50 greatest game design innovations
From gameplay, to presentation to input devices, videogames are a hotbed of innovation. Ernest Adams notes 50 game design innovations, some that have already made their impact, and others that will shape the future of the medium…
Fifty years ago William Higinbotham built the first videogame with an oscilloscope and some analog circuitry. While games have changed enormously since then, even today’s AAA blockbusters owe some of their success to design innovations made years earlier. In this article I’m going to look at 50 design advances that I feel were especially important, or will prove to be some day. Many of them are actually enhancements to older forms of play; sports, driving, and shooting go back to fairground games and mechanical coin-ops. Other genres, such as turn-based strategy, logic puzzles, and RPGs, began life on the dining room table. We have improved these earlier games in many ways, and the computer has allowed us to create new genres that would be impossible in any other medium.
Unfortunately the true innovator of a design idea is often forgotten, while a particularly successful later game gets the credit. For example, more people remember Pong than remember Ralph Baer’s non-computerized design for the Magnavox Odyssey, even though Baer’s work came first. To correct this tendency, I’ll list both the original inventor of the idea (if I could find it) and the best-known early example of the innovation. I don’t promise to be right all the time; corrections are welcome.
By gameplay I mean the challenges that the game poses to the player, and the actions that the player may take to meet the challenges. The vast majority of these actions are obvious: jumping, steering, fighting, building, trading and so on. But some challenges and actions distinctly advanced the state of the art, and provided new ways for us to play.
The earliest computer games didn’t offer exploration. Many were simulations set in one location, or afforded movement only through trivial spaces (e.g. Hunt the Wumpus, 1972). We eventually borrowed exploration from tabletop role-playing and turned it into extravaganzas like BioShock. True exploration provides ongoing novelty as you enter unfamiliar areas, and lets you make choices based on clues in the environment. It’s a different sort of challenge from combat, and attracts players who enjoy being virtual tourists. Probable first use: Colossal Cave, aka Adventure, 1975.
Storytelling is the subject of more acrimonious debate than any other design feature of videogames, even including the save-game issue. Should we do it or not, and if so, how? What does it mean? Is it even possible to do well? —and so on. Bottom line: not every game needs a story, but they’re here to stay. Without a story, a game is just an abstraction—which can be enough to engage the player, but isn’t always. First use is often attributed to Colossal Cave, but that was really a treasure-hunt without a plot. Possible first use: Akalabeth, precursor to the Ultima series, or Mystery House, both released in 1980.
Let’s face it, most action games are about force. Even when confronted with overwhelmingly powerful enemies, your only option is to avoid their killing shots while grinding away at them or searching for their vulnerable spots. In stealth play the idea is to never even let the enemies know you’re there, and it requires a completely different approach from the usual Rambo-style mayhem. Best-known early example: Thief: The Dark Project, 1998. First use: unknown.
4. Avatars with their own personalities.
If you weren’t around in the early days this one might surprise you. The first adventure games, and most other computer games too, described the world as if you, the player, were actually in the game—not a representation of you, but you. Consequently, the games could make no assumptions about your age, sex, social position, or anything else—which meant that NPC interactions with your avatar were always rather bland. The early video games, too, mostly displayed vehicles (Asteroids, Space Invaders) or no avatar at all (Pong, Night Driver). Avatars with independent personalities required you to identify with someone different from yourself, but they increased the dramatic possibilities in games enormously. Best-known early example: Pac-Man, 1980 (if you can call that a personality; otherwise, Jumpman, aka Mario, in Donkey Kong, 1981). Possible first use: Midway’s Gun Fight coin-op, 1975.
In most party-based RPGs and shooters like Ghost Recon, you can control any of the characters individually, but that’s not really leadership. The true challenge of leadership is delegating to others who might disobey you, especially when you have to take over an existing team without any choice about who’s in it. The strengths and weaknesses of your people determine how well they succeed at the tasks you give them, so judging their characters and abilities becomes a critical skill. A little-known but excellent example is King of Dragon Pass, 1999. Best-known early example: Close Combat, 1996. First use: unknown.
Not new with computer games—the board game Diplomacy was first published in 1959. The big problem for computers has always been making credible AI for computer opponents, but we’re starting to get this right. As with leadership, diplomacy is more about judgment of character than counting hit points. Best-known early example: Civilization, 1991. Probable first use: Balance of Power, 1986.
