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The Megatrends of Game Design, Part 4

Veteran game designer Pascal Luban (Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory) concludes his fascinating series on major game industry trends by tackling user-generated content, player aging and emotion.

[Veteran designer Pascal Luban (Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory) concludes his series on the "megatrends" of the gaming industry by tackling user-generated content, player aging and emotion. To read his first article in the series, click here; to read the second article, click here, and to read the third article, click here.]

In this fourth and final chronicle of game design megatrends, I shall address three trends that, while perhaps less obvious than some of those dealt with in prior articles, are nevertheless full of potential for future game development. They are: player-created content, the aging of players, and the emergence of gameplay generated emotions.

Megatrend VII - Player-created content

This self-explanatory term can refer to anything from digital items to maps or mods for multiplayer games, even going as far as full Flash or Java based games. Today's PC gamer expects to have a map editor available. Left 4 Dead was barely on the shelves when player-designed maps were already appearing on the net.

Development of mods is rarer, since comparatively few games support them, and player-designers need decent programming skills in order to achieve anything of interest with the tools available to them. On the other hand, the impact that a well-done mod can have on a game's life can be tremendously deep, as shown by the massive success attained by Counter-Strike.

Finally, the last category of player-generated content covers games entirely developed -- and sometimes even distributed -- by players. We frequently see this kind of Flash or Java game crop up on the Internet.

However, such achievements still come only from a limited number of people. Second Life, conversely, offers a surprising and revealing example of an application where creation is not only within anyone's reach, but an end in itself.

Second Life gives players the opportunity to create objects and locations and to show them off to others. Though a website's proportion of active users is generally low (only 5% of eBay users are sellers), the proportion of Second Life users who actually created something exceeds 30%! Better yet, 15% of those users write their own scripts, an endeavor which requires a genuine personal investment.

How has this torrent of creativity been fostered? Firstly, creation is made very simple through the availability of numerous ergonomic tools and tutorials. Secondly, there is a strong culture of cooperation and mutual help within the Second Life user base -- this culture is typical of internet gaming communities. Lastly, it is very rewarding to show off one's creations to the whole world, and therefore that's a strong motivator.

Nadeo's Trackmania

Another example comes from Trackmania, a car racing game developed by the French developer Nadeo. The game's appeal lies in its track-generating tool. Around 10% of the game's players build tracks and share them with other members of the Trackmania community. According to Nadeo, there have already been close to 20 million downloads of user-made tracks!

How might one explain this fervor for creating new content? Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that the act of creation is inherently one of the most fulfilling of human activities; to create is to express oneself, and to express oneself is to exist. It is natural for an individual to wish to share the fruit of his creativity, thereby rising from obscurity. Once tasted, the reward of creation often becomes an irresistible need.

The fact that Second Life is not a "game" in the traditional sense of the term should not divert our attention from an important rule which it clearly embodies: give power to the players, and they will take over your game.

An interesting example comes to my mind from the development of the multiplayer mode of Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow. In this mode, spies had to hack consoles and mercenaries had to prevent them. But some players missed the traditional deathmatch mode found in almost all multiplayer games so they invented new rules for deathmatch-only sessions.

Whoever wanted to join such a session had to abide by the informal rules designed by the community. We were so impressed by this phenomenon that we decided to add a dedicated deathmatch option to the multiplayer mode of its sequel, Chaos Theory.


Power to the players!

This trend seems ready to expand. Why?

  • Firstly, because it is in the best interest of the publishers themselves. A game benefits from having a regular inflow of new maps or mods; such content keeps the game being played long after its release, thereby allowing it to remain in the spotlight of the media and distribution.

    We can connect this to one of the major trends described in a previous article: the necessity of increasing the commercial lifespan of games. Major trends frequently support one another.
  • Secondly, the increasingly common pattern of an individual going from being a consumer to a producer is a sign of the times. Today, there are many amateur musicians and film directors out there writing their own music, directing their own videos, and building their own websites.

    Likewise, powerful audio editing, mixing and doctoring software are now readily available. The impetus behind this desire to create is the great satisfaction felt by expressing one's creativity; in a sense, creation becomes the game. The journey is more important than the destination.

Regarding video games, the spread of standardized development environments (Unreal 3, Source Engine, etc.) will greatly facilitate this phenomenon. Similarly, the development and ease of use of Java fulfills this trend's second vector.

Consequences for game design

  • The main consequence of this trend for game design is the need to anticipate the development of maps, mods, and other new elements. This theme was already addressed in a previous article. We can thus expect to see games with persistent universes built by the players themselves, with the developer only providing the rules and constraints of data production.

    When we see the care taken by some massively multiplayer gamers to build their own particular mini-universes, we can easily imagine what they might do if given the possibility of broadcasting their buildings, territories or characters. Calling upon the players' creativity is an interesting game design avenue to explore.
  • For publishers, development of internet-distributed Java games should not be considered as direct competition, but rather as indirect, since the time devoted to these small, free games naturally cannot be used to play commercial games.

    Though currently marginal, this phenomenon may yet grow to have real significance, since it will likely develop attendant to the development of fast-gaming, one of the megatrends described in one of my previous articles.

Megatrend VIII - The aging of players

As economists well know, the consequences of the evolution of demographics are silent, but tremendously powerful. The aging of the gaming population is one such example. This aging is, of course, purely statistical; there will always be as many young gamers as ever, but today's younger players will age just like the rest... and will keep on playing.

