2D vs 3D Precision

Do you think that the whole “2D is more precise than 3D” argument/meme that gets brought up primarily by nostalgic old guards has any truth to it? Tbh, having grown up with 3D games, I find 3D Mario much more precise and easier to control than any of the 2D Marios (except the New games). Granted the old 2D Marios had slippery movement and looser controls, but the point stands, that it kind of depends on which one you developed your muscle memory with. Plus, with all the scary-precise speedruns, I don’t think the argument holds much salt. I’ve never even seen anyone specifiy just what they mean by “precision” other than “I find 3D Mario difficult b/c I’m an old man, therefore 2D games are more precise”.

Precision is vague here. Does it mean that in 2d you’re able to more reliably replicate scenarios involving fine movement, or does it mean allowing one to express a greater degree of precision in operation? In 2d games, there are less variables involved in their operation. Especially old 2d games on pixel based platforms, because there literally was no unit of movement smaller than a pixel (even though a lot of these calculated movement in subpixels, the environments didn’t have subpixels anywhere, so it generally didn’t matter), where the same is not true for say super meat boy or Ori and the Blind Forest, where units of measurement can be infinitely subdivided.

3d games can be considered a lot like top down 2d games in most instances, except they place the camera behind the character. Then you have analog movement, due to the analog stick, which is polar coordinate movement with very large number of angles and intensities. Compared to an 8 way 1 intensity control scheme, this is a lot harder to manage. Even games like Super Smash Bros, that are basically side scrolling 2d games, have a lot of analog information in their handling that can’t be precisely recreated when you use the wiimote’s dpad. Lining up down to the pixel in a game like link to the past or the original zelda is a lot easier than the same in link between worlds due to the simpler input scheme. The smallest unit of difference is a lot smaller in LBW, both in terms of position and angle.

The other trouble is that it’s harder to judge position in 3d versus 2d because of the camera angle and use of perspective. In real life we have additional senses to help us out like proprioception and vestibular sense, but watching a screen, it can be tricky to determine how an input will move you relative to the position of the camera and the character’s position and orientation in space, much like learning to drive a car (thought there is also kinetic feedback helping you here too). In 2d games, position is absolute and much easier to determine. If you want to jump from one platform to another, you can directly measure the distance of your maximum jump, or visualize your jump arc on the screen. In 3d, you can’t really do that. What might be the correct distance at one angle, would change if the camera pulls out, or is oriented higher or lower. Your brain needs to make more complex calculations to judge the distance in perspective versus mere distance across the screen. I noticed this playing ratchet and clank recently. Normal jumps are like leaps of faith.

I think what started this trend is Campster’s video on Sonic, which didn’t use the word precision and is fairly clear in the way it is spoken.

At 8:00 and 15:45 he talks about platforming controls in 2d versus 3d. (his comparison of doom’s health meter to contra’s lives is totally erroneous though, that’s down to a difference in attack types and both could be designed to work the opposite way)

His talk about leniency in 3d games is kind of accurate, a lot of 3d games use snap-to mechanics for environmental interaction where a lot of 2d ones don’t, but more likely is that there’s simply been a rise in the popularity of those types of mechanics than 3d games implicitly requiring them. Like for example, if you want a character to catch a ledge, you’ll probably make a box near the top of the character’s head that causes them to snap to the ledge if they’re falling, like what’s found in smash bros, mirror’s edge, tomb raider, ratchet and clank, mario 64. You get things like grind rails in sonic, kirby air ride, tony hawk, ratchet and clank which use this as well.

Playing ratchet and clank recently I found that in the process of running around on platforms I would narrowly fall off a lot and get saved by the ledge grab. But meanwhile in dark souls there’s no such mechanic and I’m able to do things like run across the anor londo rafters much more easily than the equivalent would be in ratchet and clank. Similar happened to me in Link Between Worlds in Rosso’s Ore Mine, where they have some thin planks laid out to walk over. That would be trivial in a 2d game with 8-way control where your movement is perfectly aligned to the thing you were moving over, but in link between worlds it’s really tricky to hold the same direction steady, especially as the character moves up or down in height through perspective, in part because of the strength of the circle pad’s resistive spring.

Another thing worth noting is how in Link Between Worlds, projectile items like the hookshot or bow and arrow snap to the 8 cardinal/ordinal directions when held. In the original games you weren’t allowed to hold them and position yourself at all, In LBW, you can do it with almost all your items. The world is still largely aligned to a grid, so this allows you to reliably aim in the most useful directions. You can still aim at off angles if you’re careful in tapping the button, though that might only be true with sword beams. This type of concession is absolutely necessary for the game because of the angles you typically aim.

