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3D gaming

Contributor(s): Matthew Haughn

3D gaming is interactive computer entertainment that is graphically presented in the three dimensions of height, width and depth; the addition of depth to 2D gaming enabled the exploration of virtual worlds with more realistic representation.

The first true 3D games were developed from wire frame models. The 3D models, which had no shading, were made from vertices and lines and could be seen through. Elite was the first of this new generation of video games, in 1984. Flat-shaded 3D polygons with 16 colors arrived with Bethesda's Terminator in 1990. The game’s graphics were visually inferior to competing 2D graphics of the time. Nonethless, 3D representation pushed the current hardware – 286- and 386-based computers -- and thus were an impressive achievement within their limitations.

In 1992, iD Software released Wolfenstein 3D. Although it is termed 2.5D or pseudo 3D, Wolfenstein launched iD’s reign as the premier graphics engine makers. John Carmack, who later left iD to work on Oculus Rift, was the programmer.

The major breakthrough in 3D gaming came with Quake, iD software’s first true 3D game. Quake featured full-color textured models and particle effects along with sound by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails. While playable without additional hardware, Quake’s performance was significantly enhanced by 3D-accelerated video cards and daughterboards from S3 Graphics and later by 3dfx’s Voodoo video card, which emerged as the standard for some time.

After the release of Quake, the field of 3D gaming developed rapidly. Games gained increasing fidelity, and additional features were added with the creation and development of GPUs (graphics processing units). Today, a single-character model may feature tens of hundreds of thousand polygons and scenes in games can have tens of millions. Models are surfaced by color, specular glow and reflective maps that, along with bump, normal or displacement maps, define their colors and reaction to environmental light.

The recent development of virtual reality headsets and associated systems is expected to lead to similar expansions in VR gaming.

See a video about the history of 3D gaming:

This was last updated in March 2016

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