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New Worlds in Game Design
by Bart Stewart on 05/12/09 12:02:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Looking at the more complex games available today and announced, gamers can be forgiven for thinking that every possible style of game has already been invented. Fantasy, horror, science fiction, war, and superheroes dominate store shelves.

I'd like to consider here the idea that the universe of possible computer games has barely been explored yet. Suppose we could set aside all assumptions -- what kinds of games could be imagined if we consciously decided to do something new? (I understand the practical difficulties of persuading investors to finance the development of new kinds of games. Let's set that aside for a moment to consider the possibilities.)

One obvious approach is to base a game around a popular genre of novel or film. Spy thriller, hard-boiled "noir" mystery, rival Mafiosi families... these genres will probably occur to most people once they get past "Western gunslinger," "pirates," and "post-apocalyptic."

That said, I think just playing with genres will prove to be a dead end. The literary forms of the past will be played out at some point. So why wait for that day? Instead, what about stepping out of the box a little further to look at some possibilities that question deeper assumptions about what computer games can be?

Consider just the MMORPG realm. A core assumption of these games is that players want to compete against each other. So what happens if we challenge that assumption?

What if instead of making yet another Hobbesian world of constant competition, a game could be funded that subordinated competition to cooperation? What if the highest-level goal baked into the game was not personally topping a leaderboard or belonging to the biggest guild, but something more constructive instead?

There could still be competition in such a game. Competition in moderation is healthy; it's a very effective way of efficiently distributing finite resources. But in a game where resources can be considered infinite, competition would not be the be-all and end-all of play -- it would be a subgame that ultimately supports the top-level cooperative effort.

As an example of this, I've been thinking about a "Big Challenge" game where all players have to work together in complex ways over a long time to avert some disaster or complete a major accomplishment, such as exploring a new continent or landing on the Moon.

I imagine such a game being designed so that it would take a year or two for the expected number of players to complete the initial challenge (taking into account the most machine-like grinding tendencies of some gamers). By the time the initial challenge has been achieved, the developer should be ready to implement the next Big Challenge as an expansion, and so on.

How many people might enjoy playing a game that was challenging without being exclusively about poking each other in the eyes?

But now let's step back even further. Here's a diagram I first drew up in 2007 (and have since modified) to show my personal interpretation of the various forms of computer games we've invented so far and how they interact to form specific modes of gameplay:

Diagram of computer game type relationships

(Please note that the specific details of this diagram are less important than the general relationships suggested. Also, the size of each ellipse is irrelevant; there's no correlation with "importance.")

When I look at this diagram, I see the gaps. I can't help myself; I immediately think, "What if...?"

What if the Adventure Games circle were expanded to intersect with MMOGs? Could there be a massively multiplayer adventure game? What if the Strategy Games circle were expanded to CRPGs, so that you actually played a character whose effectiveness at strategic planning determined your character's story arc? What if the Strategy Games circle were expanded to MMORPGs, so that gameplay wasn't just a bunch of mindless one-on-one slapfights but represented hundreds of thousands of massive empires spanning a galaxy?

What if the Software Toys circle, with its emphasis on simulation, were expanded into MMORPGs? Can you imagine a game where the gameplay revolved around how well your characters responded to dynamic but comprehensible changes in complex systems? What kinds of systems would be fun to simulate if you could allow thousands of characters to fiddle simultaneously with the switches and dials of a gloriously complex gameworld?

You get the idea -- the gaps are opportunities to experiment with new kinds of computer game products.

So: we're out of ideas? Baloney!

In the universe of computer games, there are still plenty of worlds for an Alexander to conquer.

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Brandon Davis
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From my standpoint its articles such as this that are at the heart of gameplay. Gamers will determine the success of a design. Ultimately, it becomes a function of production economics. President, LMG.

