Very little is original in modern entertainment outlets, but there's always a new approach to design - it just needs to be discovered; the best ideas, hopefully, remain just beneath the surface, and many of our future advancements in the gaming industry will rely heavily on design/development ingenuity and technological advancements. The not-yet-included design features are everywhere, we're just waiting for the strategy and equipment to get there.
Not every advancement in design has to be hardware-heavy, though -- smaller titles, like those we cover in Heat Signature, have a modularity about them that is empowering for the industry. Using HTML5 in combination with scripting languages, for example, results in highly-accessible web-based titles that can be played on almost every device -- mobile, desktop, tablet, you name it. It's not going to get us those seamless transitions in colossal AAA-titles, but it will get us something much more important: New avenues to re-vitalize the game/gamer relationship of an increasingly-unimpressed gaming public. Burn-out is a big problem in gamers - many of us have seen it all at this point, and more innovative, efficient titles look to be the most inviting pathway to keep things fun, which was, after all, why we all started playing games.
Jay Margalus of Lunar Giant - the studio working on Delve Deeper 2 - was able to lend us some of his time to talk about emerging game technologies and their high appeal to indie (and larger) developers. We took HTML5 as a sample of the newer options in game development technologies, which is compatible on nearly any web-enabled device.
"We're sort of pioneers in the space right now -- there's not a lot out there in terms of tutorials, so we had to figure out a lot of tricks on our own," Margalus explained, talking about their development obstacles of creating Mega Ran in Language Arts - an old-skool platformer based around nerdcore rapper Random. "The bigger studios tend to [brush off] HTML5 and smaller games since it's not yet proven to make lots of money [...] but we all have to respect what everyone does for the industry - it ultimately makes game making a healthier community."
When asked about the appeal of alternative development methodologies to the more cinematic game productions, Margalus noted: "I think indie games are trying to change the perception that games have to feel like big-budget movies, so we're more concerned about accessibility than that big-budget 'movie feel.' We want to create a game that feels like you're in a game mechanically and interactively, and have people actually play it. I'm not sure how to explain it - Meat Boy feels more like a game than Call of Duty, to me."
It's an interesting angle. Both games (in the above examples) have their positions in the industry; cinematic games fill a void in the gaming industry that was previously empty due to the sheer amount of hardware required to drive such an experience. Movies were the only form capable of delivering high-octane graphics, and that was with large thanks to pre-rendered scenes - something many games didn't have the luxury of aside from cut-scenes. As more companies are guiding their productions to take advantage of our new-found power, indie games are left to focus heavily on mechanics, abstract concepts, and unique angles for improved play experiences. Everyone plays a respectable role in the advancement of gaming as a growing medium -- big developers push technological limits, entice the masses to play their games (sometimes for the first time), and cause controversy that ultimately builds gaming's legitimacy as an acceptable and global entertainment and art form. Teams that push the boundaries, as in any type of business, will live and die by the design risks taken -- but there's something to be learned from every venture.
"I tend to think that small studios and big studios can work together, if done properly, to create thriving gaming ecosystems," Margalus emphasized, "For a large part, we create different kinds of games, but I respect what everyone does for the industry."
So what can be done to inject a bit of vigor into the life of a long-time gamer? Games that are made entirely for their fun value -- the ones that don't necessarily emphasize graphical and scripted immersion -- can be just as magnetizing as their larger counterparts; mechanics, interaction, and accessibility play a key role in the entertainment value of games, and with the evolution of mobile computing, we see more viability than ever for the achievement of these three items within a game.
Take the possibility for persistence between multiple online devices as an instance of joint advancement between new design concepts and technological leaps. Persistence will play a large role in the future desirability of compatible games: If Dwarf Fortress, as an example, could be played on a PC, saved, and played later on a mobile device (ignoring CPU-intensive requirements), it's instantly a marketable option. It's not revamping the core mechanics, the story, graphics, or anything like that - but that one change immediately increases a game's value to the consumer. The same goes for games like Minecraft that are already inherently reliant on the continuation of a player-driven world: To place a few blocks while bored at work, head home, and pick up on the PC is something that most of us would agree is still a largely untapped possibility.
And that's just one example. The opening statement in this article lamented about originality in modern titles, but went on to say that the lack of originality isn't necessarily due to a lack of ideas; Dungeons & Dragons or other tabletop roleplayers can closely relate with the limitless options in tabletop games that are simply not available or possible in video games. If I want to break into a window or shimmy down the chimney, I can; if I want to peer into that window before breaking in, looking for lights or occupants, I can roll a die to do it. Video games have clearly-defined parameters that limit such options (due to time, budget, and hardware) -- looking at a window in Skyrim will show no pop-up text that informs us of a potential interaction, and so we move on. That's not to say that it's realistic to expect that video games can react uniquely to player-initiated events -- not at all -- but it's a highlight that there are still ideas out there and the industry is still enthusiastically expanding, and now that hardware has reached an unbelievable level of power (for PC players, at least), we'll hopefully start seeing new bounds in games themselves.
It's all in the application of the technology. There are applications for our current-gen hardware that haven't even been thought of yet, and as smaller studios grasp for a foothold in the overwhelmingly-vast gaming market, we'll continue to see emerging innovations that aim only to expand a game's accessibility or mechanics.
This is more musing than anything, really, but there's hope for a less ubiquitous future in gaming yet. The game industry's "ecosystem," as Margalus put it, takes iterative steps toward a stronger community with healthy competition. We're in good shape.
-Steve "Lelldorianx" Burke.