Have we started reaching diminishing returns in game design?

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Pezen

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First thing first; this may entirely be a me issue. I recognize this, but I was curious if others felt similarly. Over the life span of the PS4/XONE generation there has been a constant nagging in the back of my head; this all feels extremely familiar in a comfortable way. At first I was very pleased, it felt like a frictionless move from my old 360 into the PS4. I remember playing The Witcher 3 thinking it had a real intangible genetic connection to my experience with Mass Effect. It was also during the 360 generation where control standards started to really gel and continued into the PS4, so a lot of things controlled as expected. Now that there's another generation going (shortages aside), I started to look back on my time with the PS4 while simultaneously seeing releases of remastered hits from the generation before it. Specifically titles that meant a lot to myself, like Alan Wake and Mass Effect. And I couldn't help feel like we have reached some form of dip. Maybe it's a perspective based on generational shifts turning less into leaps and more into general refinement. Or maybe ideas have stagnated. I know some will reply about innovative small games, but that has always been the case, so that trajectory hasn't changed. But bigger than those games?

I started playing that Mass Effect remaster and with the exception of that inventory hellscape, not a lot has happened since then that really makes it obsolete by comparison. And it really solidified for me the sense that the PS4 gen feels like a half step, still running the same ideas only a little smoother and a little more user friendly. But still basically the same games. And as I look at Xbox Series and Playstation 5, I am not seeing a lot of new stuff. I see takes on similar ideas but nothing groundbreaking, prettier versions of the same ideas or simply the same games.

I noted earlier that this might be a me issue, and I say that because I might be looking at the games that appeal to me based on what has appealed to me in the past and as such I limit myself to the same ideas. In other words; I live in the bubble of my own doing. But my only counter argument to that is that I am always open to try new things, I just don't see a lot of new ideas.

So what am I missing? What ideas came up last gen that didn't exist in some form in the previous gen? What ideas have you seen in the new gen that wasn't there last gen? Or to ask something else; am I expecting too much? Maybe we have reached some form of plateu in what can be accomplished with the tools given?

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Efesell

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It's wild to me to use Mass Effect as the touchstone because that first game feels Ancient.

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Pezen

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@efesell: Sure in some regards I would agree with you, but that's also the issue. The parts of the game that's ancient isn't it's core design so much as it is implementation of certain aspects. I mean, Guardians of the Galaxy is basically Mass Effect with a Marvel coat of paint. That's the point I'm making. The game improvements between generations have been user friendly and shine, not core game design in a larger sense. At least from where I'm sitting.

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bigsocrates

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Game design has clearly slowed in terms of innovation...which is inevitable. Most of us who are old enough to remember games from the 80s to now witnessed the birth of a medium. Innovation during a time like that happens at lightning speed, and with games it was even faster because the medium was developing alongside the technology so we got to start the whole thing basically over from scratch in the 90s when games went 3D. The tech changes since then are mind boggling. You look at the amount of RAM that the PS1 (or earlier consoles) had and you wonder how they were able to do anything more advanced than Pong.

Innovation slows over time. If you have studied Film you can see a similar arc. Massive innovation from the advent of the tech and then another wave when sound was introduced and then you get to a point in the 1940s where they were making movies that still basically look like the movies of today. Newer movies might have better special effects and technology and there have been stylistic changes, but Casablanca is essentially a modern film in structure and nature, whereas something like A Trip to the Moon is definitely not.

There will continue to be innovation in the gaming space and games will advance. The games of today are more accessible, more polished, and advanced from the games of 2007, but it's never going to move at the pace that it used to. Not unless there's another technological revolution (VR has some potential) that changes the medium again.

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Kyary

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#5  Edited By Kyary
@pezen said:

What ideas have you seen in the new gen that wasn't there last gen?

In terms of new genres, there's actually been a lot in the past 10ish years:

  • The battle royale wasn't a popular genre at all back in 2013 (as far as I can tell, the ARMA mod came out in 2014), so that's one entire type of multiplayer shooter that just did not exist on the PS3/360 (don't you dare mention MAG, lmao). It barely works on the last gen, and basically only exists there because it was a humongous hit. Remember when the Xbox One got the exclusive PUBG port?
  • Basically all VR games came out after the new consoles released
  • JRPG's have come a long way since 2013, and are now a pretty healthy genre. Japanese games were kind of lost in the weird purgatory of not landing with either western or japanese audiences back in the early 2010's, as I recall.
  • Bit of a stretch here, but Demon's Souls came out in 2009. If it wasn't a completely new genre by then, Dark Souls (2011) and Bloodborne (2015) certainly did the job.

