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The Future of Game Design: 8 Predictions
by on 06/06/13 05:25:00 pm   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.

 

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.

1) Cost will be the dragon to slay

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.

Infiltrator

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.
 

2) Design innovation will no longer be good for business

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.

Miyamoto

If this man is relegated to making sequels to his past games, what chance does anyone else have at innovating?
 

3) Games will not be culturally accepted as art

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.

4) Platforms and ecosystems will be a big thing

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

Dota 2 is more like a platform than a traditional game.

5) Create hobbies.  Not worlds, not mechanics, not systems

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

Minecraft is more like a virtual hobby than a traditional video game.  

6) Creation games will be worth exploring further

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.

7) Specialization will happen on the low end

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.

8) No more underserved genres

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.

VR

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.


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Comments


Carlo Delallana
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The point you make about design innovation and Miyamoto is something I like to call the "Success Trap". The bigger the hit the smaller the space you can explore in terms of design innovation. That's the sad inverse relationship that many legendary designers and very successful studios face.

Fortunately the age of "legendary" designers is mostly over. While it's somewhat sad to see fewer legends, this also frees young designers from trying to emulate them.

I would modify your #2 prediction to say "Design innovation will no longer be good for (big) business." It's that massive inertia of process and overhead that is simply difficult to turn sharply. I believe this is still good business for smaller games that serve niche audiences and desires of players outside the mainstream. In fact, lets stop using the term innovation by itself since disruptive innovation is actually something that is good for business because it helps create new markets. Wii Fit was a disruptive innovation, it just fueled the growth of health applications and wearable devices rather than games. Now we are hearing about businesses that host hack-a-thons, 20% time, and all these activities that allow for smaller teams within the larger organization to explore and allow for innovative ideas to plug into the core business. They parallel track innovation initiatives with their mainstream business and its working!

(http://www.disruptive-thinking.com/ - i love going to this site to be inspired and to see how I can find ways to alter my perspective)

There's a certain behavior that is in the DNA of anyone who is drawn to the game design profession. We are explorers, we seek out the nooks and crannies of possibility not because it fuels our egos but because we have a sense that there's something worth discovering that is also worth sharing with others as game experiences. We will seek this out where we work and when we don't find it or feel constrained we move on to a different ship. Those who are brave enough will build a ship of their own.


Carlo Delallana
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My other theory as to why we see fewer legends is because game development and game design is opening itself up to more participants. It's not as mysterious as it used to be 20 years go.

Maryna Petrenko
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Interesting points!

Jorge Luis Herrera Omonte
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Looking videogames as an art is tied with innovation in game design, Nintendo is the best company that follows this philosophy, you can still play some Nintendo games from 25 years ago and have fun with them. Nintendo hasn't doing well lately in bussiness but I see the WiiU as the best platform to innovate, if people discover this and publishers are willing to take the risk it could be as successful as its predecessor.

Dane MacMahon
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Nice reading.

On the "games as art" thing, I don't think mainstream acceptance is really required. What I do think we need to stop doing is acting like cutscenes are the "art part." They just emulate movies and, in general, are harmful to gameplay (in my opinion).

The art is how Mario jumps just perfectly, or how those three paths lead to three different consequences in Deus Ex.

TC Weidner
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I agree Dane, and to take it a step further with your Mario example. The art is in how you feel when you experience that jump, that music, that simple yet satisfying world design. The art is in the satisfaction of the jump, the happiness created in the players mind being in that wonderful familiar place.

All art tries to convey an emotion, an idea, a time and place, a feeling. Games have the ability to do all these things, for anyone to think games arent art, is just foolishness and simply the result of a very myopic understanding of what art is (IMHO)

Jana Sloan van Geest
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Great point, TC. Part of the satisfaction game-players get from games is that feeling of being "in the zone", and games make that feeling accessible to people who don't necessarily possess abilities in the artistic and athletic domains with which "the zone" is normally associated.