Kumar Daryanani
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Very interesting article, I agree with you in doubting that we have 'invented everything'. Even if we do get to a point when we take the entire human knowledge base and plumb its depths for ideas, there's always stuff we don't understand yet, and as our knowledge base grows, there will continue to be things we don't know about. At the same time, like you say, there are gaps in the diagram that are waiting to be filled. Also, so far we haven't been exploring much in the multiplayer design area beyond symmetrical coop and versus multiplayer. We don't have situations in videogames where you have 1 player with lots of resources and the rest of the players trying to beat him individually or cooperatively (the boardgame Wrath of Dracula is a good example).

Valve explored something like this with Left4Dead, after a fashion, and there's plenty of room to elaborate on that. An FPS based on 'The Running Man', for example, where a group of players are hunting down one other player with a different set of abilities, and whoever catches him gets to play that role in the next round. Asymmetric multiplayer can probably be applied to a bunch of the games that use multiplayer game modes already.

scott anderson
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Although the article says you have an updated version of your diagram, the one you posted is missing a ton of major genres. You don't have sports games, racing games, flight sims, fighting games, platformers, beat 'em ups or shmups. Even as a PC and Western centric diagram its somewhat lacking.

Jhypsy Shah
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feel free to submit this to chaos galaxy mag if you like:

Bart Stewart
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Scott, you're quite right that the diagram doesn't show certain kinds of games. I actually debated for a while where things like Mario Kart would go (on a diagram that was already pretty cluttered).

Ultimately I realized that the focus of this study was "world-y" games in which setting and/or story support the gameplay. That's why I started the very first line of the piece by noting that I was looking at "more complex games." Sports sims might still fit that category, though -- that might be an appropriate addition to the diagram. Thanks for the comments, and I'll give that some thought for the next iteration.

Luis Guimaraes
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One thing I learned is that Game Design is a verrrrrry complex task... Many good game designers think so much "outside the box", even there's no common sense of where the box goes up to. Once I tried to say exactly what you say in this article with a single sentence like "Even inside the box haven't being explored yet", nobody got the point haha...

With "very complex task" I mean, there are many things to consider, from technologic boundaries (turn-based browser games vs. mmorts) to manpower and development time (mmo adventure) to audience interests and so on...

Louis Varilias
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"What if instead of making yet another Hobbesian world of constant competition, a game could be funded that subordinated competition to cooperation?"

There's no reason that would be fun. They actually do exist. I would say the most popular MMORPGs are about some form of cooperation, as well as competition. Without SOME kind of competition, games would not be interesting. I certainly wouldn't play that game.

I think you should avoid thinking about games in terms of genres. Genres should only be descriptions of games with similar characteristics, not a guiding design principle to the game you're making. If you only think in terms of what you want to accomplish, and if you're a good designer, new ideas will surface. That also implies not simply making "what gamers want".

An Dang
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Coming up with labels and categorization is nice for games that already exist, but I guess (in agreeing with pretty much everyone here) in order to create something new, you have to just start without the limitation of a genre or category.

Merging multiple genres is nice, and many of them have not been done, at least not positive reception or attention of the mainstream.

Christopher Wragg
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@ Louis

Games don't need competition to be fun, they merely need conflict. Conflict doesn't necessarily have to be between the players. Hell it doesn't even need to be violent. I was dubious when he mentioned the concept but then had a "heh, that could actually work" moment. Averting Disaster sounds like a good one to me, I even like the idea of the players starting the game not knowing what that disaster will be..... So the first step is players scrounging the world trying to work out clues as to what is going to happen. You could have it as a real world sim, with all the players being part of the FBI or some other organisation, or various related organisations around the world, each capable of unearthing various parts of the plot, all relying on each other to find clues/gather resources so they can progress. Sure violence could exist, sure players could even make it between each other, but pvp activity wouldn't be encouraged and it wouldn't be rewarded.

@ Bart

Also had a moment of actual loling at the idea of a MMORPAAG (massively multiplayer online roleplaying action adventure game, boy thats a mouthfull)....the immediate thought that hit me is, OK everyone, guess what, you're ALL Ninjas....

@Everyone - Warning, what follows is a brain dump brought about by combining unusual genres.

