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The Megatrends of Game Design, Part 1

Veteran designer Pascal Luban (Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory) launches a Gamasutra series on the "megatrends" of game design -- from creating a longer shelf life for games through the rise of 'fast gaming'.

[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.


Downloadable content

A game can be developed in a modular way -- designed to support future levels, game modes, new assets such as vehicles, etc. The key is to make these add-ons available via paying subscriptions or micropayments.

Paying for downloadable content for a solo game is not too popular today with western gamers, but this may change. The concept is already accepted by millions of players who pay their monthly subscriptions for massively multiplayer games.

On the other hand, the use of microtransactions to generate revenue is quite common in Asia, so much so that we can talk about the emergence of a truly alternative economic model. It boasts the advantage of being an efficient weapon against piracy, a scourge plaguing Asia on a scale beyond the awareness of many studios.

It is probable that a sufficient number of players will accept purchasing online content, assuming said content is of high enough quality relative to the price. The game design will need to be adaptable enough to allow such add-ons.

Personally, I have great faith in the emergence of micropayments (purchase of a map, game mode, character accessories or equipment, episodes, etc.) as a new economic model for our industry. It will not replace the current model; but rather, complement it.

A closer collaboration between game design teams and marketing teams in the earlier project stages will be a crucial point in facing up to this challenge. I will bee investigating this further in a future article.

Merchandising

Today's games feature rich and popular universes, which may yield products taking many forms: action figures, manga and comics, ornaments, school supplies, ringtones, animated series or even novels, theatrical screenplays, or the much wider broadcast of video game tournaments. Yes, you read correctly.

I am convinced that we will get there. Some games will give more compelling shows than others, in the sense of being watched and understood by viewers.

The multiplayer modes of Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow and Chaos Theory, on which I have worked as lead level designer, would work particularly well. Why?

Firstly, because the game's rhythm is slow (it's a stealth game after all!), it thus allows a spectator to understand the action he's seeing on screen.

Secondly, the game offers so many tactical options that each playing session will feature great diversity.

Lastly, game situations often take a cinematic dimension. Watch a good player drawn in multiplayer match of Chaos Theory and judge for yourself.

Online distribution

New distribution modes have arisen over these past years: the buy-and-download mode, the games-on-demand mode and the try-and-buy mode.

Buy-and-download refers to buying a game and downloading it, as the name says. By all appearances, this mode of distribution does not bring anything new to the traditional sales model beyond the fact that the buyer does not have to leave the house. However, its real potential lies elsewhere.

Online distribution allows for greater flexibility in sales price and thus for better adaptation of price according to demand. It offers the possibility of bringing back "old" titles.

Most of all, it allows for custom tailoring of offers, since a digital distributor can get to know its clients better than a traditional seller (thanks to the analysis of their consuming habits) and thus can communicate with them swiftly and directly. This formula has shown great success on the Xbox Live Marketplace.

Games-on-demand suggests a different economic model. The player pays for a monthly subscription, affording him unlimited access to a vast number of games. The leaders of this market are Metaboli in Europe and GameTap in the United States.

This formula, growing in scale in Europe, allows publishers to generate revenue without any burden of cost. It works for older games as much as for newer ones, since experience shows that the impact on traditional sales is minimal.

Last but not least, the try-and-buy model is also self-explanatory: players download the game and try it, and may buy it online if they enjoy it. This formula works best with casual titles with low downloading volume.

High loading times would likely deter potential buyers and accrue high bandwidth costs for the publisher. This model is thus poorly adapted to big titles, but works perfectly for less ambitious games or games relying on micropayment.


Megatrend II: The emergence of fast gaming, and games relying on micropayments

Let us start with fast gaming, which is to video games what fast food is to home cooking -- i.e. games bought quickly and consumed without any important investment from the player. Note that the investment is not exclusively financial; it can also refer to the time spent in mastering the game.

Make no mistake: I am not making any value judgement on either this particular type of gaming or restaurant. If fast food became so popular, it is simply because it answered an existing consumer need. The same is true of fast gaming.

These games already abound around us: downloadable games on your cell phone, budget PC games created to be sold under $20 (not to be confused with initially fully-priced games receiving a price drop from the publishers to prolong their commercial lives), buyable games in the try-and-buy format, and free games serving as advertisement media.

These products respond to a new need: the one for immediate gaming, without forethought. The purchase and consumption of these games is more of an impulse than an informed acquisition. The success of Xbox Live Marketplace rests largely on this motivation. Let us not forget that full-price games are costly, and the consumer who does not think twice before snapping out his/her credit card is rare.

The design of these games will thus have to adapt to this new way of "consuming" games, which players would not have bothered paying for otherwise. If the games do not bring sufficient immediate gratification, their users will quickly abandon them.

Players will be willing to spend more time discovering games they have paid for than those obtained freely. The gameplay must therefore be instantaneous; i.e. the interface kept simple, and the player's objectives shown clearly.