7. Mod support.
Modding is a form of gameplay; it’s creative play with the meta-game. The earliest games weren’t just moddable, they were open-source, since their source code was printed in magazines like Creative Computing. When we began to sell computer games, their code naturally became a trade secret. Opening commercial games up to modding was a brilliant move, as it extended the demand for a game engine far beyond what it would have been if players were limited to the content that came in the box. Best-known early example: Doom, 1993. Probable first use: The Arcade Machine, 1982, which was a construction set for arcade-like games. Purists may debate whether construction set products count as moddable games, but the key point is that they enlisted the player to build content—long before “Web 2.0” or indeed the Web itself.
8. Smart NPCs with brains and senses.
In an early 2D turn-based game called Chase, you were trapped in a cage filled with electric fences and some robots trying to kill you. All the robots did was move towards you. If you could get behind an electric fence, they’d walk into it and fry—and that was the sum total of NPC intelligence for about ten years. Then we began to implement characters with vision and hearing and limits to both. We also gave them rudimentary brainpower in the form of finite state machines and, eventually, the ability to cooperate. Some of the most sophisticated NPC AI is now in sports games, where athletes have to work in concert to achieve a collective goal. I consider this a design feature, as it’s something designers asked for and programmers figured out how to implement. First use: unknown.
9. Dialog tree (scripted) conversations.
Early efforts to include interactive conversation in computer games were pretty dire. The parsers in text adventures were okay for commands (“GIVE DOUGHNUT TO COP”) but not for ordinary speech (“Hey, mister, do you know anybody around here who can sell me an Amulet of Improved Dentistry+5?”). With a dialog tree the game gives you a choice of pre-written lines to say, and the character you’re talking to responds appropriately. If the game allows it, you can role-play a bit by choosing the lines that most closely match the attitude you want to express. Written well, scripted conversations read like natural dialog and can be funny, dramatic, and even moving. The hilarious insult-driven sword fights in the Monkey Island games are sterling examples of the form. First use: unknown.
10. Multi-level gameplay.
With a board game everything usually takes place on the same board, as in Monopoly or Risk. Computer games (and tabletop RPGs) often let you switch between two modes, from high-level strategy to low-level tactics. And only a computer can let you zoom in and out to any level you want—as Spore apparently will do. Are you a micromanager or a master of strategy who doesn’t sweat the small stuff? Different games demand different approaches. Best-known early example: Archon: The Light and the Dark, 1983. First use: unknown.
A small game within a big game, usually optional, sometimes not. Not the same as multi-level gameplay; a mini-game feels very different from its parent. WarioWare consists of nothing but mini-games. Mini-games often destroy the player’s immersion, but offer a different set of challenges from those in the overall game. Sometimes the mini-game is actually better than the overall game. First use: unknown.
12. Multiple difficulty levels.
Designer John Harris has observed that older games, especially coin-ops, were intended to measure the player’s skill, while the newer approach is to provide the player with an experience regardless of his skill level. The old-fashioned school of thought is that the player is the designer’s opponent; the new school is that the player is your audience. By offering multiple difficulty levels, we make games available to larger audiences, which also includes handicapped players. First use: unknown.
13. Reversible time.
Saving and reloading is one thing, but sometimes what you really want is what as kids we used to call a “do-over”-a chance to correct an error without the hassle of a reload or going back a long way in the game world. Best-known example: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, 2003. When you made a mistake, you could reverse time for ten seconds. To prevent you from using it continually, each usage costs you a certain amount of sand, which has to be replenished by defeating enemies. The game also let the player see into the future to help with upcoming puzzles, another clever innovation. Possible first use: Blinx: The Time Sweeper, 2002, in which collecting up crystals in various combinations gives the player a variety of one-shot time control commands.
14. Coupled avatars.
In this slightly oddball innovation, you play an action or action-adventure game using two quite different avatars with complementary abilities. Sometimes they work together as one; at other times you have to choose which to use, or are required to use one or the other. Not the same as two separate avatars like Sonic and Tails. Possible first use: Banjo-Kazooie, 1998.
