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The Megatrends of Game Design, Part 1

August 28, 2008 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

[With this article, veteran designer Pascal Luban (Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory) launches a new series of articles on the "megatrends" of game design in today's market -- from making games to have a longer shelf life through the rise of 'fast gaming' and beyond.]

The purpose of this series of articles is to attempt to shed some light on emerging trends likely to influence game design philosophy, and therefore, our industry at large in the next few years.

Rather than an essay in futurology, which is by definition very hypothetical, the trends described in these articles are already in motion -- so the question we should ask ourselves is not whether these trends will appear, but rather what their impact will be on video game design. I hope that these articles will be food for thought. Enjoy.

Megatrend I - The necessity of increasing the commercial life span of games

Development costs continuously increase. This phenomenon is especially true for triple-A titles representing the driving force behind major publishers. Yet, the commercial life spans of such titles are surprisingly brief -- a few months, sometimes less.

Beyond the initial commercial blitz of their release dates, most games quickly exit the main stage for good, overthrown by the new crop of triple-A titles everyone is waiting for.

Only a later "budget" version, or the release of an expansion, will renew the attention given to a game. Publishers are therefore facing a very risky situation: they must commit large investments 18 to 24 months before a game's release and require a return within a very brief period, all whilst hoping the competition will have the decency not to beat them to the post with a similar product!

Publishers are those most affected by this problem, and as such, are researching solutions to spread out the revenue generated by a given game over a longer period.

The consequences of this on all aspects of a game's development will be major, as a game will have to be built around this need. What solutions are worth exploring?

Multiplayer gaming to the rescue

The first avenue lies in the development of a multiplayer mode. A few recent titles, such as Call of Duty 4, have clearly made this choice. The solo campaign is breathtaking, but brief. The publisher relied on the multiplayer mode to gain profit on its title and to increase its shelf life.

Activision/Infinity Ward's Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare

The multiplayer's role in securing a successful title can be taken further if the developers give tools to the players themselves with which to enrich the game by creating maps or mods. The latter can unexpectedly increase the interest given to a game.

Epic has grasped this well. Unreal Tournament 2004 and UT III were conceived to encourage the players to develop their own content. Of course, the development of mods does require not only that the game engine allows it, but also that the game's basic design is sufficiently flexible to accommodate new uses.

Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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Haig James Toutikian
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Great Article, great overview!!!

I also hope that "fast gaming" doesn't devolve following the quantity over quality mantra. The high number of shovelware on current consoles is already a sad sight.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

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Mr. Luban shows the possibility of "fast gaming" in a good light, but unfortunately, we all know this concept will be used TO NO END for the future of "garbage gaming." Anyone remember "Queer Power" and the "Howard Dean for Iowa game"? I had to do an hour's search in Google for these trashy games. They're totally forgettable. The point I'm making is what if "fast gaming" overwhelmed everybody, even to a point where it overwhelmed the mass media and the talk around the water cooler, and picture it was happening right now? Very scary! The game industry going tabloid -- is a future I do not want to see.

Sean Parton
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An excellent article, which accuratly summarizes many of the most important trends in recent game design. I eagerly await it's second part.

@Anonymous: There will always be people willing to do what everyone else isn't; in the case you're projecting, there will always be people wanting to make larger, more epic games then a "fast game". There will be enough people left in the world to keep at least a few of those profitable.

Paul Kruszewski
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Very interesting article. In this section on believable environments, I wonder why the author didn't include interactive crowds.

Warren Thompson
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Essentially, because interactive crowds falls under AI. AI is lightyears behind being 'believable', but environments are not. We'll cross that bridge later. If Assassin's Creed and GTA IV are the closest things we have to a believable crowd, at the moment, then they aren't worth mentioning.

