by Goran Damnjanovic, Gaming Columnist
Published in Gaming on 23rd April, 2018
The video game industry grew over $100 billion market value in 2017, making the last decade the time of the biggest growth the industry has ever seen. Today, video games are omnipresent and there aren't many people who don't play them. If you don't own a gaming PC or any of game consoles, you probably play Tetris or one of the numerous puzzle games found on smartphones. Instead of being a type of entertainment for kids and geeks, video games become the most popular form of entertainment in the world.
And this amazing growth rate was possible with the rise of new gaming trends that pushed earnings through the roof and that also changed video games scene dramatically. In our last analysis, we discussed the most influential trends in the video games publishing business, practices that made the industry to take the throne of digital entertainment, and any kind of entertainment if we are being honest. This analysis will deal with trends that guided game design during the last decade, gameplay changes that made games more addictive, as well as with the rise of new genres that created huge fan bases.
Open world video games aren't new. Hell, we had the Elder Scrolls: Arena back in 1994, a massive RPG with a monstrous open world which included the whole Empire of Tamriel, and even before the first Elder Scrolls title there were many games that played with the open world formula. Super Mario 64 was one of the first open world titles for modern, 3D capable consoles and GTA series proved that the formula can bring massive success and popularity. For a time, most open world titles were PC exclusives because making an open world title for consoles was too complicated and expensive. You had to create a custom engine capable of running games on limited hardware, and also do lots of optimizations, not to talk about development costs.
The open world craze started with the release of the PS3 and Xbox 360. The massive leap in power compared to the previous console generation allowed developers to create a huge world without worrying so much about optimization and hardware limits, and we started getting loads of open world games. Just Cause, Crackdown, Gothic 3, The Godfather, Gothic 3, Scarface, NFS: Carbon all launched during 2006, in time with the release of the new console generation.
The trend continued, with each year featuring more and more open world games. And today, most games feature open world maps and huge worlds that can be explored through and through. Some publishers, like Ubisoft, are practically subscribed to open world titles. Even titles from series not used to having open world formula embraced it, like MGS V or Ghost Recon: Wildlands. Racing games thrived on the formula, giving us gems like Test Drive Unlimited, Burnout Paradise, or Forza Horizon titles. And we also had lots open-world shooter titles like the famous S.T.A.L.K.E.R titles, ARMA games, or Far Cry series.
But this craze has its problems. You see, you can't just design a huge map, fill it with different elements and throw the player in it. When designing an open world game you must give that world a sense of liveness, fill it with interesting stories and flesh it out in a way that, once you're in the game, you feel like you roam a living, breathing world.
This can't be seen in many titles, which mostly look like huge playgrounds filled with stuff to do, reminiscing not a world that has its own life, but a world that is created in some studio, an artificial creation that serves a sole purpose of providing background for the game's story. Rare are the games that managed to catch that magical element and make their worlds alive. The Witcher 3, GTA titles, the first Mafia game, the first two Assassin's Creed titles along with Assassin's Creed Origins (even though it still has that Ubisoft busywork formula used in their open world games), S.T.A.L.K.E.R games, the famous Yakuza game series, and to some extent Fallout: New Vegas present few titles that included resplendently designed worlds capable of submerging the player in them, making the player believe they wander through some world that truly exists in some parallel universe.
And for one video game genre open world environment is mandatory. We are talking about survival games.
While survival games existed for decades, the genre gained popularity with Minecraft. The game not only started the trend of Early Access development, but it also gave survival games a huge popularity they have today. It can be said that Minecraft reinvented the genre, giving it new gameplay mechanics such as survival on a huge open world map and crafting mechanics. To some extent, it can be said that Minecraft created a completely new genre, a genre of crafting and resource gathering, sandbox, open world survival games.
We have hundreds of survival titles today, most of them available on mobile platforms. Some focus on surviving inside a multiplayer environment, others ask the player to cooperate with friends, and there are also pure single player experiences. Most of them don't have a finite goal, but a couple of titles present players with an ultimate objective of escaping back to the safety of civilization like The Forest. Some even follow loose story threads in addition to the goal of escaping, like Subnautica.
The genre is one of the highest grossing markets in video games, and the success of survival games lead to their survival, resource gathering, and crafting mechanics to be incorporated to other titles that don't have much in common with classic survival games. Far Cry games, recent Tomb Raider titles, Warframe, or The Division.
Aside from open world environment, most modern survival games are based around, well, survival. And the most common element that prevents you from seeing another dawn are zombies.
