The game industry is changing fast, and that makes it hard to predict how game designs will change. But by looking at patterns in gaming audiences and studying the underlying business principles behind them...it will still be really hard to predict. But let's try anyway.
Reducing cost is likely to be the single biggest factor in improving innovation. While everyone knows that development costs have skyrocketed, this goes beyond just the question of creating assets or completing feature sets. The fate of a new game concept is far more tied to its cost than anything else. When there are large costs for a game concept to get made, most game concepts will die on the vine, either because it cannot be made within budget, or the perceived audience is too small to make back its money.
Indie developers have helped solve this problem. In their games, production value is often decoupled from game design exploration, and low production value is not always a product killer. Unfortunately, the kinds of games that can be made by small self-funded developers are severely limited. What is needed are large quantum leaps in development cost reduction. While better tools can shave some costs, what is needed is a wave of low-cost high-quality reusable projects and assets. Innovation happens best when it's easy to incrementally build upon existing work. It's no coincidence that many innovations were game mods such as Dota and DayZ.
There is no toolset in the world that will reduce costs dramatically if your game needs to look like CG. Pictured: Epic Games' Infiltrator tech demo.
Design innovation used to be a driver of the industry. Creating an innovative design meant you cut through the marketing noise, created brand loyalty, which all led to good business. It was driven by new technologies that enabled new worlds and mechanics, as well as the ability to use real-world themes. There were many new frontiers to explore, but possibility space can be finite. It's kind of a zero sum situation. Innovation may be getting harder because the ideas are running out.
People blame reasons like stingy publishers, unimaginative developers, stupid audiences, budgets, hardware constraints, etc. And while those are factors, they may not be the root cause. If those are the only reasons, why is design innovation not happening at the companies where those factors don't apply? For example, Nintendo still spends massive efforts in R&D, employs top-notch talent, has kept costs more reasonable, but still has not launched many new franchises or genres in a long time. Blizzard may go on to spend nearly a decade just to release their newly designed MMO. Valve's two most played games were invented by the mod community, not by Valve's internal R&D. The success rate of game design R&D is getting smaller every year, and is becoming a poor business proposition. R&D and innovation that used to go into design may get diverted into things like community management, new ways to acquire new players, monetization schemes, all things that make for better services.
If this man is relegated to making sequels to his past games, what chance does anyone else have at innovating?
When most modern art museums have video game exhibits, it can safely be considered art by a culture. Note that this is a much more advanced milestone than having many hardcore gamers consider video games to be art, which is likely already true today. What are the reasons why art museums don't exhibit video games? They're not accessible, since a random person is often unable to operate its controls. They're generally thought of as play things, and toys are not shown at most museums. Their interactivity is not sophisticated enough to communicate commentary that is worth writing literary critiques about. Their aesthetics are not considered groundbreaking by the general art community. All these make the public image of games far from "classy", which is generally the image that a culture will value as art.
Artistic games today mostly emulate books and movies. The argument is that a mature story game will be considered serious art. The trouble is that a game cannot be as effective as a book or movie for most people, especially non-gamers. The assumption is that choice allows for a richer narrative experience. It's a difficult claim, like claiming that murder mystery dinner theater can be superior to Shakespeare because you can participate. Anything that a game can do with plot and storytelling, a movie can do better. Movies will always be more accessible. Most story-based games are not going to be played by most of society, due to their interface and challenge. Any moments of choice that games simulate can be communicated in films. A traditional narrative in a film is, in fact, all about portraying the consequences of the choices of the main character. The protagonist's choices reveal a thematic message. It's tightly controlled, dramatic, well-paced, and provides a foundation for many kinds of stories.
The more practical route for games is to build upon the works from the installation art and interactive art genres. These are respected works with exhibitions in major museums and already resemble video games. It's more practical to avoid being a storytelling medium and borrow more from the sensory experience that interactive art uses to communicate a strong emotional message. The challenge is to improve sensory sublimity and interactivity, simplifying interfaces, and providing shorter experiences that can be exhibited.
In the past, brand loyalty was the primary way to keep a customer. It kept a player continually purchasing a series of products. The logical extension of this became franchises with many sequels. Today, there are more powerful ways to keep customers. Gabe Newell recently gave a great talk at the University of Texas that outlined some big principles. Modelling your game like an economy can help improve a service-oriented game. Properly aligning player incentives to desired behavior, ensuring that resources flows are properly understood and guided. The larger picture this provides is that game communities can become platforms and ecosystems of their own. This has been true of games like League of Legends, DOTA, TF2, Minecraft, Eve Online. This is a logical conclusion of a service-based game industry. Even through the difficult constraints that mobile gaming poses, many mobile game companies have built similar structures. It becomes far more feasible for a developer to do so on the open PC platform. The world of game community management is a much bigger unexplored frontier than game design may be.
