Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy 2011: Celebrating frontiers in Game Design

When the frontiers go away, culture turns inward and begins eating itself.  For a brief period of time at the turn of the century, we saw our beloved game industry fall into the trap of thinking 'there is nothing new under the sun.' It was a dark time where risk adverse publishers and platform owners made bigger bets on more-of-the-same.  Independent developers were dropping like flies.  Bloodier methods of shooting demonized minorities in the head were considered to be "innovation".

Thankfully, new frontiers emerged as the old inward looking industry has shattered into multiple billion dollar markets seeking to bring gaming to the rest of the world. Mobile and Social games are just the tip of the iceberg of the evolutionary explosion that is pushing games into every crevice of society. Look around! The grand spirit of exploration and innovation is once again thriving like almost no other time in gaming history.

To ring in 2011, here is a list of frontiers in game design.  This list is not complete, but it gives some hint at the vast breadth of games still left to be designed.  If you come across someone who claims that all games have already been designed or that game design is a solved problem, show them this list.  And then challenge them to stop fiddling about with over-exploited games from decades past and make something new and wonderful that will change the world.  Go west, young man.

What is a frontier?

My rules of thumb for defining a game design frontier:
  • Can you easily create a new genre of game?  A game like Flight Control defines the line drawing genre on mobile devices.  This is an entirely new and deep placespace that designers will be exploring for years to come.  
  • Can you use an old genre to reach a new audience?  It doesn't matter that social games use systems beloved by 14-year old boys playing BBS door games 20-years ago.  The frontier arises from adapting those systems into a game enjoyed by 45-year old moms. 

Frontiers in Game mechanics

Game mechanics are the systems that beat at the heart of the game.  They are unique combinations of rules, feedback and interfaces that create a playspace within which the player gains deep skills.  Of all the frontiers, new game mechanics creates the boldest and most wide ranging opportunities. 
  • Social games:  Games that tap the social networks in order to improve relationships and facilitate developer controlled distribution.  Facebook has staked out an obvious stand, but email, mobile phones and Twitter all have roles to play.  Any system where you can communicate asynchronously with other people enables social gameplay. Think big and don't be blinded by erudite fear mongers braying about Farmville.  One lone tree does not define the forest of opportunity. 
  • Board and card games:  The wave of new design that came out of Germany is still spreading and recombining in new ways. New mechanics appear on a regular basis and new genres (such as the deck building game popularized by Dominion) keep popping up.  Board games are the ancient soul of game design and the fact that innovation is still possible after thousands of years gives me immense hope for the future of games. 
  • Touch-based game:  All games are built of a foundation their most fundamental interactive verbs.  For years, the most basic verb has been 'push the button'.  Now we have a radical new vocabulary of swiping, flicking and pinching.  If a platform game is about the joy of movement using buttons what foundational new genres will emerge from touch interfaces? 
  • Motion-based games:  Take all the possibilities of touch-based gaming and multiply the design challenges by 10x.  Using the human body as a controller rips asunder our most basic assumption of how to interact with a machine. Also our bodies are intimately tied to how we feel emotion and experience the world. There are deep skills and new pathways of applied psychology just waiting to be turned into games. 
  • Story games:  The old genre of roleplaying games has spawned a new set of stripped down mechanics that minimize combat and maximize player generated stories. 
  • Art games:  How can systems convey messages?  Jason Rohrer's work exemplifies both the aesthetics and the power of this game design movement. 
  • Performance games:  Game no longer need to exist in the living room.  Performance games involve groups of people coming together to play new games.  They turn streets into a Pacman games or Grocery carts into a multi-player game of Asteroids. 
  • Music games: A product such as Rock Band 3 hints at what can happen when games help unlock mastery of centuries of music and culture.  Games can act as training systems that rely on intrinsic motivation and are scalable to millions at minimal incremental cost.  At stake is nothing less than the radical commoditization of learning to play music by reducing both monetary and psychological entry barriers.   
  • Exercise games:  What if exercise was social, inexpensive, varied and fun instead of a repetitive, expensive chore?  The new generation of gamers will be athletes, not couch potatoes.  The next 5-year increase in human life span will come from gamers living healthy lives reinforced by the games they play. 
  • Gamification:  Games are applied psychology and can used to improve the experience of almost any process in the world today, from blogging to CRM to using Microsoft Word.  Games are the next evolution of modern user experience and usability design. Instead of merely asking how to make a task possible or efficient, games ask "How do we transform a task into a delight?"  Games can return humanity to the mechanical processes of the modern world. 
  • Location games:  As mobile phones with GPS proliferate, we can track our position in the physical world across huge populations of potential players.  What are game designs that make location and a sense of place matter?
  • Pan-media games: Alternate reality games weave stories and community driven puzzles across websites, social networks, TV ads, chat, toys and print.  How do we make powerful games that layer an alternate world over the top of our world and enable communities to interact with our evolving dance of creation using all the modern media available?  Why limit yourself to a single screen?
  • Augmented reality games:  Image processing lets us place virtual objects in images and video, annotating and transforming the everyday into reality plus. 
  • Creativity games:  When you ditch the idea that games are acts of absolutely authorial control, you realize that the act of playing is an act of creation. Let's multiply this player impulse, not constrain it.  User generated content games like Minecraft or Spore hint at the creation of of dozens of future communities of creative individuals.  Inside these community are artistic works enabled and facilitated by the game worlds we create.  What happens when designers give up direct authorial control and empower millions of players to build a utopia?
  • Conference games: Anywhere there is a concentration of like minded people, you can build a game that creates deeper connections.  A slew of conference games, played with pamphlets and business cards transform the often unreliable networking process into a joyful act of structured exploration.  Can you help connect the minds of the professionals who are busy pushing forward business, research and more?
  • Education games:  At the pace of a tortoise moving towards a treat spotted many hours ago, the educational community has started making educational games worth a damn.  Since games enable players to gain an experiential understanding of complex models, they are one of the few ways of teaching wisdom instead of rote book learning. The tricky bit? Games are great at teaching, but you need to make great games first and foremost.  The influx of real game developers driving the efforts has produced wonderfully playable titles like CellCraft and there are dozens of similar projects occurring throughout the world. 
  • Massively concurrent games:  What games can you build with 10,000 people playing at once?  1 vs 100 was a start, but there are opportunities in stadiums, movie theaters, flash mobs and of course online. As populations of players scale, the psychology of player inactions shifts and entirely new designs need to be deployed.  Yet the payoff is impressive; if 100,000 people spent fifteen minutes doing something meaningful, what could they accomplish?
  • High retention games: With the advent of metrics, we are finally realizing how few people play our games for any length of time. The last third of your game?  Sorry, didn't play it.  Metric combined with iterative design finally give us the power to tune our games so they actually work as we think they should work.  With the next generation of metrics, we are gaining new insights into intrinsic motivation.  What makes people tick?  What makes them happy?  What improves their lives? As a result, we have the tools to make better games. You can no longer fake it and try to claim success with handwaving comments about art and meaning.  If your game sucks, people leave. Can you make empirically validated games that deliver enough meaning and value that smart, informed people want to play for long periods of time?   