Oooo what about a game that fosters cooperation and distrust. For instance, the game is completely pvp..... But it's an all against one scenario AND it's an MMO. Intrigued, I hope so. The idea being a crime mystery style idea, each player is spawned as a regular character, with an average life, with average activities, it effectively becomes a online chat room of a higher end complexity. But one player is gifted with the ability to mind control players. Now the player must touch a person for that person to become their mind slave, but once touched, the player may "hijack" that character at any time they feel the need. This character has one stipulation and one stipulation only, they must make an increasing number of murders each week or their character gets transferred to a willing player.. A player can even be logged on and see their character hijacked, and if awake during the occasion are given a 20 second window when hijacked to say something (like wrestling for control of their mind). The ultimate aim for the players is to live, the ultimate aim for the killer is to kill EVERYONE. Now the players would have various methods for hunting down the killer, they can track down who's been in contact with who, they can try and work out which are people have recently been enslaved in, they can try to eliminate the slaves, they could place cameras around their virtual homes and record time periods. Other people like police who come to the scene of a murder could view these recordings, etc. Once the killer is captured the round comes to an end. Effectively the game becomes a giant social game, where for survival, everyone must play to help each other, while trusting no one.

Anywho just an idea that amused me, obviously rules would have to be ironed out, anonymity would have to be enforced somehow, the number of mechanics involved would be pretty nuts, good luck getting it past a ratings commission as I imagine for it to be an accurate social sim it would have to be pretty highly rated, I suppose for recorded information peoples home PC could carry that load. The kill count would have to start small, and then ramp up exponentially, in fact the first week real time could have no necessary kill total, and the player could just build up a list of potential mind slaves. Also play testing would be difficult at best. Powerful graphics aren't necessary, it's more about the social interactions. Maybe some sort of reward system for regular play, so business, some sort of internal economy, material wealth etc. Perhaps eventually as the kill count grows, to escalate it further the slaver could create an apprentice so that more than one person could be enslaved at the same time.

Kumar Daryanani
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@Christopher: Sounds a bit like werewolf, but in real time. :)

@Louis: In general, the different 'cooperation' and 'competition' aspects of MMOs are used to juxtapose each other and give different kinds of players different things to do, it's an attempt to alienate as few people as possible. The opposite is also true (See Darkfall, and to a lesser extent Age of Conan, Warhammer Online). Nowadays, releasing a non-casual MMO without some form of PVE _and_ PvP just makes people think that you released with a limited or flawed feature set.

Kumar Daryanani
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And @Bart: The problem with a game with no competition is that it would either a) alienate the social/achievers, who thrive on competition, or b) people would form the biggest guilds, do a greater portion of the cooperative work within their small, formalised, laser-focused achievement oriented group, and then chew out the rest of the server for being slackers.

I think it's a good idea, but at the same time, there would have to be an escalation towards that ultimate goal, such that people can't complete it within two weeks of launching the content that establishes that goal (unless that's your timeframe). Time and again, players surprise developers with how fast they can blitz through content, and as soon as you create a goal, people are going to rush towards it as fast as they can, just so they can brag 'First!' on some internet forum, and so they can be 'done' with it and focus on the next.

Also, even non-worldy games haven't been 'done to death'. There are still possible iterations for sports games, racing games, shooters, and just about every game genre 'missing' from the chart. I can think of possible examples for each of the three types I just mentioned that I don't think have been done yet. Also, there have been a lot of games made in and out of the US that have received very little attention due to being 'niche' market, or not having been picked up by a big publisher and exported worldwide, as well as dozens if not hundreds of games that have been cancelled or discarded during brainstorming sessions in meeting rooms everywhere.

So, I maintain, no, we're not doing innovating with games yet.

Bart Stewart
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Thanks for all the comments, folks.

The purpose of my essay and diagram was to propose a tentative model of game type relationships that would support a discussion of new opportunities in game design. It was meant to be a starting point for discussion, not any kind of final word, so I'm happy to see this stuff get beat up on in a constructive way.

With regard to competition and cooperation, that was never intended to be the focus of my essay -- it was just one example of an area where I see an opportunity for alternative game designs. But given the interest that people have shown in discussing that specific example, I'm now thinking maybe that's worth a new essay of its own!

