And here we are in 2012, the midst of the nice, quiet season where the deluge of games slows down and we can contemplate in this less busy news cycle. It's also a great time to look back on the last year and think about what the industry at large did well and what they should perhaps be doing in the future. This was the year where Modern Warfare 3 didn't just predictably sell well, it broke entertainment records at large, and where a surprising number of your friends were probably talking about Skyrim that might not otherwise.
And today, a lot of game production teams are coming back from the holidays refreshed, reinvigorated, and ready to start creating the next unit shifter. What I've come up with is a list of ten areas where I'd love for the game industry to be thinking and exploring in the coming months as they develop the next crop of 2013-2015 releases. Nearly all are geared towards continuing to expand the gaming audience in some way. A few of these are old news, and some are my own particular interests, but that's why it's an Op-Ed and not an "Op-Everything to Everyone."
10. Explore some new points of inspiration for your music
A unsurprising number of outlets placed the soundtrack for the WB Interactive-published Bastion at the top their lists for 2011 and I think deservedly so. Instead of the usual rock or broad orchestral scores found in many big budget releases, Bastion took its cues from folk and bluegrass. And it was a match for the material, a melancholy adventure with its nameless protagonist in a shattered world.
I'm not saying the sound designers for the next crop of games need to start thinking about banjo infusion in 2014's Modern Warfare, but imagine if a game's soundtrack truly embraced the John Carpenter-esque synth elements in the Battlefield 3 menus? What kind of wonderful, odd alchemy could we see if Hans Zimmer wasn't the overriding influence and we got all-new soundscapes over the next few years?
9. Death to the QTE
I've already nearly burst a vein ranting about this, but seriously game designers: think about why you're putting a QTE in your game and figure out if you might want to do something a little more interesting, something that explores the mechanics you worked so hard to create in your gameplay. You'd be surprised what kind of curious direction you can go in when you simply wall off a toxic, unengaging, and simplistic means of gameplay and storytelling.
8. Expand and get creative with the Season Pass model
What did you guys think of these, because as something of a cheapskate, I kind of liked them a lot. This past year saw titles as diverse as Mortal Kombat, L.A. Noire, and Gears of War 3 offer a discounted DLC bundle if you got in early. Now to be fair, the—if I recall correctly—$15 price tag (or 1200 MSP) for the Mortal Kombat character pack was a little steep to be sure but bundling all of the new characters together like that was an incentive: I wouldn't have paid $3 for each of the character individually, but packing them together and telling me they were on sale... well, I'm easy like that, I guess. Likewise, Epic was savvy in offering all of their Gears DLC for a nice 2400 MSP (discounted over the holidays to 1800) and I have to imagine that telling users upfront that they'll save a third if they just commit to getting the DLC right of the bat must have grabbed some converts.
And by "creative," I'm going to be honest and say I have no idea what this would entail. I just hope publishers will look at this like retail sales and figure out cool and interesting things to bundle in with a season pass beyond a nice chunk of DLC—maybe throw in a PSN/XBLA version of Unreal Tournament 3 with the purchase of a DLC bundle for the next Epic retail title or the original Mortal Kombat 3 with the inevitable Mortal Kombat 2.
7. Start saying "no" to the apocalypse, nukes, and zombies
I'm saying it right now: the decade of doom has passed. The last ten years have been defined with being on the brink, being afraid that someone is going to slip in a dirty bomb or that our beef with Russia or China will escalate, or that the living dead will rise up and blah, blah, blah. If we could have one present-day modern shooter without the threat of nukes or the same tired old nexus of generic terrorists or Cold War reignited bogeymen, if we could get past the fact that yeah, zombies are cool (that's why there are so many damn games about them), then I think there might be room for some new, not at all stale scenarios for the upcoming games.
Oh, and no vampires unless it's for a Darkwatch sequel, okay?
6. Figure out the promise of the cloud, already
OnLive is still attempting to carve out a niche for itself while the 360 and PS3 both have functionality now that allow you to save games and content to the cloud. Similarly, the movie industry is really pushing consumers to adopt the cloud digital copy as a feature in recent Blu-ray releases. So there's a nebulous push to figure out make the cloud a thing people should be excited about in terms of delivering content. And I'll admit, being able to take your game save from one console to another without a memory card or external drive is kind of cool but is that all it's really good for?
I'm genuinely asking here. Both Sony and Microsoft have created tiers where you can save a little bit for free and save a little bit more for a sum but I'm not sure that I'm especially excited about having my game saves hiding out on some servers which might then be a victim of, say, a pernicious hacker attack or a simple service outage. Right now it's just a simple feature and nothing anyone is trying to push on gamers, but I have to imagine there's more promise to it than simply an invisible hard drive for your stuff.
5. Revitalize another dead genre
I can't tell you how happy I've been with the last two years' resurgence of the fighting game genre—it was terrific seeing franchises like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat enter the new century in a big way that both respected what worked about the earlier incarnations of the series while iterating in ways that recognized the changing gaming landscape. And while I'm always for pushing forward with something new and exploring new genres, let's continue to mine the past for interesting points of inspiration. A couple of years back, Telltale almost singlehandely brought back the adventure game genre, and there was even an attempt by a couple of titles to explore the beat-em-up.