In regards to fast games, I think its important to look at history. In the 60s, there was a huge surge of fast movies being made... later dubbed exploitation films, they were cheap, choppy, and had only one major selling point. It wasn't the end of the movie industry, the movie-goer simply had to realise that not all movies were made with the loving care of a talented director. The trend eventually subsided, although there are still and always will be cheap, crappy movies on the shelves.

Conversely, however, the video game industry has already made that mistake in '84... we flooded the market with cheap, crappy games and consumer confidence was shot. Enter the crash. Now that the medium has matured a little bit, people know they aren't toys for tots, they are intelligent forms of story telling. It's going to take a bigger blow to break consumer confidence. As long as good games are still being made regularly, I think consumers will eventually see the difference between a good game and a game that's only after their $9.98. Especially when we reach a point where the parents who buy games are gamers themselves.

Brian Bartram
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Our industry's equivalent of exploitation movies has to be licensed games. It's not that a game based on a movie or franchise can't be good, it's that all too often marketers believe (and sadly, the market often reinforces this notion) that the success of a movie will drive game sales more than the actual quality of the game itself.

I've worked on projects that fit this bill - we were given less than 9 months and a fraction of the budget of a typical AAA title to turn out a piece of licensed crapola where it was expected from the very beginning that hitting the release target (the movie premiere) would necessitate creating a sub-par game experience. It broke my heart because the franchise involved was one of my childhood gems - I desperately wanted to make a killer game but the suits tied our hands in so many ways that it was completely impossible given their budget and timetable.

Let's hope this Megatrend is on the way out.

Jonathan Pynn
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Until people stop parting with their money on crappy titles because of timing with a movie. That trend will stay.

Dave Endresak
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This is an interesting article. However, it also contradicts various observations about what is and isn't needed in certain aspects of design. For example, it's great that he points out some differences between Asian and Western markets, but he doesn't bring up the fact that Asian market products tend to have a much different focus, particularly on aesthetics. This is especially true for multimedia marketing efforts; the market for merchandising of all kinds is huge in Asia because of the aesthetic focus and the value placed on it. A related point is that there is no need for pushing CG towards "realistic" appearance or effects because that's not a necessary aesthetic for many people (and doing so is one of the major causes for increasing development costs).

One thing I think is very unfortunate is the focus on money over everything else. This type of focus does not lead to creative quality. It can still happen, of course, but focusing on money rather than artistic creativity means that such an outcome is more of an accident than an intent. This is true for any media and I'd say that games already suffer in the same ways that older media have suffered.

Henti Smith
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I think one of the biggest missed opportunities revenue streams of gaming companies is merchandising outside of the computer game medium. Look at companies like Disney who selss anything and everything related to mickey mouse, winnie the pooh etc etc, without having to create new content in years.

Warren Thompson
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For the most part, you're right Henti. Nintendo has to be the major exception, though, because Mario schwag never seems to stop. In the early 90s, a survey of elementary kids showed that Mario was more recognizable than Mickey Mouse. Now, Mickey Mouse schag is mostly targetted at toddlers (because parents buy it) while Mario stuff is targetted at kids (who beg mom to buy it). The fact of the matter is, kids don't really want Mickey Mouse stuff... even adults (myself included) buy Nintendo merch.

The real problem here, unfortunately, is the very nature of our industry. Movie industries don't need to constantly rerelease new content because they do a great job at preserving the integrity of the content they've already created. Let's look again at what the movie industry is doing right.

-Name a classic movie... how about Citizen Kane.

-Now name a classic video game... Donkey Kong.

-Now go to a store and buy each of those.

There are 3 places within walking distance of my house where I can buy Citizen Kane. I'd be lucky to find Donkey Kong at a flea market.

Right now you're probably saying one of two things:

"Donkey Kong was an arcade game, you can only buy ports"

To which I would respond that Citizen Kane was a film, but was later reformatted to VHS and then to DVD. Citizen Kane was made 67 years ago and I can still easily get ahold of it. Donkey Kong was made only 27 years ago and I can't find it.

