7 Exciting Trends from the Future of Video Games
It’s a fascinating time to be a gamer.
In most of the other ways we use to entertain ourselves, the technology has nearly reached its peak. Cheaper visual effects mean that almost anything can now be depicted realistically in TV and movies, but there’s a debate to be had about how much this has really improved our ability to tell a good story. And while the development of e-readers makes it easier to have more books to hand at any one time, it doesn’t improve that much on the development of the budget paperback in the 1830s.
Games couldn’t be more different. Every year, games technology advances in new and interesting ways to make the experience of gaming richer, more immersive and more fun, from mobile games like Angry Birds and Candy Crush to the vast, lavish universe of No Man’s Sky. In this article, we take a look at what the current trends in video gaming mean for the games of the future.
It feels like virtual reality is an idea whose time has been nearly upon us for about the past thirty years. Various headsets, gloves and even full-body suits promising complete gaming immersion have been on the market for decades at various unaffordable price points, and without many games being developed for them to lure in even the wealthiest of gamers.
The idea of VR is that instead of watching a screen and controlling the action using a controller, joystick or keyboard, you move as if in reality – moving your head in order to look around, picking things up with your hands, and potentially using the whole range of your physical movement to explore the game universe. The set-up is inevitably clunky at the moment, as hardware has not progressed past requiring you to wear a science fiction-looking headset in order to immerse your senses in the game. But it seems like we might finally be reaching the tipping point of VR that’s been promised for so long, with Oculus Rift, bought by Facebook for $2bn, competing with Playstation and HTC Vive for the high-end gaming market. If clunkiness is putting people off VR, it seems unlikely that headsets will stay clunky for long.
Meanwhile, Google Cardboard offers a very basic virtual reality experience that requires only a smartphone, introducing a much wider audience to the concept. That means that VR will seem less weird to occasional gamers and parents who aren’t gamers themselves. The kind of completely immersive gaming that’s been dreamed about since the 1980s and before could finally be coming our way.
2. Augmented reality
Augmented reality gaming, at least for the moment, is unavoidably connected to the successes and failings of Pokémon Go. Claude Debussy famously described the music of Richard Wagner as “a beautiful sunset that was mistaken for a dawn” – that is to say, Wagner’s work was initially perceived as a fantastic new beginning for his style of classical music, but proved to be its ending instead. Some game designers fear that Pokémon Go will have the same impact on augmented reality gaming; it demonstrated that augmented reality could be hugely popular (at least, in the form of a short-lived craze) but it may be that from now on, all future augmented reality games are judged by how they resemble or differ from Pokémon Go, rather than on their own merits. It remains to be seen whether Pokémon Go will have marked the beginning of a new era of augmented reality games – or be their high-water mark.
But there are good reasons for optimism. There are two strands in modern life that are coming steadily closer to one another: gaming for self-improvement (such as brain-training games, or memorisation games) and gamified self-improvement, such as competitions between friends to see who can rack up the most steps on their FitBit. In the former, the purpose is the game and the self-improvement aspect is a perk; in the latter, the purpose is self-improvement and gamification is just a means of motivation. Pokémon Go fell into the first category, as it encouraged people to get out and about, and above all to get walking, in order to catch ‘em all. Augmented reality games of whatever stripe help bridge the gap between these two highly popular trends, and it seems likely that the next game that manages to find the sweet spot between them will become a huge success.
3. Gaming as a family affair
An enduring stereotype is of the lonely gamer, usually in a basement, whose family are concerned for him (the stereotype is inevitably male) and who doesn’t often speak to anyone who he isn’t playing a game with – certainly not his parents. Gaming, stereotypically, has been something that teenagers do and uncomprehending parents worry about.
But as far as that stereotype ever held truth, it’s definitely being put to bed now. First, the launch of the Wii all the way back in 2006 created a deliberately family-friendly console, with a design that was accessible to non-gamers, so that parents who would never pick up a first-person shooter to play with their kids would buy it and enjoy it. All the same, that still left a gulf between ‘family’ gaming and ‘serious’ gaming. But generational changes are increasingly putting paid to that.
Think about someone who played the first Street Fighter game aged 15 in 1987. That person would now be in their 40s and might well have teenage children of their own. They’re much less likely to disapprove of their children playing video games than their own parents were – and much more likely to grab a controller and play along with them. When you think about the fact that the Millennial generation, who grew up not just with video games but with their own computers, now increasingly have children of their own, you can see how this trend is set to accelerate. ‘Family-friendly’ can sound worryingly like ‘childish’, but there’s a growing market out there for multiplayer games that are genuinely enjoyable for the whole family, not just for its youngest members.