This isn't just nostalgia speaking (I hope)—I think we're about due for some new ideas when it comes to something like the bullet hell shooter or mech combat games (which arguably never went away but both always had the whiff of niche-interest about them). I'd be thrilled to see someone take another stab at the Gradius for the next decade that's not, you know some kind of first-person flight shooter but that, like Street Fighter IV knows what worked about the original game and figures out interesting ways to elaborate on it.
4. Oh yeah, figure out the promise of motion control, already
I own a Kinect and I'm still trying to figure out why. Right now, the peripheral seems to be a boon to hackers and artists but I'm still not really sure what it means for me, the gamer. Yeah, it's kind of neat to navigate the Netflix menus with the wave of my hand, but given the size of my living room, it's a little bit of a challenge to do much of anything else. The game lineup is decidedly casual and there's not a whole lot of it. Ditto Playstation's Move hardware. I don't think Sony, Microsoft and third party developers have forgotten about the peripherals, but I do think that they're not thinking about them too hard, either. It's not even really the big selling point of the next Nintendo console (they would like very much for you to play with their touchscreen).
I'm throwing this idea out there for free, guys, the one that'll completely lock down the motion control gaming market and bring all the gamers: motion-controlled Fist of the North Star, a bloody, brutal punch-em-up, House of the Dead but with deadly kung-fu.
You're welcome, by the way.
3. Try to be funny a little more often
Quick, name three big-budget comedic movie releases for 2011. Now do the same for games. Okay, you've got Portal 2, what else? I'll give you Duke Nukem Forever although that was as a funny as a heart attack. There are some funny lines and moments that have stuck out in recent RPGs and shooters but for the most part, the experience is overwhelmingly geared towards big action and the kind of "jokes" that litter the obnoxious Transformers movies (i.e. the kind that aren't funny and are sometimes a little racist). When I was playing The Gunstringer, not only was I thinking, "This is a funny game," I was also thinking, "why don't game developers want me to laugh?"
Well, game developers, why is it?
I kid, and know that comedy is hard, comedy in gaming harder still. Think about how much timing and precision goes into locking down a thrilling action moment and the ways that we as players can "break" them. Now tie that to a joke or a gag or some kind of scenario in the game world that has a punchline. If a developer wants to push a player towards a joke, that usually means narrowing the focus of the game and preventing the player from doing other things, and how fresh is a joke if you experience it over and over again? It's a pickle, yeah, but there's a reason we revisit favorite comedies (I can't not watch The Blues Brothers whenever it's on, for instance) and we should be at the point now where we're able to create the same kind of anarchic humor in games that's worth revisiting.
[Over at Gamasutra, Dan Cook actually wrote a pretty insightful piece on the issue which I saw not too long after finalizing this piece.]
2. Is your main character a brawny, heterosexual white dude? Take a second to give that another thought.
Over at Gamasutra, game design student Andrew Meade wrote one of those pieces that comes up every couple of years about representing the underrepresented in games that crops up every year—in particular, his column focused on the dearth of LGBT characters in games. And the Gamasutra comments (normally a place for excellent conversation and measured back and forth between gamers, developers, and journalists) devolved in record time to "why is this such a big deal, anyway?" Meade's tone in the piece comes off as pretty strident, but yeah, it's still a salient point: unless you're playing an RPG with character customization options and branching story elements, you're unlikely to see anything but beefy white dudes getting up to some violence, and anyone of color, female, or who isn't straight is usually off to the side and maybe to the back.
And hey, that's cool, it's mostly what we've been doing every since artists and designers were able to make a realistic representation of a character onscreen. And the last thing I think anyone who's being honest with themselves really wants is the arbitrary inclusion of some group of race just because. At the same time, "Why is it important" is at this point kind of a dumb question, and not just from the basic standpoint of representing your ever-growing audience. Every time you tell another story with the same type of lead with the same type of background you're going to be ignoring a whole load of storytelling opportunities.
There's no quick fix to this one and there's definitely a great deal of latitude between the current industry normal and what seems to panic some folks, the fear that their game might be riddled with black-Latina lesbians who have social message for you. (Which actually feeds into a future long post about the utter lack of themes in games these days).
1. Stop worrying about the next hardware cycle
This is the selfish gamer in me coming out through and through. I love my PS3 and I love my 360. I'm thrilled with the upcoming slate of releases and think that both consoles still have room for growth and exploration. So what's the big rush to get us to the PS4 or the Xbox 720? How much more processing power and graphic finesse do we need at this point? We're still only about five years into both console cycles and everyone is seemingly trying to figure out how to increase the level of simulation, how to better render hair and skin and eyes and whatever else. And to what end? We're nearing a terminal point where visual fidelity will become meaningless. The more time developers spend stressing about the next engine for the next hardware generation, the less time they spend thinking about what works in terms of player engagement.
Alright, that last bit is an exaggeration and a little disingenuous. Designers are often doing their things and programmers and artists are doing their thing and unless they're working on a launch title, they're not wrestling too much with the new or upcoming hardware.
But the hardware manufacturers have to get those new SKUs out and have to increase the year over year hardware sales numbers and its tough to do that without selling a new unit with better specs. Respectfully, I don't want to think about the next console generation until someone comes up with a convincing vision for a game that can't at all be executed on the current batch. I'm not thinking about features like built-in Kinect or Blu-ray for the 360 or some kind of 3D geegaw for the PS3, I'm talking about the next, new way of playing games—I feel like at a minimum that's what we should expect from the next generation of consoles. Arguably, this generation made console online multiplayer a thing people could do consistently—what does the next hardware generation have to offer?