Castlevania boss talks on preserving a fading format.
Konami producer Koji Igarashi has become, perhaps unintentionally, one of two-dimensional gaming’s greatest champions. While the industry marches ahead into high definition 3D, Igarashi’s Castlevania games remain determinedly 2D. As he explained at his GDC lecture today, this is partly out of necessity — thanks to the series’ flat sales in Japan and uninspiring 3D outings — and partly borne of an affection for the art form.
Using the past ten years of Castlevania as a framing device, Igarashi made his case for the continuation of the 2D form, concluding with a resounding, crowd-pleasing cry of “2D will never die!” But why is 2D so resilient? Igarashi sees several advantages — some of which are high-minded, while others are far more pragmatic.
By now, it should be no surprise to anyone that 2d and 3D gaming are two completely different creatures; Igarashi sees four salient differences between the two forms.
* Timing, or predicting movement of game elements and responding appropriately;
* Distance, or using on-screen information to determine the relative locations of game elements;
* Positioning, finding an advantageous location for the player’s character; and
* Direction, which is simply where the player faces and acts.
Because video games require virtual 3D space to be projected onto a 2D surface (the screen), depth perception is hampered, and 3D developers must take care to provide sufficient visual cues to allow players to navigate and interact with the space properly. This can be difficult when ranged interaction with elevated objects comes into play. 2D, however, consists of two axes of space rather than three, so things are simplified and players no longer have to go through the mental compensation step of visual processing.
In short, the elements of positioning and direction are streamlined by 2D visuals, leaving developers free to create challenges based around the elements of timing and distance — and thus offer more immediate and gratifying gameplay. This, Igarashi opines, is the true attraction of 2D gaming.
The Art of Pixels
Igarashi dedicated a fair portion of his talk to discussing pixel art — not strictly a requirement for 2D gaming, but definitely a common element. The majority of the Castlevania series, from 1991’s Castlevania IV to last year’s Portrait of Ruin, has featured 16-color sprite objects (occasionally mixed with 256-color items). This has made it easy for the series’ developers to reuse graphical elements, which is no surprise to anyone who’s played a few games of the series. In fact, sprite recycling is a common complaint among Castlevania fans.
Despite these protests, Igarashi maintains it’s a definitely plus of pixel art. Because sprite rendering technology has remained largely consistent over the years, and the most pre-HD game systems have featured similar display resolutions (256×224 for SNES, TurboGrafx and PlayStation, and 256×192 for DS), it’s possible to drop a sprite from 1991 into a 2007 game without it looking out of place, provided the original work was of sufficient quality. That certainly isn’t the case with 3D objects.
By reusing assets, Igarashi’s teams have been able to increase the volume of their games’ content with little effort, allowing them to focus on improvements in other areas. It also helps to create a consistent visual style throughout the series. Additionally, it helps serve as training wheels for new staff members, who can draw inspiration from existing work.
Pixel art isn’t simply about retreading old content, though; by Igarashi’s estimation, a bitmap-based character requires half the time to create as a 3D-modeled character. Plus, pixels look sharper on small screens. Of course, when you begin to scale to larger screens, hand-drawn art suffers — higher resolution means that more detailed animation is required, which puts pixel art at a distinct disadvantage to polygons. There are other solutions, including 3D art restricted to a 2D perspective (as in the upcoming Dracula X Chronicles for PSP, a game which Igarashi admits is an experiment for future Castlevania games), but for mobile and handheld devices, pixel art is still the ideal.
The Management Side of 2D Design
On the developer side, Igarashi sees a number of advantages to managing the development of 2D games as well. The lower labor requirements of a hand-drawn game means a smaller staff and cheaper development tools, which in turn means it’s possible to produce a high-quality game on a much smaller budget than a 3D game requires. It also gives each team member a stronger personal stake in the project; a entire 2D stage environment can be created by a single person, whereas 3D scenery tends to be broken down into smaller components. The act of producing such a significant portion of the game makes each person feel less like their role is grunt work and helps maintain their passion for the project.
2D games certainly offer their own array of management issues, including perceptual issues. The reality is that 3D games are far more popular simply because they look more impressive, and will therefore outperform an equivalent 2D game, and team members have to accept that their work may seem unappreciated by the masses. Castlevania games tend to score well, which is a boon for Igarashi’s crew, but good reviews don’t automatically sales… and sales ultimately determine the company’s handling of a property. (In Castlevania’s case, strong North American sales maintain the series’ standing at Konami.)
It’s simply an unavoidable fact that 2D game design is dated and mature; a 2D developer runs the risk of hitting a glass ceiling of sorts with his career, as most companies look for talent with skills in 3D design and programming. Furthermore, pixel art has become a fairly stagnant field, with its most sophisticated techniques firmly entrenched, meaning newcomers must develop a highly specific repertoire of skills in order to succeed.
Despite these obstacles and issues, Igarashi is confident that 2D games and pixel art will never go entirely out of style. The rise of download services such as Xbox Live Arcade and Wii’s Virtual Console, along with the growing popularity of handheld and mobile gaming, assure a healthy future for the form. Maybe not as glorious a future as high-definition 3D gaming, but — as demonstrated by the enthusiastic applause and eager line of fans that thronged Igarashi at the presentation’s conclusion — definitely one with a loyal and loving following.