15. Sandbox modes.
The term refers to a mode of play in which you can fool around in a game’s world without being required to meet a particular objective. By far the best-known sandbox modes are in the later Grand Theft Auto games, contributing greatly to their popularity. Sandbox mode is normally used to describe special modes within otherwise goal-oriented games, not open-ended games like SimCity. Sandbox modes also sometimes afford emergent behavior, events arising in a game’s world that were not planned or predicted by the designer. First use: unknown.
16. Physics puzzles.
Many real-world games involve physics, but they’re usually tests of skill. The computer lets us create physics puzzles, in which you try to figure out how to accomplish a task using the physical properties of simulated objects. They’re about brainpower, not hand-eye coordination. Possible first use: The Incredible Machine, 1992.
17. Interactive drama.
There’s only one of these, but someday its descendants will change the world. Façade is a first-person 3D game released in 2005. In Façade you play the friend of a couple whose marriage is in trouble. You visit their apartment for an evening and converse with them by typing real English sentences; they respond with recorded audio. Depending on what you say, you can influence their relationship—get them to reconcile, cause one or the other to leave, or even anger them so much that they throw you out. It’s role-playing in the real meaning of the term: no stats, no combat, no treasure, just dramatic interactions—with a couple’s future happiness at stake. Many designers consider the “holonovels” from Star Trek: The Next Generation to be the holy grail of interactive storytelling; Façade is an important advance on the quest.
Interactivity is the essence of gaming, and in a videogame, some device has to translate the player’s intentions into action. We’ve always had buttons, knobs (aka spinners or paddles), joysticks, sliders, triggers, steering wheels and pedals. But recently our options for input devices have exploded, and a good designer gives careful thought to them before choosing an approach to use.
18. Independent movement and aiming.
Early games restricted the avatar to shooting in the direction that it was facing—as in Asteroids, for example. Separating movement from aiming requires a second joystick, which substantially increases the physical coordination required of the player, but offers more freedom for both player and designer. Probable first use: Robotron: 2084 coin-op, 1982.
The mouse changed the way players interact with spaces and the objects within them. Although now considered dated, point-and-click made adventure games much more accessible than the older “guess the verb” parser-based system. Best-known early example: Maniac Mansion, 1987; the SCUMM engine devised for it is still in use by independent developers. Probable first use: Enchanted Scepters for the Macintosh, 1984. The Mac was the first personal computer to routinely ship with a mouse.
20. Mouse+WASD keys for 3D first-person movement.
This is so much the best way to move a first-person avatar in a 3D space that, until we get virtual reality gear that really works, there is no reason to consider anything else. Dual-joystick setups on controllers can’t match it for precision. First use: unknown.
21. Speech recognition (and other microphone support).
Which is the more exciting: yelling “Company A, charge!” or drawing a box with your mouse around Company A, then clicking a menu item labeled CHARGE? I rest my case. And hollering at your buddies (or at your enemies)—or singing with them—can be a big part of the fun too. Probable first use: Echelon for Commodore 64, 1987.
22. Specialized I/O devices for music (not counting MIDI keyboards).
Part technology, part design, advancements in I/O devices have changed the way we play, especially in musical games. Making music and dancing to it is an intensely physical activity that doesn’t easily translate to joysticks and typewriter keyboards. Maracas, conga drums, the Guitar Hero controller—all great fun. Possible first use: dance mats in Dance Dance Revolution, 1998.
23. Gestural interfaces.
Many cultures imbue gestures with supernatural or symbolic power, from Catholics crossing themselves to the mudras of Hindu and Buddhist iconography. Magic is often invoked with gestures, too—that’s part of what magic wands are for. The problem with a lot of videogame magic is that clicking icons and pushing buttons feels more technical than magical. The gestural interface is a comparatively recent invention that gives us a non-verbal, non-technical way to express ourselves. Best-known example: Wii controller. Probable first use: Black & White, 2001.
24. Reconfigurable controls and other accessibility features.
When you get used to a certain controller or keyboard setup, you want to be able to use it in every analogous game. PC games now routinely allow players to remap the commands on their input devices, but this is not yet as common as it should be on console machines. For people with hand problems it can be vital. Unfortunately, game developers have almost completely ignored the needs of the handicapped—to our lasting shame. We’re finally starting to get a clue. Among the other useful innovations here are: subtitles for the hearing-impaired; separate volume controls for music and sound effects; adjustable brightness and contrast controls; alternative color palettes to help the color-blind; settable game speed. The slogan of accessible game design is there’s no such thing as “too slow.”
