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.
Creative first-person perspective in VR (Superhypercube)
Reminiscent of that human Tetris game show from Japan, Superhypercube tasks players with rotating complex, 3D shapes in order to fit through a corresponding hole in a fast-approaching wall. The trick is that it’s played in VR, and with the shapes hovering directly in front of your face it becomes increasingly hard to see around them as they get larger and more elaborate.
Relying on a limited first-person perspective, craning your neck to get the full picture, is a unique mechanic to virtual reality that gets at one of our general gripes about what we’ve seen in VR so far–the general lack of “medium specificity,” or design which takes advantage of . Too many developers are spending all of their effort porting existing types of gameplay into VR, rather than exploring types of play that could not exist otherwise. Superhypercube is exactly the sort of stripped-down experiment in the medium’s unique properties that we want to see more in the coming year.
“God perspective” in VR (Final Approach)
Flight Control was a crucial early smartphone game, and one of the first to really take advantage of the touchscreen as vehicle for new gameplay. Final Approach, a de facto VR adaptation of Flight Control, takes that principle of tracing out routes for landing planes, but uses the room-scale technology of the HTC Vive to put it in three dimensions. You tower over the airport like a giant, poking at planes and drawing their courses through space. The added depth makes the game substantially more challenging and interesting, and the game also adds all sorts of other interactions like rescue vehicles to keep it fresh.
Much of VR so far has focused on first-person experiences, but Final Approach shows that going the complete opposite direction and utilizing a “god perspective” where players exist outside the game world, moving and interacting with it at will, can be just as interesting. A few minutes in the game left us pining for VR real-time strategy like Starcraft, directing troops around with the sweep of a hand as we tower above the battlefield, or a god game like Populous, shaping or destroying virtual worlds. A third-person perspective also has the added benefit of sidestepping the need to simulate first-person movement, which has proven to be very difficult to achieve while avoiding motion sickness.
Mobile Party Games (Spyfall, The Resistance, etc)
Mobile games tend to be either solitary affairs (like Threes), or globally multiplayer (like Clash of Clans). One area that’s sorely lacking is mobile games that let you play with friends who are right there. There are tons of great party board and card games out there like Spyfall, Two Rooms and a Boom, The Metagame, or Skull, and many of them are quite portable, but they still require you to carry them around in anticipation. It would be great if there were more games for mobile phones that you could break out at a moment’s notice to play with your friends.
Hidden identity games such as Spyfall or Secret Hitler are generally quite simple to learn, and often just give players a single card for each round with details about their identity, and so they could lend themselves particularly well, perhaps only even requiring one person to own the game while everyone else gets information via text. In any case, we all spend too much time buried in our phones, so we might as well use them as platforms for socializing with the people around us.
“Narrative Legos” (Ken Levine)
This one is unique in that it was not inspired by a game, but by a design talk given by BioShock-creator Ken Levine at GDC 2014. He makes the case that linear storytelling, as we understand it from film, television, theater, and literature, is directly at odds with the uniquely dynamic nature of games. He contrasts systemic games, such as Civilization, with linear games like Uncharted, and expresses his lifelong preference for systemic games and the emergent narratives they can lead to. He follows this by laying out a hypothetical game that takes a systemic approach to narrative, using a typical high fantasy setting to describe a game where narrative events are driven by faction allegiances and character relationships in response to player actions.
One of the closest examples we’ve yet seen of this is at the top of our list with Shadow of Mordor’s Nemesis system. It was still couched in a conventional (and dull) linear narrative, but despite that it was one of the best gameplay mechanics in years. Expanding that impulse to a whole game is another challenge entirely, and basically requires a new theoretical framework for narratology, but we think it’s one of the most important tasks facing game designers today if the medium wants to outgrow being an imitation of cinematic storytelling and tell stories unique to games.
Honorable mention: Non-Warcraft-derived massively multiplayer
We couldn’t stick this in the main list since it’s something we’d like to see a little less: World of Warcraft is great, but its enormous success has utterly murdered creativity in designing massively-multiplayer online games. Barring a handful of exceptions, such as EVE Online, virtually every game that hundreds to thousands of people can play at once is a stat- and loot-driven action RPG that takes countless design cues from the model popularized by World of Warcraft. All massively-multiplayer online games looking the same is a bit like the absurdity of most fantasy, which should be an unbounded genre, being Tolkien-derived swords and sorcery with elves and orcs.
As we said up at the top, game design is built on iteration, but there comes a point of diminishing returns where new MMOs aren’t adding anything particularly innovative and are being created at the expense of exploring other types of gameplay. Surely there are countless untapped ways to make huge numbers of players interact online. We understand that the technical infrastructure required to support these games is going to make developers more risk-averse, but that didn’t stop Blizzard from breaking open the genre in the first place, and it won’t stop whoever comes up with the next big thing.
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