When we talk about innovation in game design, what qualifies as something new can be tricky. While gaming technology may have improved, the core ideas often have not — something game company executives who have been around a while will readily admit. It’s more of a balance between novelty and the theft of 30-year-old concepts. Not for nothing that people reference games from the 1980s as influential in their design choices. When an idea works, permutations of it are likely to crop up again and again.
This is more a distillation of innovative principles that the next generations of designers will likely encounter and apply or reference within their games. It eschews the ideas that fancy mechanics trump well-designed game play, much in the same way that any amount of CGI in a film will seldom salvage bad plot structure. It doesn’t matter what the genre is. Formulaic execution of ‘wow!’ elements will eventually bore even the most die-hard fan.
Don’t get me wrong. Surprising a player is important, and will get return visits for the sheer exhilaration of that experience. But there has to be a holistic approach that doesn’t hold out for something new at the expense of basic pleasure. Remember: Tetris is by far the most successful electronic game ever, and its concept is as simple as they come.
1. GETTING CRAFTY
No surprise that role-playing games (RPG) go back many years. Who knows how many games Dungeons and Dragons spawned, but it’s pretty clear that that World of Warcraft (WoW) is one offshoot, at least in spirit. WoW is one of the most successful RPG around today, and commonly categorized as a massively multiplayer online RPG or MMORPG. WoW has helped define what a team-oriented player-versus-player game can be and it has a huge following.
In the past four years, another game has taken the gaming community by storm — Minecraft. Rather than having a set landscape and narrative, the game’s environment is procedurally generated as the user is essentially building their own world. This ability has proved enormously popular, as it frees players from the constraints of a static environment and gives them an interactive role that even some educators have found intriguing to consider introducing in a classroom setting.
In the next few years, watch for open-ended design strategies that game developers will introduce to MMORPG community. The call for hybrid approaches that combine role-playing with world building have been surfacing in blogs and gaming forums for a couple of years now. It may be hard to imagine a Warcraft-meets-Minecraft type of game. But this is precisely the open-ended approach that will continue to find expression in future games.
2. MORE REALISM, LESS VIOLENCE?
Most of you are familiar with The Sims and Grand Theft Auto. In both cases, the simulated environment sustains the interest of the player, with the latter providing the opportunity to confront inhabitants of the city. GTA, along with WoW, crossed over into the popular culture due to in part to its violent nature.
Consider, however, the issue of too much realism. Or, rather, how will designers handle the demand for realism when its presence triggers empathy on the part of the player? Because that is exactly where we are heading right now. As Ned Lesesne recently wrote on Venturebeat.com:
“Graphical improvements will create an environment in which empathy will not only be a part of the prosocial gaming experience but the antisocial experiences as well. Game creators will have to work very hard to modulate the empathy felt toward each character in the game they’re creating, as has been the case with film for years. The technology that has been driving gameplay forward will now drive storytelling forward. Creating relatable characters who feel and act real won’t just be an exercise in technological showboating but a storytelling necessity based on the ever-increasing empathetic reactions of the player.”
Lest we forget Masahiro Mori’s hypothesis of the “uncanny valley”, where the point a robot becomes almost but not quite human in appearance triggers a negative response in people. However, as robots become, in theory, indistinguishable from humans, the empathic responses remain active in humans. That is to say, you might think twice about unloading your shotgun into that very-realistic person (or robot) on-screen who is begging for their life.
3. EMERGENT NARRATIVE
The third trend that is likely to influence game developers is a very fluid approach to narrative, or storyline. In the same sense that Minecraft players build their world, stories will be interactively developed depending on the actions of the players and the response of the programmer’s algorithms. Then, of course, there are RULES, which is all-caps because it’s likely to be the stumbling block that everybody will be dealing with. But it won’t stop it.
4. 3D IMMERSION
Some of you might remember virtual reality goggles from the 1990s? Well,
one company — Oculus VR— is set to revolutionize gaming world with the Oculus Rift. I really can’t do any better than this:
I know, I know. I said at the beginning that fancy mechanics don’t define good game experience. But this is too cool.