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  • Physics in Mass Market Games

    - Calen Henry and Jacob Karsemeyer

  •  The 2.5D Years: 1990-1996
    While some game designers were just starting to understand how to manipulate software to allow for enjoyable physics in 2D games, a different group was working on something entirely different: ways to display 3D images. "2.5D" is a term used for some of the early attempts at creating the illusion of 3D.

    When game developers made the jump from 2D to 2.5D, they compromised a lot of the progress they had made in refining gameplay experiences through physics. The first computer games to attempt to mimic 3D used a process called ray-tracing to draw lines between the floor and roof based on the inputted coordinates that would then be skewed to simulate depth. Games like 3D Monster Maze (shown) used this method to achieve early 3D graphics on a PC, but none of them achieved mainstream success.

    Video games consoles of the early to mid 1990s didn't have enough computing power to perform ray-tracing. To circumvent that problem, Nintendo started development on a few games using a new technology called Mode 7. Mode 7 mapped two dimensional textures into a 3D space by rotating them so that the player moved across them instead of along them. These games were still essentially two dimensional, but width was mapped across depth to give the illusion of three dimensions. When Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time was ported from arcade to the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, an entire level "was changed from a regular side-scrolling view in the arcade to a Mode 7 view" ( so that the players moved "into" the screen rather than across it.

    As 3D games progressed, the rapidly advancing technology of the PC became a more attractive medium for game makers looking to push as  many pixels as possible. Although the first 3D computer games like 3D Monster Maze preceded it by more than a decade, it was Wolfenstein 3D (left) that really brought 3D graphics into the mainstream. Wolfenstein is a first-person shooter -- the player sees through the eyes of the character. While Wolfenstein was the breakthrough game that really propelled the FPS genre, the in-game physics were still primitive. Id Software, who developed Wolfenstein, used a slightly more advanced version of ray tracing called ray casting, which was capable of scaling characters to simulate depth and drawing textures onto objects.

    Both ray tracing and ray casting are algorithms used to render 3D scenes on 2D screens. Ray casting is much faster to process. Games like Doom and Duke Nukem, further refined the 2.5D, or pseudo-3D technology to allow more creative control, but it wasn't until id Software revealed Quake that the game-playing community really got a chance to experience a true 3D experience.

    The Wonderful World of 3D: 1996-Present
    Quake was released in 1996 by id software and was the first widely successful true 3D game (though Descent, a less popular, but still well-known game, had utilized full 3D one year earlier). The characters and levels in Quake were made up of 3D models instead of 2D sprites, which were quite revolutionary for the time and allowed for physics to be effectively applied to true 3D space.

    Explosions push objects and players back, players run and jump in a more realistic way, and when directly hit with a rocket, enemies explode into giblets (or "gibs," as the gaming community calls them) of flesh. These new physics not only made gameplay more realistic and immersive, but also created potential for players to experiment in ways that the designers had not expected. Rocket jumping was one tactic that emerged. The player jumps while firing a rocket straight down so that the explosion propels him farther into the air. The game development community began to realize that giving players some simple physics-based mechanics lets them experiment with the game and experience it in ways that had not been possible before. Other PC games like Camageddon (1997) and Die by the Sword (1998) further pushed the available hardware to generate believable physics.

    In the 32-bit console era of Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation, many 2D game developers unsuccessfully attempted to bring their games into 3D. But it was a title that featured everyone's favorite plumber Mario that successfully brought 3D gaming to consoles. In Mario 64 (1996), all the physics that made Mario popular in his beloved 2D franchise were translated into 3D. He jumps, slides, and bounces through three dimensions just as smoothly as he had in two. This game set a high bar for other games trying to make the leap from 2D to 3D.

    Nintendo was clearly adept at rendering physics in ways that made its games engaging. The recently released Super Mario Galaxy is a testament to Nintendo's ability to continue pushing the envelope in that regard. Galaxy features globe-shaped levels that have gravitational pull so that Mario can run along the underside of the globe without falling into space. By manipulating this mechanic in every way possible, Nintendo has again given other game developers a lesson in how to use physics to create successful games.

    Realism vs. Arcade
    Once game developers started to become more comfortable with developing games in 3D and two distinct streams of gameplay emerged: arcade and simulation.

    In arcade games, the physics were used less to create realistic situations and more to enhance gameplay. Arcade-style games are often marked by outrageous and spectacular acrobatics executed at the push of a button. Simulation games go the other route, using physics as realistically as possible, leading to unforgiving, but rewarding gameplay experiences. These distinctions are most obvious in sports games.

    In racing games, Gran Turismo tends to represent "realism" at its finest. Never before had a game so accurately captured the experience of driving. Each of the game's 150 licensed automobiles feels unique and true to the real world car they emulate. Gran Turismo cars "mimic the physics of their real-life counterparts" (

    On the other side of the spectrum, games like Cruis'n USA and Burnout Revenge let players smash through other cars as though they were empty garbage bins. These arcade-style games are much faster paced, with cars using nitrous oxide to travel at airplane-like speeds. Large jumps that would destroy any real world car instead give bonus points or nitrous refills. In these games, physics are used to create more stimulating experiences, rather than more realistic ones. The recent Xbox 360 game Burnout Paradise features some of the most technically advanced and fantastical bumper rumpling car crash physics seen in a game. Cars wrap around poles and crumple like an accordion when they collide with a wall. How physics are implemented in a game determine what style of gameplay the final product will have, whether it's a true-to-life simulation or a fantastical experience.


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