10 Trends in Game Design

By David McClure [11.18.08]

 As with all art forms, video games evolve over time and are subject to trends. As a relatively new medium, it’s arguable that games are likely to evolve much more rapidly than other media, and that new trends and concepts are likely to arise continually for the foreseeable future.

Below is a list of what I feel are the 10 most interesting or prevalent trends of the last few years.

1. Games for All
The biggest trend in game design is widening accessibility. The huge success of the Nintendo Wii and DS coupled with the rise of casual play has caused games to expand in the public consciousness
rapidly. With the market expanding as it is and games set to outstrip combined sales of music and video products in 2008, it’s no wonder that publishers would seek to attract, entertain, and retain these new players. (See Reference 1 at end of article.)

Tutorial sequences have become ubiquitous in blockbuster games, and simple, pick-up-and-play titles have also seen a
Renaissance. Indeed, the influx of new people to video games can only be regarded as positive, especially if it encourages games that are more stable and easier to jump into.

It’s not hyperbole to say that a high retention rate of these new players could prove to be the biggest catalyst for games becoming a much more dominant cultural force, catering to a greater spectrum of people than they traditionally have, and perhaps eventually becoming a universally popular medium, akin to books, music, television programming, and films.

Examples: Nintendo Wii, Wii Fit, Nintendo DS, Wii Sports, Wii Play, Bejeweled, Brain Age

2. Open Worlds
The use of a free-roaming environment has never been more popular with developers and has proved highly successful in terms of both sales and critical acclaim. (See References 2—9.) These titles allow players to make decisions about how they approach a situation and to progress through the game in their own style, often at their own pace as well, all while discovering the game world.

Indeed, part of the pleasure of these games is the pursuit of exploration, of finding interesting places and people in a vast world. Raph Koster might argue that this wanderlust is derived from our distant ancestors’ need to explore to survive.

Using open worlds in games also has the benefit of cloaking linear aspects of gameplay to some extent. The main story of most games unfolds in a fairly straightforward manner, with the player having to achieve a series of tasks in a set order to progress the story and continue to the game’s denouement. By allowing the player to get sidetracked, decide how to approach a task, and make progress through the main story in the manner they think best, the game appears to be less linear than if there were only one straightforward path through it.

Examples: Grand Theft Auto 4, Far Cry 2, S.T.A.L.K.E.R., Crysis, Fallout 3, Crackdown,
Saints Row 2


3. Co-op Mode
A game design decision that is taken regularly of late and has even formed the core of some games, is to allow a second player to become the main character's sidekick at will and to stop being his or her partner at short notice.

Offering a co-op mode lets the many people who prefer to play a game as supporting character, rather than as the main character, do just that, and as such is another form of making games more accessible to a more diverse group of players (as in No. 1).

For main character players, the benefit is that they can play with their friends rather than with an AI character; and for game developers and publishers, the benefit is viral marketing and word-of-mouth advertising. Should a guest arrive while someone is midway through a single-player game, the guest can join the action and, in effect, try out the game without having a negative effect on the original player's progress through the storyline or campaign.

With the rise of accessibility in games and an increase in the number of companion characters being implemented, offering a co-op mode is a smart way to introduce new players to more traditionally “gamer” titles. Co-op mode helps new players take their first steps into a game’s world with an in-game mentor and bodyguard who can explain elements of the game in person, instantly, and in a manner the player will likely understand. Imagine how much more it would take to convey the same information to a new player in-game. Imagine how much more it would take to in terms of memory to create an NPC sidekick who could complete the same tasks as a co-operative player.

Co-op games have a huge social component, which can be seen as driving the medium forward as well.

Examples: Army of Two, Kane & Lynch: Dead Men, Resident Evil 5, Gears of War 2

 4. Companion Characters
Companion characters have come a long way in games over the past few years. The continual restarts when they blundered out of cover or under vehicles are becoming a thing of the past with the new breed of allies. Modern first-person games often use friendly characters as a way to express emotion to the player, as in the case of Alyx Vance in Half-Life 2, or to give them someone to empathize with and give the game character, as is the case in Call of Duty 4.

