February 3, 2013 by mattjozanovic
Set the controller down and absorb the awesomeness of what you’re doing, how you’re doing it, and what gaming used to be like twenty five years ago.
Gaming has changed a lot over the last few decades. Improved visuals, AI, physics, and voice acting have all played their part in evolving gaming from being a kid’s (or big kid’s) hobby into a full-fledged entertainment medium. There are literally hundreds of nuances which make up gaming as we know it. The following seven innovations are often overlooked, but are integral to the gaming experience of today.
Remember the days when console games had to be completed in one sitting? Games like Contra and Ninja Gaiden were brutal affairs, and gameplay was as fast as it was difficult. You hear older gamers talk about how awesome they are because saving wasn’t an option. There was no hard-drive, optional or built-in. There was no space for a memory card of any sort. The only way to have a game that would save progress was to have it built into every cartridge, which was very expensive for developers and publishers at the time. When cartridges began including a game-save option, there were often no checkpoints or auto-saves, meaning that players had to repeat huge sections of the game until achieving “the perfect run”. It’s easy to see how this very important gaming innovation can be overlooked and taken for granted as a basic component of any video game. But that wasn’t always the case.
Regenerating health isn’t realistic. Just wait for five seconds, and all of your bullet wounds will heal themselves just like you’re good old Wolverine. However, instant health packs and eating whole turkeys off the ground don’t make that much more sense either. This gaming innovation was popularized by games like Halo: Combat Evolved. It has since then permeated almost every large game franchise in one way or another. This innovation allows the player feel like he can overcome every challenge through skill, cover, and a little bit of planning. It gave the player this sense of power that goes a long way with keeping the player in the game without frustration.
When you think about it, today’s game protagonists are pretty much immortal. You rarely see the words “Game Over” anymore. Instead, if your character meets an untimely demise, he will simply be ushered to the last checkpoint, which won’t be too far behind. If the character dies a certain number of times, some games will politely offer to lower the difficulty. While some may see this as coddling the player, it is a far better solution than games have had in the past. Having infinite lives removes an artificial difficulty parameter left over from arcade days. It turns a game into being able to complete challenges, instead of not being able to complete challenges in seven tries. And I for one would be glad to never see “Continue?” in another game. It also provided players with an opportunity to finish games in a reasonable amount of time.
Jim Carrey’s character in the Cable Guy once said in the future you would be able to “…play Mortal Kombat with a friend from Vietnam. There’s no end to the possibilities!” He was right. While two-player games have existed since the inception of video games (Tennis for Two, Pong) global multiplayer has always been one of the holy grails of gaming. Only through improved networking technology and widespread use of broadband internet is that dream now a reality. Whether you love taking on hoards of enemies with your friends or dominating total strangers in Call of Duty, online multiplayer makes it possible. It turns a solitary experience into a social one. Online multiplayer also has given rise to several new genres that wouldn’t be possible before, including MMOs, free-to-play first person shooters, and DOTA-style competitive games like League of Legends.
Not too long ago, the control scheme that the developers come up with was what gamers had to contend with. No ifs, ands, or buts. If the control layout turned out to be terrible, a perfectly good game could be ruined. Inverted aim? Get used to it. Using a trigger to walk? Have fun. Back button to throw a grenade? Makes perfect sense. Today, almost every game features some level of customizable controls. Whether it means choosing from a list of presets or finely tuning each and every input to the player’s liking, control schemes are no longer the frustrating challenge they once were. It puts the responsibility in the player’s hands. If you don’t like the controls, change them. Customizable controls are also particularly useful for disabled gamers who may require unorthodox control schemes to get the same enjoyment out of games.
It was a brilliant idea. Combine a joystick and a gamepad. But it wasn’t a reality until 1996 when the N64 launched with its marquee title, Super Mario 64. Shigeru Miyamoto demanded a control method for moving in a fully 3D environment, and the people at Nintendo came up with the revolutionary N64 controller. Sony responded with the dualshock controller, featuring two thumb-sticks. It worked so well that it has become the go-to method of navigating in 3D on all modern console devices including Xbox 360, PS3, PS Vita, Wii, Wii-U, and even the 3DS has a thumb-stick attachment. In short, thumb-sticks make 3D movement and navigation nearly effortless.
When Microsoft brought achievements, they probably never realized what kind of effect that would have on gamers. In the beginning of the 360’s life-cycle reaction to the concept of achievements ranged from bemusement to apathy. As the system gained traction, achievements introduced several psychological hooks in gamers:
1. Giving the player more ways to play the game.
2. Giving the player a point at which he can consider his experience with a game complete (Getting every achievement).
3. Adding to the player’s total “gamerscore”, a quantifiable number easily compared to other players.
Achievements in effect create a meta-game out of all games. World of Warcraft, Steam and PS3 introduced some form of cross-game achievements too. Playing older, trophy-less PS3 games somehow feels like less of a complete experience. Achievements are simply a bonus that adds value to every game.
What are some of your favorite innovations?