I think it's pretty clear that while people aren't inventing completely new types of games every year, there is still a lot of stuff changing within genres, and plenty of spaces where innovation and change is still happening. I think the general pattern is that small games are as innovative as they've ever been, but the big games are more risk-averse than ever, only moving into new game design when they're sure it'll work (and this would be true regardless of console cycles)

With respect to "What does this new gen get us that the last one couldn't", I'm sure last gen there were a few very computation-heavy games that would have only been viable on PC and so didn't get greenlit, however I think for the most part the games that make sense to make are adapted to the systems that exist at the time. That said, all the new consoles come with fairly fast CPUs and extremely fast storage, which could maybe make some stuff possible that couldn't be done before.

If you want more innovative games, play indies and/or get on steam.

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MerxWorx01

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So based on the last paragraph it sounds like this thread is asking if new ideas in the form of new genres or new mechanics are less common? It's hard to actually tell since you don't mention a specified bar which Witcher or Mass Effect managed to cross that demarcate that they are a high water mark for you. Just an assumption that these really good games also pushed innovation. The only clarity gleaned is that you are a fan of AAA third person games. If that's what you're into, unfortunately the AAA space is unlikely where you will find much new concepts, far too risky for them to throw money at unproven concepts. Whether you're talking about Witcher or Mass Effect I would say after every new sequel the weirder and more unique aspects of those series are sanded off leaving a more polished sequel but also staying within the confines of what worked before.

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MerxWorx01

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@kyary: I was going to mention that new genres tend to pop up regularly on PC where mods of existing break out and become their own completely different thing. But I'm also aware that some people also hate those games and OP's taste may not jive with what ever new weird thing is coming out. I personally like how Escape Room games are becoming more and more of a thing.

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Justin258

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#8  Edited By Justin258

We haven't reached a plateau with what can be accomplished with game design.

However, the days of the biggest studios doing things weird and experimental and crazy are pretty much done. There will probably be exceptions here and there, but at this point AAA budgets require significant profits so those top-shelf, heavily-advertised games that everyone who plays games knows about are going to be at best iterative and rarely, if ever, innovative.

Is that sad? I think so. However, I also think there's so much variety coming out these days that it doesn't bother me all that much. You could play Control. You could play Prey. You could play The Forest. You could play Death Stranding. You could play Monster Hunter World. I feel like that list alone is an exemplary set of games that are at least interesting, games that show us this industry can and does continue to produce innovative and interesting games that maybe aren't the best or most polished but are doing things you can't really get anywhere else, and that aren't basically something released ten years ago with minimal improvement and a fresh coat of paint. Do those games have influences from the past? I mean, yes, Prey is basically System Shock 2 and Monster Hunter games have been on the market since the PS2 days, but I don't think improvements are lacking.

I also think it's worth going back to play the original Assassin's Creed and Far Cry 2 and other games releasing around the time of the original Mass Effect. Stick with those games for a little while, spend a month playing only games from 2006-2009, and then jump to games released 2019-2022 and see if you think gaming has improved in any way other than graphics. Some of those games will hold up as well as the day they were released, but I bet you'd be surprised at what actually has changed in a little over a decade.

And, finally, I do think it's worth stepping outside of your comfort zone and playing a few things you've never touched before. Have you played Sunless Skies? Have you played Divinity: Original Sin 2? Have you played Satisfactory? Dusk? Subnautica? Legend of Grimrock 2? Astroneer? Frostpunk? I just can't help but feel like there are more good games out there than time to play them. You just can't look for it in the AAA space anymore.

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hughj

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#9  Edited By hughj

I'd speculate that the growing cost/time in development is the biggest factor. The more expensive something is, the less creative chances are going to be taken. Look at most network TV and big budget Hollywood movies -- it's generally junk. They're not made to be great for you, me, or anyone in particular, they're made to be merely good for everyone. There is no target demographic. When you're no longer making the game that you yourself wish you could play, and instead making something for a theoretical person with an age of 9-99, I see no reason to expect anything other than mediocrity.

Consider that back in the late 90s even "AAA" games had codebases small enough that a team of 1-3 programmers could write a new game engine from scratch in a matter of a year or two. Quake1's source code is ~10MB, Quake3 is ~20MB, Doom3 is ~30MB. UE4 today is something like 40GB. A game with a budget of $1-5 million can afford to focus on an audience of a few hundred thousand, but a game with a budget of $100+ million is going after tens of millions of customers.

To add to this, I'd also predict that things are only going to get worse in bigger budget titles. The move to multiplatform has the same effect as the desire to target broader demographics. You can't commit to design decisions dealing with input device, latency, expected screen size, hardware performance all because you have to account for your game being played on everything from a Switch, console, mouse/keyboard PC, and now streaming to a mobile device with a touch screen. Today AAA games made exclusively for mouse/keyboard on PC are mostly gone. If mobile+streaming ever manages to take off in a big way then I'd expect to see less focus on games that depend on low input latency and 6+ buttons.

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eccentrix

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I don't think most of them are AAA, but the Telltale/Quantic Dream style of adventure game really came into its own during the last generation. Until Dawn, Life is Strange, even blending with the resurgence of FMV games.

