Misconceptions About 3D That Hurt Your Game

If you’re anything like me, you’ve started your game development journey by making simple 2D games.

A lot of beginner tutorials and books introduce people to game making through 2D.

Have you ever asked yourself why?

Is 3D a magnitude harder to work with when compared to 2D?

Do you really need AAA grade resources to produce a fun 3D game?

Is 2D game development actually harder?

For a long time, I was held back by some limiting beliefs about 3D, I never dared to make the jump because of them.

Now that I have, I’d like to share some common misconceptions about 3D to spare you the pain that I’ve endured and to help you reach your full potential as a game developer.

3D Programming Is Hard

Yes, 3D programming is hard… If you do it all by yourself, that is.

A lot of modern 3D game engines and libraries come packed with tools, classes, and functions to help you deal with the boring stuff.

Let’s take Unity as an example, it comes with Quaternion, Vector3, Mathf, and a bunch more classes.

You can do a lot of cool stuff with these classes. Stuff like making an attack helicopter shoot a flurry of rockets, moving these rockets through the air, and making them go boom!

The power of quaternions and 3D vectors in action. Photo: Staff Sergeant Mike Harvey/MOD

You don’t even need to know the theory behind most of these concepts.

I’ve been using Unity for almost 4 years now and I don’t even know what a quaternion is supposed to be, mathematically speaking, but I can use it in my game to solve all kinds of geometry-related problems, which is cool.

Even if you don’t use a game engine, you’re still in good company. Many 3D libraries like Ogre3D and Irrlicht in C++ offer similar utilities out of the box.

3D is hard, but with the quantity and quality of tools at your disposal, it really shouldn’t be.

2D Art Is Easier To Make

Image: Dead Cells

“2D artists are so lazy, they are lucky if they get paid anything at all.”

I would have said that if I knew nothing about the industry, but sadly, I know a lot.

I’ve seen the beautiful environments of Ori and the Blind Forest, the luxurious pixels of Dead Cells, the gritty charm of Darkest Dungeon.

I’ve worked as a 2D artist for a few years, and I know how much work goes into making even a simple little sprite.

2D art is a skill in high demand. It requires careful dedication and patience. It is anything but easy.

However, for the sake of argument, let’s say that 2D art is easier to make when compared to 3D art. I will demonstrate to you why 3D art is still a wiser choice for you if you have limited resources.

While 2D art can be easier to make in some instances, it’s not easier to maintain, modify and use.

Let’s assume that two equally competent artists, one specialized in 2D and the other in 3D, are trying to make some late changes to a character asset. Let’s say the character’s shoes are too long and the chest armor needs more detail.

For the 2D artist, the character exists in the form of multiple hand-drawn sprites for each animation. To make the change, the artist has to spend a lot of precious time redrawing each sprite. Some form of layer organization can alleviate this problem, but it is still tedious work.

For the 3D artist, that change would have been trivial. The artist would simply change the mesh (and texture) once, and all animations would remain the same.

Let’s talk more about animation in the next section.

3D Animation Is Hard

Image: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

The work that goes into making 3D animations from scratch is hard, but it doesn’t have to be.

In fact, you don’t even need to animate by hand anymore, there are dozens of other ways to animate:

  • Making or purchasing motion capture data
  • Purchasing ready-made animations then applying them to your model
  • Downloading animations from mixamo.com or similar
  • Procedural animations in your game engine using inverse kinematics

What’s cool about 3D animation is the separation between your mesh and animation data. This allows for so many opportunities for specialization and collaboration.

In most cases, you can purchase game models and animation packs separately, then use them together within your game.

In 2D, animations are baked into your sprites, there is no way to reuse animations for different characters.

Image: Valiant Hearts: The Great War

Some 2D technologies try to bridge the gap between hand-drawn and 3D workflows.

Software like Spriter or Spine allows the creation of tweened skeletal animations for 2D. This is an interesting tradeoff. However, no matter how good these animations are made, the end result can never reach the level of good-old hand-drawn animation.

I’ve used Spriter for a long time, and no matter how much time I spend on the animations, they always tend to look a bit robotic.

Since my ego isn’t big enough to think of myself as the best 2D animator in the world, I’ve looked at animations made by more experienced artists at Ubisoft and other studios. And guess what, they also tend to look robotic.

3D Modeling is More Complex

If you believe 3D modeling is complex, or needs to be complex, allow me to introduce Minecraft, Superhot, Crossy Road and a plethora of other best-selling 3D indie games that use a simple low-poly style.

There’s a false belief that photorealistic graphics are better.

The truth is: better art direction is better.

So if you lack skills or resources to produce AAA graphics, you can opt for a less demanding style for your game.

Nowadays, you don’t even need to make this compromise anymore.

Better art direction is better

Plenty of talented artists are selling great quality assets for an affordable price all over the asset stores. Which is the best thing that ever happened to the gaming industry.

Some argue that it’s also the worst thing that happened to us, since it gave birth to the asset-flipping and reskinning business, but I believe this phenomenon has no long-term consequences for honest game devs like you and I. Great games will always shine brighter.

In short, you don’t have to model everything yourself. You don’t have to hire an army of 3D artists either. You just need a bit of taste and common sense, and you can build a nice looking game for a very affordable cost.

Now that I’ve said that, is 3D modeling intrinsically more complex?

I don’t believe there exists an objective answer to that question. So I’ll give you a subjective one.

From my own experience, 3D art is more complex to make if you don’t know what you’re doing.

I use Blender, which is a fantastic piece of software, especially after the recent 2.8 release.

A screenshot of me working in Blender 2.81

In Blender, you can customize the interface to match your workflow like a glove. You can install addons to help you achieve in minutes what took hours of manual work.

Making 3D art is fun once you have a solid infrastructure working for you, and not against you.

So for me, 3D art is not more or less complex than 2D art, both require careful planning and execution, and both are fun to make in their own ways.

Image: Superhot

In this post, I’ve explained a few misconceptions about 3D that will seriously limit your potential as a game developer.

I’ve had these limiting beliefs about 3D for longer than I should. And I hope I’ve helped you shed some light on them so you’ll never be intimidated by 3D ever again.

What are you waiting for? Put this post into practice, go make awesome 3D games now!