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 revolves around iterating on good ideas. It also drives this very post, which is a rehash of a list we published around this time last year. 2017 was an exciting year for gaming, heralding the arrival of some long-awaited titles as well as more than a few surprises. Here are 10 novel ideas from 2017’s best games, that we hope to see someone shamelessly rip off in 2018.
A Linear narrative told through multiple endings (Nier: Automata)
Replayability has always been an interesting sticking point in game design. The desire to give players meaningful narrative agency with branching choices that play out differently (and thus encouraging replays) runs somewhat at odds to the tendency to make games longer and longer, increasing their perceived value. Classic ’90s RPG Chrono Trigger, which included a wide range of potential endings, created the “New Game+”, which allowed players to maintain their items and experience on subsequent (and accordingly faster) playthroughs. Auteur designer Yoko Taro has taken that to a new level with the sequential multiple endings of Nier: Automata.
In addition to a few potential endings for your first playthrough, the game is actually notably different in new game+. For much of the second time through you control the character who had been your sidekick, offering a new perspective on the same events. There are also new interstitial scenes sprinkled throughout the second loop, giving new context to the world and story. The third time through assumes the perspective of a completely different character, and is essentially a new act entirely, radically altering your perspective on the game’s story once again. Nier: Automata took what works about new game+ and compounded it, rewarding players increasingly as they invest more time into the game. It’s also a marvelous example of medium specificity, using the unique conventions of video games to examine a story in a way that other media could not. It’s always a good sign when you complete a game and want to start from the beginning immediately, and no game we’ve ever played is better built for that.
Open worlds without filler (The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild)
In the years following the success of Skyrim and Assassin’s Creed, “open world” has become one of the most overused design tropes in AAA gaming. When we first heard that Nintendo was going the open world route with its upcoming Zelda game, we felt a little apprehension that they were just chasing trends, but Breath of the Wild turned out to be a master class in the genre, and a wake up call for where it needs to go. A common problem for open-world games (particularly those from Ubisoft) is that they feel less like living, immersive places and more like maps covered in icons, loaded with repetitive objectives that just feel like filler content. Even games that we otherwise loved, like Horizon Zero Dawn, fall into this trap.
The genius of Breath of the Wild is that it dials back the role of the map from overbearing taskmaster to its rightful place as a player-aiding tool. Regions of the map are left blank until you find and climb a tower within them, encouraging you to encounter explore at least a portion of the world without a guide. Even then, rather than populating the map for you with points of interest, the only map markers that the game provides are those that you place yourself. By putting cartography back into the hands of the player, Breath of the Wild re-situated their attention from maps and menus back into the game world itself. Subsequent open world games would be well served to take note of Nintendo’s focus on moment-to-moment experience and discovery.
Destination gaming (HQ Trivia)
The first wave of breakout smartphone games, such as Flight Control, Candy Crush, or 2048, have all focused on the size and touchscreen for accessible, drop-in, one-finger experiences. As a gaming platform, however, smartphones are so much more than just small tablets. Their portability and constant connectivity (service allowing) opens up a range of exciting possibilities for designers to play with time and space in a way that other platforms do not facilitate. In the last few years Pokémon Go and Subterfuge have both embraced this medium specificity in different ways.
Where Pokémon Go grounded the game in real space, and Subterfuge spread it out over real time, HQ Trivia instead hosts daily trivia contests at particular hours, creating a sort of “destination gaming” (so-named after event-based destination television). While admittedly some of HQ’s allure is the real cash prizes, live competition against strangers adds a thrilling sense of connection to an otherwise cerebral type of gameplay. The addition of a real host further blurs the line between a mobile game and a traditional quiz show, making HQ Trivia one of the most truly 21st-century-native forms of entertainment we’ve yet seen.
Making old games new again on Switch (L.A. Noire)
Porting older games onto the latest platform is a time-honored way to fill out a console’s library while developers learn to make best use of its capabilities. Traditionally this just entails a bit of graphical upscaling to take advantage of technological progress, ranging from simply adding newer, HD textures to more complete visual overhauls (like the upcoming Shadow of the Colossus remake for PS4). Nintendo, ever the wild card, has sidestepped the console arms race yet again with the Switch, sacrificing raw power for portability. The prospect of taking recent AAA titles to a handheld platform has brought the gaming community’s remake appetite to a whole new level.
Bringing 2016 first-person shooter Doom to the Switch was an excellent proof of concept for what handheld AAA gaming could look and feel like. It was the remake of Rockstar’s 2011 detect-em-up L.A. Noire that really surprised us, though. Its top notch voice acting and facial animations looked great, despite the generally aged visuals, and its rich, period narrative and interrogation system haven’t really been matched. Where Doom and Wolfenstein II got us excited about the prospect of contemporary AAA games on the Switch, L.A. Noire has us wondering what other slightly older games could gain new relevance on Nintendo’s exciting new platform?
Battle Royale (PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds)
Any gamer that watched or read The Hunger Games immediately saw the potential in it for an amazing video game. A large number of people drop into an area littered with weapons, and the sole survivor wins. The grim narrative convention of the so-called “Battle Royale” (derived from the eponymous 1999 Japanese novel and its subsequent film adaptation) lends itself perfectly to the indiscriminate carnage of video games.
PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds isn’t the first attempt at a Battle Royale video game (there have been various mods for Minecraft, Arma 2, and the like, as well as 2016’s The Culling), but it’s certainly the definitive version. PUBG creator Bluehole refined the genre within a modern military shooter shell, but the general gameplay model could be applied to any number of more fantastical genres and mechanics. The Darwin Project, which we tried back at E3 2017, uses third-person action with a bit of crafting and survival in the narrative context of dystopian reality TV, for instance. Despite Bluehole’s IP-related sabre-rattling, we hope that other developers will continue to run with the concept in new and interesting ways.
Living memories (Tacoma)
Audiologs have become a popular storytelling tool in games since Ken Levine famously put them to great use in the original BioShock, adding a layer of worldbuilding and narrative color without needing to alter the fundamental gameplay. Former members of Levine’s team went on to found the Fullbright Company and create Gone Home, which took the form of a first-person shooter, but removed the action entirely, making the process of finding narrative material like audiologs into the game itself, rather than a supplementary feature. Their follow-up, Tacoma, took that to an exciting new level.
Gameplay revolves around exploring a derelict space station, the Tacoma, and figuring out what happened there. Rather than mere audio or text logs, recorded scenes play out in ghostly holograms, allowing you to follow particular people or objects as you scrub through a virtual, 3D timeline. The simulated spaces of video games have shown themselves to be particularly good at environmental storytelling, where the experience is about piecing together why a place is the way it is. Tacoma is in a direct lineage with some of the best environmental storytelling in the medium, so we hope to see its ideas evolved even further.
Adaptive enemies (Echo)
Stealth games live and die by the artificial intelligence of their enemies. If their behaviors are too clearly mechanical, with hard-coded routes and routines you can exploit, then your immersion suffers, and the game boils down to solving a narrow puzzle. In the best stealth games, such as Metal Gear Solid V, the guards adapt to your tactics and veer off their set routes when something seems amiss, making them harder to predict and forcing you to adapt in the moment.
Echo, the first release from indie developer Ultra Ultra — a team comprising former Hitman developers — takes this to an interesting extreme by creating guards that very literally learn their behaviors from your recent gameplay. Run through a room full of enemies, and the next wave will know to chase you. Vault over walls, and they’ll leave yourself fewer places to hide the next time. It’s a straightforward conceit that creates a far more dynamic puzzle than typical stealth fare. The game’s sci-fi premise enables a very plain, focused version of the concept, but the notion of watching what you do to prevent enemies from learning new behaviors is worth exploring more broadly.
Asymmetric Co-op (Star Trek: Bridge Crew)
Purely cooperative games (and not just team-based multiplayer) has remained a somewhat niche pursuit in video games, particularly as local multiplayer has withered in the face of online connectivity. Fortunately board games have picked up the slack and explored this space much more fully in the last decade. Games like Pandemic, Arkham Horror, and Forbidden Island allow players to work together and save the world from diseases, hold off Cthulhu, and escape a sinking island. One particularly interesting subset of co-op board games to emerge is asymmetric co-op games, wherein players play different mini-games that link together. Space Cadets and Captain Sonar cast players in different crew positions on a spaceship or submarine, so they must coordinate their efforts to prevail.
Star Trek: Bridge Crew translates that general idea into VR, giving players different roles on the crew of a Federation starship. It’s not the first video game to run with the idea (check out Artemis Bridge Simulator), but it’s certainly the most polished. The telepresence of VR lends itself especially well to asymmetric co-op, but it isn’t necessary. Collaborative games can be a pleasant antidote to the frequent toxicity of online multiplayer, and the asymmetry allows players with different skillsets and interests to come together. In that regard, it’s a more extreme version of those positive aspects of Overwatch (teamwork and variable skill requirements). Asymmetry and co-op are two underutilized design principles in multiplayer gaming in general, and like peanut butter and jelly they go even better together.
Dynamic combat systems (Absolver, For Honor)
Simulated fighting is as old as video games. Following the explosive arcade popularity of Street Fighter II, the 2D fighting genre has since been the de facto ultimate test of dexterity and tactics in one-on-one duels. Limiting the action to a single plane allowed for tighter and more strategically-focused action. Barring exceptions like SoulCalibur Tekken, fighting has remained a primarily 2D sport in video games, with 3D action generally devolving into a cruder, hack-and-slash style of play.
In 2017, finally saw some notable experiments in truly 3D dueling in For Honor and Absolver. Both made core use of stances, a staple of real martial arts, as foundation for strategic combat systems that emphasize position, timing, and reading your opponent’s animations correctly. Neither title particularly set the world on fire, both struggling a bit with the metagame shell that contains their solid core fighting mechanics, but both games presented fighting systems that were fresh and compelling, hopefully opening up new design lineages to follow besides the seminal work of Capcom.
The “Nemesis” system… again! (Middle-earth: Shadow of War)
Lastly, we have a returning contender from last year’s list: the Nemesis system from Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor (Or, this year, from its sequel, Shadow of War). We were completely taken by this dynamic simulation of the orc hierarchy when the first game launched in 2014, and its sequel did an admirable job of expanding it with a positive flip-side of allies to develop, citadels to conquer and staff, and generally just more of everything we liked the first time around.
However we are still eagerly awaiting for a developer to take the idea and run with it in a wholly different context. Rumor has it that the game began its life as a Batman title, with Nemesis intended to track the Joker’s gang structure. It also comes to mind while watching The Wire, or any narrative about uncovering and bringing down a criminal organization. We loved Nemesis because of how it put a simulation at the core of an otherwise conventional action game, infusing it with emergent narrative possibilities. As such, we would love to see developers run with it in new directions, because while more Nemesis is nice, we’d like to see how the mechanic could enhance other kinds of gameplay with the first game’s promise.
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