Wandering the densely packed showfloor at E3 this month, it was tempting to think that nothing about video games has changed much over the past few years.
This gigantic video game show, which attracts 40,000 publishers, developers, players and journalists every year, is an unashamedly mainstream event – a raucous celebration of multimillion dollar mega brands all attempting to out-hype each other.
But there were more subtle trends to observe beneath the simulated gunfire, sword clashes and engine noise. The rise of independent video games and the influence of smartphones and social media are all having an effect on game creators, even in the biggest Triple A brands like Call of Duty and Assassin's Creed.
So here are five of the most of the most transformative ideas bubbling under the surface of video game design.
One of the most expensive and time consuming elements of game creation is generating the assets needed to fill a game's environment. Vast teams of artists and animators work for years to create realistic cities, buildings and vehicles. But as games grow in size, that approach will become less tenable. This is one reason why dozens of developers are experimenting with procedural content generation (PCG), in which the computer is given the parameters for design and then allowed to make pretty much everything itself. The building game Minecraft is the key example, of course – its blocky worlds are generated via algorithms that understand the basic requirements of a natural landscape.
At E3, the biggest examples were space exploration games like Elite: Dangerous and No Man's Sky, which both generate vast galaxies for the player to fly through. However, the concept underpinned dozens of titles on the E3 showfloor this year, especially smaller indie projects like Road Not Taken. It's not a new idea, of course (the most influential procedurally generated game, Rogue, was developed in 1980), but increasing processing power means developers are able to be much more ambitious. Indeed, PCG is now being used to generate stories and characters as well as environments. Titles like Red Dead Redemption and Elder Scrolls: Skyrim have featured procedurally generated side-quests in the past, but it's not inconceivable that games could one day create epic missions and narratives each time a game loads up providing every player with a unique experience.
Multiplayer games used to be either cooperative (all the participants work together) or competitive (the participants fight each other) and the two largely existed a part. Not anymore. This E3 saw the intense sci-fi shooter Evolve, which allows four players to become hunters and another player to take control of the alien beast they're looking to take down. Similarly, in the role-playing fantasy Fable: Legends, four player become adventurers working together to explore, while another person acts as a sort of "Dungeon Master", organising the enemy creatures and laying down traps.
We may well see this concept becoming more complex as game makers continue to explore the connectivity between console/PC games and portable devices like smartphones and tablets. Last year's first-person shooter Battlefield 4 allowed one player to become a commander overseeing the battle area on a tablet computer, and using the touch display to point out enemies and arrange air strikes; the Nintendo Wii U is actually built around this whole idea of "second screen" functionality, in which one player with the GamePad device has a different view than the other participants.
It's likely the next generation of games will explore the idea of asymmetrical interaction further, allowing players to find their own specialist roles within virtual worlds, based on their skills and preferences.
Activision's ambitious space opera Destiny is likely to be the most expensive video game ever made ($500m and counting), and much of that money is going into the seamless multiplayer functionality. Players are able to explore the game's vast landscapes alone, but they will often run into areas where they're suddenly matched with other people online and can choose to play in special missions with them. There will also be dedicated player vs player combat areas, which can be accessed within the game, without having to go through a special play mode or lobby system. It's the same in Sunset Overdrive, a colourful shooter for Xbox One, set in a small town suddenly filled with dangerous mutants. At any point, participants can enter a phone box in the single-player mode and access a multiplayer competitive game, just like that.
Meanwhile, action adventure games like Dark Souls and Watch Dogs have various ways in which other players can temprarily access your lone campaign, and vice versa, introducing interesting social mechanics; and driving games like Forza and DriveClub are continuing to blur the lines between racing against computer-controlled cars and other players – thanks in part to the arrival of cloud-based servers and persistent online worlds, which make it easy for games to seamlessly connect players into ad-hoc social spaces.
In the future, every monster you fight in a game could be controlled by another player, and at any point, you could invite a friend of stranger to play beside you, or against you. The old divisions between the story mode and the multiplayer mode could disappear forever.
Gamers aren't just players anymore – they want to share and create as much as consume. Both the Xbox One and the PlayStaton 4 are designed to allow owners to very quickly broadcast their gaming experiences over the web, either live on the popular Twitch service or recorded, via YouTube. In short, games are becoming a spectator event, both through content streaming, and through the rise of e-sports, professional gaming tournaments viewed by millions across the world. Even for those not good enough to go pro, it's not just about trying to win anymore, it's about doing it stylishly and then showing off to friends. Increasingly, designers are incorporating this into the very mechanics of their games.
At the same time, titles like Minecraft, The Sims and LittleBigPlanet have encouraged players to create their own worlds, missions, levels and ideas – and to share these with others. Level editors have been around for years, but now it's much easier for players to share their creations with others. At E3 this year we saw the introduction of a level editor to ultraviolent indie sequel Hotline Miami 2, and the announcement of Mario Maker, a game that lets fans create their own Super Mario platform levels.
Games aren't just about consumption, they are now very much about community and creativity. As game creation tools like Game Maker, Twine and Game Salad become more accessible, the barriers between designer and player are falling away.
The idea of cross-platform functionality – i.e. a game that can work across many different formats from consoles to phones – has been around for several years. However, as publishers seek to tie customers in to a limited number of super brands, it's likely to become much more common. The availability of vast cloud-based online infrastructures means that game worlds can now sit on servers rather than on individual devices – so there's no reason you can't start playing a game on your PlayStation 4, then get on a bus and keep playing it on your Vita or smartphone, before going to a friends house and picking it up on their tablet.
Square Enix for example, is working on a networking technology it calls Project Flare, which in theory would allow for vast fantasy gaming worlds, up to 32km x 32km, stored on the cloud and accessible from an array of devices.
It's also likely that games will continue to exploit and explore the conventions developed by search and social media giants like Google, Facebook and Apple. On a basic level, this will mean location-specific weather conditions in games (i.e. if it's raining outside, it's raining in your game), but if you look at the 3DS and Vita location-based multiplayer elements – which show you if there are people neaby playing the same games as you – we're entering into interesting social gaming territory. Add in push notifications and augmented reality features, and in the future, we're likely to see many more games that stay with you all the time, and react to where you are.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010