This necessity is all the more obvious for cell phone games. The current trend is to draw inspiration from concepts and controls found in console gaming, adapting them as fully as possible to the mobile format; the results are a mixed bag. We shall probably see new concepts -- native to mobile platforms and largely removed from those of console games -- arise.

These new concepts would draw from cell phone specifications (communication, geo-location, near-constant presence of the owner, integrated camera, etc.) and would disregard their limitations (small keyboard, tiny screen, etc.). We may thus see games interacting with current sporting events, or even cultural, political, and economic trends. We might even witness the apparition of games centered on socialization. Who knows... after speed dating, we might have to prepare ourselves for game dating!

Games relying on micropayments are founded on a somewhat different logic. Like fast gaming, these games are conceived to be immediate hands-on experiences, but are also designed to entice the players to deepen their experience of the game by purchasing affordable additional components.

These components vary from simple cosmetic elements, such as improvements on the appearance of player's avatar, to elements affecting the gameplay itself. This economic model is fast-growing in Asia, and we can expect to witness an important impact on the west -- perhaps even a major one. The design for such games will have to be thoroughly adapted, even for established genres such as racing games or shooters.

The first constraint is the ease of set-up. All must be arranged so that the player has a minimal number of actions to perform before playing. Today, the great majority of downloadable games ask much of the player: one must register online by often giving (too much) information, validate the registration by accessing one's email client, download a (typically) sizable file whilst hoping that the connection stays stable, unzip and install the game, and finally register and download updates!

All of these operations can be simplified or rendered invisible to the player. Another solution is to develop games strictly for Internet browsers. InstantAction is one of the pioneers in this field.

Secondly, the game mechanics themselves must be as simplified as possible, so that they will be easy to grasp and master. This does not mean that the game cannot retain any complexity; rather, it ought to be introduced progressively.


Dream Execution's War Rock

Lastly, the game design must support a great number of add-ons and upgrades without leading to blatantly unbalanced players. Interesting solutions are surfacing, such as equipment rental in War Rock or systems grouping more or less advanced players together.


Megatrend III - Increasingly believable universes

This trend shall surprise no one. Each year we witness progress everywhere: facial animation, increasingly detailed character and background models, lifelike physics, atmospheric effects, dynamic lighting, and so forth. All of these features are must-haves for current game production.

What can we expect in the coming years? Here are some likely tendencies and their consequences for game design:

Development of outdoor environments

Today's gaming platforms are beginning to display both vast perspectives and lush worlds. It was no random chance that action games mostly occurred indoors up until now.

Far Cry for the PC was ahead of its time in terms of rendering and utilizing outdoor environments, yet still only scratched the surface, as future game design will need to take further advantage of these perspectives.

For action games, vast panoramas allow spotting one's opponents from afar, and vice-versa. New gameplay systems will thus unfold: camouflage, new remote detection mechanisms (or disruption of the latter), fusion between horizontal (on the ground) and vertical (airborn) gameplay, use of atmospheric effects, etc.

Real-time impact of atmospheric effects

Today we know how to create rain, mist or smoke, but we cannot interact with it. New gameplay applications shall appear: wind can directly impact the controls of a vehicle, or it may propagate or dissipate a smoke column, as determined by player interaction.

Rain can be channelled by a background element, perhaps though the player's actions, thus transforming into a torrent.

Automatic integration of character animation with the environment

Today, character animations are fixed according to pre-defined environment elements. Tomorrow we shall no doubt see characters whose animations will automatically adapt to the background. From a design point of view, it will become possible to make the characters act in environments completely based on reality.


Ubisoft Montreal's Assassin's Creed

Assassin's Creed shows the way. This trend seems increasingly obvious as we see more third-person action games being developed. In these games, the player sees the character and his interactions with the environment and other entities of the game. The quality of the animation becomes a key factor.

Completely interactive environments

Interaction with background elements means that said elements ought to react like the world surrounding us would. Thus, every object can be moved, flipped over or broken according to its nature and the action applied to it. The games of this current generation are starting to offer real possibilities in this realm.

Higher interactivity with the background shall doubtlessly contribute to a game's realism, but what would it bring to the game design? It will first offer the players the pleasure of wrecking whatever object they want.

While morally debatable, my own experience has shown it to be a powerful motivating agent. A game such as Burnout, for instance, greatly relies on answering this need.

Moreover, environmental interactivity will especially allow for further development of what we call "systemic game design." In this thoroughly ambitious approach to design, the player is placed into a universe led by its own rules, and it is up to him to find solutions to overcome the trials he encounters.

His only real guide thus becomes his common sense, since he knows the game's universe works like the "real" one. Many first-person shooters such as Denied Ops and Battlefield: Bad Company are developing innovative gameplay along these lines.

In my next article, I shall address the following Megatrends:

  • The search for immediate playability
  • Gaming as a teaching tool

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