From gameplay, to presentation to input devices, videogames are a hotbed of innovation. Here are some that have already made their impact—and others that will shape the future of the medium
Fifty years ago William Higinbotham built the first videogame with an oscilloscope and some analog circuitry. While games have changed enormously since then, even today's AAA blockbusters owe some of their success to design innovations made years earlier. In this article I'm going to look at 50 design advances that I feel were especially important, or will prove to be some day. Many of them are actually enhancements to older forms of play; sports, driving, and shooting go back to fairground games and mechanical coin-ops. Other genres, such as turn-based strategy, logic puzzles, and RPGs, began life on the dining room table. We have improved these earlier games in many ways, and the computer has allowed us to create new genres that would be impossible in any other medium.
Unfortunately the true innovator of a design idea is often forgotten, while a particularly successful later game gets the credit. For example, more people remember Pong than remember Ralph Baer's non-computerized design for the Magnavox Odyssey, even though Baer's work came first. To correct this tendency, I'll list both the original inventor of the idea (if I could find it) and the best-known early example of the innovation. I don't promise to be right all the time; corrections are welcome.
By gameplay I mean the challenges that the game poses to the player, and the actions that the player may take to meet the challenges. The vast majority of these actions are obvious: jumping, steering, fighting, building, trading and so on. But some challenges and actions distinctly advanced the state of the art, and provided new ways for us to play.
The earliest computer games didn't offer exploration. Many were simulations set in one location, or afforded movement only through trivial spaces (e.g. Hunt the Wumpus, 1972). We eventually borrowed exploration from tabletop role-playing and turned it into extravaganzas like BioShock. True exploration provides ongoing novelty as you enter unfamiliar areas, and lets you make choices based on clues in the environment. It's a different sort of challenge from combat, and attracts players who enjoy being virtual tourists. Probable first use: Colossal Cave, aka Adventure, 1975.
Storytelling is the subject of more acrimonious debate than any other design feature of videogames, even including the save-game issue. Should we do it or not, and if so, how? What does it mean? Is it even possible to do well?—and so on. Bottom line: not every game needs a story, but they're here to stay. Without a story, a game is just an abstraction—which can be enough to engage the player, but isn't always. First use is often attributed to Colossal Cave, but that was really a treasure-hunt without a plot. Possible first use: Akalabeth, precursor to the Ultima series, or Mystery House, both released in 1980.
Let's face it, most action games are about force. Even when confronted with overwhelmingly powerful enemies, your only option is to avoid their killing shots while grinding away at them or searching for their vulnerable spots. In stealth play the idea is to never even let the enemies know you're there, and it requires a completely different approach from the usual Rambo-style mayhem. Best-known early example: Thief: The Dark Project, 1998. First use: unknown.
4. Avatars with their own personalities.
If you weren't around in the early days this one might surprise you. The first adventure games, and most other computer games too, described the world as if you, the player, were actually in the game—not a representation of you, but you. Consequently, the games could make no assumptions about your age, sex, social position, or anything else—which meant that NPC interactions with your avatar were always rather bland. The early video games, too, mostly displayed vehicles (Asteroids, Space Invaders) or no avatar at all (Pong, Night Driver). Avatars with independent personalities required you to identify with someone different from yourself, but they increased the dramatic possibilities in games enormously. Best-known early example: Pac-Man, 1980 (if you can call that a personality; otherwise, Jumpman, aka Mario, in Donkey Kong, 1981). Possible first use: Midway's Gun Fight coin-op, 1975.
In most party-based RPGs and shooters like Ghost Recon, you can control any of the characters individually, but that's not really leadership. The true challenge of leadership is delegating to others who might disobey you, especially when you have to take over an existing team without any choice about who's in it. The strengths and weaknesses of your people determine how well they succeed at the tasks you give them, so judging their characters and abilities becomes a critical skill. A little-known but excellent example is King of Dragon Pass, 1999. Best-known early example: Close Combat, 1996. First use: unknown.
Not new with computer games—the board game Diplomacy was first published in 1959. The big problem for computers has always been making credible AI for computer opponents, but we're starting to get this right. As with leadership, diplomacy is more about judgment of character than counting hit points. Best-known early example: Civilization, 1991. Probable first use: Balance of Power, 1986.
7. Mod support.
Modding is a form of gameplay; it's creative play with the meta-game. The earliest games weren't just moddable, they were open-source, since their source code was printed in magazines like Creative Computing. When we began to sell computer games, their code naturally became a trade secret. Opening commercial games up to modding was a brilliant move, as it extended the demand for a game engine far beyond what it would have been if players were limited to the content that came in the box. Best-known early example: Doom, 1993. Probable first use: The Arcade Machine, 1982, which was a construction set for arcade-like games. Purists may debate whether construction set products count as moddable games, but the key point is that they enlisted the player to build content—long before "Web 2.0" or indeed the Web itself.