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cikame

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I think what you said about control standards goes for design as well, we've refined and solidified some standards that are used and will be used for most games going forward, if i were to make a third person shooter it would be similar to Gears of War, a fantasy MMO would be like FF14/TERA/Archeage, an open world sandbox would be like GTA which is probably the longest held standard because no one surpassed them.
Maybe the one example i can think of is Flight Simulator 2020 but that's maybe less a result of innovative design and more unlocking potential with technology, not that design didn't have a hand in it, Flight Sims have rendered the entire planet before but to a fairly low detail which is expected of the entire planet, but with satellite data mixed with auto generation we've got a very convincing render of the planet with detail, you can now fly with visual flight rules (VFR) across the entire planet which is new for flight sims because the detail wasn't there before, the first thing people do when they play it is go see what their house looks like, that's a new experience to video games.

I speak as someone with absolutely no idea what you'd do to make something genuinely new and exciting now, but i think most of the innovation has already happened, we'll get more and more powerful hardware and gigantic games running entirely on servers streamed to the player, but for the most part i'm not expecting much more than bigger versions of what we've seen before.

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SpectralCat

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We’re still in the opening era of the generation. Devs are still realizing the graphical/loading/AI potential of the new consoles, and this takes more effort & resources than ever. We usually see more idea-driven games after the new performance frontiers have been explored.

The other thing is pay attention to indies. I am the type that prefers a tightly honed platformer with nice pixel art. There are a *ton* of indies that approach games as an interactive medium. This is where a lot of evolution in the genre is happening.

I resonate particularly with something @Kyary wrote,

“ I think the general pattern is that small games are as innovative as they've ever been, but the big games are more risk-averse than ever, only moving into new game design when they're sure it'll work (and this would be true regardless of console cycles)”

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wollywoo

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Agreed with others that while there isn't a ton of innovation in the AAA world, there's a lot of creativity in the indie space. The Witness, Outer Wilds, Baba is You come to mind. BOTW also made a big change in the landscape of open-world games for the better.

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Ares42

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I've seen this sentiment crop up a lot lately, and I'll say the same I've said before. It's not that there's less innovation, there's just way way way way more iteration. The amount of games coming out every year has completely and absolutely exploded, so it's impossible for every new title to be new and unique.

Go back 20 years and you saw maybe two major shooters coming out per year. At that rate you could have a game come out and then two years later (4-5 more big games) you'd have another game put a whole new twist ideas from the original game. These days there's 50+ shooters coming out in that time, and together they explore every little nook and cranny of the possibilities of a new idea. So when that big game comes out two years later there's already been 10 games that has done all the things this game does differently.

As someone who enjoys replaying "old" games I enjoyed in the past the idea that nothing is changing is just baffling. It's just far less percievable than it used to be, when you had to wait for the next big new game to come out.

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ll_Exile_ll

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#15  Edited By ll_Exile_ll

The obsession with innovation in games is naturally going to be something that slows as the medium ages. There is nothing wrong with that. There are still great movies and novels released all the time, despite those mediums being 100 years / 1000 years old. Hell, there is even still innovation here and there in those mediums, despite their age. Nowhere near what we've seen in games over the past 30 years, but some.

There will still be great games as the video game medium matures. Innovation will be less common, but only because the things that work and don't have been figured, just like other long lasting mediums.

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Humanity

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Innovation usually buds up against technical limitation. More memory, more assets, bigger computational ability will pave the way for another wave of “innovative” gaming ideas. This generation is about refining what we had last gen but couldn’t quite get there all the way. The next hardware cycle will open up the gates for more creativity within the AAA dev space.

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FacelessVixen

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Though I'm not as bothered by the homogenization of modern game design compared to others (at least by the more well known developers and publishers), I do find myself thinking/saying more often that game X is like game Y of the same genre but with a short list of differences. I wouldn't exactly call the relationship between technology and design innovation a diminishing return at the expense of gameplay, but just occasionally ask "Where do we go from here?"

But really, I like what's familiar and I'm less inclined to play something that I'd call avant garde, so... eh.

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Shindig

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Game design's been going on for centuries.

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Ravey

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#20  Edited By Ravey

@shindig: That was sort of my first thought, too, but I think what Pezen is asking is:

  • Is console game design stagnating?
  • Are we hitting the limits of what can currently be done in the big budget console space?
  • What are your impressions of the level of creativity/innovation in big budget games these past few generations?
  • Is there less creativity/innovation in the current generations of console games than is reasonable to expect?
  • What are some examples of creative/innovative titles from the last / latest generation of consoles?
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spacegg

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Not a new or innovative feature but I was happy to see the game Mechajammer using manual Notepad instead of automatically updated objective list. Such a small feature makes you observe things more carefully and take more attention to surroundings and discussions.

In my opinion games are holding hands way too much these days and it is refreshing to see steps taken back time to time.