I fully accept that this could be just me, but I can't help but notice that I have never become addicted to any 3D tycoon or city-building games but I have become addicted to many older 2D tycoon games.

Here are a few examples out of many. I played 1701 A.D. and, though it was fine, I didn't really get into it. Yet I just found my decade old copy of Zeus: Master of Olympus, and it's hard for me to tear myself away from that game. Or consider Roller Coaster Tycoon. Every time I play the first or second, I end up getting at least temporarily addicted to the gameplay. But I have never felt that feeling for the third.

I don't have anything against 3D graphics. It's just that somehow the 3D tycoon games aren't working for me. I can't figure out why.

So my question is two-fold:

  • (1) Am I really alone in this feeling or do others feel the same way? Do the majority feel this way?
  • (2) What could be the reasons for this? Are there legitimate advantages to developing 2D tycoon games over 3D ones? Could it be as simple as 2D development allows more time to be placed on fine-tuning gameplay or is there something deeper here?

For the record, I do not think this is the result of nostalgia. For instance, although I bought Zeus when it came out, I never played it for some reason until recently. It is for me a new game.


I worked on Roller Coaster Tycoon 3, and I think it's a good game! In fact bar that extra dimension that gives you the ability to ride your amazing roller coaster creations, it's pretty similar to RCT2. When developing, we lifted as many decisions as possible from the RCT2 codebase, because why re-invent the wheel, right?

Maybe you just miss the easier-to-navigate isometric camera? That was an option in RCT3, IIRC at the insistance of Sawyer himself.

I've changed companies twice since then, so I'm not incentivised to say this (beyond pride), but along with its expansions, RCT3 is still among the games I'm most proud of.

  • \$\begingroup\$ You should be, it's very good! I did find the roller-coaster editing on a sloped terrain to be very tricky though, and it could take a lot of tries (and money!) to make the tracks match up. In the end I almost always went with one of the design pre-sets if I had the space for it just to avoid the hassle. I can't help but at least partly blame the jump to 3d for that. \$\endgroup\$ – drxzcl Aug 24 '10 at 7:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ There was the auto-complete feature but yes the interface was difficult to get right. We did experiment with spline-based coasters, rather than lego blocks, but the interface was even harder to get right! \$\endgroup\$ – tenpn Aug 24 '10 at 9:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Ranieri: The jump to 3D is not to blame, but the jump to continous terrain elevation. You could have elevation in steps, like in RCT2, and still render it in beautiful 3D. \$\endgroup\$ – Bart van Heukelom Aug 24 '10 at 10:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ Please don't take anything I said as an insult! RCT3 was a very finely produced game, and I agree that it stayed true to RCT2 in many ways. That's why this is so puzzling! \$\endgroup\$ – Zach Conn Aug 24 '10 at 15:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ Perhaps it is indeed something as simple the isometric camera. I don't think I ever used that option in RCT3. Next time I play I will surely keep that in mind. \$\endgroup\$ – Zach Conn Aug 24 '10 at 15:39

I suspect part of it is that low-fidelity graphics engages your brain more than high-fidelity graphics. Your brain works harder to fill in the blanks, you become less a passive consumer and more a co-creator of the experience. It's like the difference between reading a book and watching a movie. Scott Cloud in Understanding Comics talks about how generic/abstract representation makes it easier for the reader to project themselves or aspects of themselves into the story.

Also I recently ran into this related idea:

In the early stages of solving the puzzle, the group using the helpful software made correct moves more quickly than the other group, as would be expected. But as the test proceeded, the proficiency of the group using the bare-bones software increased more rapidly. In the end, those using the unhelpful program were able to solve the puzzle more quickly and with fewer wrong moves.


  • \$\begingroup\$ Nice reference. \$\endgroup\$ – Zach Conn Aug 26 '10 at 1:49

I've had similar experiences, with games like Caesar (3 -> 4) and RPG's (Baldur's Gate -> Neverwinter Nights).

Although the 3D games are fine, they are actually another type of game to me. At first, game designers were restricted to 2D, and they made games that worked with these restrictions. When it was possible to use 3D, some companies started "porting" their old titles to this new dimension. They added something to a great formula, thus changing it, without taking the effects into account.
Good 3D games are games that bring a kind of gameplay that's only possible in 3D. A typical example is Wolvenstein 3D. The first one was not what we would call 3D nowadays, but the gameplay is made for 3D.

