When it comes to digital role-playing games, graphics have progressed leaps and bounds from the pixilated images and sprites you would occasionally see in a classic online MUD. These new developments have widely popularized the fantasy and sci-fi genres by allowing artists and designers to fully realize incredible landscapes which players can experience and appreciate. From breathtaking panoramic views of fantastic landscapes to fear-inducing panic of dark, damp, claustrophobic corridors, developers today have everything they need to set the visually set the tone for a player and immerse them deeply into a never-before seen world.
When you stop to think about it, the technological advances are just jaw-dropping, and they're continuing to sprint forward as innovators keep pushing past barriers to fully immerse players into their games. The Oculus Rift VR headset goes even a step further, using the simple science of how our real eyes actually give 2D image information depth and applies it to the technology we're using to view artificial images on digital displays. We're quite literally to the point where a person can put on a piece of eyewear and be transported into a totally different place and time - at least visually.
But that's where the magic stops
For all the graphical achievements over the past few decades, game mechanics have progressed very little. Simulating an alternate reality takes a whole lot more than just good looks.
Go way back to the dawn of digital gaming, and one of the earliest simulated mechanics developers achieved (after the illusion of "movement") was defining "collision" between moving objects. The classic game of pong was a perfect example of that. It quite literally involved only a few basic mechanics: movement, collision, and score keeping. Most early Atari games were built almost completely on those three mechanics alone. Then Nintendo took that concept a step further with the NES, by adding animated sprites. Nintendo's widely-popular game Punch-Out! took movement and collision and added a touch of humorous personality to a player's opponents. Now you weren't just hitting things and ringing up a score, you were hitting things and the AI reactions were entertaining in their own right.
Despite new technology allowing for more complex collision and movement with more memory and processing power, in-game characters have hardly changed at all since then. It's been nearly thirty years from the time I picked up NES's surprisingly comfortable brick of a controller and knocked a silly expression onto my opponent's face... but I'm still basically doing the same thing today, allbeit slightly more complex. Consider any big-publisher's latest and greatest title and you're going to see the same exact character mechanics - just slightly more visually appealing (which is debatable, depending on the game).
Characters in games today have better animations (usually), but pretty much react to characters on the same archaic scripting methods of old. Many of today's most popular MMO raid-bosses have scripted encounters with even less complexity than one would find fighting enemy bosses in the Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. It's just done in a more of a "3D" environment, but using virtually all of the exact same mechanics. Because of this, Non-Player-Characters in games (allies and enemies alike) feel quite very static when it comes to their abilities and actions. Nothing has progressed in that realm of game design very much.
Don't get me wrong, I totally understand why they haven't changed. They've been good enough so far. Lots of clever individuals (and groups of people) have put together wildly-entertaining games with these limited entities. In fact, the incredible graphical leaps and bounds are probably the leading reason other elements of gameplay have remained so under-developed - but that's not my argument here. What I'm trying to say is that NPCs have much more potential. With all the processing power we have today, NPCs could be so different, engaging, and compelling if they were just given even half as much love and attention as visual side of things.
In fact, the game design process already allows for all this potential, even right now - yet it isn't really being utilized. After studying the history of game development and having a sincere desire and drive to write and share compelling stories of my own, I am completely shocked that so few developers and publishers have attempted to innovate on in the industries AI mechanics. That's not to say that nobody has... but in comparison to the other elements of game creation and design, we're looking at an incredibly small number of creators here.
Follow me down the rabbit hole - if you dare
Long before you ever set foot in any game, a game designer (or group of them) have already predetermined almost everything you're ever going to do in that game. Sure sandbox games are starting to become more popular now, but even in those games most everything you can potentially do has been thought of, or at least the capabilities to do so have been thought of. Why? Because game developers design the effort/reward system (or risk/reward system - if you will). They pre-determine what you will gain, achieve, or accomplish and have set the rates for everything.
In essence, they're basically setting your goals for you. Depending on what in-game rewards exist and how enjoyable the different avenues are for attaining those rewards, they pretty much know what and how the majority of their players are going to play (of course there are always some exceptions). By and large, game developers are predetermining what your character can and can't do - and as an extension of that, they're partially determining how you're going to play the game.
To make a long explanation short: aside from a small minority of "always outside-the-box" thinkers, they are determining your character's course of actions - at least in the most general of senses.
