Sony's 3D Dream: One Year On
SCEE's Simon Benson on the launch and uptake of home 3D gaming
Sony has been at the head of the 3D revolution, integrating it into its range of Bravia TVs, producing the cameras used by 3D filmmakers and creating video game content via its first party studios. But Sony has also been shy about releasing any sales figures for 3D televisions, and analysts suggest uptake has been slower than originally predicted.
We spoke to Simon Benson, SCEE's senior development manager and 3D evangelist, who's been working on 3D for two years. At Develop last month he presented the latest developments to the industry, including Sony's new PlayStation branded 3D monitor. He gave GamesIndustry.biz his thoughts on the launch of 3D, his team's plans for the future, and why he's not worried about sales figures.
Q: So how has the launch of 3D been for Sony?
Simon Benson: I think from our perspective, looking at it purely on PlayStation 3, we’re really pleased with where we are at the moment. It’s one year in now, and you think in its first year it’s all new, and there’s a lot to do in terms of getting a good understanding of it, people taking up the displays, we’re obviously critically bound by people having a 3D display, but from our perspective we think it’s been a really good success.
You look at the numbers and you think at the moment on PlayStation 3 there’s pretty much 50 games, in the first year, that support stereoscopic 3D, which is an enormous number. That’s a lot of content, and a really good reason to think about getting a 3D display. And if it’s coming out at that sort of rate, and you think this is just the beginning, imagine where that’s going to go.
We're obviously critically bound by people having a 3D display, but from our perspective we think it's been a really good success.
If you look at our internal studios last year, 33 per cent of our games supported stereoscopic 3D. Again, so you think a third in the first year. But it’s not like we’d ever have a 100 per cent, because some games just don’t lend themselves to 3D. If you think 33 per cent is our starting point, that’s an amazing number. To be honest we’re surprised ourselves at the volume we’ve managed to achieve, you look at the number of games out there and you think it makes it a really strong proposition - obviously at the moment we’re looking at this 3D monitor that we talked about - the PlayStation 3D monitor, and you think it’s sort of great timing for that now, we can confidently say that it’s worth getting one of these displays, there is plenty of content for it.
As we mentioned in the keynote this morning, quality is absolutely key, and we’ve done a lot of work to ensure the content that’s out there is a good quality of 3D experience, but again because we’re so early in the 3D life cycle, what we tend to see is the games that currently support 3D, it’s typically we’ve taken a 2D game, we’ve turned it into a 3D game, we’ve got it to a high level of quality in that, and what we’re seeing is that there’s a very very good reaction from gamers.
Q: Do you know what percentage it is of PlayStation 3 owners have a 3D TV?
Simon Benson: To be honest I’m not aware of the statistics, all I can say is that, certainly on our forums, we see a lot of activity of people discussing the 3D games, so it’s certainly there’s a lot of people on the forums talking about it, have experienced it, and our very very vocal about the advantages of it. And what we’re seeing from that is people listening in to those forums, seeing those kind of expressions by people who have clearly been amazed by their experience, and it’s bringing even more people on board
We’re hoping that with the 3D monitor releasing very soon that they’ve something clear, "yes, we can go and get that and guarantee ourselves a good 3D experience."
Q: The statistics suggest it’s not taken off as quickly as predicted, is that a concern that people haven’t taken to it as fast as you would have liked?
Simon Benson: It’s certainly not a concern for us on the game side, the major reason being it’s not like when we’re adding 3D features to a game, it’s not a significant overhead for us. It’s not like we have to justify being able to sell millions millions more games because of it, it’s just another feature of the game.
In terms of uptake, certainly from our side, and it’s typically the way, probably the same happened with HDTVs, they say that HDTV was primarily driven from gamers. Because obviously gamers know what they want, they want this new experience, they’re technically savvy, the fact that they can interact with it makes a lot of difference. It’s not a passive experience of just watching a TV programme, they’re involved and they’re interacting with it, so I think we’ve seen much higher uptake of HDTVs for gamers in the first place which I think helped drive the HDTV market and we’re seeing the same sort of thing on the 3D TV side where a lot of people, certainly people I talk to, bought their 3D TV to play 3D games.
