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3 Disruptive Game Design Trends to Look Forward to in 2020

There’s always innovation happening in the game industry, and disruptions can happen in the blink of an eye. 2020 can be the year that we shake up the status quo, with new kinds of gameplay that will energize players, both old and new.

Excerpt from Superdata’s 2019 Digital Games and Interactive Media Year in Review

2019 was yet another banner year for the video games industry. Revenues are steadily growing 3% year-over-year (with mobile games revenue making up more than half of the total).

Yet, the more the industry grows, the more some things stay the same.


Sensor Tower’s Top Mobile Games Worldwide Revenue for November 2019

Nowhere is this more obvious than from seeing last year’s Top Mobile Games, where we see the list being dominated by the same old stalwarts. Case in point: Candy Crush, Pokemon Go, Fate/Grand Order and Fantasy Westward have all been in the Top 10 for 3 consecutive years.

There’s always innovation happening in the game industry though, and disruptions can happen in the blink of an eye. 2020 can be the year that we shake up the status quo, with new kinds of gameplay that will energize players, both old and new.

Here are 3 design trends that game developers can use as inspiration in making their next big hit.

1. Machine Learning

No video game has been able to capture the free-form nature of a table-top role-playing game yet, where players are able to take the story whichever way they want it to go.

Nick Walton’s AI Dungeon 2 though, comes very, very close.

And it does so by using machine learning.


AI Dungeon 2 — Interactive Storytelling using Machine Learning

Machine learning has fundamentally changed how we design software and collect data. It has already been successfully implemented in most of the day-to-day applications that we use — from traffic routing to image enhancement.

It has yet to weave its way into video games as deeply though, and, when it does, it will change how we both design and play games.

OpenAI is one of the companies that are leading the way in using machine learning in games. Just a few months ago, they came up with their paper on Emergent Tool Use From Multi-Agent Autocurricula.

Their experiment showed a demo of game AI learning how to form their own strategies on how to win in a game of hide-and-seek. The AI learns through machine learning — the strategies are not coded by a programmer, as they usually are.

This emergent behavior can have massive impact on how future AI behaves. There may come a time when we won’t be able to distinguish human players from digital ones.


Emergent Hide-and-Seek Strategies using Machine Learning, running on the Unity game engine

Finally, as machine learning starts being used more it will affect peripheral industries as well.

A great example of this is Steam’s Interactive Recommender, where a player’s playtime can be used to recommend games they would like to play next.

Even game platforms and app stores will be affected by machine learning, for better or worse.

Steam’s Interactive Recommender — Using Machine Learning on your playtime for game recommendations

2. Open Ecosystem Design

Speaking of app stores, 2020 can also be the year that game designers start rethinking game ecosystems and their reliance on these game platforms.

Two books I recommend for anyone making games: James Carse’s Finite and Infinite Games and Virtual Economies: Design and Analysis by Vili Lehdonvirta and Edward Castranova

Ever since I read Finite and Infinite Games and Virtual Economies: Design and Analysis, my mental model on game development has been that game developers have all been playing a finite game, where the overall goal is to reach the coveted Top Grossing list. Sadly, this game is won not by making the best game, but by optimizing for the attention economy.

As we’ve seen, the app stores have become very entrenched. The top developers know how to play this Top Grossing game, and their resources give them massive advantages over new and smaller players.

There is change afoot though, and it comes not just from the game industry.

The zeitgeist of our time is trending more and more towards decentralization, openness, and breaking free from oppressive platforms. We see this with people’s discontent with centralized authorities such as social networks and governments, as well as with the onset of technologies such as cryptocurrency and blockchains.

Consequently, great game designers have started thinking along the same lines. What if we could remake our game designs — not just mechanics and meta games — but also the overarching attention-based economy? What if we made our game economies more decentralized and open?

One of the most successful blockchain games, MyCryptoHeroes, is doing just that, meticulously designing their game ecosystem around digital assets and cryptocurrency.


MyCryptoHeroes’ Game Ecosystem Design

Neon District, another breakout blockchain game, also takes great care in designing a new kind of game ecosystem — one that isn’t focused on reaching Top Grossing lists but on providing value to the player.


Neon District’s item desirability chart guiding how they design items

The spirit of openness in these new ecosystem designs also permeate through the community and the game development process itself, greatly helping any interested game designer. Neon District shares their token design model, and Michael Arnold |MCH from MyCryptoHeroes created a detailed discussion of how they designed their incentive systems.

For a good overview on how open ecosystems can be designed, I suggest watching this great talk by Chris Robison from Hoard.

(And for those who want to do a deeper dive, I’ve recently been inspired by Nathan Schneider’s work on Platform Economies).

3. Auto Battlers

It’s not just because I’ve played more than 300 hours of DOTA Underlords in 2019, but I do believe the Auto Battler (or Auto Chess) genre has yet to reach its stride — and that it may finally do so in 2020.

Swim playing Underlords’ latest mode: Knockout

The Auto Battler genre exploded into the scene last year, with most of the major MOBA developers releasing their own version at around the same time. Drodo’s Auto Chess, Riot’s Team Fight Tactics, Hearthstone’s Battlegrounds and Valve’s Underlords all stepped in the ring in a battle royale to be the #1 Auto Battler.

The hype has died down though, and people went back to playing their MOBAs and other go-to games. Underlords’ player base in particular is down to around 10,000 concurrent users vs. its peak of around 200,000.


Gartner Hype Cycle for Auto Battlers: We’re in the Trough of Disillusionment

I predict though that the Auto Battler genre right now is in the same space as the early days of Battle Royale. We’ve come upon a new genre (that also started from a user-generated mod) that’s immensely enjoyable, but still haven’t found the perfect balance that led to the massive successes such as PUBG and Fortnite.

Auto Battlers are a great fit for the current audience of gamers. It’s a quick game you can play on your mobile, doesn’t require the 100% laser focus and time commitment that a MOBA does, has enough RNG to make it compelling and is deep yet easy to learn (it’s basically Gin Rummy, where you try to hit pairs in order to make a powerful hand).

While we’re at a stage where there’s no clear winner in the Auto Battler genre, there is still room for innovation – both in terms of the mechanics and the game’s ecosystem design.

I personally am rooting for Valve’s Underlords, since it’s currently being designed iteratively, with a focus on game design mechanics and community feedback instead of on monetization via in-game cosmetics.

Perhaps Valve, with their machine learning know-how and history of creating player-generated economies, can create a new kind of game and ecosystem that will once again excite players in this new decade.

Thank you for reading! I’m also on Twitter and Medium and would love to hear other people’s thoughts on games, game development and virtual economies.

A small plug… our company will be announcing something new in the next few days, please watch out for it.

Finally, I’ll be attending Ethdenver this February 14–16, 2020 in Colorado. Tweet me if anyone wants to meet up!

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