The other day, I reviewed a video of Will Wright's presentation at the GDC last year. I've watched his walkthrough of the Spore demo many times, but I'm glad I went back and reviewed the version of the video that includes Wright's comments before the demonstration.
He pointed out, as many have, that the ratio of assets-to-gameplay leaned sharply toward assets when new technology allowed the storage of much more data. The storage capacity of floppy disks paled in comparison to that of CD-ROM, and game developers assumed that they should find a way to use all available space. The same situation has recurred with each advancement in information and computer technology.
Many game developers simply don't get the same amount of bang for their buck as in the good ol' days. Costs rise every year, but are the games becoming more engrossing?
Note I didn't say "fun". Like with films, different types of games can have different goals of appeal. Some types of game experiences have certainly achieved stronger effects over the years, but many productions are simply wasteful. I acknowledge the significance of each particular games circumstances, so this is just generally aimed.
Two games on the horizon are attempting to remedy modern problems of resource management, and in two different ways.
On the one hand, there's Spore. Spore uses limited assets, "procedural" (algorithmic) graphics and procedural physics to empower players to create their own worlds and creatures (which are shared asynchronously), and ultimately their own gameplay experiences. Aside from the media success this concept has already received, I think it's safe to say the game will sell like hotcakes and be enjoyed by millions for many years, much like The Sims.
On the other hand, there's Hellgate: London. Hellgate builds assets the old-fashioned way, but heavily employs randomization (with areas, gear-loot, enemy type and placement, etc.) to ensure player experiences are unique, unexpected, and replayable. This game has also received great media attention already. Like Spore, it has a fanbase established by previous titles of the same development team. In combination with widespread interest in the game itself, this makes great financial success and good longevity extremely likely.
So here we have (1) algorithmic modeling and creation-tools for players, and (2) the randomization of crafted assets. Is there another road?
"THIS ONE OR THAT ONE?" "YES, THANK YOU."
One consideration is a mixture of both methods.
Unguided Character Creation, Guided Adventure
Could it be viable to combine a Spore-like procedural-tool system, which allows huge variety in character customization, with variants of traditional character-advancement methods and story-infused adventure?
In other words, imagine characters creating creatures (both humanoid and non-humanoid) of variety similar to that in Spore, but placed in a world with history, lore, and established conflicts. The main challenges here seem to be enabling players to interact with that lore, despite their characters' inhumanity, and offering avenues of character advancement that are plastic enough to accommodate non-traditional character models. Because of the vast differences between player-characters, traditional foci of balance would be moot (and replaced by others, I'm sure).
If the upcoming MMOG Trials of Ascension makes it out the door, then it might answer some of the questions raised concerning this idea's viability. That game is promising non-humanoid player-characters with a unique mix of PvP and PvE gameplay.
Ultimately, I feel pretty certain this could work. The skills available to each character would be largely determined by the unique character form, rather than any cumulative classification. Enabling non-humanoid characters to interact with lore can be accomplished by focusing on non-verbal lore presentation; characters see it and interact with it, rather than read about it.
Guided Character Creation, Unguided World
On the other hand, might it be viable to set an open-ended adventure game (like Oblivion) in a world with landscapes, creatures, and events that are procedurally generated?
This model presents two possibilities for application of the gameworld's procedural generation. (1) The world is generated only at the game's onset. (2) The world is generated at the game's onset, many world elements will remain present and/or constant (for virtual stability), but the game will continue to procedurally create new content during gameplay.
The main challenge for this model would also concern the lore. But, rather than difficulties in enabling players to interact with the lore, the challenge would be to ensure a fulfilling lore in a world not directly invented by the developer. This raises the fascinating idea of an emergent lore system...similar to emergent AI, but applied on a macro level and attempting deeper consequences. Such a system, if sufficiently broad and complex, would likely lead to one gameplay adventure being infinitely more dangerous and unpredictable than another, but that sort of variance would be found attractive by many (including me).
PAVING NEW GROUND
In what other ways might one combine few assets with great variability, character growth, and avoid an arcade impression which makes the game seem more like whack-a-mole than an RP adventure?
I originally intended to present a few examples here myself, but I've already delayed posting this several times. I'll try to come back to it.