Gamers have a lot of the same anxieties every time a new generation comes around, but I think there’s special reason to be wary of what’s coming and to keep the public focused on what matters: some kind of elevation in the gaming experience.
Now, that obviously doesn’t have to happen in every genre or franchise. Often times this can lead down the treacherous path of twisting genres into monstrosities meant for mainstream appeal. Some kinds of games do need to be left alone so that their gameplay can survive (JRPGs), but I don’t think many people would argue if I put forth the example of Tomb Raider. When we got the reboot the series finally felt fully next-gen. In the same way we need to see advancement in leading franchises in the next generation that rise to a new level.
Everyone wants that. The word on everyone’s lips is “innovation”. It’s exceedingly difficult to innovate these days as gameplay seems to often be as good as it can get, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a question of doing new and amazing things. Someone asked me what this new and amazing gameplay experience I expected was (I suspect he was being a little sarcastic). I responded with some ideas I had on how to make inFamous: Second Son a more impressive experience. But I think I can boil it down into simpler terms for a formula that I would personally like to see implemented in the next generation.
For one thing, more of the same is not better. When it comes to maps how big is too big really? I’d be fine with a bigger world than Skyrim for the next Elder Scrolls and Fallout but eventually that alone isn’t enough. A bigger map with the same low-key persistent world wouldn’t feel that next gen to me. I think there’s a lot more that can be done to a Bethesda world to bring it to life than make it bigger. The same goes for sandbox games like GTA, Saint’s Row, and Assassin’s Creed.
When it comes to action games there’s a danger that there will just be more action. The new tech will surely allow for more on screen fighting, on screen enemies, on screen bullets flying, but just cramming more action into the action games doesn’t make them any better in my opinion. More destructive environments are good, more impressive explosions are good, more detailed graphics are good. Those things said, it’s really more about how much the gameplay can draw you in, and I think the key to that is variety and differentiation. In the film industry people are finally getting tired of 2 hour CG adrenaline rushes and starting to find interest in calmer, more intense, more contained execution of action and plots. I think gamers could be on the verge of a similar realization.
I was disheartened to hear that the Metro franchise might be going for a more accessible gameplay style. The gameplay in Last Light was unique and engrossing. The fact that you had to manually pump your air guns and generator, wipe the blood off your gas mask, replace the filters, and heal yourself all helped the atmospheric immersion as you juggled survival tasks with stealth and shooting. Call of Duty is meant to be a highly accessible crowd pleasing shooter. If they were to make Metro control the same way it wouldn’t help the game, and I think if we want to see advancement in the gameplay of the next generation we need more games doing unique things like Metro. There’s a danger in homogenization that could really trouble FPS if things keep moving in the same direction for every game.
The trend to make everything accessible is geared toward getting more sales, but it’s often resulting in lower scores and so fewer sales like with Dead Space 3. Controls and basic gameplay elements are a big part of this. The proof is in the pudding, adding action set-pieces didn’t help the game in any way.
It’s important to remember that if these elements in the next generation are watered down then there will be less overall interest for the public in making the generational switch after the initial excitement of new consoles wear off. Many people only need better graphics to make the change, but others still need to be convinced that the new consoles allow games to do something that couldn’t be done before. The way to do this is to make the gameplay fit perfectly into the new experience.
The simpler the gameplay is, the less interesting the game is. When I said above that the bigger areas aren’t enough I meant the gameplay is going to have to grow to meet those settings. Remember Me attempted to mix some Uncharted style platforming with a new customizable fighting mechanic reminiscent of the Arkham games. It also incorporated classic room puzzles, a clever new key card area, and projectiles. It ultimately failed because it kept you so tightly on rails that the variety provided didn’t matter. I’m not saying games shouldn’t specialize in what they do best, but when you can accurately say that its gameplay is no longer relevant there’s a problem. I believe the gameplay in God of War is no longer relevant. I know bigger fans will disagree but for the most part there wasn’t much done to improve the game other than graphically between the PS2 and PS3.
So what can be done? If games are going to become truly next gen they are going to have to do some addition and some subtraction. One of the things that made Metro so impressive once you had to cross the surface was so simple it gave me a ‘duh’ moment. There was wind. The surface was treacherous. I spent a great deal of time zooming around a floating city in Bioshock Infinite and I don’t recall being troubled by any wind at all. Is it absolutely needed? No but in an experience that is all about atmosphere things like that are important. Physics are going to be another place for advancement, we’ve seen some of them in simulators and third person action games but not much in first person shooters. If you every play a Japanese game, one of the reasons it feels more generic is that there are no physics. They are still relying on basic animations and characters that exist in corridors with little or no interaction with their environs. This is quite the opposite of how Nathan Drake carefully pushes off of every wall and obstacle you encounter in Uncharted.
On the topic of subtraction I’ve seen some good steps recently. One came in the basic make up of The Last of Us. This is a game that really does seem like a whole generation ahead of early PS3 games. And yet it isn’t really doing anything revolutionary. What makes it so tense when you’re crawling the broken world and avoiding the clickers is less how great the graphics are (though they are nice) and more the simple fact that there are no indicators as to where you need to go next, no radar to tell you where to go before you get there, and no mini-map or even full scale map to keep track of where you’ve been. In the next generation I’d like to see more of this specific tailoring of gameplay mixtures, addition and subtraction of what is good and what hurts the experience.
Initially with so many cross gen titles things are going to seem about the same, but that tends to be true of every generation. I think that the next generation faces a considerable challenge in threading the needle between what is profitable and what is advancing the higher art of gameplay crafting. As consoles and gaming become even more mainstream the developers are going to need to rely on their instincts toward enjoyable change over the pressure from publishers to make projects playable by everyone. One of the projects to watch closely on this front will probably be RYSE for Xbox One.
Most of all I just want to see the developers avoid the easy way out, that being the use of the technology to pile onto the graphics, bullets, and map sizes. It isn’t a question of inventing some new astonishing gameplay, it’s about finding the right blend of attributes for the right games.