Lock-on isn’t a totally necessary concession for behind the shoulder 3d perspective games, I’ve certainly played devil may cry and dark souls at times without lockon by manually aiming attacks. The real trouble is the camera needs to be manually operated at the same time and you don’t have enough fingers to do that. OoT didn’t have any camera controls besides lock-on (neither do many later 3d zelda).

Then of course you get Marble Blast 3d, which Campster brings up, that doesn’t have snap-to mechanics of any kind. Though personally I’d compare to Super Monkey Ball, which was also made by Sega, and involves going fast. Both games don’t have any of that input leniency as a concession to it being more difficult to precisely angle yourself in 3d, and Super Monkey Ball doesn’t even have camera controls.

So what’s the difference between these examples of moving across narrow platforms I brought up, Ratchet and Clank, Dark Souls, Link Between Worlds, and Super Monkey Ball? Why is it easier in some of them and more difficult than others? I’m not really sure honestly.

My best guess is that it has something to do with the camera angle for most of these. Ratchet and clank has really poor camera controls and the angle faces so far forwards that it’s difficult to see where you stand. When you jump in many places, the camera will go so high up you can’t see the ground under you. This makes the ground appear like a sliver so it can be tough to see where you are on the surface. In Super Monkey Ball, approaching an edge has the camera tilt higher over the monkey so you can see the ground better. In Dark Souls, the camera tends to stick at a high or low angle more readily when positioned, and has a smooth automatic takeover when you are determined to walk in a specific direction. I already took a guess at LBW, it’s likely a different case than the others here.

In Ratchet and Clank there are additional concessions in the form of a soft-lock on your shots, indicated by an icon that appears when you aim close enough to an enemy, causing your projectiles to home in on that enemy. Most console shooters have some form of auto-aim, in the form of bullet magnetism, sticky reticules, or so on.

Mirror’s Edge uses snap-to for a large number of environmental interactions, vaulting, catching ledges, wallrunning, wallclimbing, springboarding, and so on. 2d games like megaman X or Zero or ZX actually don’t use snap-to for things like walljumping, they require you to press into the wall, but that’s not feasible in 3d, you need to use a snap-to range because you can be angled differently relative to the wall, applying force/momentum differently, where in 2d you always orients into the wall.

The oldest example of snap-to mechanics I can think of is the ladders in donkey kong (or megaman I guess). The ones in donkey kong are extremely rigid, where megaman’s are much more flexible. To say the least, they exist in 2d and 3d, and nearly all environmental interaction requires them on some level.

Yeah, it can be harder to move through 3d environments because judging distance and angle of movement is less easy, because the input device itself is more complicated, because cameras need to be carefully controlled too, and they alter the angle of movement when reoriented.

I guess the short answer is, yeah, 2d games are easier to move precisely in than 3d games.


3 thoughts on “2D vs 3D Precision

  1. FALCOMASTER March 17, 2016 / 2:49 pm

    I was mostly thinking of what malstrom used to claim about how jumping in 2D platformers was easier and more precise than in 3D Mario, and that the reason the latter doesn’t sell as much as the former is because of the average person’s inability to perceive depth in 3D games or something. WRT to business and sales that’s bs, but that’s beside the point.

    I was wondering if there was any truth in that decleration because he wasn’t the only one making those claims. It’s rare nowadays, but I used to see a lot of other people on many sites talking about how they preferred 2D genres over their 3D counterparts, and how many people left gaming when the N64 was released (but returned later on with the release of PS2).

    Anyway, so sean was claiming this and his fans would repeat, but I just never saw it. I guess it’s true in a certain sense. I mean, you could never re-create something like The Lost Levels in 3D. Developers make certain design “concessions” even in the hardest levels in 3D Mario games. But even then, I’m putting concession in quotes beacuse it’s not that the design has suffered per se. The secret levels in Sunshine are imo the best levels in any Mario game and that’s because of additional complexities that were added via 3D gameplay. They require their own type of precision, if you will.

    To use another example, are DMC or Bayonetta less precise than, say, NES Castlevania or a 2D brawler? In the latter, you can accurately hit the lower or upper parts of an enemy’s body and you position yourself to make pixel-perfect maneuvers. In 3D brawlers, that kind of precision isn’t really there (unless the enemy is very big). Positioning is still very important, but now the ability of your weapons and moves are also of much more importance. Like, sure, people differentiate between weapons in 2D games, too (axe vs. whip vs. holy water in Cvania, or the various weapons in Ghouls ‘n Ghosts), but the differences were more basic and almost entirely about how they moved and how fast they moved. In 3D brawlers, people differentiate weapons and moves based on that stuff plus dps, AoE, i-frames, and some other things.

