Looking at the more complex games available today and announced, gamers can be forgiven for thinking that every possible style of game has already been invented. Fantasy, horror, science fiction, war, and superheroes dominate store shelves.
I'd like to consider here the idea that the universe of possible computer games has barely been explored yet. Suppose we could set aside all assumptions -- what kinds of games could be imagined if we consciously decided to do something new? (I understand the practical difficulties of persuading investors to finance the development of new kinds of games. Let's set that aside for a moment to consider the possibilities.)
One obvious approach is to base a game around a popular genre of novel or film. Spy thriller, hard-boiled "noir" mystery, rival Mafiosi families... these genres will probably occur to most people once they get past "Western gunslinger," "pirates," and "post-apocalyptic."
That said, I think just playing with genres will prove to be a dead end. The literary forms of the past will be played out at some point. So why wait for that day? Instead, what about stepping out of the box a little further to look at some possibilities that question deeper assumptions about what computer games can be?
Consider just the MMORPG realm. A core assumption of these games is that players want to compete against each other. So what happens if we challenge that assumption?
What if instead of making yet another Hobbesian world of constant competition, a game could be funded that subordinated competition to cooperation? What if the highest-level goal baked into the game was not personally topping a leaderboard or belonging to the biggest guild, but something more constructive instead?
There could still be competition in such a game. Competition in moderation is healthy; it's a very effective way of efficiently distributing finite resources. But in a game where resources can be considered infinite, competition would not be the be-all and end-all of play -- it would be a subgame that ultimately supports the top-level cooperative effort.
As an example of this, I've been thinking about a "Big Challenge" game where all players have to work together in complex ways over a long time to avert some disaster or complete a major accomplishment, such as exploring a new continent or landing on the Moon.
I imagine such a game being designed so that it would take a year or two for the expected number of players to complete the initial challenge (taking into account the most machine-like grinding tendencies of some gamers). By the time the initial challenge has been achieved, the developer should be ready to implement the next Big Challenge as an expansion, and so on.
How many people might enjoy playing a game that was challenging without being exclusively about poking each other in the eyes?
But now let's step back even further. Here's a diagram I first drew up in 2007 (and have since modified) to show my personal interpretation of the various forms of computer games we've invented so far and how they interact to form specific modes of gameplay:
(Please note that the specific details of this diagram are less important than the general relationships suggested. Also, the size of each ellipse is irrelevant; there's no correlation with "importance.")
When I look at this diagram, I see the gaps. I can't help myself; I immediately think, "What if...?"
What if the Adventure Games circle were expanded to intersect with MMOGs? Could there be a massively multiplayer adventure game? What if the Strategy Games circle were expanded to CRPGs, so that you actually played a character whose effectiveness at strategic planning determined your character's story arc? What if the Strategy Games circle were expanded to MMORPGs, so that gameplay wasn't just a bunch of mindless one-on-one slapfights but represented hundreds of thousands of massive empires spanning a galaxy?
What if the Software Toys circle, with its emphasis on simulation, were expanded into MMORPGs? Can you imagine a game where the gameplay revolved around how well your characters responded to dynamic but comprehensible changes in complex systems? What kinds of systems would be fun to simulate if you could allow thousands of characters to fiddle simultaneously with the switches and dials of a gloriously complex gameworld?
You get the idea -- the gaps are opportunities to experiment with new kinds of computer game products.
So: we're out of ideas? Baloney!
In the universe of computer games, there are still plenty of worlds for an Alexander to conquer.