James Hofmann
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As the music industry can tell us, the concept of "mass market" as a profitable business is under attack right now, and the more point 1 (cost) is addressed, the more likely that will be the case. Cut out cost and every publisher is in Zynga's position - a big organization with a lot of small projects, exposed to indirect competition from a mass of independents. Service businesses are likely to be the main salvation for the bigs, but reorganizing in that direction is going to kill a lot of them along the way. We are not at that moment yet. But it's definitely on the horizon.

Like Mr. Delallana, I think there is always a market for innovation, it's just that the visible, capital-intensive, high-return innovation is increasingly going to be towards things we would have dismissed as "not games" in the past, or that occupy that platform/hobby space. The cheap-and-resourceful innovation will be there, but it probably won't be attributed to anyone in particular.

TC Weidner
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Looking ahead I think we are headed for a watershed moment. Coming from a financial background I am deeply worried the world is in for a 2008 type financial event once again, only this time much larger. I see many big leverage corps going under, I see a huge crash coming but with it, a huge new world of possibilities rising from the ashes. We live in interesting times.

Michael Joseph
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I suppose some "good" can ultimately come from the raising of a city by an army. The city may be rebuilt in time and be better than ever. But that is a testament to human will and spirit and not to the raiding army. So it's hardly an argument for periodic destruction of the world.

http://www.taxjustice.net/cms/upload/pdf/Price_of_Offshore_Revisi
ted_120722.pdf
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/29/wealthy-stashing-offshor
e_n_3179139.html

Assuming these numbers are even close to accurate, the question is why not put this wealth to work? Why simply park it? What are they waiting for? Do they believe things are still overvalued?

In the event of some major crash the titans and their hidden wealth offshore come in and offer to save the day, but what will they want in return? Immunity from prosecution and tax exemption for "repatriating" their wealth at the very least.

Well, I hope you're wrong.

TC Weidner
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@Michael, not to get too off topic, but these offshore accounts are hardly safe if a crash comes, look at what just happened in cyprus, all money in the bank above a certain limit (100k in this case) .. and its gone.... bye bye billions, but hey these guys will get to have a lot of worthless stock in a bankrupt bank.

JoseArias NikanoruS
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In many “Iwata Asks” I've read that Nintendo first makes a gameplay demo and then, before making a new franchise, they try to see if there is an established character that would fit it. But this didn't start recently. It started first with the creation of Mario (Mr. Video) as a character that would be like a staple for their games. Then they noticed that Super Mario Bros. 2 from the USA sold better than the original Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic so they decided to keep the same characters instead of creating new ones for every game.

In other words, they make progressive or disruptive gameplay and coat it with a familiar character so people may be more prone to try it.

I would love to see some really risky propositions from Nintendo but taking into account the amount of research they do for each game (there are many reports of complete games being canned or started from scratch) they need a good safety net to keep the business viable.
I think it would be quite interesting to analyze most of Nintendo’s games but without taking their characters into account to see how much they actually innovate or not. And also, they make many “lesser” games and franchises that don’t come to this part of the world.
But still… I agree that the creation of “new” videogames is taking longer and longer.

John Flush
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And I think this trend is going to continue... unfortunately maybe people view different not as the gameplay, but the environments. For example, how many 'brown' FPS games do we have out there? yet most have different gameplay elements, but all people can see is the paint on it.

The same is happening with Nintendo. They might have new gameplay ideas, but then they paint them with Mario and Zelda and people get bored a lot faster.

The concept is sound, but it drives customer fatigue faster. Or at least convinces them to only come back every other cycle to their games.

wes bogdan
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When THINGS were cheaper back on the nes,snes and genesis limitations were greater and designers had to get creative to make their games and were making anything as a game but now with PlayStation 2,3 and Xbox,360 games have become so expensive it's safer to stick with AAA franchises than creating journey which could be great but do you bet the company and everyone working there on maybe.