8. Smart NPCs with brains and senses.
In an early 2D turn-based game called Chase, you were trapped in a cage filled with electric fences and some robots trying to kill you. All the robots did was move towards you. If you could get behind an electric fence, they'd walk into it and fry—and that was the sum total of NPC intelligence for about ten years. Then we began to implement characters with vision and hearing and limits to both. We also gave them rudimentary brainpower in the form of finite state machines and, eventually, the ability to cooperate. Some of the most sophisticated NPC AI is now in sports games, where athletes have to work in concert to achieve a collective goal. I consider this a design feature, as it's something designers asked for and programmers figured out how to implement. First use: unknown.
9. Dialog tree (scripted) conversations.
Early efforts to include interactive conversation in computer games were pretty dire. The parsers in text adventures were okay for commands ("GIVE DOUGHNUT TO COP") but not for ordinary speech ("Hey, mister, do you know anybody around here who can sell me an Amulet of Improved Dentistry+5?"). With a dialog tree the game gives you a choice of pre-written lines to say, and the character you're talking to responds appropriately. If the game allows it, you can role-play a bit by choosing the lines that most closely match the attitude you want to express. Written well, scripted conversations read like natural dialog and can be funny, dramatic, and even moving. The hilarious insult-driven sword fights in the Monkey Island games are sterling examples of the form. First use: unknown.
10. Multi-level gameplay.
With a board game everything usually takes place on the same board, as in Monopoly or Risk. Computer games (and tabletop RPGs) often let you switch between two modes, from high-level strategy to low-level tactics. And only a computer can let you zoom in and out to any level you want—as Spore apparently will do. Are you a micromanager or a master of strategy who doesn't sweat the small stuff? Different games demand different approaches. Best-known early example: Archon: The Light and the Dark, 1983. First use: unknown.
A small game within a big game, usually optional, sometimes not. Not the same as multi-level gameplay; a mini-game feels very different from its parent. WarioWare consists of nothing but mini-games. Mini-games often destroy the player's immersion, but offer a different set of challenges from those in the overall game. Sometimes the mini-game is actually better than the overall game. First use: unknown.
12. Multiple difficulty levels.
Designer John Harris has observed that older games, especially coin-ops, were intended to measure the player's skill, while the newer approach is to provide the player with an experience regardless of his skill level. The old-fashioned school of thought is that the player is the designer's opponent; the new school is that the player is your audience. By offering multiple difficulty levels, we make games available to larger audiences, which also includes handicapped players. First use: unknown.
13. Reversible time.
Saving and reloading is one thing, but sometimes what you really want is what as kids we used to call a "do-over"—a chance to correct an error without the hassle of a reload or going back a long way in the game world. Best-known example: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, 2003. When you made a mistake, you could reverse time for ten seconds. To prevent you from using it continually, each usage costs you a certain amount of sand, which has to be replenished by defeating enemies. The game also let the player see into the future to help with upcoming puzzles, another clever innovation. Possible first use: Blinx: The Time Sweeper, 2002, in which collecting up crystals in various combinations gives the player a variety of one-shot time control commands.
14. Coupled avatars.
In this slightly oddball innovation, you play an action or action-adventure game using two quite different avatars with complementary abilities. Sometimes they work together as one; at other times you have to choose which to use, or are required to use one or the other. Not the same as two separate avatars like Sonic and Tails. Possible first use: Banjo-Kazooie, 1998.
15. Sandbox modes.
The term refers to a mode of play in which you can fool around in a game's world without being required to meet a particular objective. By far the best-known sandbox modes are in the later Grand Theft Auto games, contributing greatly to their popularity. Sandbox mode is normally used to describe special modes within otherwise goal-oriented games, not open-ended games like SimCity. Sandbox modes also sometimes afford emergent behavior,events arising in a game's world that were not planned or predicted by the designer. First use: unknown.
16. Physics puzzles.
Many real-world games involve physics, but they're usually tests of skill. The computer lets us create physics puzzles, in which you try to figure out how to accomplish a task using the physical properties of simulated objects. They're about brainpower, not hand-eye coordination. Possible first use: The Incredible Machine, 1992.
17. Interactive drama.
There's only one of these, but someday its descendants will change the world. Façade is a first-person 3D game released in 2005. In Façade you play the friend of a couple whose marriage is in trouble. You visit their apartment for an evening and converse with them by typing real English sentences; they respond with recorded audio. Depending on what you say, you can influence their relationship—get them to reconcile, cause one or the other to leave, or even anger them so much that they throw you out. It's role-playing in the real meaning of the term: no stats, no combat, no treasure, just dramatic interactions—with a couple's future happiness at stake. Many designers consider the "holonovels" from Star Trek: The Next Generation to be the holy grail of interactive storytelling; Façade is an important advance on the quest.
Interactivity is the essence of gaming, and in a videogame, some device has to translate the player's intentions into action. We've always had buttons, knobs (aka spinners or paddles), joysticks, sliders, triggers, steering wheels and pedals. But recently our options for input devices have exploded, and a good designer gives careful thought to them before choosing an approach to use.