Or you might be saying:

"You can download it from _______"

Which is a fine choice for you and me. I can also download Citizen Kane, but what about the average customer who thinks the internet is a series of tubes.

We need a way to preserve our games, other than in our hearts. There's no reason a developer should have to put as much effort into a game as they do for it to be thrown away in the next hardware cycle.

For this to happen, we'd also have to stop fighting our own hardware. By the time developers learn how to really get some great games out of a new console, we get a few hits and we move on. Movie technology has remained essentially the same since the time of Citizen Kane. This has allowed movie makers to branch out and do wild things, because the technology is all a given.

Game makers, on the other hand, have been making the same damn games over and over again, with new technology. You can't expect a ballet if you keep pulling the rug from beneath the dancers' feet.

As a console gamer, I really don't like the solution, but what else can we do. We have to eliminate the 'console war' and make universal consoles that can play any game. With the step towards digital downloads, these consoles would be able to play any game that's ever been made, the only problem is getting them to play games that haven't been made yet.

This sounds a lot like a PC, huh?

But at the same time, on a PC I can play a 20yo game fine. I can't do that on a console, as much as I love them.

I guess we just have to wait and see, because I think its too early in the life cycle of our industry to make any solid predictions about the future. Baby steps.

Sean Parton
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@Warren Thompson: I was following you about half way through your comment, then you entered the "universal consoles" bit and lost me. This is largely due to the fact that most of your arguement after just doesn't cut it:

-To a degree, consoles are becoming largely backwards compatible within a companies' library (Wii can emulate all old Nintendo consoles plus some other companies' consoles, 360 can emulate original XBox, PS3 can sort of (sometimes) emulate PS2 and PS1 games)

-With the Wii, you can download old games already. (and possibly other major consoles; I'm not familiar enough to say)

-A copy of a PC game that was actually produced 20 years ago won't work on current day computers; like old games, they're tied to hardware that can support them from that time.

-Having Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo come together into a room and agree on a unified console where they get equal profits will never happen in a million years.

Mike Rozak
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You're missing a megatrend that will affect games in general, but which MMORPG-developers have been feeling for a few years...

Moore's Law is breaking... in a sense...

Basically, people are keeping their PCs alive for longer. It seems that PCs are kept alive for 7-ish years now. In the early 90's, a PC's lifespan was assumed to be 3 before it was closeted.

Plus, people are buying smaller/cheaper "PCs". The most extreme example are netbooks like the Eee.

What this means?

A new game must find a way to use a computer with 8 GB RAM, Intel's latest hyperthreading quad-core, and dual 16:9 32" monitors.

The same game must also run on a 512 MB Eee netbook with a single-core 1 gig processor and a 7" screen. Or, it must run on a PC bought 7 years ago. Both are roughly equivalent (other than screen size).

In other words: The CPU/GPU/Memory/Pixel usage of a game must scale by around a factor of 16.

In the long run, this means that while Intel/AMD may be doubling the speed of their chips every 18 months, the AVERAGE still-running CPU doubles in speed every 24(ish) months.

Steven An
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The iTunes AppStore is the best "fast gaming" distribution network I've seen yet. Buying a $1 game does not cost $10 of your time. Just type in your password, download it, and play within a few minutes of your impulse decision. No other service matches that to my knowledge.

Steven An
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@Warren Thompson: That's a good point. The vibrant abandon-ware scene suggests that there may be a sizable market out there for old, classic games. Gamers that grew up on those classics are adults now, and their (our) nostalgia combined with spending power could sell quite a few good ports (getting classics to work on Windows is usually a nightmare).

I think companies are starting to realize this, with things like Virtual Console releases and remakes (Bionic Commando, etc.). X-Com: Terror from the Deep was recently released on Steam - I bought a copy!

You'll see more of this in the future from some big-name players...

Robert Zamber
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"Megatrend I - The necessity of increasing the commercial life span of games>."

Dave Endresak , Henti Smith, many of you share my sentiments.

