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Why 3-D gaming hasn't caught on

One barrier to 3-D TV adoption is the required glasses, like the ones attendees wore at June's Electronic Entertainment Expo.
One barrier to 3-D TV adoption is the required glasses, like the ones attendees wore at June's Electronic Entertainment Expo.
  • About five million 3-D TVs will be sold in the United States this year
  • 3-D represents just another choice in a dizzying range of options
  • For now, most gamers seem better off staying grounded in plain-old 2-D reality

Editor's note: Scott Steinberg is the head of technology and video game consulting firm TechSavvy Global, as well as the founder of GameExec magazine and Game Industry TV. The creator and host of online video series Game Theory, he frequently appears as an on-air technology analyst for ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and CNN.

(CNN) -- You say you want a revolution? Despite TV and console makers' best efforts, it just doesn't appear to be happening in 3-D for video game fans.

Scroll back the clock 12 months, and 3-D gaming's hype was inescapable. The PlayStation 3 had just received a free software update introducing three-dimensional special effects to popular titles such as "PAIN" and "Super Stardust HD." Promising 3-D debuts of big-name titles such as "Killzone 3," "Crysis 2" and "Mortal Kombat" were still on the horizon.

The buzz behind the portable Nintendo 3DS handheld was deafening, thanks to its glasses-free approach to making visuals literally leap off the screen. Even obscure outings such as "Attack of the Movies 3D," which used traditional movie-style red-and-blue glasses, were trying to cash in on the concept by bringing 3-D to less technically capable systems such as the Wii.

But a year later, after all the sound and fury has come and gone, you can hear the virtual crickets chirp.

According to Futuresource Consulting, five million 3-D TVs will be sold in the United States this year, with 15 million expected to be in homes nationwide by the end of 2012. That sounds promising for the format's future. But as a study by Deloitte reveals, 83% of shoppers don't believe 3-D is enough to make them buy a new set, and 60% said they wouldn't pay more for these capabilities.

Market researcher NPD Group has found the two biggest barriers to adoption are the need to wear goofy glasses and the heightened price that 3-D sets command. Most sell for double to triple that of comparable 2-D plasma or LCD models, respectively.

To date, growth in 3-D television purchases has likely been driven by manufacturers themselves, who've increasingly built 3-D capabilities into high-end 2-D models.

But despite doubling down on the technology, which TV makers hoped would offset the inroads interactive solutions such as smartphones and video game consoles have made as primary entertainment solutions, these bets haven't paid off.

And despite the increasing number of big-screen 3-D movie releases, consumer electronics titans are now blaming Hollywood for poor sales of compatible sets, decrying shoddy 3-D films and an overall lack of compelling content for these devices.

Perhaps it's the reason so few homes own a 3-D set. Analysts are torn in their projections regarding the format, with SNL Kagan predicting that 3-D TV sales will actually decline in 2011. Either way, the message is clear: Until more must-see films and TV shows arrive, not enough people are buying.

Sales of the Nintendo 3DS also have failed to live up to expectations, and shopper interest in the device is declining, according to surveys by research firm Interpret.

This presents a massive problem for video-game makers.

Smaller audiences on 3-D-ready platforms means smaller prospective sales and less reason to devote resources to making software for these devices than standard 2-D options for PC, PlayStation 3, Wii or Xbox 360.

Already faced with the challenge of having to support more multiplayer and downloadable content, motion-control features and mobile options, game creators may now see 3-D as just another in a dizzying range of possible production choices -- and an uncompelling one at that.

There are some reasons for hope, however.

High-profile games such as "The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D" for Nintendo 3DS and the upcoming PlayStation 3 flagship title "Uncharted 3" are expected to help grow consumer interest in the format.

Sony also has announced plans this fall to introduce a more affordable 24-inch 3-D monitor capable of displaying full-screen images to two individual players on a single set for $499. But with a limited number of 3-D games available on both set-top and handheld platforms, and PC solutions such NVidia's 3-D Vision still priced beyond most enthusiasts' reach, the options are hardly awe-inspiring.

Even the recent arrival of Netflix online video streaming on the Nintendo 3DS via downloadable app has yet to impress critics. No 3-D movies and TV shows are available yet, with a limited library of selections due soon.

It's a fitting metaphor for the technology's progress to date -- largely all flash and no substance. That's scant consolation for players, who see little benefit to upgrading to 3-D, and for game developers, who recognize equally little upside from taking the 3-D plunge.

It's little wonder most game makers are simply dabbling their toes with smaller 3DS-compatible releases such as "DualPen Sports" and "Resident Evil: The Mercenaries 3D," or downloadable 3-D updates for games like "Tetris" on PlayStation Network.

We'd hesitate to label 3-D gaming as the next Betamax this early in its life cycle. But most gamers, rather than overspend on a gimmick whose only lasting gift thus far has been eyestrain and a splitting headache, are happily staying grounded in plain-old 2-D reality.


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