Zombies were a popular theme in horror movies and video games for decades, but they weren't so present back during the nineties. Back then you had Zombies Ate My Neighbors, the game that practically is the common ancestor of all other zombie games, Alone in the Dark, and Resident Evil. Even during the most of the first decade of the 21st century, we didn't have lots of games featuring the undead hordes. Resident Evil still was still practically the only series that featured zombified enemies. One famous title that featured the undead (but not in the common form) was Half-Life series, and in Half-Life 2 they were one of the scariest enemies we ever faced, especially during the cult classic We Don't Go To Ravenholm level.
And then, in 2006, Capcom released Dead Rising for the Xbox 360, the title that started the modern zombie games trend. The game features a classic zombie movie script in which you play as a newspaper reporter stranded inside a huge mall filled with the living dead, with the goal of escaping from it alive. Dead Rising was a cool game that featured huge zombie hordes, unique weapon crafting mechanics, and a healthy dose of dark humor. The second stab of the rotting whale carcass that would explode and fill the gaming scene with zombies was taken by Valve and the company's famous Left 4 Dead video game.
Left 4 Dead was a game that perfectly utilized zombie enemies. Since it was a co-op FPS, huge hordes of bullet soaking undead enemies were perfect for providing a never-ending threat to players and a constant source of danger from all sides. Next, zombies are simple-minded creatures that go for our brains, providing an easy way to program their AI behavior. And, special zombie enemies were even more dangerous because they could hide among the huge horde. All this made Left 4 Dead a massively popular game that pushed the zombie trend even further.
And then Minecraft happened and the undead becomes a perfect enemy in each and every survival game. The release of Minecraft, Left 4 Dead 2, and Dead Rising 2 coincided with the start of The Walking Dead, a TV show that made a huge international success, fueling the zombie mania even more. From then on games were released like on a conveyor belt. Even Call of Duty accepted the trend with their Zombie modes, present in each CoD title since CoD: World at War. Other notable works include Telltale's The Walking Dead series, State of Decay, Dying Light, The Last of Us (not really zombies but people infected with a parasitic fungal infection, but they behave like zombies we all know and love), and DayZ.
And despite the fact that zombies invaded video games more than a decade ago, the trend continues. Some of the upcoming games that will feature the undead are Days Gone, The Last of Us II, State of Decay II are just some of the zombie games that will be released during the course of the next 365 days. One game that started as a zombie survival title started a new multiplayer trend that is spreading like a virus at the moment. That game is H1Z1 Just Survive.
Last Man Standing is a multiplayer mode in shooters that sets everyone against everyone and the one who survives to the end, or in other words the one who is the last one standing, wins the game. The mode wasn't very popular for the better part of gamers but this unpopular mode is the basis for the latest gaming mania.
Battle Royale games have risen on the popularity of Hunger Games, but the origin for both Hunger Games and Battle Royale games was a Japanese movie from 2000 called, well, Battle Royale. The movie was based on a novel of the same name that got released a year earlier. As for the origins of the video game genre, it all started inside Minecraft in 2012, as a mode called Survival Games. Then, Brendan Greene, PlayerUnknown himself, created ARMA II mod called Battle Royale. The mod was quite popular, which lead to the creation of H1Z1: King of The Hill, the first standalone Battle Royale title.
But H1Z1 wasn't very popular, and the real obsession with the genre started last year when PUBG entered Steam Early Access. After that, we got Fortnite Battle Royale, the current king of the genre. And today most major studios are trying to steal a slice of the pie by announcing they would too enter the Battle Royale game. Just a few days ago rumors emerged talking about the next Call of Duty ditching single-player campaign and opting instead for a Battle Royale game mode.
At the moment this new genre is red hot with popularity and it has a chance of becoming the next big thing in gaming. Years ago, this was already done by MOBA games.
As for the MOBA genre, the earliest examples included games like Herzog Zwei that got released way back in 1989 and another one called Future Cop: LAPD that got out in 1998. Both games featured gameplay involving players fighting alongside creeps on two sides of an opposing battlefield. The real popularity came when the map called DotA: Allstars came out for Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne in 2003. Players loved the map and the mod slowly gained popularity.
But it wasn't until IceFrog getting behind the helm of DotA: Allstars that the mod became a worldwide phenomenon. IceFrom made many changes to the gameplay that finally launched DoTA in the stratosphere. A new genre was born and today DOTA games are the dominant subgenre of strategy video games.