When you want to move a 2D game to a 3D game, you face all kinds of different obstacles:

  • The interface: it's easy to loose the overview. Games like Warcraft3 keep a fixed camera as a standard for this purpose. The game is still played from an isometric point of view, although it is possible to rotate in all directions. Another example: you could move in all directions in the platformer Mario 64. But a platformer like that is just more fun in 2D. Developers learnt this the hard way and make 3D side scrollers nowadays (consider Super Mario bros wii).
  • Content creation takes more time. Imagine making a game like "Baldur's Gate" (250+ hours of gameplay) in 3D. Impossible task, modern RPG's can only provide 50 to 60 hours of gameplay. It just takes more time to create a full featured 3D landscape than a 2D background.
  • The 2D camera is very often easy to navigate, while a 3D camera is often harder to navigate. I don't want to spend my time turning the camera in all kind of directions. I wanted to play a game, not to record a movie.

The bottom line: consider the benefits AND drawbacks when you decide to port your game or make a new one from scratch. When 3D was new, it was hyped and everyone wanted to make a 3D game. This does not magically make a game more addictive or more entertaining. Use 3D where it fits, not wherever you can because you can.

  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ While I get your general gist, listing Mario64 as a rubbish 3D game, and saying nintendo now only make 3D side-scrollers (the excellent Mario Galaxy 2 has come out since New Super Mario Bros Wii) is, to put it charitably, bollocks. \$\endgroup\$ – tenpn Aug 24 '10 at 10:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ "Imagine making a game like "Baldur's Gate" (250+ hours of gameplay) in 3D" - In this day and age, with so many great games to play, I don't want to be playing one game for 250 hours \$\endgroup\$ – Bart van Heukelom Aug 24 '10 at 11:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ I never said it was a rubbish game. And I would never say Caesar 4, RCT3 and Neverwinter Nights are rubbish games either! But, just like the original poster, I didn't get as addicted to them as I did to older 2D variants. I also didn't say that 3D does not fit for a platformer or RPG. As the industry matures, more and more new 3D games are even more addictive than the 2D games we played in the past! But this addictiveness has nothing to do with the game being 2D or 3D... it has to do with the gameplay and how the developers used the available technologies. \$\endgroup\$ – Nef Aug 24 '10 at 11:25

The optimal number of dimensions for game graphics is a function of the degrees of freedom afforded to a player of that game

The chess game that I play on computer offers a 3D perspective of the chess board as an option. The graphics are fine and in a sense it makes game-play more true to real life, however I can't think of a more useless and annoying feature. When I think about chess, I'm doing so in two dimensions. Even when I play chess on a real chess board in real life, my mind instantly converts the three dimensional view of the board into a two-dimensional map for my mind to think with. Chess in virtual 3D creates a disconnect between the mind's logical representation of the game and the game's visual representation on the screen. The degrees of freedom afforded to a chess player can be contained in two dimensions, therefore, any other representation of the board detracts. If Pacman or Tetris was rendered in 3D, the games would not be any more addictive or fun.

Games that leverage all the freedom of three dimensional environments, like first person shooter games, can't exist without three dimensional graphics. However, the degrees of player freedom afforded by tycoon and rts games can often be contained in two-dimensions and a three-dimensional representation isn't constructive.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm not sure about your last point. Altitude is often important in RTS games, and can be crudely represented by 2D isometric tile sets but your mind still have that "degree of freedom," therefore according to your logic it definitely should be 3D. \$\endgroup\$ – tenpn Aug 24 '10 at 19:28

I think it might be a simplicity thing. As a player, it's easier to think in 2D than 3D. The game I'm thinking of was the old FPS "Descent" which actually required navigation in all three dimensions. Great game, but not palatable for some players whose brains just weren't used to thinking in 360 degrees.

  • \$\begingroup\$ First mainstream commercial game to support 3D acceleration, IIRC \$\endgroup\$ – Robert Fraser Aug 26 '10 at 4:15

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