Rocket Ninja's Neil Haldar: 3D will separate the wheat from the chaff on Facebook

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Neil Haldar Rocket NinjaGames with 3D graphics are nothing new--you know that. But Facebook games with 3D graphics are, according to Rocket Ninja executive producer Neil Haldar (pictured). The company recently unleashed Shr3d, a 3D graphics engine for Flash (the platform on which almost all Facebook games are created) that requires no extra downloads.

We dug the company's first game using the technology, Wrestler: Unstoppable, but is begs a few questions. How will 3D change social games? More importantly, are social gamers ready for 3D? We sat down with Haldar recently to hash out the future of 3D in Facebook games--check it out:

Why did Rocket Ninja decide to create their own 3D Flash games engine?

Well, the way the company got started was we were really looking at ways of how to originally get into the web-based MMOs (massively multiplayer online games) space. And one of the ways the company was looking to innovate there was to remove the requirement of a significant download.

So, we started it as web-based, tried to make it as open as possible and get into the platform that is most ubiquitous and has the most number of users. [Ed. Note: Haldar is referring to the Adobe Flash Player used to display almost all Facebook games.] Second, we absolutely held up to our belief that we need to be a download-free experience in 3D.

The 3D part is important, because we wanted to deliver a different kind of gaming experience to those web browsers. It's pretty easy for an awful lot of people to throw some Flash together, make a lot of 2D stuff and have it run across a screen, but 3D requires a lot of skill and know-how. And that's what really sets us apart-as game developers, how can we express fun and entertainment inside of a web browser.

Why did you decide with your first project to add the 3D element to an existing game rather than create your own game?

The answer to that is in two parts. The first is, as you know, we started off building our own game on Facebook that was intended to be a test, and much like everyone it was a fish game called Ocean Kingdom. We learned a lot of what it takes to acquire a user, give them tools to be viral with their friends, to have them keep playing the game and eventually, you know, shake a couple coins out of them.

We learned that it's much harder to start off from scratch, especially when we need to ask the player to trust us when it comes to game content type. But also in terms of, 'Hey, I'm also bringing you 3D-trust me! 3D is much more fun, trust me!' when the whole world out there is 2D. To solve some of these things we realized that we could help accelerate other developers' games. A lot of developers are realizing that the jig is up [Ed.Note: due to Facebook's many changes in 2010.]. Things like that we think we can solve for a lot of other developers.

The second part is that, as we were thinking about the kinds of games and the kinds of community systems that best benefit from the expertise and technology that we have, this Wrestler game was a great opportunity for us. And the longer we looked at it, the more we were convinced that this would be a great acceleration product for us-something we could lend better game design to. If we could enable 3D with audio and sound to make the game experience more compelling, people would probably play the game more, and we might be able to shake a couple extra nickels and pennies out of them.

Wrestler: Unstoppable
Now, you're talking about providing these services to other developers, but are there plans to release future Rocket Ninja games developed in house?

There are a lot of really talented developers out there, and at the same time there are a lot of genius game designers and programmers that originally put the 3D engine together. You know, our experience with Wrestler was that, 'Yes, we did accelerate someone else's game, we really sort of adopted it and made it our own.' So, with the passion that the original developer had for that, they joined us as our employee full time.

We sort of blurred the lines of developing a game in house or accelerated someone else's game. These are the games that I would want to play, because I think it's a game that an awful lot of other people would want to play, but the question is: Why haven't they? If we can answer that 'why' with the tools we have in our arsenal, then that's probably a great candidate for us to add to the fold.

Now, do you think that 3D is the next answer to that 'Why?' and if so, how is 3D going to change how social games are played? Because I've yet to see many 3D Facebook games that make liberal use of the 3D space.

I know there aren't many 3D games on Facebook, but they are coming. The next major release of Adobe Flash will have incorporated technology called 'Molehill.' [This] is essentially Adobe's answer to 3D-high-quality 3D experiences within Flash. So, how does that help with the gameplay? I've been making games for a long time, and generally with every platform what happens when you make the jump from 2D the 3D is that the user is so excited about manipulating 3D objects that the emotional connection between the consumer and the game just grows leaps and bounds.

The transition to 3D is going to be very real-it's going to separate the wheat from the chaff amongst developers on social networks. When you unleash 3D onto a platform [like Facebook] that's originally been 2D, I think you're going to see an awful lot of new kinds of games coming out of that.

Shr3d EngineI've seen some social games that use 3D, but the social features take a back burner to the novelty of 3D. So, how do we change the average middle-aged mother's expectations of social games?

When you take a look at Wrestler, it's not just a social game originally built in 2D, but it has an enormous, thriving social community within the game. We allow players to play with total strangers through loose organizations. That's different than your peanut butter and jelly 2D game on Facebook. The availability of 3D will ultimately make the gaming experience much more interesting for the end user-even for grand mom. It's like the isle of Facebook gaming is full of accidental gamers.

Eventually those gamers will have greater, more sophisticated tastes. They too want different kinds of scenarios-they too want deeper pieces of entertainment to interact with. We're sort of on that cusp, and the ability for us to provide [download-free] 3D now puts us a little ahead of the pack. More importantly, it allows us to trail blaze and understand, 'What does happen when we have grand mom playing a 3D game on Facebook?' Will it change how they buy things, how they play the game, are they less social or are they more social? We're now sifting through the data to find out what that future world on Facebook looks like.

Do you think 3D necessarily leads to complexity?

No. I think there's a desire by younger developers to make 3D for 3D's sake. We think the tact of 3D should be easy to approach-navigation of 3D space is difficult for your casual consumer. So, we're not asking you to navigate 3D worlds or play first-person shooters. The 3D we have right now is pretty big, but it's simplistic using a 2D interface to interact with 3D objects. That's the right approach for starters.

Without the 3D tool set, we could not begin to approach solving interesting gameplay problems without adding to a quagmire of 2D complexity. I take a look at how FarmVille runs at it height versus Empires & Allies just 18 months later, and there are probably one hundred times as many things on my screen trying to grab my attention.

Are there any more projects you can talk about using the Shr3d engine?

Oh yeah, we certainly do. We have ongoing discussions with a bunch of different developers trying to figure out whether we can make ends meet or whether there are other games out there that belong in our acceleration pipeline. First and foremost we're a games company-you're not going to see us making medial device imaging or some crap like that. We do not intend to license our technology to anybody. Everything done to games with our technology will be something we do ourselves. Whether we built it in house or whether we accelerated somebody else's and made it our own has yet to be seen

[Image Credits: Neil Haldar, Rocket Ninja]

Do you think 3D has a place in Facebook games? How do you think 3D will change how social games are played, and will the average FarmVille player hop on board? Sound off in the comments. Add Comment.
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