And when you’re looking at games like Gran Turismo 5 and Killzone 3, these kinds of games, and with the likes of Uncharted 3 on the horizon, because they’re such major games, you imagine if you don’t have a 3D display, and you end up with that disc in your hand, rushing home to play it, you get the 2D experience, but you know it’s got this other thing there, and no doubt you’ll hear other people talking about it in the 3D, and you just need the display. That’s such a strong driver for people to opt into 3D.
Q: Is there a cut off point internally where, if say in two or three years, 3D TVs still aren’t selling, where you stop adding 3D to games? How committed is Sony?
Simon Benson: It’s not really for me to comment on the business side of things, but certainly from my experience what I could say is the developers that we’ve worked with adding 3D features to the games, it’s typically been done through passion of the development teams and interest of the designers to deliver new experiences. It’s not often about the financial side of things. Because it isn’t a huge overhead. It’s not like in 3D live production where someone has got to make the decision about hiring cameras that cost twice as much and doing post processing that costs ten times more and it’s a significant overhead, there you really have to look at the numbers.
What we’re talking about here is, in some cases we’ve had titles where 3D has been half a per cent of overhead. It can literally be the render programmer spending a couple of weeks manipulating it. Particularly if a game already has split screen in it, just take that mode of the game and reauthor it to deliver really high quality 3D. So often it’s the case of it doesn’t even hit the radar of whether we should or shouldn’t, it can just be done. So it’s now of the same magnitude as it is with say movies or live productions and having to make that decision. It really comes down to do the game teams that are making these titles think that the experience they’re putting together is compelling enough and the title lends itself enough to this technology to add that feature in.
We could have been having this conversation 5 years ago about HDTV, saying what if HDTV didn't take off?
And what we’re seeing is that there’s so many games where 3D adds a whole load of value to the title that it’s a very very easy decision. And even if initially, as the market grows, you only targeting a very small portion of gamers, those people that get this experience shout about that experience to others, and no doubt it’ll help really sort of build this snowballing effect.
We could have been having this conversation 5 years ago about HDTV, saying what if HDTV didn’t take off? Would you still make games in HD? Because to be honest, making games in HD was probably a far more expensive thing to do than making games in 3D. But as we’ve seen, technically now you could say that HD has been a huge success. And 3D has so many differences to that transition to HD, and we’re seeing now with displays, 3D functions can be added to a TV not necessarily with a huge overhead. You think of the difference initially with the price of an HDTV, it was quite significantly different, where as you look it now and a non-3D TV to a 3D TV and in similar sort of model line, the margins aren’t that different. We’re not asking people to fork out twice as much here, and I think what probably going to happen over time is it’ll be the case like now, if you try and go out and buy an standard definition TV you probably just wouldn’t be able to.
And I think that’s where 3D is going. It may be that some displays are sold 3D ready, maybe you go out and buy the glasses if you want 3D, but in which case what we’re actually asking of people is OK, maybe your parents have a bought a 3D ready TV, maybe they’re still watching Coronation Street on it and that’s all they use it for, but for yourself as a gamer with your console, OK, you’d have to go out and buy a pair of glasses. And they’re coming down in price again all the time. So you’re talking game peripheral type territory. You’re literally saying to people for that whole experience of stereoscopic viewing, this high value experience, it is just like buying a peripheral.
Q: Do you know roughly how many Sony 3D TVs are out there? You must have some idea.
Simon Benson: No. I mean obviously we’re Sony Computer Entertainment, so obviously we work closely with the electronics division but it would be rude of us to ask, and even ruder for us to say if we did have those numbers. It’s really down to them to say that.
Q: A lot of people’s first experiences of 3D are the films, and recently with Pirates of the Caribbean more people opted to see 2D instead of 3D, does that worry you?
Simon Benson: I think it’s the case that if everything anyone watched in 3D was totally awesome, then penetration of the market would be far quicker with 3D TVs, because people like my wife might be saying to me “I want a 3D TV because I want to watch that movie,” because she’s not a gamer, and that helps me justify the 3D TV. But I don’t think it’s really such a big issue for games. At the end of the day games are interactive, other things like movies, TV, are more passive, but I think we’re a very different industry really, very different medium.