Innovations in what the player sees and hears may depend heavily on technological advances, but I still consider them design innovations as well, features the designer can choose to use in their game—or not. I take static and scrolling 2D screens for granted; they already existed in mechanical coin-ops.
25. Isometric perspective, also sometimes called “three-quarters perspective.”
After years of side-view or top-view videogames, the isometric perspective provoked gasps of astonishment when it first appeared. It created a sense of three-dimensionality that had been sorely lacking from games to that point. For the first time, players could see both the tops and the sides of objects in a natural way, rather than through awkward “cheated” sprites, and could even move around objects to see them from the other side, if the designer had provided that feature. Best-known early example: Populous, 1989. Probable first use: Zaxxon coin-op, 1982.
26. First person perspective.
First person lends immediacy like no other point of view. When an enemy points a gun at you, it’s really at you—right in your face. The big tradeoff is that you don’t get to see your avatar, so visually dramatic activities such as traversing hand-over-hand along a telephone wire lose their impact. First person doesn’t have to mean true 3D; the earliest examples didn’t allow fully 3D movement or tilting up and down. Best-known early example: Battlezone coin-op, 1980. Probable first use: Maze Wars, developed at NASA on the Imlac minicomputer, 1973.
27. Third person perspective.
Controlling your avatar as seen from behind, looking over its shoulder. The camera follows wherever the avatar goes. Like first person, third person doesn’t necessarily require a true 3D space, but it has to seem like one. This innovation was important because it allowed you to watch a heroic character doing his stuff from a natural viewpoint, unlike the older side-scrolling and top-scrolling perspectives. The tradeoff is that the avatar obscures your view of part of the world, which can be awkward in shooting games. Best-known early example: Tomb Raider, 1996. First use: unknown. Viewpoints that follow vehicles as in Pole Position, 1982, are more properly defined as chase views.
28. Cut scenes.
Love ’em or hate ’em, they’re part of the gaming landscape. They give players a rest between periods of activity, allow them to see the game world from a viewpoint that doesn’t have to be playable (and is often more attractive), and of course can tell a story. Best-known early example: Maniac Mansion, 1987. Probable first use: Pac-Man, 1979.
29. True 3D.
We used to fake 3D viewpoints a lot, usually because we didn’t have the CPU power to provide the real thing. Doom was a very clever fake. 3D doesn’t always improve gameplay—consider Lemmings versus Lemmings 3D—but its impact on gaming is incalculable. Even mobile phones are starting to get 3D accelerators. Best-known early example: Microsoft Flight Simulator v1.0, 1982. Probable first use in a game: SPASIM, a Star Trek-themed multiplayer mainframe game, 1974. These were possible only because of the extremely limited number of objects in the landscape.
30. Context-sensitive camera.
A natural advancement on the third person perspective, a context-sensitive camera moves intelligently to follow the action. This enables the designer to use a cinematographer’s skills to present the game from the best angle at every moment. Context-sensitive cameras are excellent for adventure and slower-paced action-adventure games. In fast games, however, there’s a risk that sudden camera movements will be disorienting—to control events at speed, you need a predictable viewpoint. Best-known example: ICO, 2001. First use: unknown. Pre-rendered backdrops (as in point-and-click adventures) and player-controlled cameras (as in Gabriel Knight 3) aren’t the same thing.
31. Procedural landscape generation.
This technique enables designers to create large play spaces without having to build them by hand. If it’s done on the fly, they don’t even have to store them, which was important in the early machines. Best-known early example: Seven Cities of Gold, 1984. Probable first use: River Raid, 1982.
32. Interchangeable dialog playback (aka “stitching”).
This is the practice of assembling audio clips together to produce seamless dialog with varying content. We use it to create credible play-by-play in sports games, where the names of different athletes have to be inserted into the commentary. It has done a lot to create a truly television-like experience. Best-known early example: Hardball III, 1992. Probable first use: 3rd Degree for the CD-i player, 1992.
33. Adaptive music.
Everyone recognizes the power of music to create a mood. In videogames, the trick is to change the music in response to game events, and of course the composer can’t know in advance when they might occur. One approach is simply to play a new track on demand, but the transition can be jarring if not done well. Another approach is layering—mixing harmonizing pieces of music together and changing their volumes in response to the needs of the game. Best-known early example: Wing Commander, 1990. Possible first use: Way Out for the Atari 800, 1982.