I know I speak on the subject of "East and West" allot; not to undermine the talent and hard work over hear (in the west), but to emphasize the importance of incorporating and adopting some of the eastern game design philosophy over hear(in the west) to address these issues, or "mega BS trends". These trends are not actually "trends", more like after-effects, of not recognizing games as an intellectual and artistic expression.

Who decided, that photo-realism is necessary anyway? Many IP that have benefited from long term success have not been remotely, photo-realistic. Mario, Zelda, FF, SF, Disgiea, and many other "AAA"-- class IPs. The emphasis is on "class" as opposed to "game". They are AAA class IPs, and not stand alone AAA games for next gen platforms. These IPs are adapted to whatever platforms are available at the time, with success. Designers must get their minds off of photos, and heads out of the sandbox.

In short: we have to move away from this idea of "sandbox" games and photo realism, and put our efforts into "character design", aesthetics, etc. Substance is the key to longevity. There is no other way.

I just don't understand why this seems to be such an enigma hear in the west?

Dan Taylor
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Outstanding! This is exactly the type of article that EVERYONE interested in the game marketplace need to read. While we focus on building microtransaction engines for developers, obviously the points regarding 'fast gaming' and microtransactions is of particular importance.

Glad to see that the 'unfair' balance issue was addressed as it's commonly seen as the main detractor from f2p, microtransaction games. It's a valid point, and something that each publisher will have to address individually. Whether or not these titles and methods will shake out as the industry 'best practice' remains yet to be seen.

Jarad Hansen
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Re: Increasing games lifespan via after release content:

One thing games like gta and oblivion have is a large play space that's designed for much more re-use. Apart from the normal way this is leveraged for the initial retail release - giving the players enough interesting gameplay elements within that environment so the can 'do what they want' - there is the opportunity to increase games life time semi-cheaply by adding downloadable content (or modifications by the community) in the form of added variations of existing 'stuff' (cars/weapons) or

'missions/quests' (addition structured goals).

ie that kind of content can be more quickly produced than a new map/environment.

Oblivion is a good example for both dlc/community content, and GTA on the PC (pre IV) for community content (it will be interesting to see what comes of GTAIV PC).

On the other end (pure?) of sandbox games you have the Sims and soon Spore, also Little Big Planet, which increasingly leverage community created content, supported by in game tools and in game sharing/downloading of that content.

Media Molecule has mentioned they'll be keeping an eye on what the community is creating for Little Big Planet, and hope to bring in those users that prove to be talented in creating levels.

Then you have another couple of examples, the Halo 3 forge in-game editor and the in-game editor for the upcoming Farcry 2.

You mentioned Epic, there considerable efforts in both releasing in-house and supporting community content go back to the original UT.

There most resent step is making it possible for the community to port mods form the PC to the PS3 version of UT3.

Apart from Valve softwares long term modding support and bringing in mod teams wholesale to create commercial versions/sequals of their mods (counterstrike, a whole topic in itself, the q1 team fortress team). Valve has considerable after release support for most of their titles (in a couple of cases releasing several entire in-house created game mods for free for hl1), more recently you can see the continued support of TeamFortress 2 with more maps, gametypes and even additional weapons and abilities for their classes. I think in a soon to come update they are including a community created map.

Another interesting example is Quake 3. A pure multiplayer game that (like previous id titles) had it's life time extended by community mods and maps.

Now id software has taken another look at game, added some polish, got feedback from the remaining community on tweaking the base rules. They have built a player community portal/stats and matchmaking website and will be rereleasing the game playable through that site.

banka subesi
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If you want to be very strict about what the player can't do, you probably need to be at least twice as explicit about what the player CAN do, or embrace the fact that your game will be of the blind trial-and-error type. Those are not side details, they are fundamental pillars on which the design will have to rest.

ucuz otel
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Thank you very much. Wonderful game article.

I agree with with the Automatic Integration of Character Animation.