Frontiers in Business models

The other way to create new genres is to create games that fit new business models.  These impose new constraints and open up new ways of thinking about play. 
  • Games as services: For much of the past two decades, games have been treated as consumable media: you play a game, beat it and move on to the next tasty treat. When a game is run as a service, we are running an endless game that grows and evolves with the community.   Most are inherently multi-player and can just as easily be described as economies, governments or clubs as they can a game.  Such games are not media.  They are entirely new cultures, some of which will outlive their founders.  
  • Free-to-play games:  Games have finally broken free of the shackles of a single fixed price model.  Now players can try a game, see if they like it and pay a little or a lot in order to experience more. This single development opens games to massive audiences that never before would have paid 60 bucks for a new experience they may not enjoy.   
  • Downloadable console games:  With smaller download budgets and long tail competition, larger developers are forced to give up many of their wasteful AAA ways and find the fun in small packages.  Though platforms and publishers are desperate to maintain their demeaning practices of control and leverage over contractually enslaved developers, market pressures have so far enabled small bursts of innovation to flourish on consoles for the first time in many years.  Enjoy the now fading days of summer while it lasts. 
  • Downloadable PC games:  The indie movement combined with relatively hands off distribution partners like Steam offer both a means of making money and freedom to create new types of games.  Online communities help drive marketing and it is telling that the downloadable smash hit of the year, Minecraft, came out on PC, not the console. 
  • Sponsored games: Traditional companies have awoken to the fact that hundreds of millions of people play games and they want to either own this ability (Disney) or to have the experiences that games create associated with their products. 
  • Viral distribution systems: Developers are traditionally screwed because middle men control monetization and distribution.  Viral distribution systems lets savvy developers empower players to distribute their game, reducing the power of the middle men and freeing developers from entangling relationships. 
  • In game payments and offers: The vast array of payment system puts monetization in the hands of the developer, not the distribution channels, creating a new path for developers to gain independence from the sharecropping models practiced by publishers and retail channels.  There are rotten spots growing in the form of Facebook and Apple's emerging payment monopolies.  Ultimately, the value driven by the game design is what player are buying.  With this in mind, smart developers should carve out niches where they keep the majority of the value and payment providers are slowly but surely forced to become low cost providers of baseline services.  
  • Publicly funded games: Outside of the United States (where we are still arguing about evolution), games are considered a meaningful art that contributes to the economy and culture of a country.  Canada, Australia, Singapore and many others offer low cost grants for teams that want to make games.  Most new teams need traditional publisher funding like a slave needs an owner.  