On the cusp of PlayStation 4 and Xbox one MY hope IS NOW FULL PROFILE CUSTOMIZATION like the new DMC but with stick support and would be part OF the player system PROFILE so finally people could design their own CONTROL scheme AND simply buy the games and play anything.

wes bogdan
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When THINGS were cheaper back on the nes,snes and genesis limitations were greater and designers had to get creative to make their games and were making anything as a game but now with PlayStation 2,3 and Xbox,360 games have become so expensive it's safer to stick with AAA franchises than creating journey which could be great but do you bet the company and everyone working there on maybe.

On the cusp of PlayStation 4 and Xbox one MY hope IS NOW FULL PROFILE CUSTOMIZATION like the new DMC but with stick support and would be part OF the player system PROFILE so finally people could design their own CONTROL scheme AND simply buy the games and play anything.

wes bogdan
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Double post but really using the most ambidextrous controller the dual shock I can show how a fully 100% southpaw scheme works on xbox or wii u / 3ds with a circle pad pro...and vita would be the same as a playstation home system.

Triagle,y,x all map to d-pad up while square,x,y are mapped to d-pad left and X,a,b are mapped to dpad down while circle,b,a is mapped to d-pad right.

I started with inverted southpaw and re mapped the d-pad as face buttons and use the real face buttons as my d-pad plus I use toggle over hold and discovered it's better to zoom on the freelook side and fire while on the walk side so I zoom on l2 and fire on r2.

In default you should fire on l2 and zoom on r2 because freelook is on the right stick and walk the left.

If playing a twin stick shooter in southpaw inverted aim must be disabled as this gametype is the only one where inverted is a handycap....imagine thrusters flying the wrong way or fireing at nothing.

Even with my perfected southpaw scheme twin stick games must be exempt from inverted aim whereas dual analog games can't be played without it.

Zach Lyle
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What on earth does this have to do with the article?

wes bogdan
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No matter the challenge faced by the industry without THE otherwise simple ability to play what comes NEXT MY PlayStation 4 and Xbox one Will BE extremely expensive paperweights.

By showing how things were worse and yet better on older systems which lacked the last of us,uncharted or the new tomb raider production and storytelling abilities there were somehow games like Toejam and earl,Herzog zwei,landstalker chrono trigger,.

In today's world it's rare to be privileged enough to play blue Dragon,mirrors edge or valkyria chronicles because everyone wants to produce the next big thing/mine the sequels.

Outside of cost why we aren't demanding MORE games like wonderful 101 or vanquished IS beyond me...there IS a place FOR safe bets but THE designer's and their studio's that create the NEXT big thing that completely leaves the status quo in the dust Will BE rewarded remember metal gear solid on playstation og...before it released THE naysayers were rampant after everyone rushed to copy it.

Nintendo needs new ip dinosaur plant was going to be a great new game but had starfox forced upon it simply because ninty could...poor dp I wish I knew YOU but imagine if metroid was forced upon jet force Gemini simply because.

As much as I enjoy a well crafted game things like rouge galaxy are a special treat valued more than a yearly expierence even when different team's do different years...innovation lies with the Indies NOW.

Mario Kummer
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I don't agree with this sentence from 3): "Anything that a game can do with plot and storytelling, a movie can do better."

The examples are rare, but they exisit. And of course it sometimes needs lot more time investment then a movie. I think the difference is that games can reach a level of immersion that a movie or book can't. At least not for me. In games I sometimes feel like I am doing something vs. watching others do something in the movies.

My personal top example was Bioshock. I felt betrayed, and I felt dump, the scene was genius and after that I thought "wow thats whats possible in games". I also experienced some other good scenes for example in Fallout 3 when I followed a radio signal of I think it was a father and his son, just do discover them dead in their shelter, or just the first time discovering a skeleton in a bathtub with a toaster. That where scenes where I thought how messed up the whole world is and I even felt sad, in a way that never happend when I watched a movie.

Steven An
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Do what you love :P (but also have profitable skills on the side in case what you love no longer pays the bills)

Jungwoo Lee
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Worrying about story-based games not being played for their interface and challenge is like saying that people won't read story-based books because literacy is too hard to obtain. We don't exhibit video games in art museum just as we don't do the same with books... we have library for that.

Otherwise, very interesting wake up call.


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