Every once in a while it helps to step back a moment a look at the big picture. What are the driving elements behind today's big hit titles? There's the large, thematic comparisons (Space Marines are always in chic), and then we can get more specific: game play. What are we doing now more than ever in our games? What are designers tricking us into doing?
We used to have trends like co-op, micro-transactions, and zombies. So what about today?
Leaderboards, online multiplayer, perks, and easy mode.
Pac-Man CE DX is a constant thorn in my side. As a "pro" gamer, I am driven by a bloodlust for higher scores, higher places on the leaderboards or notoriety atop them. In Pac-Man CE DX you get your updated placement on the leaderboards instantly after you finish a run, and indeed the game's interface is designed to facilitate gunning for perfect games. After dying, a "retry" button appears on screen to let you instantly start that attempt over (as dying ruins your multiplier/speed). It's a great gesture, especially when I'm a half second from throwing my controller into the next galaxy, dying right before the buzzer.
More action games are starting to tie in leaderboards, however. We saw it early on with Devil May Cry 4, and to a large degree I blame Xbox Live. There is always talk of how Microsoft requires some sort of Xbox Live connectivity in games released for the console. If one were to attempt to shoe horn something like that into an action game...leaderboards would make perfect sense. Judge players based on time and skill and give'em a score. Moving forwards in time, Bayonetta and Super Meat Boy place an emphasis on single player, score grinding game play.
And now Bulletstorm. Look as it touts "Echoes" mode, where you play single player levels over and over again for a better score. The enemies won't get any smarter, and they'll always spawn in the same spot...so playing Bulletstorm over and over again should have only one point: getting tighter, cleaner lines and detonating bigger and better skill shots. After reading Kotaku's response to a recent Cliff Bleszinski interview, I saw that I hit the nail on the head. Bulletstorm is about timing, precision and finding ways to get it "just right". And that's awesome! As far as trends go, I for one am happy to see a slide away from "We must include Co-Op in our game," to "We should focus on making sure our game play stands on its own two feet." Co-op can do wonders for longevity, but ultimately I think designers by now can do better. Bulletstorm...kudos.
Bioshock 2 surprised me with some online multiplayer that I, at least, didn't expect. It was a simple grafting of a perks system into the single player game, letting playing run around and blast each other with plasmids and weapons. It felt...disjointed and wrong, to me. The game did a great job of explaining why multiplayer existed in the world of the game too, but it didn't add up. Games like Assassin's Creed Brotherhood and Dead Space 2 also decided to focus a lot of attention on multiplayer during their most recent outings. Assassin's Creed got its teeth sharpened on single player, and Brotherhood proved there is a place for multiplayer in the world of single player experiences. Dead Space 2, despite its relatively un-robust multiplayer, did the same.
I'd say two years ago most big games coming out had some form of Co-op campaign, or simply weren't made for the single player to expand out into multiplayer. Better technology and more versatile engine building lets single player games branch out more than ever these days. Demon's Souls, Mindjack and Dead Rising 2 all have drop-in, drop-out online multiplayer (Demon's Souls is a little trickier even, and more ingenious). To that end, they're games that can be played alone, that are still playable when another user joins up. Game balance may go to hell with two Chuck Greenes running around doing double the damage, but it's damn fun. And I think that's the goal of all this in the end.
There's something to be said about fun, and about co-op. As long as we keep seeing more clever ways to integrate/seperate multiplayer from the single player experience we'll be in great shape. My bane: Co-op that's too symmetrical. If we're going to include multiplayer, take the time to make it special. Simultaneous single player campaigns (Halo: Reach, Call of Duty: MW2, Gears of War) are great, but I want more varied and interesting co-op (Splinter Cell: Conviction/Chaos Theory, Army of Two) to become the next iteration of this trend.
This piggybacks a little on the above topic. I am a big Halo fan, and that's because Halo is an even playing field. With no perks to choose and only five, fixed loadouts to decide on per game, Halo is a nice a focused slice of FPS heaven where it's more about using what's there, then being ready for anything. And by anything I mean one of two dozen weapons and a deadly combination of three perks.
Bioshock 2, Dead Space 2, Call of Duty: MW2/Black Ops, Blacklight: Tango Down, Bionic Commando 2 Re:Armed,Bejeweled Blitz...it could go on, as perks are one of the most prolific trends these days. Players like to make characters, to build out their own strats and set-ups to achieve untold greatness. Commando, Lightweight, Marathon? Remember that? It felt unfair to jump in with such a handicap to players that had time to figure out the maxed out curve to the perk system. Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood did this pretty blatantly. So does Dead Space 2 (though it's to your benefit soooo...why compain?) I think we could do better than perks, but it looks like the little tweaks are here to stay for now. The hardened class combat of Team Fortress 2 and Monday Night Combat are becoming more welcome by day (even though MNC has a perks system...it doesn't feel as meat-fisted as other games. Play it to see what I mean.)
"Streamlining games should not be the focus, and it is...that's what makes money! Fuc*ing...we live in a capitalist society. Very few things feel creatively driven [and streamlining games to make them easier is evidence of that.]" -Cary Zhang
My friend Cary is livid. He has a lot to say about the recent trend of making games easier. I remember back to Devil May Cry 3, hearing that the version coming to the US shores was going to have an Easy mode activated only when you died more than three times in one stage. "How awesome!" I thought. "Making games accessible to more casual audiences is a great way to promote gaming and profit big time."
Soon Blaz Blue was here with its simplified fighting game model. Tatsunoko vs. Capcom soon followed. Bayonetta includes a "Very Easy Automatic" mode, where all you have to do is mash one button to execute all of her most impressive combos...AND move from enemy to enemy. Literally one button game play...plus dodging if you wanted. Super Smash Bros. Brawl included tripping, and multiple air dodges to shake off some of the competitiveness of the game. New Super Mario Bros. has its well lauded video walkthroughs, as does Super Mario Galaxy 2. The gaming world is more than happy to include ways to make their games easier and easier these days.
But the big trick is to maintain the edge, while still loosening the learning curve. Tatsunoko vs. Capcom did it well, so did Blaz Blue. Bayonetta offers items to make the game more challenging, and the Alfiheim portals were bruuuuutal trials of skill! There's a fine line you can walk, some walk it better than others. But it does feel like now more than ever developers are working on ways to get their games into more people's hands. And that's awesome!
Phew. That was a fun breakdown. Now if you'll excuse me I'm going to hop on my Xbox and fire up my Co-Op Space Marine Online Multiplayer Perk Based Ranked Leaderboard Experience Driven First Person Shooter. I wonder what's next.
No seriously...what is next? I predict: Facebook connectivity in AAA titles (already here), DLC Explosion (more DLC than content on disc...looking at you Mass Effect 3...), and On Rail Shooters for the Kinect and Move.