Dota 2 is more like a platform than a traditional game.
Due to the shift in the way games make money, there is great incentive to model the design of video games after traditional hobbies. Take an activity that people like to repeat over and over. Create a virtual set of tools to earn and purchase. Layer in social components and foster a community around your userbase. These games have longer lifespans, require less production content, grow virally, and fit better with micro-transactions.
What does this mean for the game design in games? Hobbies generally revolve around activities involving competition and creation. These are activities that benefit from social mechanics. They have long learning curves that can easily be adjusted to fit a variety of player skills. Also, a lot of the design innovation will happen outside of the game design. New ways to engage the community, new ways to interact with content. Game designs can be divided into two categories: novelties and activities. Novelties are what people often call "gimmicks". They're fun, but don't last long. Activities are games that people play over and over for long periods of time. Some examples of novelties are Portal, Katamari Damacy, Braid. Some examples of activities are Minecraft, DOTA, Farmville. From a business perspective, it is a far better to find activities than novelties. It means you can sell many sequels and turn it into a franchise, or create a long-term service-oriented game.
Minecraft is more like a virtual hobby than a traditional video game.
One area of game design that may still be full of innovation potential is creation games. Past game designs that involve creation usually followed the SimCity or Civilization template, where creations are large and atomic. There may be more interesting designs to come from the opposite of that, where creations are smaller and your control is more granular. The game mechanic of "alchemy" is where the user can use simple combinations of objects to create new objects. While it has already been popularized many games like Minecraft, Pokemon, Puzzles and Dragons, it has a lot of potential to be applied to many other real-world themes. The mechanics and implementation of such systems tend to be relatively simple. These designs have great potential for virality through sharing and cooperation. Since they can be light in mechanics, they are ideal for accessible products that can appeal to new audiences that don't typically play many games. They involve lots of interesting objects and tokens, which make it easier to create compulsion for microtransactions and virtual currency. Much like the way RPG systems invaded lots of different game genres as a way to add customization and persistence, the concept of creation and crafting may start to creep into other game genres as mashups and secondary features.
Products that must appeal to many different groups are often worse at satisfying any given group. The more it can be specialized and target a single group, the better it can fit the needs of that group. There are tradeoffs when design must have broad appeal. A result of today's audience fragmentation is that games can be free to target niches. This has been true of the music industry. When music distribution started to accommodate more sources, music genres become more specialized to serve smaller niche audiences. Digital distribution can create many separate niche stores and communities to better serve customers looking for specialized products. The logical conclusion is fragmentation into many small communities. The game industry has generally been thought of as a single entity. A few closed platforms and a few companies used to control distribution. Now that games span many platforms, distribution channels, it no longer makes sense to think of it as "THE game industry".
Unfortunately, it will become more and more difficult to attract players with niche games. The gaming audience used to be largely made up of gamers seeking new things constantly. Most games still had the concept of being able to be "finished". Games were not as good at keeping you engaged for months. Since technology and design was rapidly improving, games quickly went obsolete, pushing players to the next batch of games. All these traits are going away. Gamers are more likely to stick to an infinite game that has no end like Minecraft or Call of Duty multiplayer. There may be a growing dichotomy between what has traditionally been thought of as a gamer (one that plays many many games) and a user of a single game (a Minecraft player who doesn't play anything else). The explosion of smaller unique games may only be played by a small audience of "Samplers", whose hobby is to sample many games.
Whenever business models change, it's inevitable that some types of games have difficulty thriving. Exploration is an activity that games always simulated well. Unfortunately, the high cost of content creation means fewer games are likely to focus on world exploration. It may be a design area with underserved audiences that cannot get these experiences from mobile games or multiplayer games or service-oriented games. The Oculus Rift may breathe new life into these games that help keep it at least a viable niche activity.
Is this the future of immersive virtual exploration?
Horror games also may be worth exploring, since horror gamers will likely become an underserved market. Since hit games require mass appeal, the horror genre has not seen many titles in recent times, and will likely be ignored by large companies. They tend to have loyal audiences who purchase many products, which may make them ideal as niche premium-priced products. Horror game designs have strong emotional payoffs, which tends to lead to organic virality, and their mechanics may have more potential for innovations. In general, with open ubiquitous platforms and growing niche audiences, the concept of underserved gaming markets may go away. If a genre has been popular in the past, it's likely possible to reach them along some rung of the chain.