. I don’t play it very often, but for a flight or a bus trip, it’s really the perfect strategy platform. From Advance Wars to Age of Empires to Dawn of Discovery, the DS proved to be amazingly adept at translating traditional strategy gaming. I can’t be sure how many of these titles were sold – Advance Wars was an instant hit, but others never really cracked through – but given the modest budgets and expectations, I can’t imagine they were all bad ideas.

Pilot Wings, however, reminded me that this 3D view – as technically amazing as it is – will be a tough bandwagon for strategy devs to sign on to. Sure, we have the touch pads for modern tablets and phones (as with the DS, this proves to be a great interface for strategy), but if 3D catches on, there will be little room for strategy and war at the table.

Now, it’s not like 3D and strategy gaming have not had this conversation before. How many forums dedicated to old and established games have you played that have led to a schism among those preferring the look of a 2D map to that of 3D? Some of the complaints were rooted in the fact that strategy gamers are usually late adopters of tech because computer power and technical innovation is usually driven by RPGs and FPSes in the visual sphere, and even in UI in some important ways.

The DS was different. It married old school game design (nothing was really complicated) to an intuitive and quite sophisticated touch display. Sure, I never got the hang of flicking things in Rhythm Heaven, but dragging and tapping came naturally. And since the DS is designed to be played while you have nothing else to do, it actually fit strategy gaming just fine.

Now, of course there is always a chance that 3D gaming will be a bust, that the 3DS and 3DTV will never really catch on. At this point it’s hard to tell because the tech is still in its infancy. It’s easy for gamers like my readers to dismiss the Wii and motion control in general, but Microsoft and Sony didn’t look at Nintendo’s gamble and see a failure – they saw money to be made in aping it with Kinect and Move. And 3D is one of those things that just might be flashy enough to draw developer dollars.

Developers, of course, are not forced to embrace every new technology. Strategy gaming has been spared motion control for the most part and the PC bias of the strategy genre means that console development has not really been a huge thing for me, though, as Tom Chick is fond of pointing out, many of the best light strategy games live on consoles.

The DS was different though. It’s a platform that skews young AND was strategy friendly. It wasn’t a matter of being one of hundreds of light strategy games on XBLA; this was a platform that was almost made for the genre. The stylus is a mouse for all intents and purposes and the dual screen divides information and play area in a way that avoids the need for many menus.

I am not saying that the 3DS is the end of portable strategy gaming, but it’s hard to play a 3D game on it and see how that effect would translate. What would Advance Wars or Combat Mission 3DS even look like? Yes, you could stick to 2D mode but then why bother with the 3DS at all? It’s not like the development kits are any cheaper.

I think the DS was the platform that convinced me that strategy gaming is tactile, even beyond its boardgame roots. It’s about grabbing things and moving them. RPGs used to be like that, but now the biggest ones resemble racing, FPS and platform games in that they are more about steering a single character or group, shifting perspective or lead actor in very few cases. 3D is a technology that is all about perspective, about showing you things in a new way, but not necessarily from a variety of eyeballs. It’s a technology that privileges motion and action and while the old DS was happy to have games that let you stop, a true 3D view loses something when your turn ends and you have to wait for Egypt to move.

I am not down on the 3DS – I honestly have not had enough time with it to love or hate. I love the technology and the view and the possibilities it opens for games assuming that developers want to spend the time on that. And I would love to be proven wrong. But for now, my current DS will do.

And I promise to finish the first stage of Rhythm Heaven before E3.


8 Comments so far ↓

  • Paul

    “What would Advance Wars or Combat Mission 3DS even look like? Yes, you could stick to 2D mode but then why bother with the 3DS at all? It’s not like the development kits are any cheaper.”

    One of the better launch titles (so I gather) is Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars. It’s got little 3d to it, but it’s definitely a strategy title and while it’s rather simplistic from a strategy standpoint, it’s still a good game (again, so I gather). I haven’t played that particular title as I don’t own a 3Ds, I’ve only been able to dabble with my friend’s and he didn’t pick that up (as he’s Nintendo fanboy).

    Yeah, perhaps the development costs are more expensive for a 3DS game, but the PSP (granted sans 3d) is comparable in terms of power and there are a ton of strategy games, if you count SRPGs. I think we’ll still see strategy titles on the 3DS. An Anno game would look cool as hell in 3D. And development costs might be more expensive in the beginning, but in two years it’ll seem cheap again as the power in the 3DS is not THAT great.

    That said, I completely agree about the DS vs 3DS. The DS library just trumps it in every way.

  • Punning Pundit

    I haven’t touched a 3DS. I have only seen one of them “in the wild”, so I’m not exactly the most educated person about the unit. The thing that intrigues me most about the 3DS is not the actual 3D effects– I’m not really charmed by that in any format– rather the circle pad.

    It’s another tactile “almost a mouse” control scheme that gives gamers and developers another set of tools with which to approach a problem. That, and the slightly bigger screen will be what (if anything) make the 3DS a success.

  • DoggieMon

    The real question with the 3DS in regard to strategy gaming is, why bother? An astute observation is that the DS is made for when you have nothing else to do. But then I would rather use my iPhone or iPad for that, which are devices that are more versatile, the games are cheaper, and I practically carry my phone everywhere I go. Also, as far as I know developing for the iOS is cheaper (I might be wrong there though), and even if you don’t like iOS there is Android and Windows mobile as options with I’m sure developers having interests in those platforms.

    And there is something about having to carry cartridges these days.

    That said, I hope the 3DS and Sony’s NGP succeed, as competition is good for all of us. Multiple healthy platforms can only be a good thing for strategy gaming.

  • Ginger Yellow

    I could see Valkyria Chronicles working really well on 3DS. Shame it’s a Sony exclusive. Maybe someone will do a clone.

  • G9x

    A few years ago i’d have agreed with the statement about the games console of choice for travelling, but now, with the plethora of mobile devices each of us either carries with us, or could if one wanted too, the Nintendo is dead, unless you’re 12 of course.

    Then they’re perfect.

    I use an iPad now for entertainment, thankfully battery life has improved greatly over the years too.

    Nice post

  • Mengtzu

    I feel like the 3D display may be less important than the StreetPass stuff in terms of gameplay. I think you could make a decent strategy game where some of the content is grabbed from passers-by where possible.

  • Nicholas Tam

    I think we’re at that stage early on in the life of a platform where developers are trying to trick out the new hardware features by any means necessary, which I’m accustomed to by now as a day-one adopter of both the DS and the Wii. By the time the DS is no longer produced and sold in parallel, we will have seen the 3DS come into its own as an inclusive DS successor, and the 3D screen will no longer be seen as quite so much of a necessity (similar to how we see major Wii games with no motion-control features or DS titles with minimal touch-screen support). So, business as usual, I say.

    I would agree, however, that 3D certainly doesn’t benefit strategy design in any obvious way like precise stylus-based touch control did. In fact, when we finally do see successors to Advance Wars and Fire Emblem from Intelligent Systems, I expect them to be quite technologically conservative. And Nintendo’s first-party releases, which really are reasons #1 through #10 for purchasing any Nintendo platform, will certainly set the bar for our expectations.

  • Nicholas Tam

    Here’s one way to think about how 3D could come into play on a flat game board: when would it be useful for a player to quickly perceive depth (or height, rather, from a top-down view)? Two things I can think of right away are unit stacking and variable terrain (high-ground advantage, vision from mountaintops, impassable obstacles, etc.). Here, a mere cosmetic change that makes something pop out at you could prove to be mechanically useful, and it’s implementable at low cost with 2D sprite-based art. And the games would still be entirely playable with the 3D effect dialled down to zero.