Crapshoot: 3D Construction Kit, the toolset for making your own crap games


From 2010 to 2014 Richard Cobbett wrote Crapshoot, a column about bringing random obscure games back into the light. 

Play enough games, and at some point your mind is going to start creating your own. If you can program, if you can draw, maybe you can sit down and make them happen. If not, there are tools like GameMaker and Unity and the UDK to make them happen. But what if you'd been inspired before these modern marvels came along? What if you'd had a genius idea for your own 3D world back in 1991? Then maybe, just maybe, you'd have found the 3D Construction Kit (or Virtual Reality Studio) the answer to your prayers. If so, you'd be the only one. 3D Construction Kit was where your ambitions went to die.

Very rarely has such an awesome toy been this useless. And yes, awesome is the word. 3D Construction Kit offered incredible technology by the standards of the time, not simply on the PC, but on everything from the Amiga to the ZX Spectrum. It gave you a complete polygon-based 3D engine, scripting, compilation tools, and more. But don't take my word for it. Check out this official video to see the kind of experiences you too could dare to dream of one day creating. Beware! Your mind may be blown.

This VHS originally came with the 3D Construction Kit, and it's notable for being a little—how can I put this tactfully—full of shit. Yes, you could indeed create a car. You wouldn't however be able to drive it anywhere, or have other 3D cars on the track doing anything. You'll note how the only movement you see the car doing is courtesy of the camera sweeping past it. There is a Reason. You could, in theory, create adventure games, but since your only interaction method was shooting stuff and banging into it, there wasn't much scope for creating puzzles. You could create a 10,000-seat stadium, ignoring the lack of actual seats and such, but you had precisely zero chance of actually playing football in it.

Really, all you could do with the 3DCK was create very simplistic scenes, a few tiny bits of them moving or wobbling around, by painstakingly shoving every last primitive into place, and adding a bit of scripting to make bits move around, vanish from the gameworld, or fire deadly lasers. As soon as you wanted to go beyond that, you were either out of luck or in a world of hurt. Usually both. I know many people who owned the 3DCK. I don't know any who managed to put together an actual game with it.

In any toolkit, the demo project sets the tone. This was 3DCK's (albeit running in a more updated version of the engine with a far higher resolution than the original's 320x200). If you're wondering what the game version of Inception is going to be like, consider this a surreal little preview. I'm still not entirely sure what's going on, but as far as I can tell, your job is to buy scuba gear from an alien so that you can find a desert island that lets you bypass a vision of Satan in order to hump the Space Shuttle.

Suddenly my own life goals seem so... ordinary.

Despite being barely usable (and this was on PC—the 8-bit versions had single-digit framerates) for anything serious, 3DCK was an impressive release. It was ridiculously ahead of its time, for good or bad, and the first consumer-level tool that really made playing with 3D seem cool. This was a couple of years before Doom, and even commercial 3D games of the time looked pretty terrible. 3DCK also had an excellent heritage. It was based on the Freescape engine, as made famous by games like Driller, Total Eclipse and Castle Master and while those names may not mean much now, they were justifiably well-regarded at the time. Technologically, anyway. As games, they were largely terrible.

Freescape was also (in a way, via its successor, Superscape) the engine that powered a truly ghastly TV show called Cyber Zone, about which YouTube has precisely one surviving clip. It came out two years after 3DCK, starring Craig Charles as himself and James Grout as Thesp, a virtual fat man who acted a little bit snooty. Knightmare, it was not. It wasn't even Time Busters. Or Incredible Games.

Nothing about this show worked, not for a single solitary second. Despite trying far too hard to be futuristic and cyber and other nonsense that was embarrassing even in 1993, it was instantly out-dated. The world may have been fully 3D, but it ran like a dog, and the interaction was barely more advanced for being professionally designed. One team ran on pressure pads to move around, go into rooms and solve incredibly clumsy puzzles that usually boiled down to shooting ducks or similarly embarrassingly simple stuff even by Crystal Maze standards, while the other got to drive or fly around the world and... pretty much just watch them. The set was all dark and trashy. The main world used in the show was a recreation of a boring modern town. The prize was Craig Charles asking the winner what they wanted, and when they said 'a sports car' or whatever, handing them a disk and saying there was a virtual one on there. Words can barely describe how toe-curling this show was. Luckily, a minute or so is enough.

(Craig Charles went on to host the even more painful Heaven and Hell, while the BBC inflicted the astoundingly dull Fightbox on the world. At least Time Commanders was pretty entertaining though, proving that you can make a decent TV show out of a game if you try...)

3D Construction Kit wasn't a bad product. For the £25 or so it cost, or the £7 I originally bought it for, you weren't really paying for a game creator tool, but a kind of game creator role-playing game. You may never have made anything with it, but that wasn't the point. You could always have made something tomorrow, or next week, or in that even more nebulous world of 'some time in the future'. 

For most of us, that's really no different to the tools available now. They're just better, easier to use, and permit humping the space station in glorious high-definition. Thank goodness. Anything else would be rubbish.