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