The good news is that the gaming population will keep on growing; however, it will have an increasing number of "old" players (i.e. those above 35 years of age).

How are these players different from their younger counterparts?

As slow as this evolution is, it is unavoidable. It will create a new category of players, or at least new needs. We do not approach gaming in the same way if we are 20, 35 or 50 years old. What can we expect?

  • Older gamers will increasingly hold a greater interest in themes that are presently uncommon or poorly developed, such as economic or political simulations.
  • These players will be less likely to invest themselves in complex games, primarily due to lack of time.
  • They will assign a greater importance to game-generated emotions and moral dilemmas.
  • It will become increasingly difficult to establish suspension of disbelief for such players. Mature gamers will have a harder time becoming immersed in less believable plots or universes.
  • These consumers will not be covered by the traditional video gaming press.
  • Lastly, they will possess greater purchasing power for impulse buying.

What can we expect in regards to game design?

To satisfy this new class of player, publishers will either have to adapt their existing products, or will be compelled to develop games specifically for this new target audience.

  • Less fantastical characters and situations
    Video game characters often possess a marked lack of believability. Yet, it is quite possible to give real depth to game characters, including those of action games. Metal Gear Solid 3 is a good example of this.

    The use of real screenplay writers, at least as consultants, should become a more widespread practice. Let us not forget that a professional screenplay writer also knows how to write good dialogue, an important component in the final quality of the work.
  • New kinds of simulators
    Today, political simulators are almost non-existent. I can only think of Republic, Tropico and the American presidential campaign simulator published by Ubisoft. Yet, it's an extraordinarily rich domain: such games could conceivably feature a direct link with current events, thus giving them an extended lifespan.

    Real economic simulators are also very rare, since designers do not take into account two important parameters of economic reality: the absence of certainty on business action results, and the importance of the human factor. Today's economic simulators are more like emulators of theoretical economic models rather than representations of reality.

    We can also imagine the appearance of hybrid products, such as garden simulators or half-training, half-gaming products. A driving simulator could thus have a module for analysis of the player's performance and a real-time adviser, as if an instructor were at his side. Imagine a rally simulator with the late Colin McRae as instructor!
  • Games allowing several generations to play together
    For those who have children or grandchildren, playing with them is one of life's great rewards -- that is, assuming we can find an activity of common interest. A video game could do the trick; after all, it is already the case with very young children who love to play their favorite educational game while sitting on their parents' knees.
  • Adult games
    We all know the financial weight of the sex and pornography market. Games will be its new vector of development. We are starting to see erotic MMOs, and we can also expect to see half-game, half-socializing website hybrid products. Here, we once again find some of the previously addressed megatrends, such as games relying on micro-transactions and multiplayer gaming. Again, megatrends feed off of one another.

Megatrend IX - The emergence of emotions

When cinema first made its appearance, early productions resorted to crude techniques to attract viewers (i.e. pie-in-the-face slapstick humor, or the melodrama of early romantic comedies). Narrative techniques have matured, and so have viewers.

Seldom do today's games seek to stir strong emotions within us. Fear alone has been dealt with, particularly in survival horror games and in well-made action games such as Doom 3 or Alien vs. Predator 2 (the beginning of the "Marines" campaign in the latter is a shining example of this).

However, other powerful emotions, such as compassion or love (brotherly, filial, paternal, etc.) are very rarely touched upon. Yet, there are a few instances where the creation of emotions in the player actively enhances his enjoyment of the game, such as in a few episodes of the Final Fantasy saga.

A few isolated attempts demonstrate that designers are picking up on this emotional dimension of gaming. The objective of the torture scene in the first level of Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory's single-player campaign is obviously to generate intense emotions for the player.

The use of emotions is an excellent method for immersing the player in the gaming experience, since it drives him on with greater purpose; we tend to invest ourselves more in those activities to which we are emotionally attached.

Older players (see the aforementioned megatrend about aging gamers) will likely be the first to fully appreciate this emotional dimension of gaming, since it connects with their own life experience; we are, after all, far more sensitive to emotions we have felt before.

Humanity's greater works are known for the strong emotions they evoke within their readers or viewers.

Some publishers have already begun to consider methods for inducing emotions (other than fear) in their future works. Action-adventure games are good candidates, but other genres may be suitable, as well.

For example, in Ground Control 2, the strategy game published by VU Games, we can find the seeds of this in a storyline which attempts to build a love subplot between the hero and a pretty scientist girl. Action games such as Splinter Cell or Metal Gear Solid are likewise perfectly suited for an emotional dimension.

A final thank you

I want to conclude my series of articles on a big thank you to all my readers that have written me to give me their feedback and to all of you who have contributed to the forums associated with my writing.

Game development in general, and game design in particular, is an on-going learning process where one should be humble and grasp every opportunity to learn from others. As a civilization, we grow by sharing and expressing opinions, even if they are different from others.

Previous chronicles

The Megatrends of Game Design, part 1
The Megatrends of Game Design, part 2
The Megatrends of Game Design, part 3

Physics in Games: A New Gameplay Frontier

Multiplayer level design, part 1
Multiplayer level design, part 2
Multiplayer level design, part 3

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