Games are always bringing new ideas to the table, offering twists on existing formulas or toying with new perspectives altogether. But when we look closer, many of the design innovations we witness in games today are the result of years of iterations. Some concepts leave their mark for their boldness or uniqueness, whilst others serve as a foundation for new trends — from games-as-a-service to open-world experiences.
Recent examples include the Thought Cabinet in Disco Elysium – where an RPG protagonist fosters thoughts in a skill tree that lead to personal discoveries – or the cyclical narrative of Hades, where every game over screen advances the story. But some innovations go as back as 2005 with an intriguing mix of ideas around the Star Wars franchise.
“One of the first things that jumps to mind is the modular campaign design from the original Star Wars Battlefront 2,” Xalavier Nelson Jr. says. “The idea of applying a major license to a roguelike that took inspiration from board games and grand strategy was years ahead of its time for a console action title – and produced an experience that's still relevant today.”
The developer is referring to Galactic Conquest mode, which is a turn-based modular campaign that works quite differently compared to the rest of the game. Players act as an outsider moving fleets and carefully marching towards planets to try and take control of them. But the strategy relies almost entirely upon the player, leading to emergent moments such as baiting enemy fleets on what previously seemed as a safe planet.
As Nelson Jr. wrote in his retrospective, game experiences outside of the typical level-and-cutscene concept are becoming fairly more present in past years. For example, there’s Super Smash Brothers Ultimate’s ‘World of Light’ and its isometric world campaign where you harvest spirits of iconic characters, or even Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare’s take on the modular campaign concept, with an array of optional content and storytelling moments.
“Hitman also has a very modular, almost roguelike structure, with an emphasis on meta progression,” Nelson Jr. adds. “It even has a classic score leaderboard.”
Roguelikes have adapted and iterated these concepts for some time now. Hades left a big impact in the genre with its take on narrative, where ‘death’ simply sends you back to face the titular deity, removing any items and boosts gained along the way. Each time you return, the story progresses so you’re always marching forward, regardless of whether you managed to beat a boss or just met defeat in the first few rooms.
But as creative lead at D-Cell Games RJ Lake argues, the mix between a roguelike brawler and a visual novel of sorts when you’re back at the House of Hades chatting with other characters can be traced back to the structure in the Persona series.
“Persona 3 especially has a very similar structure to Hades,” he explains. “There's a roguelike-ish impulse to it, where you're going through these massive procedurally generated dungeons during the night part of the cycle – and have the option to do so on most nights – and then you go back to school in the morning to just...talk to people.”
Lake mentions that the latter is what usually sticks with the player, where one can develop social links strengthening their bonds with other characters and take part of a daily schedule divided by calendar days. The RPG grind of the dungeons ends up being a blur in comparison.
“Hades' massive innovation here is cleaning up the loop Persona 3 had and tying it to the modern roguelite's slow progression curve,” Lake continues. “By making death throw you into the ‘school’ part of the day/night cycle, it makes dying much less frustrating. No other roguelite really manages to totally take the sting out of losing a run like Hades does, and all of that comes from learning from games that came before it, right?”
The concept of repetition is now permeating onto AAA games as well – we saw Prey’s Mooncrash DLC toying with this idea back in 2018 – but it’s also present in upcoming titles such as Returnal and Deathloop. Outside of this ever-shifting genre, more traditional games have brought interesting iterations and additions onto past concepts.
“I think it's a pretty common goal for devs to build on an existing mechanic or genre in a new and interesting way that fits their project the best, or come up with something totally new and bespoke to their project,” says Melissa Ramsden, game designer at Flight School Studio, which is currently working on Stonefly. Ramsden gained previous experience with tech and level design at EA working on Star Wars and Mass Effect.
She says that, over the past five years or so, a few key genres stood out for them as games that “really changed how I think of things like narrative or multiplayer design.” Amidst them are Spider-Man: Miles Morales and God of War (2018) as examples of a different approach to narrative design, where the player has “enough agency to participate and engage with, but still manage to tell a distinct story, which is really cool and not as easy to pull off as you might think.”
In the multiplayer sphere, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and Fortnite have iterated on multiplayer design in a PvP space by adding their own flavour to the battle royale genre. This includes incorporating quickly-paced base-building in Fortnite or weapon-crafting in PUBG, which builds upon the enjoyment of chaotic free-for-all settings. But recent experiences such as Among Us have leaned more on player-driven experiences, “providing enough challenge to keep people engaged, but letting players largely drive the pace and outcome of a match,” Ramsden explains.
Fortnite is an interesting example as it has recently adopted a game design innovation seen in Apex Legends: the ping system. This allows for easy communication: as you’re exploring the maps or in the midst of a battle fray, players can simply aim at enemies, weapons, or any other objects of interest and trigger quick-to-use commands that immediately notifies your group.
“As with all game mechanics, I'm sure there's some legacy of pings that inspired it, but I think most people hadn't seen such a flexible, slick, and useful implementation,” explains Mixolumia developer Dave Hoffman.
Ever since this ping feature was implemented, it has been considered a welcome alternative for women, who are often subject to toxicity and harassment from other players in multiplayer games, rendering the need to speak or listen to others as optional. They can just use pings whenever they need to communicate with players, either to warn of an upcoming enemy or ping a medkit in their inventory to let the squadmates know they’re in search of one.
“I'm sure it's going to be one of those standard multiplayer FPS features going forward,” Hoffman adds.
In terms of broader concepts, gameplay designer at EA Adrián Novell finds aspects such as Ico’s minimalism or Darkest Dungeon’s random number generator-based mechanics compelling due to his preferred design philosophy.
To him, a mechanic isn’t separated by the rest of the game, but instead responds to the core of the game itself. As a result, everything from mechanics to the story should then respond and aim towards that initial ideal. Novell groups this philosophy into core (the object and intent behind the design), focus (everything in the game should be pointing toward the core), and power (at least one of the features should go the extra mile).
As Novell explains in a blog post, companies such as Ubisoft or EA work with a similar concept that they call “fantasy,” whereas in the industry other people use the concept of “design pillars.” Taking Dragon Age Inquisition as reference, an example of “fantasy” could be “become the Inquisitor” – this not only serves as a marketing tagline, but also as a guideline of the development itself. From there, all mechanics should respond to that idea.
A game like Max Payne could also illustrate this idea further. “Thinking about narrative, I think Max Payne was quite innovative with its comic book storytelling cinematics and its bullet-time gameplay,” says Brooke Maggs, senior narrative designer at Remedy Games. “There weren't too many hard boiled detective games on the market at the time, so Max Payne felt fresh and original. It was also gritty and almost literary in its storytelling.”
As a result, one could see the core being the bullet-time gameplay, the focus around a serious detective story, and the power in the comic book-style cutscenes.
“I’m always fascinated by these ‘high level’ concepts,” Novell continues, “such as the general design direction from Souls-like games, which might seem punishing, but hide a reason, which is an established core that leads for everything else to aim toward that direction.”
These concepts are often the reason behind the creation of new mechanics. Game design innovations can sometimes be a by-product of existing features or ideas, which is the natural course of any art form, where iteration can lead to new discoveries. In some cases, these kickstart new pillars altogether that we end up witnessing in many of the games we know today.
“I like to joke and say that a junior game designer who goes to work at 'From Software' will have a bad time,” Novell says. “They exit college with the knowledge of conventional tools such as ‘difficulty curve’, ‘flow state’, or progress structures, and 'From Software' ignores all of these. But this is due to the fact that the design needs to be capable of bending the rules, generating others that are more focused on the game’s own objective in the process.”
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