Just over a month ago I happened on a post from David V. Stewart which was very similar to something I had been contemplating on modern gaming. His post dates 2007 as Ground Zero for video games because that was the year when innovation in game development essentially froze. Almost all the most successful series that year saw major releases that set the staple for what was to follow. Games have gotten much prettier since but there hasn’t been any major shifts in game design since. Stewart admits that dating it here has its imperfections and allows for significant releases in the previous and the following year.
Making these declarations is always open to criticism by pedants though and the year is a sound enough place to set a marker. Who could plausibly claim for example, that the Call of Duty series has seen significant evolution since 2007’s Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare? How have RPGs changed in any significant way since Mass Effect? That’s just two of the games from the list. I should also add here that this applies to the mainstream or AAA games and that the lower budget or indie games have been far more innovative though even they seem to have fallen into a rut of late.
What has certainly happened since though is a refinement of the properties that (mostly) released around 2007. This is more along the lines of what I was thinking before I noticed David’s post. I would put 2009’s Batman: Arkham Asylum as the model game for the trends that have followed. There are other examples of games from the list that also came out in 2009 and refined the formulas of the games released that year without changing them. Two of these are Uncharted 2: Among Thieves and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. Both of these titles were critically and commercially more successful than their predecessors with simple refinements to the gameplay. Gears of War 2 and Mass Effect 2 also did this but landed on either side of 2009 — see you can’t have a perfect model!
Batman: Arkham Asylum was a different beast though and not just because it was the start of a new franchise. Its core game design is what I really want to focus on as it has been extremely influential. It was a great game in its own right, due to its thoughtful adaptation of the Batman comics to a video game format. It allows the player to silently take down bad guys or get into massive brawls with them. You get Batman’s gadgets which are given to you sequentially making each new one acquired a novelty. You even get to play the detective though this probably a weaker aspect as it mostly just involves following a very scripted set of breadcrumbs from time to time. As well as this, the setting gives the perfect opportunity for Batman to encounter a large number of the Gotham rogue’s gallery and the history of the characters is lovingly catalogued through in-game collectables. I must also add the excellent voicework from Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy.
Arkham Asylum wouldn’t crack my personal top ten but I still consider it one of the best games ever made. The problem isn’t so much with the game itself though but more with how influential it was. Most of the games that Stewart mentioned in his post did something old particularly well if not being genuinely pioneering in their own right. Arkham Asylum took most of these features and very successfully amalgamated them into one game.
The game features the following:
- Semi-open world/open world
- Climbing and puzzle mechanics
- Character progression/upgrade or experience mechanic
- Heavily story driven — linear narrative despite open world
- Weapon and equipment upgrades awarded through story progression
- Quick-time/button mashing mechanics during gameplay or cinematics
- Third-person perspective
- Relatively simple combat with rhythmic/timed elements
- Map screen
- A plethora of mostly useless or optional collectables
I could make this post a lot longer by pointing to games where these features come from but it isn’t really necessary. The only thing to be taken away is that Batman: Arkham Asylum implemented these all very well and inspired a lot of imitators. The most notable is probably the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot which wasn’t lost on me when I reviewed the game at the time of its release. I noted then that it could be considered the “Game of the Generation” in that it combined so much of what defined the seventh generation of video game consoles.
The only problem is it didn’t just define that generation. Ten years after Arkham Asylum, Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order released in late 2019. This was the game that put what has now become this post in mind. It features most of the features above and a few more additions from both the Uncharted and FromSoftware’s Souls series.
Fallen Order is by no means a bad game, it is just indicative of a complete lack of imagination among game developers and publishers. Arkham Asylum played to the franchise and did it well. Fallen Order has you climbing rocky surfaces, fighting monstrous creatures, traversing tight spaces (presumably for background loading), and collecting cosmetic pieces for your lightsaber. There are still plenty of moments when you use the Force, toy with Storm Troopers and go toe-to-toe with the Empire’s finest but these are surprisingly infrequent when they should be the focus.
The problem seems to me (and this is just conjecture), at the executive level. The suits see what sells and give the developers a list of what they want to see. The developers as earnest as they may be, must steer development towards meeting the kind of dot points I listed above. This has no doubt been common for a long time to game development but when over a decade has elapsed with the same kind of design, there is clearly a problem.
Tomb Raider 2013’s two sequels both traversed the same ground and even today, the games are fundamentally designed the same. There really haven’t been any genuine changes in AAA development. Ubisoft’s games (most notoriously Far Cry and Assassin’s Creed) are largely distinguished by their titles, setting and the camera perspective for the player. The long awaited sequel to Beyond Good & Evil remains in limbo as of writing as do many of the other fantastic IPs they own.
The cowboy days of PC development with companies like id Software only exist within indie gaming. The Arkham games themselves did little more than expand in scope and Warner Bros. made almost exactly the same thing again in the Shadow of Mordor games. Even Nintendo seems far more responsive to gaming trends than it ever used to be. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was certainly a fantastic game but it was also one that adopted many elements listed above — only with the beautiful finish unique only to Nintendo.
As I write, I am playing Spider-Man for PlayStation 4 and it is a fun game but a fun game that checks most of the features I listed above. This is the real problem because most of the games are still fun but are becoming almost as familiar as yearly sports titles. Call of Duty has already been doing this for years without hyperbole. As most of these games still sell well, it is not likely to be a problem publishers take notice of any time soon — but it is a problem. Mainstream games today differ very little to what they did over a decade ago. This has not something that could be said until very recently. Consider simply how much changed during the 70s, 80s and 90s — it wasn’t just processing power.