Steve Jobs once said: “Good artists copy; great artists steal.” He should know–he stole the quote from Pablo Picasso, who probably didn’t come up with it either. This sentiment drives modern game design, which revolves around iterating on good ideas. It also drives this very post, which is a rehash of a list we published around this time last year. 2017 was an exciting year for gaming, heralding the arrival of some long-awaited titles as well as more than a few surprises. Here are 10 novel ideas from 2017’s best games, that we hope to see someone shamelessly rip off in 2018.
A Linear narrative told through multiple endings (Nier: Automata)
Replayability has always been an interesting sticking point in game design. The desire to give players meaningful narrative agency with branching choices that play out differently (and thus encouraging replays) runs somewhat at odds to the tendency to make games longer and longer, increasing their perceived value. Classic ’90s RPG Chrono Trigger, which included a wide range of potential endings, created the “New Game+”, which allowed players to maintain their items and experience on subsequent (and accordingly faster) playthroughs. Auteur designer Yoko Taro has taken that to a new level with the sequential multiple endings of Nier: Automata.
In addition to a few potential endings for your first playthrough, the game is actually notably different in new game+. For much of the second time through you control the character who had been your sidekick, offering a new perspective on the same events. There are also new interstitial scenes sprinkled throughout the second loop, giving new context to the world and story. The third time through assumes the perspective of a completely different character, and is essentially a new act entirely, radically altering your perspective on the game’s story once again. Nier: Automata took what works about new game+ and compounded it, rewarding players increasingly as they invest more time into the game. It’s also a marvelous example of medium specificity, using the unique conventions of video games to examine a story in a way that other media could not. It’s always a good sign when you complete a game and want to start from the beginning immediately, and no game we’ve ever played is better built for that.
Open worlds without filler (The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild)
In the years following the success of Skyrim and Assassin’s Creed, “open world” has become one of the most overused design tropes in AAA gaming. When we first heard that Nintendo was going the open world route with its upcoming Zelda game, we felt a little apprehension that they were just chasing trends, but Breath of the Wild turned out to be a master class in the genre, and a wake up call for where it needs to go. A common problem for open-world games (particularly those from Ubisoft) is that they feel less like living, immersive places and more like maps covered in icons, loaded with repetitive objectives that just feel like filler content. Even games that we otherwise loved, like Horizon Zero Dawn, fall into this trap.
The genius of Breath of the Wild is that it dials back the role of the map from overbearing taskmaster to its rightful place as a player-aiding tool. Regions of the map are left blank until you find and climb a tower within them, encouraging you to encounter explore at least a portion of the world without a guide. Even then, rather than populating the map for you with points of interest, the only map markers that the game provides are those that you place yourself. By putting cartography back into the hands of the player, Breath of the Wild re-situated their attention from maps and menus back into the game world itself. Subsequent open world games would be well served to take note of Nintendo’s focus on moment-to-moment experience and discovery.
Destination gaming (HQ Trivia)
The first wave of breakout smartphone games, such as Flight Control, Candy Crush, or 2048, have all focused on the size and touchscreen for accessible, drop-in, one-finger experiences. As a gaming platform, however, smartphones are so much more than just small tablets. Their portability and constant connectivity (service allowing) opens up a range of exciting possibilities for designers to play with time and space in a way that other platforms do not facilitate. In the last few years Pokémon Go and Subterfuge have both embraced this medium specificity in different ways.
Where Pokémon Go grounded the game in real space, and Subterfuge spread it out over real time, HQ Trivia instead hosts daily trivia contests at particular hours, creating a sort of “destination gaming” (so-named after event-based destination television). While admittedly some of HQ’s allure is the real cash prizes, live competition against strangers adds a thrilling sense of connection to an otherwise cerebral type of gameplay. The addition of a real host further blurs the line between a mobile game and a traditional quiz show, making HQ Trivia one of the most truly 21st-century-native forms of entertainment we’ve yet seen.
Making old games new again on Switch (L.A. Noire)
Porting older games onto the latest platform is a time-honored way to fill out a console’s library while developers learn to make best use of its capabilities. Traditionally this just entails a bit of graphical upscaling to take advantage of technological progress, ranging from simply adding newer, HD textures to more complete visual overhauls (like the upcoming Shadow of the Colossus remake for PS4). Nintendo, ever the wild card, has sidestepped the console arms race yet again with the Switch, sacrificing raw power for portability. The prospect of taking recent AAA titles to a handheld platform has brought the gaming community’s remake appetite to a whole new level.
Bringing 2016 first-person shooter Doom to the Switch was an excellent proof of concept for what handheld AAA gaming could look and feel like. It was the remake of Rockstar’s 2011 detect-em-up L.A. Noire that really surprised us, though. Its top notch voice acting and facial animations looked great, despite the generally aged visuals, and its rich, period narrative and interrogation system haven’t really been matched. Where Doom and Wolfenstein II got us excited about the prospect of contemporary AAA games on the Switch, L.A. Noire has us wondering what other slightly older games could gain new relevance on Nintendo’s exciting new platform?
Battle Royale (PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds)
Any gamer that watched or read The Hunger Games immediately saw the potential in it for an amazing video game. A large number of people drop into an area littered with weapons, and the sole survivor wins. The grim narrative convention of the so-called “Battle Royale” (derived from the eponymous 1999 Japanese novel and its subsequent film adaptation) lends itself perfectly to the indiscriminate carnage of video games.
PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds isn’t the first attempt at a Battle Royale video game (there have been various mods for Minecraft, Arma 2, and the like, as well as 2016’s The Culling), but it’s certainly the definitive version. PUBG creator Bluehole refined the genre within a modern military shooter shell, but the general gameplay model could be applied to any number of more fantastical genres and mechanics. The Darwin Project, which we tried back at E3 2017, uses third-person action with a bit of crafting and survival in the narrative context of dystopian reality TV, for instance. Despite Bluehole’s IP-related sabre-rattling, we hope that other developers will continue to run with the concept in new and interesting ways.