Using what’s come before we can accurately predict what’s coming next.
For the scrolling brawler it began as simplistic as could be; you walked to the left or occasionally the right and either punched or kicked (Kung Fu Master). These improved with the addition of a broader move set and a depth of field (Final Fight), and in the move to 3D, there were some stumbling blocks in direct translation (Fighting Force) specifically because a style so shallow and brief did not sit well on the CD-based home console that offered far deeper, more involving games. The genre didn’t properly evolve until Devil May Cry with its progressive skill growth, shooting, platforming, and exploration.
This is an excellent model for how most genres have advanced; the early stages were simply concept execution, 16-bit made it look, sound and play better, 32-bit moved it to 3D, and the awkward (though impressive at the time) results then required a further step in the PS2 era to make them what we know today. Pitfall has become Uncharted; Contra, Halo; and Rogue is probably the earliest example of a game like Final Fantasy XIII.
Some genres have been created fairly late in the day. Rhythm-games Parappa the Rapper and Bust-A-Groove were examples of 32-bit programmers thinking outside the box and their descendants are Rock Band and Dance, Dance Revolution. Others may appear to be absent today simply because they evolved into something quite different. It could be argued that the shooting gallery aspects of Asteroids, and later Operation: Wolf, are the basis of appeal in the Call of Duty games.
In studying the patterns that emerge as gaming genres evolve, we can actually get a pretty accurate reading on what we’re likely to be playing in five or ten years time. The games we’re playing are deeper now than they’ve ever been, so they are likely to get deeper still in at least two ways. Firstly, we will see character progression in almost every game. Modern Warfare’s introduction of cumulatively filling bars cannot be underestimated in its influence. No, it wasn’t anything new; RPG players had been enjoying earning skill points for quite some time before then, but it was a first for the multiplayer aspects of an FPS. It showed audiences who had never been granted +1 to their reading ability how fantastic it feels to have your character grow. It’s also one thing to have that happen in a solo game campaign that allows you more abilities to defeat the tougher challenges at the later stages of the game, but it’s quite another to gain the additional gadgets for your guns and a broader range of load-outs that will give you a very real advantage over your multiplayer opponents. In consequence, rather than everybody starting on equal ground, death-matches become a feat of one-upmanship and choosing the right tools for the job beforehand, all the while upgrading and advancing your character. Most of the other shooters have followed suit and now with racing games like Blur incorporating the same concepts it’s fairly likely that not only is progressive character experience here to stay but it will spread to nearly every game type.
Multiplayer has moved from the couch to the network and now virtually every developer that wishes their game to be a success will include a competent multiplayer mode (and occasionally a token, incompetent one). This has evolved to the point where Massively Multiplayer aspects are being introduced to otherwise unrelated genres. Red Dead Redemption, when played with friends on a public server, is as much World of Warcraft as it is Grand Theft Auto. This is only going to increase as the corners of casual social gaming get felt out in all genres. And of course, the simple, competitive arcade element is kept very much alive by means of global scoreboards constantly reminding you how well your friends are doing.
There is one other definite way that games will advance. As gaming worlds grow richer and more complex, there are no new dimensions to expand to, so some developers are going to work on bringing us closer to the real world experience with detail. Detail means storytelling through environment. It means the slightest changes in facial expression during conversations, and a sense that our worlds have been lived in. The sterile, spotless CGI resplendent in the Star Wars prequels, for example, is slowly giving way to the scruffy, battered and more tangible worlds of the Original Trilogy. Textures are getting better every year and in the not-too-distant future there is going to be a game whose greatest hidden joy is simply looking around and getting your face close to the wood-grain of an antique desk or standing in a stream and watching the water flow past your shivering calves.
On that note, it’s impossible not to acknowledge motion control. It’s already changed the way many people play games with the Wii, and Microsoft and Sony are clearly banking on being able to evolve that with a more tactile interface and subtlety of movement. Most enthusiasts believe that the controller is going nowhere and that the minute, detailed actions will always be better conveyed with swift button presses rather than mime, and it’s very likely that the best of these games will use both methods in tandem. But without the aforementioned detail, these games will remain parlor tricks; a less headache-inducing Virtual Reality.
Another recent trend is 3D, which is very likely to be explored over the next decade on various platforms. The biggest obstacles being that 3D inherently excludes those not wearing special glasses or those who feel nauseous when faced with 3D images. Also, for all the illusion of literal depth it brings, it still requires the programmers to craft all of the games’ detail and it remains in that respect inferior to 2D simply because of the sacrifice in clarity. Nevertheless, the challenge this represents, specifically the notion of 3D without the glasses, is one of the most interesting we’re going to see, especially with handhelds and their brief, solo stints of gaming that play so well to the strengths of 3D.
The games of the next decade are not going to change our viewpoint as significantly as the move to three dimensions in the mid 90’s, but it’s likely that with subtle implementation of 3D and motion control, everything will feel a lot more personal and tactile, the advances being less about technology and more about making we, the players feel closer to our games.