2D vs 3D Indie Games

Posted on February 10, 2017 by Chris McAulay
I get asked this constantly when talking with people about what I do. So here is my take on it…


First off I love both 2D and 3D games. That being said I hated the idea that I needed to build a 2D game simply because of team size. I am not one to just do as everyone else says, so I had always strived to make 3D games and push myself hard. However after doing that for awhile I have repeatedly seen tons of evidence that I may be needlessly fighting an uphill battle. So let’s dig in on that a bit.

Amount of work:

2D games are just much easier to make. The require less art, simpler math, lower hardware requirements (need less optimization), and are much easier to troubleshoot (literally less moving parts). There is simply nothing that is easier about making a 3D game (compared to a 2D one), and anyone stating otherwise has never done it. Inf fact making a 3D game is easily 3-4 times more work for the “same game” all else being equal.

For both Indie studio’s and AAA studios that is a win for 2D.


Art expression:

In general I feel it is easier for an artist to express different style in 2D than in 3D. Yes anything you can create in 2D can be created in 3D and vise versa (though the work to do so is often staggeringly large). This is because your 3D scene is displayed in 2D and therefore it is possible to get each to look like each other... To me 3D is much better suited for a more realistic style (other styles come out great still but take a bunch of work), and 2D in general is better for a highly stylized approach. So when people talk about videogames as art my mind immediately goes to 2D games (even though arguable the most artistic game “Journey” is 3D”).


I would say that for stylized art (often what Indies are known for) 2D is better, and for realistic (often what AAA’s are known for) 3D is better.



In my opinion if you make a 2D game, in general, you will be viewed as an indie developer. There are plusses and minuses to this fact. Unless your studio has massive recognition, then in general, the assumption will be that you are a smaller team and that the “acceptable” level of polish is gonna be a bit lower. If you make a 3D game, in general, the automatic assumption will be that you are a well funded (possibly even AAA) studio. This again comes with positives and negatives but that is the perception. Often you are going to be expected to achieve a highly polished product.

The reason that I have come to that conclusion is through experience making games, as well as 28+ years of playing them. Our last game was a 3D game, and for very small indie team (1 programmer [me], and 1 artist) I think we did very well with it. That being said many (and I mean many) users responded to it as if we were a medium to large studio and when comparing our game to some AAA(or just large studio) games, they are correct in stating that it is missing some of their more polished features... Only after they found out that it was done with such a small team did they then state “Wow that is really amazing”! The point of this is not to pat myself on the back here. The point is to share the experience with others, so that they can make an informed decision about what they want to make in the future. There are many good games in the cRPG genre, and many of them are 2D. Most of these 2D games are accepted as indie, and their art style is accepted for what it is (even if it is very simple). This is simply something we were not given by the general community.

In some ways the perception of being “Indie” means that you can get away with some rough edges, and people will go to bat for you to defend you rather than beat you over the head with that same bat. In my opinion if you are an Indie, and have a small studio it is probably best to make a 2D game that you can spend the extra time polishing and refining, than to make a 3D game that pushes you to grow, but leaves you with a lot of rough features. Being pitted against AAA studios just makes it a massive up hill battle that is very hard to justify. And before you ask, yes I am begrudgingly heeding my own advice on this, my next game is 2D.

I would say for an indie studio it is a win for 2D, while for a AAA studio it is a win for 3D.


Market Success:

If you have been following the Indie game market on steam (or gog), you will notice that many of the most successful indie games are 2D games, where as very few (recent) 2D AAA games have garnered the same success. And vise versa for 3D games. I think much of this boils down to the above perceptions… 2D is for indies, and 3D is for AAA. If you are and indie making a AAA game you have to either A) battle that perception and inform the community of who you are repeatedly, or B) somehow make a AAA quality game with 1/50th the team size, and 1/1000th the team budget. Ofen this will lead to a good game getting crushed by unreasonable expectations of the 3D perception… Likewise if you are a AAA team making a 2D game, then you run the risk of the community simply expecting more from you, and no matter what you make they may/will respond with “But its not 3D” and down vote you. This can again lead to a good game getting crushed under the weight of expectations that are unreasonable.

I would say for an indie studio it is a win for 2D, while for a AAA studio it is a win for 3D.


So who is the winner?

Well I would say that 2D is the winner for Indie studios and 3D is the winner for the AAA studios, but you will have to make that analysis on your own.


Is there any losers?

The community… Yes we bring it on our ourselves with our perceptions and preconceived notions, but we are truly the losers here. Because of this we see very few 3D indie titles, and very few 2D AAA titles. We also see the gaming community becoming more and more divided as to what kinds of games they play often denoted by the art style (for instance there arnt many 1st person 2D games anymore). To me this is sad, as I feel things could simply be much better, and a much greater variety of games could be successful if we would just approach every game individually rather than with decades of perceptions and preconceived notions.
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