It was one heck of a struggle to get your hands on the Nintendo Wii during the recent Christmas shopping frenzy. As we saw, people were punched, trampled—even shot—trying to get one of the elusive boxes. Was it all worth it?
As a developer in the gaming business for more than 20 years, I'll admit, it's difficult for me to get so excited over each new crop of consoles. After all, it happens every five years or so. Yet this year, I find myself oddly thrilled. One reason: Nintendo's redesign of the classic controller. This strategy is in line with the idea of making their console accessible to everyone, everywhere—which translates, of course, into more sales. But Nintendo's new approach to more intuitive gaming will also affect game design.
Nintendo's design strategy is actually the most risky of the big three console makers. Nintendo has created a cheaper, weaker console when compared to the tech specs of Microsoft's (MSFT) Xbox 360 or Sony's (SNE) PlayStation 3, so the Wii should be condemned to failure, right? But not so fast…Nintendo has done its homework.
The Complication Curve
The company made the lowest-priced machine, and at the same time tackled the biggest problem with games today—the increasing complexity of gameplay control. When developers add another sequel number to the title, they feel the need to add more features.
Think back to early soccer games that simply offered "pass" and "shoot" buttons. These days, soccer games require complicated button combinations pressed simultaneously in order to curve the ball in the air. Once a gamemaker creates a game with more complex control requirements, the competitors make their games more complicated, and so on, and so on.
Nintendo has effectively hit the reset button in the world of game controllers. They saw that consumers everywhere can hold a TV remote control, so they made their new controller look like a really simple remote control with just a few buttons. Then they incorporated motion-sensors to track the gamer's actual physical actions.
It sounds complicated, but the experience is incredibly simple. You don't even need to set up or calibrate the device. Now you can play tennis, bowl, golf, and fly airplanes from the comfort of your living room. The learning curve is almost non-existent.
This concept of more intuitive gaming—which is becoming a reality, thanks to the Wii—brings me to a list of seven approaches to game design that savvy game designers and developers will pursue as they create games for not only the Wii, but also for the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360.
• More intelligent game characters. We will see heroes and villains who possess memory and emotions, and who talk to other characters. They might even end up with their own distorted views of the truth.
We should expect to see complex characters fueled by increasingly powerful artificial intelligence. They will be able to emote, form impromptu sentences, and suffer from all the normal complex human emotions, such as jealousy, fear, pride, etc. If game characters search for you, instead of just walking every corridor aimlessly, they will make assumptions, use memory, and involve senses such as hearing and smell, which leading game designers will incorporate or simulate within games.
• A higher degree of interaction with objects in game worlds. I'm not just talking about the high interactivity quotient of the Wii. I'm talking about objects affected by the environment, such as a leafy plant swaying in the wind. If touched by people or moving objects, the plant can bend or flex, at some point break, or even be torn from the ground. Each individual plant having its own physical constraints can result in a very reactive, and therefore more real, environment.
This sense of reaction will be combined with the player's own movements being calculated in real time: If you trip, your fall will be determined by the speed at which you were moving, what you're carrying, and your ability to break the fall. The result will be a more interesting game.
• More orchestral and nuanced soundtracks. As development teams continue to realize how emotionally powerful cinematic music can be to help set the mood and tell stories, all game sound will also be "rendered." This means that the spaces you move through in a game will vary acoustically. So if a wall is blown away, the echoes in that room will subsequently sound completely different, or if you're hiding under a desk, sounds will be muffled until you—or the desk—move.
• Online games will monitor players. Games will feature software that "watches" gamers (from the inside of the machine), offering tips or clues when help is needed, removing the concept of frustration forever. This data will be transmitted back to the developers via the Internet. You can expect game levels to be patched automatically without your even knowing.
• More games will be built to play themselves. Designers will create machine vs. machine games as a way of testing a title before releasing it to audiences. So expect games to become more stable, and for new, surprising ideas to be generated.
• More free games as a means for building new audiences and as a component of a new business model for games. Companies such as Acclaim are betting their entire future on the concept that price matters—as in, the lower the price, the bigger the return. They will combine in-game advertising, with micro-transaction sales (players buying virtual items or virtual land), which will enable them to tear down another huge barrier: the cost of gaming. That means players will get hands-on time with more games, thus generating more loyal players.
• Games will make use of high definition TVs, pushing the displays to their limits. Extra detail has been the game developer's enemy as it creates serious data-storage and processing problems. Now both the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 have hard drives, and bigger internal memory capacities, so programmers will be able to create more detailed, realistic environments. People walking into a room won't be sure if you're watching the Superbowl or playing in the Superbowl.
These are just a few elements of winning game design to look forward to in the coming months…and beyond.