34. Bullet time.
Adjustable time has long been standard in flight simulators; it lets you speed up game-world time in order to get through dull periods quickly. Bullet time is a later innovation. It slows time down while still letting you act quickly, so it creates a feeling of super-speed to go with the more common game sensations of super-strength or super-toughness. Best-known early example: Max Payne, 2001. Possible first use: Requiem: Avenging Angel, 1999.
35. Deformable environments.
Here’s a classic game absurdity: a huge explosion destroys a tank, but does nothing to the walls and windows nearby. Deformable environments correct this and let you literally change the world. This feature poses a risk to a game’s level design because you may be able to get into places the designer didn’t expect you to; but it makes the world much more realistic and lets you solve problems in your own way. Possible first use: Magic Carpet, 1994.
36. Clever indicators for unusual attributes.
Health, speed, mana, lives, ammunition, fuel, and so on all use pretty standard screen indicators: power bars, digits, gauges, repeating small images. Many are borrowed from real-world devices. But what about other, less obvious attributes? Over the years we’ve devised a variety of clever ways to display them—too many to list, so I’m lumping them all together. Some personal favorites: the flickering light in Thief: The Dark Project that indicates how “noticeable” your avatar is; the crosshairs that grow farther apart to indicate reduced weapon accuracy while you’re moving in shooter games; blurring the screen and rendering the controls unreliable to convey that the avatar is drunk or drugged.
We borrowed many videogame genres from other game forms, but a few genres would not have been possible before the invention of the computer, and represent real design innovation.
37. Construction and management simulations.
Both LEGO blocks and business management games predate the computer, but videogames put the two ideas together for the first time. Best-known early example: SimCity, 1989. Probable first use: Utopia for the Mattel Intellivision, 1982.
38. Real-time strategy games.
Turn-based computer war games had their roots in classics like the Avalon Hill board games, and many of them looked like board games too, with square counters representing units on a hexagonal grid. The addition of real time play made strategy gaming far more accessible to the general public, although purists would complain that RTS games replace true strategy with rapid mouse clicking and resource management. Best-known early example: The Ancient Art of War, 1984. Probable first use: Stonkers for the ZX Spectrum, 1983. A related genre is real-time tactics, games that concentrate on individual battlefields (e.g. the Total War series) and eliminate the resource-manufacturing aspects of RTS games.
39. Fighting games.
Apart from real-world sports and the 1960’s toy Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots, I can’t find any examples of fighting games that predated the videogame. Many games include fighting elements, but true fighting games concentrate on mêlée combat without exploration or puzzle-solving. Fighting games have moved so far beyond real-life martial arts (incorporating magic powers, fictitious weapons, and unrealistic physics) that they constitute a major innovation of their own. There are now many sub-genres, but the common element is hand-to-hand fighting without ranged weapons. Possible first use: Heavyweight Champ coin-op, 1976. Best-known early example: Street Fighter, 1987.
40. Rhythm, dance and music games.
Timing challenges are as old as Pong, but games specifically based on rhythm arrived comparatively recently. Games about making music are increasingly popular too. By avoiding mindless repetitive violence, they also attract a larger female audience. Best-known early example: PaRappa the Rapper, 1996. Possible first use: Tempo for Sega 32X, 1995. (Music Construction Set, 1984, doesn’t count as a game.)
41. Artificial pets and people.
People love watching little critters live their lives, especially if you don’t have to feel guilty about letting them die (or if they’re immortal and can’t die at all). Training and nurturing them and buying trinkets for them are all part of the fun. The Sims is the best-selling PC game of all time; Nintendogs is a massive hit on the Nintendo DS. Possible first use: Little Computer People, 1985. Best-known early example: Dogz, 1995.
42. God games.
This genre is a mashup of construction and management simulations, real-time strategy games, and artificial life games, with some extra qualities all its own. In a god game, you assume the role of the god of a group of people, and your job is (mostly) to help them prosper. The key features are indirect control—you can influence your worshippers through your actions, but you cannot give them explicit orders—and divine powers such as changing the landscape or causing natural disasters. God games let us make volcanoes on demand; what more need I say? Probable first use: Populous, 1989. (Some people consider Utopia, 1982, to be a god game, but I class it as a CMS because the player’s powers aren’t truly godly. The claims of the Firaxis PR department notwithstanding, Civilization is not a god game.)