Whole games are now designed around the presence of companion characters, for example Kane & Lynch: Dead Men and Army of Two. In fact, these companions often become equally important to the tone of the game as the lead player character is. Indeed, with companion characters like Sheva in Resident Evil 5 able to save the player from trouble and death, the companion has improved massively when compared to older iterations, for example, Ashley in Resident Evil 4.

The use of companion characters in games is also interesting in the context of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, as they create a richer experience by allowing for access to the social needs in the game, whereas a lot of older games are almost solely occupied with physiological and safety needs. (See Reference 10.)

Examples: Half-Life 2, Kane & Lynch: Dead Men, Call of Duty 4, Resident Evil 5,
Army of Two, Far Cry 2


5. Difficult Decisions
Should you make a decision that will benefit you immediately, even if it negatively effects someone innocent, as in BioShock? Should you take revenge on someone who caused the death of your friends by killing him painlessly, or leave him to suffer more in the long run, as in Grand Theft Auto IV? Is it really wrong to kill or steal from someone who sells guns and who therefore allow for further violent acts, if there is no punishment to you for doing so, as is possible in Fallout 3?

Another trend that has become popular and influential in video games is to make the player choose between two undesirable options. The fact that games can cause players to question their actions in relation to both near universal and personal morals is a big step forward in terms of interactivity and immersion. It also encourages players to take a step back from linearity, and it aids in the construction of more mature story lines.

A bad decision in a modern game can commonly cause a domino effect and often ends in someone’s death, so if the player wants to cause the least harm possible she has to think a lot harder before carrying out her actions, as opposed to the Manichean basis for decision making in older games. This use of moral gray areas, forcing the player to choose between two imperfect solutions, is much more relative and gives a much greater depth to the choices made within the game. Indeed, perhaps this interest in making the player weigh certain values and experiencing the end result of those decisions will even lead to persuasive elements becoming part of mainstream game design, an example being BioShock’s railing against selfish individualism. (See Reference 11.)

Examples: BioShock, Grand Theft Auto IV, Fallout 3

6. Mini-Games for Actions
One welcomed trend that has been slowly entering games is using mini-games to decide whether a player's attempts at an action are successful. In Fallout 3, for example, the player tries to pick a lock by controlling the rotation of a hairpin and a screwdriver, both of which must be used carefully and correctly to open the lock without snapping the hairpin.

Mini-games can heighten the player’s engagement level, are a lot more enjoyable than merely pressing a button and, if implemented sensibly, make a lot of sense to the story or game world.

However, although mini-games tend to be entertaining, they can seem a little strange if the system implemented does not gel with the player's understanding of how things work in real life. For example, in BioShock, the plumbing used to control the security systems doesn’t quite make sense. (See Reference 12.)

Examples: BioShock, Fallout 3

7. Retro Sci-Fi Dystopias
Science fiction in games used to tend toward far future space-scapes and distant planets, but recently this has changed. Games like BioShock, Fallout 3, and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. take place in retro-futuristic landscapes. These games pay homage to outdated ideas about the future, a design concept that plays on the collective memory and reminds us of ideas from the past that did not come to fruition.


This juxtaposition of past and future, of often utopian (but mythological) Golden Age and unrelenting griminess, evokes an element of melancholy that is missing from many other titles. (See Reference 13.)

Examples: BioShock, Fallout 3, S.T.A.L.K.E.R., Destroy All Humans, Stubbs The Zombie


 8. On-Location on the Cheap
Games are now, thankfully, at the stage where warehouse based level design is not de rigueur. A greater world is now commonly represented in games set on various continents, in different periods, during alternate timelines, and even in truly unusual environments, such as the giant art deco styled underwater city from BioShock.

Making a film or television program on location can skyrocket the production costs, but not so for games. Aside from occasionally sending an artist or design lead to a location to scope it out, take photos, and seek out inspiration, there is no change in cost based on the video game’s setting. Games can give audiences innovative and exciting settings with relative ease. (See References 14 and 15.)