    Things like AoE and i-frames mean that these don’t have the same type of precision as 2D games, but they still require precision in order for the player to successfully clear them, right?


  2. FALCOMASTER March 17, 2016 / 3:46 pm

    Concerning that second paragraph, I forgot to mention that a lot of old-school folks still stuck around during early 3D and even loved it (even people who only played console games and weren’t exposed to early 3D on PCs).

    And, as I mentioned in the ask, I personally find 3D games easier to control than 2D games. I feel much more confident and in control using Luigi in Galaxy than I do with slippery characters in 2D games. That’s obviously conditioning, but that’s why I was wondering if there was any objective or demonstrable truth to the “2D is more precise claim”.


  3. Chris Wagar March 25, 2016 / 12:02 am

    Mean to answer this sooner, sorry for not being totally on the ball.

    The trouble here is the word precise. Precise can mean a lot of different things in this context. Since it’s not made clear what exactly is precise, this whole topic becomes nearly impossible to address.

    Easier is a lot simpler. I’d definitely say it’s a lot easier to platform in 2d because judging distances in 3d is a lot harder. In 2d you can make an approximate measurement of how far the character can jump, how high the character can jump, and easily measure those thing 1:1. In 3d, that’s much more difficult. Playing Rachet and Clank and Jak 2 very recently I’m honestly having trouble with simple platform jumps all the time. If you orient the camera to more of a bird’s eye view that gets easier, but then it’s harder to judge distance off the ground, so vertical jumps get harder. Jumping in 2d is more innately understandable. Given this eaase of understanding, it’s then easier to add things like acceleration and slipperiness on the characters that make it harder, because people have more of an ability to deal with those things when they can get the base interaction of jumping a certain distance correct.

    I wasn’t around for people making declarations about that type of thing. I missed the 2d vs 3d war because I was a kid at the time and my first system was a gamecube. I’m picking up a lot of this stuff in post and trying to make sense of it from how the games themselves operate. Not to mention that Sean is wont to contradict himself when it’s convenient for him, like saying that 3d games like Unreal Tournament are alright in his book because it’s a good game.

    Sure, the secret levels in sunshine are fantastic. The added complexity of all the things you can do in a 3d platformer like that are excellent for someone who is an expert, but being good for expert players doesn’t translate to sales. You saying those levels “require their own type of precision” highlights the issue with the word precise in this context. You’re saying that the players need to be very precise to perform on levels like that. They need to imput precisely.

    The NES castlevania example is silly in a way that’s easily explained: http://insomnia.ac/commentary/domination_101/2d_vs_3d/ (regretably the only archive of this article)

    In 2d castlevania, each of the subweapons controlled space in a particular way. In 3d space, those same weapons won’t really work, because people can sidestep them. In 3d space, or even in a topdown game, you don’t have strict equivalents of these, because in 3d things that only control space on a single 2d plane are ineffective, and in a topdown game there’s no gravity, no favored axis.

    We see a greater differentiation between weapons and moves based on DPS, AOE, iframes and so on because the old methods of differentiation no longer work, they’re ineffective. The original weapons may seem more basic, but because of the format, the differentiation between their role was much bigger.

    Yeah, of course these games require precision to clear them, in many cases you could argue more precision, but the trouble with this whole argument is that saying, “3d games take more precision than 2d games to perform a common task in both of them” is not the same thing as saying, “in 2d games, this action is more precise than in 3d games.” (and in the latter case, determining what makes an action more precise is itself troubling)

    To expand the closing statement of my article, it is easier in 2d games to judge how long the buttons need to be pressed to land on a specific spot, or move to a specific point than the same action in an equivalent 3d game.

    I think your statement about finding 3d games easier to control is honestly specific to you. For a beginner picking a game up, it is probably easier to precisely produce an exact series of inputs that have an intended result in a 2d game than a 3d game. This is why there was the push for the 3d feature on the 3ds, a belief that 3d vision could allow people to more accurately perceive distances that they cannot measure across the screen in 1:1 increments. I remember a lot of frustration about falling off moving platforms in ratchet and clank, or even stationary ones across gaps on occasion, or sometimes moving too close to the edge and falling off, that I have not had an equivalent experience of in 2d games.

    If you want to follow this up, then the language regarding precision is going to need to be more clear, not that the people who started this line of discussion were very clear about it to begin with.


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