43. Social and dating games (with or without sex).
I can only find one non-computerized dating game, Milton Bradley’s 1965 board game Mystery Date. Computerized dating sims are a major phenomenon in Japan. Many use dialog tree conversation, in which saying the right thing to a prospective partner leads to a closer relationship. Some have complex systems of attributes not unlike those in role-playing games, but the attributes describe a character’s romantic appeal rather than his ability to whack monsters. Possible first use: D?çky?´sei (Classmates), 1992.
44. Interactive movies.
This genre came and went, and good riddance to it. It’s a world-changing design innovation because it proved so clearly to be a creative dead end that everybody knows not to make interactive movies any more—although the term is still used at times to describe the cinematic quality of games in other genres. Interactive movies taught us, by negative example, that gameplay comes first, period. The CD-ROM drive first made them possible, and in their heyday, they sold tons…until the novelty of watching tiny, grainy videos wore off. Best-known early example: The 7th Guest, 1993. Probable first use: Dragon’s Lair coin-op, 1983.
45. “Games for girls” (not women).
The game industry ignored girls entirely for most of its early history. In the mid-1990s there was a short-lived vogue for making games for girls, but it was mostly marketing hype and a lot of girls got ripped off by shoddy products in pink boxes. The idea has since been revived somewhat; witness the Bratz series based on the (in)famous dolls. A degree of controversy surrounds games for girls, as some people are concerned that fulfilling girls’ shopping fantasies is not as socially responsible as fulfilling boys’ violence fantasies. Other games aimed at the girl market are less stereotypical, e.g. the Nancy Drew adventure games. Best-known early example: Barbie Fashion Designer, 1996. Probable first use: Barbie, 1991. (Although Pac-Man and Centipede, both from 1980, were popular with female players, neither was explicitly marketed to girls. Plundered Hearts, 1982, was aimed at adult women.)
Different ways that people play, and how designers facilitate them.
46. Brag boards (aka high score tables).
The earliest arcade games didn’t have them. You could beat your buddy if the game was multiplayer, but only you and he knew it. The brag board, which records your initials along with your score, lets you be king of the hill until someone bests you, an irresistible challenge to competitive players. First use: Asteroids, 1979.
47. Save game.
The subject of religious warfare ever since it was invented, with those who enjoy the challenge of making it through a difficult section with no safety net in one camp, and those who want to stop and start play on their own timetable in the other. For good or ill, depending on your perspective, the ability to save profoundly affects your play style. There are many ways to implement saving, however, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. I include level passwords (for machines with no storage media) and checkpoints in the same category. First use: lost in the mists of time.
48. Modem-to-modem and networked play.
Modem-to-modem games let people play together in pairs. Although an important step forward, their biggest weakness was in the lack of a matchmaking facility—you had to know someone else who owned a modem and a copy of the same game. Then we got networking, and the medium exploded. However, networked play actually existed before personal computers. Best-known early example: RabbitJack’s Casino on the Quantum Link service for Commodore 64 machines, 1986. Probable first use: Maze Wars on networked Imlac minicomputers at MIT, 1974.
49. Multiplayer dungeons.
Combine the fun of exploration in games like Zork with the fun of multiplayer play, and you get the multiplayer dungeon. MUDs are the direct precursors of today’s wildly popular MMORPGs. In South Korea, they’re a national mania. The earliest version was not networked, but played on a timesharing mainframe. First use: MUD, at the University of Essex, 1979.
50. Party games.
We’ve always had multiplayer games, but party games are different—they’re designed to provide entertainment in the context of a real party, a group of people enjoying each other’s company. Instead of immersing players deeply in a fantasy world, party games give them lots of mini-games to play and laugh about. First use: Mario Party, 1998.
Those are the fifty design innovations that I’ve selected, some that were extremely important, others that will be increasingly so in the future. Opinions will doubtless vary as to their significance, and I may have omitted something that others find essential. I look forward to further discussion!
Ernest Adams is a freelance game design consultant with the International Hobo design group. His professional website is at www.designersnotebook.com.