4. Franchises without borders
The word ‘spin-off’ is not usually seen as promising, and for good reason. When you think about a franchise that includes a game, a novelisation, a TV show or movie, a theme park, collectables, soft toys and who knows what else, you’re probably thinking of something where most of those components aren’t very good. Take Harry Potter – a franchise where the books are great, the movies are good, the games are mostly terrible and the rest feels like it exists primarily for the purpose of extracting money from those too devoted to care, rather than for anyone’s entertainment. Or Angry Birds – a great game; a pointless movie.
So saying that the future of games has more franchises in it doesn’t, at first, sound like an exciting trend – more like a depressing one. Yet the reason why these franchises have historically been so bad is simply: they were never intended to be franchises. JK Rowling did not sit in a café in rainy Edinburgh thinking about stories of a boy wizard and also how his adventures would turn seamlessly into a theme park ride. When the first person realised that a colon followed by a parenthesis looked a bit like a smiley face, they were not also thinking of the promotional t-shirts that would tie in with The Emoji Movie.
A successful franchise is a licence to print money, so franchises aren’t going anywhere. What will change is the introduction of franchises that aren’t led by a single medium. We’ll start to see simultaneous releases of games and TV shows or movies; they’ll feel synchronised, not like one was created solely to leech the maximum amount of money out of fans of the other. What’s more, they’ll interact, so that if you buy the collectables you unlock bonuses within the game, and following the game will lead you to spot easter eggs within the TV show.
5. Procedural backgrounds and narratives
This off-putting techy term hides a very cool concept. Right now, most video game narratives are pre-programmed. If the quest involves fighting a dragon the first time you play it, it’s going to involve fighting a dragon the next three times as well. Pretty much everything you see on screen has already been set, at least within certain parameters – the layout of the dragon’s lair will be the same, as will the twists and turns of the labyrinth that you use to get into it. But this is less satisfying to the player than the gameplay changing each time (because then it’s more fun to replay the game) and it’s time-consuming for game designers to plot out each aspect of the gameplay – in particular, the backgrounds and features within them.
Now that the computing power in the average home computer or games console is so much greater, procedurality is increasingly an option. That means that locations, backgrounds, assets, characters and even quests won’t be plotted out in advance, but will be generated according to preset rules each time that they’re played. It’s already happening to a certain extent in games like No Man’s Sky, but that’s just the beginning of bigger universes and much less predictable gameplay. Side-quests in some games are already generated procedurally, but in future, it might be that central plotlines are also generated in this way, so that you’ll never play the same storyline twice.
6. Accessible modding
‘Modding’ or modifying a game to have extra features, has been a hobby of gamers with programming skills for decades. For example, the range of mods available for a game like Skyrim is truly incredible. Some Skyrim mods just fix minor annoyances within the game, such as light coming from illogical sources; some add fun gimmicks like the ability to fight with lightsabers; some add entire new quests and locations to enhance the gaming experience. But while installing a mod that someone else has created is straightforward enough, creating your own requires significant programming ability, and many of the people creating the best Skyrim mods are professionals.
In the future of gaming, that could all change. The same kind of technology that allows for locations and quests to be generated by your computer rather than being preprogrammed could also allow for modding to take place where you supply the ideas, but your computer supplies the programming. It probably won’t be as impressive as completely free-range modding, but games where – for instance – you create your character’s face by uploading a photo rather than choosing from preset options are a possibility with today’s technology. More sophisticated swaps (replace dragons with Transformers? Make all game dialogue be sung operatically rather than spoken?) aren’t possible yet, but they can’t be too many years away.
7. Advances in multiplayer games
Multiplayer video games tend to take a couple of forms: either they’re cooperative, where, for instance, you’re all equally capable soldiers within the same battalion; or they’re competitive, where one of you is Dracula and the other is Van Helsing. Even in the latter type, Van Helsing might be playing on easy mode and fight with a stake while Dracula plays on hard and fights unarmed, but the difference between the characters available and their abilities won’t be too considerable.
But that’s set to change. Multiplayer games where the players have distinctly different roles are on their way: perhaps one of you will be an infantry soldier on the front line, one a mid-ranking officer, and one a general with oversight of the entire battle – and from these diverging positions, you’ll have to work together in order to win. Many TV shows have an ensemble of different characters with different skills (the hero, the muscle, the thief etc.) and games of the future might give you the chance to pick which of these roles you want to take when playing as a team. And if you’re playing while in different places, you might have no idea what your other team members are doing; the gameplay might incorporate radio blackouts or capture by your enemies as you can each pursue your own character’s individual storyline.
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