One thing I would like to be careful to point out is that I personally am not anti-competition, either in real life or in game design. Obviously there are a lot of people currently playing games today who seem motivated primarily by a need for achievement. Catering to these gamers by designing plenty of compeition-oriented content is not a mistake. I support competitive content, even in a game designed to reward cooperation.

Competition also serves the very useful goal of efficiently allocating finite resources. Given that a strictly finite amount of resources is a design element of nearly every game, it's perfectly natural that competition should be the primary form of gameplay.

As one example of thinking beyond conventions, however, I'm imagining a gameworld designed to have infinite resources -- both natural and player-constructible. When an economic system allows actors to add to the total wealth of that system by creating new kinds of things, cooperation acquires enough utility for it to occur spontaneously, even in a world filled with competitors. (Robert Axelrod's "Evolution of Cooperation" is a key element of my thinking here, along with Julian Simon's "Ultimate Resource.")

So why don't more game designers see value in that kind of design?

Naturally I've got a number of theories on that subject. :) But to keep this short, I'll just note that I'm aware of some of the challenges of designing a gameworld in which players can make new kinds of things and in which multiple forms of cooperation are possible, but which is still sufficiently constrained so that derailing the game through either deliberate abuse or undesirable high-level emergent effects is minimized. I'll willingly grant that it's relatively easier to make a highly-constrained gameworld that, other than minimal support for clans/guilds/corps, focuses in almost every single feature on conflict, competition and accumulation of first/most/best status markers.

There is nothing inherently wrong with such games. All I'm suggesting is that there's nothing inherently wrong with games that accentuate cooperative play by design, either... so wouldn't it be interesting to see a few more of those?

Again, though, this question of competition vs. cooperation is just one example of an assumption that might be worth challenging in the design of future games. I'm hoping this article will encourage readers to come up with other examples.

To that point:

@Christopher, I quite liked your "cooperation and distrust" game concept. That's an example of the kind of exploratory thinking I hoped my essay would inspire.

One thing I would note is that, while not identical to your concept, it definitely reminded me of the tabletop RPG "Paranoia." If you haven't encountered this game before, I encourage you to do so -- it's a game design explicitly tailored to cooperation within a culture of massive distrust. "Trust no one!" is actually one of the catchphrases of the game.

It's a wonder to me that no one has turned Paranoia into a MMORPG yet.

So what other strange new worlds remain to be explored in game designs? Does the chart, flawed as it is, suggest any other possibilities that seem like they might be fun to design, even if only as a way to stretch our design muscles?

Louis Varilias
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One type of "new world" that ought to be explored is using multiple, even dynamic, economic structures that are used to give a player wealth. This would NOT be limited to "free market" economy or "controlled" economy. All that would be provided is a need to acquire resources. Overall, the goal would be to build up technology for some given type of gameplay (advancement of car technology for racing; advancement of medicine for duels to near-death). This type of game would require interactions with many actual people.

This is the type of thinking that must be done. Basically, just an "it would be cool if...". Not an "it would be cool if I made an improved Halo."

My idea above is really just "it would be cool if players could develop their own economic structure". Everything else I came up with is just a way to make that idea come to life and involve real people. In a way it's an academic curiosity about economics, except your models are involving actual people.

Maybe this is a bit long for a comment on a blog, but a discussion is a discussion no matter where it is.

Bart Stewart
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Not too long at all, Louis. That's exactly the kind of idea-generation I hoped to inspire. Thanks!

Anyone else?

Luis Guimaraes
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"It's a wonder to me that no one has turned Paranoia into a MMORPG yet."

The real answer of why most the good ideas haven't been made into games is simply that games cost money, costs convincing publishers, costs studing and building up portifolios and careers, and cost have a bit more of mind instead of only academic "someone teached me this" thing...

Amanda Jeffrey
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Hello old friend! Didn't know you were writing on Gamasutra, but I see that you're just as keen and eloquent as always. Still no datapads as far as I hear, though. ;)

(Spotted you commenting on Tom Hammersley's feature on Planning For Fun - he's a collegue of mine. It's a very small world.)