Written by Craig Beddis

3 min read

How technology and commerce are shaping game design today

  • Gaming

The gaming industry is a fairly ruthless and copycat-based business (see the wave of Battle Royale-themed games emerging in the wake of PUBG and Fortnite). Game design trends are just as often influenced by developer innovation and technological progression as commercial realities and studio economics. Right now, the market is dictating an increasing shift towards big budget gaming (or at least a perceived big budget experience) which we’re seeing take shape with the rapid cross-pollination of genre tropes and design features. Anything to make a game feel bigger, more involved, and stand out from the crowd.

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Consider that most action games these days incorporate a range of functions previously only found in role playing games. We have first person shooters with inventory management; multiplayer games with upgradeable classes; and platformers with dialogue trees. Sometimes all it takes is a single blockbuster hit to trigger a market-wide change, as with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’s class-based and gear-levelling multiplayer. Other times it’s due to a more gradual categorical evolution, such as the way that the initial MMORPGs of the early 2000s transitioned from obviously turn-based action sequences to more real-time feeling iterations as internet speeds and server infrastructures improved. Oftentime, it’s simply about the need to inject something new into a category - just look at EA’s recent incorporation of cinematic single-player narratives in its FIFA and Madden sport franchises.


Perhaps the most substantial mechanical influence over the past 15 years has been the integration of the kind of open world sandboxes popularised by Grand Theft Auto III. This was a technical achievement that became both its own genre as well as a game design element that infiltrated other categories - everything from racing, shooter, sport, and platforming titles. Only recently, with the maturity of the market and advent of more advanced technologies, have we seen this progress from trend-based emulation to specifically incorporated and shaped game worlds. The Battle Royale phenomenon is a good example of this: a permutation of a massive game world that progressively contracts over the course of a competitive multiplayer battle.


The reason that open world game design is so pervasive and powerful is because of the emergent gameplay that it enables. It perfectly feeds into a natural tendency of gamers that has existed since the beginnings of video games: the desire to find the boundaries of the worlds they’re in and discover unexpected outcomes. Josh Sawyer, director of the Pillars of Eternity series, calls these “interactive environment-driven mechanics”. In Sawyer’s words, “By making more fundamentally dynamic gameplay that’s more driven by environmental interactions, you’re creating a game that’s richer for creating your own stories, your own gameplay by just fooling around.” This is something that he and his team implemented to great effect within a traditional isometric single-player RPG, but for many the next frontier lies in applying this level of granular complexity in a connected game world and a much more expansive spatial setting.

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Technologically, we’re coming to a really exciting place. The maturation of server technologies and the cloud and edge offer game designers the ability to realise more ambitious and sweeping gameplay experiences. We’re seeing this being tested in AAA studios as with Bungie’s Anthem and Bethesda’s Fallout 76, but also in the likes of Google and Unity’s partnership which in theory should enable smaller scale teams and individual developers to do similar things. Naturally, there’s still work to be done in providing a cost-effective solution for studios and an effective toolkit, but the future’s bright for the possibility of large, open world games.