Now we've got a good reliable quality bar we can start challenging people to push it further in the creative domain.
Going back to your question about whether it’ll fizzle out based on display uptake, I think it’ll go the opposite. I think it’s actually going to accelerate a lot quicker when more people start experiencing the benefits for themselves.
And it goes back to when you look at being 12 months in with 3D gaming and saying yes, we’ve got lots of high quality games out there already, a lot of our big hitter games that people waited eagerly for, out there and then in 3D, but this is just the beginning. As people do learn we’re going to see things really change.
The presentation we did later on today was all about art as a creative medium. We’ve really focused a lot on making sure we get high quality, technically correct 3D so when people do add 3D to games it’s done well and already just adding 3D makes a hell of a difference, a real wow factor. But what we’re seeing now is we can start exploiting that. Now we’ve got a good reliable quality bar we can start challenging people to push it further in the creative domain.
What we’re going to start seeing is really new, different experiences. To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, take a game like Resistance 3. So you’ve got these aliens attacking and one runs up towards you and maybe attacks your character. Imagine this in 3D and the way you could take this. Understanding the environment of the 3D allows you to do different things, so imagine if the edges of the screen were left with a black border top and bottom or something. So we can deliberately use that creatively and when an alien attacks you maybe his fingers come over that border. Now when you’re looking at your TV, you wouldn’t think that was a little black border that’s rendered in the game, you’d be thinking that is the edge of your TV and suddenly some alien’s hands have just come into your room.
Q: Is that your main aim now, getting the word out to the development community?
Simon Benson: Not really. That’s where we’ve been doing for the last 12 months and because of the results we’ve already seen - so we have definitely been carrying that message to this point - but today was a bit of a change in direction for us. So until this point we’ve been saying “this is how you do it, this is how you do it well, we’re here to support you, it doesn’t necessarily cost a lot” because actually that was one of the big fears at the beginning from the development teams, was cost. Because obviously when you read about 3D and movies and live broadcasts that’s what they have, but for us it’s not the case.
So we were very keen to be open about our performance and get our internal teams, any teams that would be willing to allow us access to their statistics to be able to make it clear to people that this doesn’t cost a lot, there’s lot of ways of doing this, being as open as we possibly can with it.
But that was kind of the first year. We’ll still do that no doubt, but what we’re here for now is a change to this. We’re basically saying because of the volume, we’ve seen a lot of games doing this well know, we’ll still support new people coming along, we’ll still support existing people with the basic technical side, but what we’re really doing now is challenging the creative side. Right, we’ve got a good, solid, technical base now, because typically we’ve done a lot of our presentations to programming tracks, making sure the render programmers are very familiar with the technology. Now what we want to do is challenge the artists and the creatives and the designers and say "think about what you could do with this. How you can exploit this and make something amazing, something that’s never before been experienced?"
If we'd have gone too early on the creative side what we might have had is a little bit like when people first saw the early 1950's 3D movies.
Obviously in our industry this is just music to their ears, they just love this kind of thing. They’re just going to embrace this and they’re going to start really pushing this now. But we’re also confident because the technical side of it is well understood, and we’re still there to support that as well. So if someone puts a creative challenge too far, there’s a good buffer in place to make sure it still remains high quality, comfortable, all the rest of it
I think if we’d have gone too early on the creative side what we might have had is a little bit like when people first saw the early 1950’s 3D movies, where everyone just threw things out of the screen and it was all so in your face. And that’s not where we wanted to start from, we wanted to start with technical correctness, because we know that just looking at good quality 3D is a fantastic wow experience moment. Let’s start from there, let’s add the creative thing when we know that that’s safe and all moving nicely.
So I think opposite to the movies, if you think about the 3D cinema launch with Avatar, the big champagne cork effect, the best first, I think we’re probably going to be the other way round where we’ll build to that. And when effectively the Avatar of 3D games comes out, not only have you got a good reason to buy it, but there’s a whole host of other good content there as well. So it’s not that you’ll invest in a display and only have one game to play, you know you’ve got a catalogue of very good games to play in addition to that.