They have been doing this since the very earliest generations of games. Pong, Punch-Out!, A Link to the Past, they've already set the course for your character. They've mostly set your goals and pursuits for you - before you ever picked up the sticks. Yet can the average player name even one game where the AI NPCs in a game have been coded to function as identically as possible to the players? Probably not.
More curiously than that, think of how "life-like" AI entities could function in games if designers had spent 30 years worth of research and development trying to code AI entities to function and operate under the same rules and risks/rewards as players? I can tell you one thing, games today would be totally different. They'd probably not be as graphically beautiful, but is that really all that essential? How many Indie games have received wide-spread acclaim for their innovative mechanics and gameplay that are leaning on past-generation visuals, code languages, and technologies?
Creating an immersive and engaging experience is probably the key ingredient to any role-playing game; yet the RPG's we see today are hardly that. They're visually immersive, no doubt - but most of them are barely engaging at all after you get past the honeymoon phase. Everything is the same. The mechanics are slightly different, and thus the player's goals are slightly different... but aside from a cosmetic overhaul, most RPG's today are exactly that: "most RPGs".
Imagine for a moment a world that's crafted with intelligent NPCs who are given the same powers, capabilities (free-roam), and goals and desires as players have. Not only would such a game feel different from all the other games out there, but it would even feel different from itself every time you picked it up to play. Like you, the AI could do or achieve anything they wanted to in an open-world setting. Depending on what type of experience the developers are after NPCs goals and motivations could change over time, or be triggered by events caused by you the player - or even other NPCs.
Imagine a game where for once, we're no longer the gods... where we're no longer the ones pulling all the strings. Such a game would be one with true "first-gen AI". Unlike the game genre I'm talking about, this isn't fantasy or science fiction. This is all actually possible with current technology, and a handful of developers are hard at work attempting to finally give AI entities the love they've been lacking for the past few decades, and these companies are on the ground floor of a type of innovation we haven't seen in quite some time.
I'm excited for the coming era of gaming in 2015 and beyond. I believe we have a wild ride ahead of us, and I feel that it's coming sooner rather than later. If you thought jaw-dropping graphics were incredible to witness... just wait till you see what else all these new technological innovations can do for gaming. For a very simple analogy:
If video games were a car, then we've seen thirty years of hard work and effort spent under the hood and on the paint job. Today's games make for excellent show cars. They look magnificent and they'll put up some insane numbers on the Dyno machine... but they probably can't race for shit. Put any show car on a track against a fine tuned race machine that's had equal love and attention spent on the body, underpinnings, suspension, handling, etc. and you'll quickly see how poorly that how care will compare as an all around functioning entity.
The Future of gaming and the spirit of innovation
There are games coming on the horizon that are taking an aggressive stance on innovating core systems. Systems involving world physics, entity rendering, AI systems, and other intractable components that players can actually change, manipulate, and also watch change the world in front of them (or in their absence - when it comes to the MMO genre). A unique generation of games is coming, as the rise of the internet and social media has allowed for innovative indie designers to start answering player tastes, wants, and needs in ways that larger publishers won't risk - or simply can't.
The mainstream gaming community will no longer be driven by the ebbs and flows of the big name developers (who all mostly originated decades ago from the same kind of small indie groups and studios we're seeing make a resurgence once again). Game development and creation is curving back into the hands of gamers, rather than resting in the hands big investors with their eyes fixed on market-trends and return revenue.
It's a revival of the original spirit of gaming and game creation that spawned all of those original titles that each of us holds so dear in our memories. We all have our own preferences and tastes, and anyone reading this could probably list at least ten games from the 80's and 90's that could give any modern game a real run-for-its-money when it comes to the tried and true litmus of gaming: the FUN-factor.
No matter how ugly a game, how poorly it's balanced, or how badly it gets ripped by mainstream critics... a game is either fun or it isn't, and we'll love it and hate it on that reason alone. I tend to believe that the fun-factor has a lot more to do with how a game actually plays than how it visually appeals. With graphics finally reaching the "uncanny valley" of realism, developers are beginning to realize that they can't just simply enhance appearances anymore and sell us the same crap they sold us the year before (even if it was previously awesome crap).
Better graphics are getting to the point where further improvements are not really offering much additional value to games, and most of us are finally starting to catch on.
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