Examples: BioShock, Crysis, flOw, Shadow of the Colossus, Resistance: Fall of Man

9. High-Brow Influences
Although games have obviously been influenced by other media since they were first published, these influences have generally tended to be more along the lines of Rambo than Rashomon. However, the kinds of media infiltrating games (in a good way) is beginning to slowly change with games like the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series, based on the Tarkovsky film of the same name, Far Cry 2, with its influences taken from Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now, and BioShock's use of objectivism as a major plot point.

Even parody games have benefited from this change, with Arm Joe, a 2D beat-'em-up which mocks a Japanese adaptation of Les Miserables.

Examples: S.T.A.L.K.E.R., Far Cry 2, BioShock, Arm Joe

10. Mixing Genres and Perspectives
Compared to games that have come before, the genres games fit into and the perspectives they are shown from are much more fluid.

Mirror's Edge is a game based around free running presented in a first-person perspective. Fallout 3, S.T.A.L.K.E.R., and Oblivion are RPGs played from a first-person perspective. Portal is a highly entertaining and successful first-person puzzle game. The Paper Mario series are 2D side scrolling platform game RPGs. Gears of War, a multi-million selling third-person smash hit, was originally conceived as a first-person game. (See Reference 16.)

This crossover between various game types is proving extremely interesting and should hopefully prevent games from becoming stuck in pigeonholes with little chance of artistic progression.

Examples: Mirror's Edge, Fallout 3, Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door, Portal, PuzzleQuest

David McClure is an aspiring game designer and 3D artist living in London. While at university, he was the president and founder of a film society and wrote for the university newspaper. David is currently looking for work, which shows his uncanny knack for timing.

 

Discuss these 10 trends of game design (and any you feel were left out of this article) on the forum.


References

1. Cellan-Jones, Rory. “Games ‘to outsell’ music, video,” BBC. November 5, 2008. Accessed November 10, 2008.

2. Pham, Alex. “‘Grand Theft Auto’ steals video-game sales record,” Los Angeles Times. May 8, 2008. Accessed November 10, 2008].

3. Grand Theft Auto IV (xbox360: 2008): Reviews 2008. Metacritic, CNET Networks Entertainment. Accessed November 10, 2008.

4. Crysis (pc:2007): Reviews 2007. Metacritic, CNET Networks Entertainment. Accessed November 10, 2008.

5. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl (pc: 2007): Reviews 2007. Metacritic, CNET Networks Entertainment. Accessed November 10, 2008.

6. Crackdown (xbox360: 2007): Reviews 2007. Metacritic, CNET Networks Entertainment. Available from: Accessed November 10, 2008.

7. Far Cry 2 (ps3: 2008): Reviews 2008. Metacritic, CNET Networks Entertainment. Accessed November 10, 2008.

8. Saints Row 2 (ps3: 2008): Reviews 2008. Metacritic, CNET Networks Entertainment. Accessed November 10, 2008.

9. Fallout 3 (pc:2008): Reviews 2008. Metacritic, CNET Networks Entertainment. [Accessed November 10, 2008].

10. Mark, Dave. “The Art of AI Sidekicks: Making Sure Robin Doesn’t Suck,” June 4, 2008. AiGameDev.com. Accessed November 10, 2008.

11. McDonald, Thomas L. “Review: Morality and Bioethics in a Violent Video Game,” October 28, 2008. NCRegister.com. Accessed November 10, 2008.

12. Croshaw, Ben. “Zero Punctuation: BioShock,” September 5, 2007. The Escapist. Accessed November 10, 2008.

13. Cold War Modern: Design 1940-1975, exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, 2008-2009.

14. “Why Are There So Many World War II Games?” May 22, 2007. Edge. Accessed November 10, 2008.

15. Wolpaw, Erik. “Crate Review System,” April 26, 2000. Old Man Murray. Accessed November 10, 2008.

16. Thorsen, Tor. “GDC 07: Cliffy B disassembles Gears, mentions sequel,” March 10, 2007. Gamespot U.K., CNET Networks Entertainment. Accessed November 10, 2008.

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