Soon after DotA: Allstars became a new eSports title along with huge tournaments and big prizes, developers decided to create standalone titles. LoL came out in 2009, with the big three of the DOTA genre completed with Dota 2 in 2013 and Heroes of The Storm in 2015. Today, DOTA games probably are the most popular form of multiplayer games and many of them utilize a free-to-play formula that sees keeping the game free while earning money on selling cosmetic items.
Walking simulators are the gaming's most polarizing genre. Either you love them or hate them, there's no middle ground. Even the name of the genre is an insult created to describe games without any combat, challenge, or objective. But developers decided to embrace the name and keep it when describing the genre their games fall into.
Walking simulators aren't new, and have a long history. It all started back in the 80's with two titles called Explorer and The Forest. Both titles flopped and the genre was forgotten until an explosion happened recently with games like Gone Home, Dear Esther, Firewatch and other titles. The genre set up a strong foundation and is today one of the more popular video game types.
The reason for the rise of titles that put story and experience ahead of combat, puzzle solving and other gameplay mechanics found in most video games is that video games have gone mainstream and today gamers aren't just geeks who want to beat a game with no lives lost or to post high scores in each title they play. Everyone plays video games today and most of those people like to walk around, discover bits of story and have a chilled experience without frustration or anxiety connected with a game being super hard.
The second reason for the rise of walking simulators can be found in the rise of the indie scene. There are more and more independent developers because releasing games became much more affordable than before with digital distribution, free engines like Unreal, and the much wider potential audience.
No matter the reasons behind their popularity, walking simulators are here to stay and are one of the biggest new trends that appeared during the last decade. But we don't only like to walk, we also like collecting all sorts of stuff, like cards for instance.
Digital card games also aren't new. The first titles were published back in 1997 and 1998 in the form of two games called Chron X (the first ever digital collectible card game) and Sanctum. Wizards of the Coast published their Magic The Gathering Online collectible card game that allows for online matches and for years and years it was the biggest digital card game. And then Blizzard decided to create another way for the company to make piles of money. Hearthstone came in 2014 and the game alone managed to lighten up the small digital CCG scene. The scene was huge in Japan and China, but Western gamers didn't really play digital card games up until Hearthstone came and conquered the world. Since then we saw a massive rise in the number of card games and today there are dozens of quality titles to play. The rise in popularity is based on two things.
Firstly, all card games follow the free-to-play model and many can be played competitively without spending real money on buying packs. And the second reason for why card games are so popular today is the smartphone gaming market which enables gamers to play their card battles anywhere. And this trend of playing digital CCG titles will just get bigger and more influencing once Valve releases Artifact later this year and once the new Magic the Gathering Arena enters Open Beta.
Pixel art graphics style saw a massive popularity during the last decade. Today, there are thousands of games featuring cute, old-school, pixel art visual style. The reasons for why people started making games that look like they came out during the eighties are simple. Firstly, aside from looking cool, pixel art games are cheaper to develop. You don't have to have a complex engine and there are no high costs of developing complex and detailed game models and props.
Also, with the rise of mobile gaming pixel art just exploded because these kind of games aren't taxing on the hardware and can be run on practically every modern smartphone. Today you will find many pixel art titles and this type of visual style is one of the most popular trends today when it comes to the games' visual design.
And the last trend we will be talking is the omnipresent leveling up gameplay mechanic. Getting new levels and obtaining new skills and abilities in one of the main reasons why RPGs are so damn hard to put down. You can play Diablo III for hours just to get that new level when a cool new skill gets unlocked, or to go on a quest and monster hunting spree in the Witcher 3 just because a new mutagen slot will unlock with a new level.
This carrot and a stick mechanic was seen almost exclusively in RPGs and in an occasional action adventure but today you can spend quite a long time trying to find a game that doesn't feature some sort of experience gathering and some sort of unlockable skills. It's simple, game design today is as much science as it is art and science tells us that humans love to pursue different goals and getting experience that will give you new levels and new skills is a perfect example of a goal-oriented behavior. This means that experience, leveling up your character and getting new skills is here to stay, so if you like your games old school and like to see experience points only in RPG games, you're out of luck.
As for the upcoming trends in video game design that have a chance of becoming popular, we think that VR and AR have a bright future. The two technologies are still in their infancy and once they become available for almost any PC, and for all consoles, we will see a massive rise in popularity. And, when the eventual battle between Virtual and Augmented reality finally happens we believe the latter will come out victorious.