[With this article, veteran designer Pascal Luban (Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory) launches a new series of articles on the "megatrends" of game design in today's market -- from making games to have a longer shelf life through the rise of 'fast gaming' and beyond.]
The purpose of this series of articles is to attempt to shed some light on emerging trends likely to influence game design philosophy, and therefore, our industry at large in the next few years.
Rather than an essay in futurology, which is by definition very hypothetical, the trends described in these articles are already in motion -- so the question we should ask ourselves is not whether these trends will appear, but rather what their impact will be on video game design. I hope that these articles will be food for thought. Enjoy.
Development costs continuously increase. This phenomenon is especially true for triple-A titles representing the driving force behind major publishers. Yet, the commercial life spans of such titles are surprisingly brief -- a few months, sometimes less.
Beyond the initial commercial blitz of their release dates, most games quickly exit the main stage for good, overthrown by the new crop of triple-A titles everyone is waiting for.
Only a later "budget" version, or the release of an expansion, will renew the attention given to a game. Publishers are therefore facing a very risky situation: they must commit large investments 18 to 24 months before a game's release and require a return within a very brief period, all whilst hoping the competition will have the decency not to beat them to the post with a similar product!
Publishers are those most affected by this problem, and as such, are researching solutions to spread out the revenue generated by a given game over a longer period.
The consequences of this on all aspects of a game's development will be major, as a game will have to be built around this need. What solutions are worth exploring?
The first avenue lies in the development of a multiplayer mode. A few recent titles, such as Call of Duty 4, have clearly made this choice. The solo campaign is breathtaking, but brief. The publisher relied on the multiplayer mode to gain profit on its title and to increase its shelf life.
Activision/Infinity Ward's Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
The multiplayer's role in securing a successful title can be taken further if the developers give tools to the players themselves with which to enrich the game by creating maps or mods. The latter can unexpectedly increase the interest given to a game.
Epic has grasped this well. Unreal Tournament 2004 and UT III were conceived to encourage the players to develop their own content. Of course, the development of mods does require not only that the game engine allows it, but also that the game's basic design is sufficiently flexible to accommodate new uses.