Frontiers in platforms

  • Browser games:  At 500 million and growing, games played in browsers represent one of the largest gaming platforms on the planet.  Flash is the current mainstay and 3D is barely present in the form of Unity.  But the important thing about browser games is the reach.  
  • Mobile games:  We are starting to carry games with us wherever we go.  What will you do with a billion potential players, always on internet, GPS, address books, in-game payments, augmented reality and a device that is within reach every waking second of the day?
  • Tablet games:  Games for tablets mean new UI conventions and new multiplayer models (gather everyone around the table)  The cross pollination between tablet games, smartphone games and board games is going to create some inevitable classics.  
  • The plethora of screens:  eReaders are really just the tip of the iceberg.  My electric toothbrush has a screen now and I play a game on it every night. Anything with a screen can play games.  They don't need to be fast screens.  They don't need to be big screens.  Great games happen in the player's head.  All we need as game designers is some basic feedback systems and an input method.  With that, we can put games anywhere. 

Fading opportunities

There are really only three fading opportunities that come to mind.
  • Retail games:  The retail market has long been a cesspool of corrupt distribution practices, crippled monetization, entrenched middlemen and oppressed developers meekly serving the Man.  It is still possible to innovate here, but your chances are reduced by an order of magnitude for every layer of management piled atop the line developers. 
  • Casual games:  There are three, maybe four stagnant genres left powering (Hidden object/Adventure, Time management, Match Three) the casual games market.  With the deadly drop in prices during the recession and the enormous power of portals like Big Fish, developers have retained almost zero bargaining power.  Innovation rarely flourishes and the death crawl towards bigger budgets and winner-takes-all releases is in full swing.  Games with bloated production values like Drawn just make me sad.  We've been there.  We went down the path of prettier graphics.  Notice that the adventure genre has died before?  Ever wonder why?
  • MMOs and virtual worlds: Somewhere along the line, the MMO genres calcified. Old mechanics turned into religious commandments, bright experiments floundered and innovation stopped. Instead of building better games, we got prettier graphics and more baroque consumable content. The next deluge of overstuffed AAA games just hasten the genre decline with their expensive and inevitable implosions. There was a brief ray of hope with F2P RPGs and kids MMOs, but this spurt appears short lived.  The interesting lessons of these games have been stripped out and rendered down into the overly simple rules that drive many social games.   I have some hope.  It is still possible for independent companies to enter the market without the help of publishers/operators and create a new game that turns genre conventions upside down.  If anything, it will be a team from the social games space or the browser space.  Such a team could create an accidental variant of an MMO that ends up reigniting the market.  Fingers crossed.


In the past few years, we've seen the emergence of two multi-billion dollar markets in the form of social and mobile games.  This is only the beginning.  Expect another billion dollar market to emerge in the next 5 years and at least three new billion dollar markets to pop up over the next ten years.  The game industry is dead.  Long live the game industries.

The people who tap these opportunities will not be those that stayed at home sucking down a steady paycheck from an aging company mired in incestuous politics and egotistical dreams.  It will be the designers who strike out and tackle the frontiers head on.  Be the settler of a dangerous new land.  Define the new face of games for the coming decades.

Happy New Year.  May you have an amazing 2011.

PS: Big thanks to the crew at Project Horseshoe and Nick Fortugno in particular for starting this conversation one late night when we had absolutely no right to be up and still talking.  What are we? Giddy teenagers at a sleepover?


  1. Happy New Year! :D

    As far as "a team could create an accidental variant of an MMO that ends up reigniting the market" perhaps Empire & State could be this new MMO? Politics and business in a browser-based sci-fi MMO:

    Wish it used Flash though - it's supposed to run in Java but I can't get it to work on any of my computers... :/

  2. Fantastic perspective as we move to a new year (or new decade to those poor sould who count up from 1 rather than zero?)

  3. You missed voice control as a frontier - I'm yet to see a game that really uses it well.

  4. Excellent summary. I've sent this link to a couple of friends who have discussed leaving traditional, console games for something like this. Thanks!

  5. Excellent article as always.

    @Sulka - I believe Halo Wars did a good job of voice control and you are right, along with full body the voice aspect should be taken into account as it opens new doors for a host of innovations.

  6. There's an interesting article in Harvard magazine that's relevant to your essay. The project seems mostly academic right now, but it's interesting nonetheless.

  7. Should procedural content be in this list somewhere?

  8. Honestly, I don't know why I read this site anymore. It's all about wah wah and how some small indie will be our savior. Ain't gonna happen...

    PS. Procedural content? How about procedural poetry? Or procedural fun?

  9. At first glance I'd call Triple Town a Casual game and Realm of the Mad God an MMO, both in your Fading category. ;)