18. Independent movement and aiming.
Early games restricted the avatar to shooting in the direction that it was facing—as in Asteroids, for example. Separating movement from aiming requires a second joystick, which substantially increases the physical coordination required of the player, but offers more freedom for both player and designer. Probable first use: Robotron: 2084 coin-op, 1982.
The mouse changed the way players interact with spaces and the objects within them. Although now considered dated, point-and-click made adventure games much more accessible than the older "guess the verb" parser-based system. Best-known early example: Maniac Mansion, 1987; the SCUMM engine devised for it is still in use by independent developers. Probable first use: Enchanted Scepters for the Macintosh, 1984. The Mac was the first personal computer to routinely ship with a mouse.
20. Mouse+WASD keys for 3D first-person movement.
This is so much the best way to move a first-person avatar in a 3D space that, until we get virtual reality gear that really works, there is no reason to consider anything else. Dual-joystick setups on controllers can't match it for precision. First use: unknown.
21. Speech recognition (and other microphone support).
Which is the more exciting: yelling "Company A, charge!" or drawing a box with your mouse around Company A, then clicking a menu item labeled CHARGE? I rest my case. And hollering at your buddies (or at your enemies)—or singing with them—can be a big part of the fun too. Probable first use: Echelon for Commodore 64, 1987.
22. Specialized I/O devices for music (not counting MIDI keyboards).
Part technology, part design, advancements in I/O devices have changed the way we play, especially in musical games. Making music and dancing to it is an intensely physical activity that doesn't easily translate to joysticks and typewriter keyboards. Maracas, conga drums, the Guitar Hero controller—all great fun. Possible first use: dance mats in Dance Dance Revolution, 1998.
23. Gestural interfaces.
Many cultures imbue gestures with supernatural or symbolic power, from Catholics crossing themselves to the mudras of Hindu and Buddhist iconography. Magic is often invoked with gestures, too—that's part of what magic wands are for. The problem with a lot of videogame magic is that clicking icons and pushing buttons feels more technical than magical. The gestural interface is a comparatively recent invention that gives us a non-verbal, non-technical way to express ourselves. Best-known example: Wii controller. Probable first use: Black & White, 2001.
24. Reconfigurable controls and other accessibility features.
When you get used to a certain controller or keyboard setup, you want to be able to use it in every analogous game. PC games now routinely allow players to remap the commands on their input devices, but this is not yet as common as it should be on console machines. For people with hand problems it can be vital. Unfortunately, game developers have almost completely ignored the needs of the handicapped—to our lasting shame. We're finally starting to get a clue. Among the other useful innovations here are: subtitles for the hearing-impaired; separate volume controls for music and sound effects; adjustable brightness and contrast controls; alternative color palettes to help the color-blind; settable game speed. The slogan of accessible game design is there's no such thing as "too slow."
Innovations in what the player sees and hears may depend heavily on technological advances, but I still consider them design innovations as well, features the designer can choose to use in their game—or not. I take static and scrolling 2D screens for granted; they already existed in mechanical coin-ops.
25. Isometric perspective, also sometimes called "three-quarters perspective."
After years of side-view or top-view videogames, the isometric perspective provoked gasps of astonishment when it first appeared. It created a sense of three-dimensionality that had been sorely lacking from games to that point. For the first time, players could see both the tops and the sides of objects in a natural way, rather than through awkward "cheated" sprites, and could even move around objects to see them from the other side, if the designer had provided that feature. Best-known early example: Populous, 1989. Probable first use: Zaxxon coin-op, 1982.
26. First person perspective.
First person lends immediacy like no other point of view. When an enemy points a gun at you, it's really at you—right in your face. The big tradeoff is that you don't get to see your avatar, so visually dramatic activities such as traversing hand-over-hand along a telephone wire lose their impact. First person doesn't have to mean true 3D; the earliest examples didn't allow fully 3D movement or tilting up and down. Best-known early example: Battlezone coin-op, 1980. Probable first use: Maze Wars, developed at NASA on the Imlac minicomputer, 1973.
27. Third person perspective.
Controlling your avatar as seen from behind, looking over its shoulder. The camera follows wherever the avatar goes. Like first person, third person doesn't necessarily require a true 3D space, but it has to seem like one. This innovation was important because it allowed you to watch a heroic character doing his stuff from a natural viewpoint, unlike the older side-scrolling and top-scrolling perspectives. The tradeoff is that the avatar obscures your view of part of the world, which can be awkward in shooting games. Best-known early example: Tomb Raider, 1996. First use: unknown. Viewpoints that follow vehicles as in Pole Position, 1982, are more properly defined as chase views.
28. Cut scenes.
Love 'em or hate 'em, they're part of the gaming landscape. They give players a rest between periods of activity, allow them to see the game world from a viewpoint that doesn't have to be playable (and is o