Steve Jobs once said: “Good artists copy; great artists steal.” He should know–he stole the quote from Pablo Picasso, who probably didn’t come up with it either. This sentiment drives modern game design, which is all about iterating on good ideas. We’ve compiled some of the best ideas and mechanics from games in the last couple of years that we think would make fantastic foundations for new games as we look forward to 2017. Designers, take note, and steal relentlessly!
The “Nemesis” system (Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor)
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor was a surprise smash hit, topping many game of the year lists in 2014. This is all the more impressive because it earned all of that acclaim, in spite of its utterly-forgettable main story. Instead players responded to its finely-tuned balance of systems, centered around the brilliant and innovative Nemesis system for dynamically modelling the ever-shifting orc chain of command as players systematically stalked and assassinated them. Take out a general’s bodyguard and the next orc down the line moves up to fill his job. If he happens to be one of your coerced plants, he’ll help you when the time comes to take down his new boss. Anyone that kills you, however, gets a promotion, and will probably rub it in your face the next time you cross paths.
The emergent rivalries that formed in Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor felt far more personal and memorable than a lot of the scripted relationships in other games we’ve played since. Where most open-world games can feel like just a map full of icons for you to check off with linear story sprinkled throughout, the Nemesis system grounded Mordor’s action in a dynamic narrative continuity that felt genuinely unique to your particular playthrough. Rumor has it that Shadow of Mordor started its life as a Batman game, with Nemesis system simulating the ranks of the Joker’s gang, which makes perfect sense for the system. The genius of Nemesis is only loosely tied to its theme, and the rest of the game was built with pretty stock components, so it wouldn’t be too hard to lift it out wholesale and build a different kind of game around it.
Quantified emotional states (Darkest Dungeon)
Sure, plenty of games do a lot with the physical dangers of dungeon crawling, but not many address the mental and emotional toll that it must surely take — except for Darkest Dungeon, of course. Right below each of your heroes’ health bar is a stress meter that ticks up whenever they are witness or subject to something horrible. If it goes too high, they’ll acquire an “affliction” like paranoia or masochism that will cause them to occasionally defy your orders or act out of turn. More than just complicating the management metagame as you churn through a parade of broken adventurers, the addition of personality traits and afflictions does wonders for making your heroes feel unique. That crusader isn’t just a pile of stats that tanks damage for your party–he’s also a morose kleptomaniac who took too many delves and now panics whenever your torch burns too low.
Nearly all RPGs are descended from Dungeons & Dragons, which introduced the idea of characters as an assemblage of stats. It’s all very externally-focused, however, and even mental stats like intelligence and wisdom only matter for how they affect a character’s ability to perform actions. Darkest Dungeon’s stress and afflictions call back to similar mechanics of psychological degredation in horror-themed tabletop RPGs like Call of Cthulhu and Nemesis, in no small part because they all draw inspiration from the works of H. P. Lovecraft. XCOM showed that even minor aesthetic customizations can do wonders for player investment in their characters. Giving them an internal life separate from just being vessels for the player’s will takes it to a whole new level that we’d love to see more often.
Creating and Sharing (Super Mario Maker)
Once just the purview of hobby grade level editors and l33t ROM-hackers, Super Mario Maker gave anyone with a Wii U or 3DS the power to create and share their own Mario levels, remixed from 30 years of Nintendo platforming design. In all media, increasingly powerful personal computers and a globally pervasive peer-to-peer network have democratized the power to create and distribute original work. Games have a higher threshold of technical knowledge to create than books, music, or film, so their craft has remained somewhat more specialized. The success of Super Mario Maker and the LittleBigPlanet series show that laymen are eager to create if given the tools. Even just staying within classic NES games, imagine Zelda Maker or Mega Man Maker. Combining our rampant nostalgia for 80s and 90s games with the fact that modern platforms can much more easily simulate and manipulate that style of game seems like a winning formula.
Augmented Reality (Pokémon Go)
While the hype and player count of Pokémon Go trailed off after a few months, for the summer of 2016 it was an unprecedentedly large social gaming event. It didn’t matter that it launched with only a handful of the basic features you would expect from a Pokémon game, or that a buggy app and overtaxed servers persisted for months — just the basic fantasy of catching monsters out and about in the real world with some rudimentary augmented reality to see them in situ captured our collective imaginations.
It’s hard to envision anything achieving the same zeitgeist-dominating success of Pokémon Go did at its height, but the general principle of using mobile phones to layer gameplay onto the real world is a vast, untapped landscape of design possibility. Go developer Niantic’s own earlier game Ingress used the foundation for a vast, team-based area control game. Anything involving a map would work, though. Imagine turning your commute into a fantasy RPG, or running to the corner park in order to make a dead drop for an opposing double agent. While Pokémon Go got by on the charm of its brand and the novelty of its idea, it mostly excited us for the AR games that we could look forward to in the coming years.
Slow Real-Time (Subterfuge)
Subterfuge was one of the most harrowing gaming experiences we’ve ever had. This real-time strategy game for mobile phones is a relatively straight-forward game of area control and resource production in an underwater world, but with the added strategic layer: Moving a unit takes many hours, so the whole game plays out over a week or two. This delay between moves opens up lots of space for IRL diplomacy and backstabbing, wherein the real game lies. While playing, Subterfuge is the last thing you think of before going to sleep and the first thing you check in the morning. It’s very stressful, but the experience is uniquely engrossing.
Just like how Pokémon Go took a prosaic game and made it magical by spreading it out over real space, Subterfuge uses time to achieve the same effect. Mobile phones let us consistently check in on things throughout the day, and we would love to see more games that take advantage of this by playing with time scale like Subterfuge does.
Play of the Game (Overwatch)
Overwatch proved that Blizzard is still one of the best developers around for creating streamlined and addicting games for the masses. Beyond its slick shooter mechanics, interesting characters, and variety of gameplay modes, one touch that’s proven to be particularly ingenious is its “Play of the Game” mechanic which automatically highlights one player’s particularly dramatic moment from the match based on several criteria, such as difficulty, point swing, or saving fellow teammates.
2016 saw the continued rise of esports in popular consciousness, and the explosive popularity of Overwatch took advantage of that. In addition to being a great source of memes, Replicating highlights from broadcast coverage of traditional sports, Play of the Game is a fun, familiar way to inject the notion that Overwatch is a competition, and give players bragging rights for more than just the win. Any new match-based game would be well-served by its addition, or even established competitive games, such as Rocket League.