Which next-gen features matter?

Second-screen, motion controls, virtual reality; BioWare Montreal's Ian Frazier tells devs how to figure out which ones are right for them

Hardware has always influenced game design, so new hardware demands new models of design. In a presentation at the Montreal International Game Summit today, BioWare Montreal lead designer Ian Frazier took time away from working on the next installment of Mass Effect to share his views on how the next generation of game machines will open up new design opportunities for developers to explore.

For the purposes of the talk, Frazier laid out a definition of what he means by "next-gen," since different people use it for different things. For Frazier's talk, he means mobile, virtual reality systems, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4. So given that, how does a developer design a game for next-gen platforms?

On the surface, Frazier said the answer to that question is, "Mostly the same way they always have." But after reflecting on the topic a bit longer, Frazier decided that the difference was in the new tools these platforms give developers. It's a problem that has come up in previous generations, but one that developers keep fumbling.

He pointed to the advent of 3D games as an example, saying developers converted everything to 3D whether it fit the game or not. Secret of Monkey Island was one franchise he pointed to as an example, saying the shift to crude 3D made the game look worse than its 2D predecessor, but didn't add anything to the gameplay. Motion control was another next-gen misstep, Frazier said, saying motion control in the current generation was shoehorned into games where it didn't really contribute anything. He pointed to using Sixaxis control to balance in the original Uncharted, saying it worked fine but didn't add anything to the core game and was mostly forgettable.

Before a developer looks at the next-gen vision, they need to understand exactly what their game's vision and player fantasy is, whether that's racing a really fast car, being Batman, or anything else. New features should also tie into the central design tenets of the game, and serve to further engage players by working with the main drives they have to keep playing.

"The fundamentals of what makes a good game haven't changed. Next gen doesn't mean, 'We're throwing it all away. Do it over again!'"

Frazier has a list of eight "drives to play," reasons players are going to want to play your game, and then reasons they'll want to continue playing. The drives are feeling it (escapist immersion), learning it (system mastery), beating it (skill mastery), seeing it all (content), helping your friends (cooperative play), crush your enemies (competitive play), impressing everyone (peacocking), and making it your own (creation). Some of these drives are tied into one another, and some work best when employed simultaneously. For example, the competitive drive and the skill mastery drive are naturally intertwined, while the drive to create and the drive to impress others can be seen at work in titles like Minecraft.

Frazier then laid out the next-gen tools developers will be using to play on those drives: improved processor speed and memory, motion detection, voice recognition, video sharing, touch screens, second-screen functionality, companion apps, and virtual reality.

Better hardware means games can look prettier, which Frazier said is great, but it also allows for better physics and AI simulations. Larger play areas allow for a bigger world, and putting more characters on screen lets developers populate those worlds more densely. On the other hand, the higher expectations associated with that capability means everything is costlier to develop.

For motion detection, the big pro is that players can control their games with natural physical movements, lowering the barrier to entry for non-gamers. Motion control can also improve immersion for physical tasks, if what players do with their hands mirror what their characters do. There are some drawbacks, however. They can require certain space and lighting conditions to work, and they can be physically demanding to play a game like Dance Central with motion controls. And if you're used to a controller, motion controls can actually be harder and feel like a step back.

For voice recognition, Frazier said it's also a natural, accessible interface that helps non-gamers get used to new titles. It also can be used simultaneously with motion or traditional controls and makes for a potentially more immersive experience. On the other hand, it requires a quiet environment to work well, and can bother non-players in the same area, so developers can't rely too much on it.

On the sharing front, Frazier said it can greatly assist in community building. It also gives developers greater exposure on what their players are doing. However, he's worried it may break immersion and pull players out of the experience as they wrangle with the controls to share their gameplay videos with others.

The pros and cons of touch screens are largely known by now. They allow for fluid user interfaces, and are inherent to the mobile platform and (sort of) the PS4. However, it's not on the Xbox One controller, so developers can't rely on it as a standard feature. That brings up the second-screen functionality, which has its own benefits. Freeing up valuable screen real estate by dumping it to a tablet or phone is great, Frazier said, but some players will struggle to multitask. And again, not everyone has a smartphone or tablet, so it's not a feature developers can bank on. Companion apps share that same concern as second-screen features, but it does allow players to connect with the game experience when away from the console.

Virtual reality has some huge opportunities, specifically the potential for immersion. It also allows camera control without players having to input anything at all. Unfortunately, they are expensive peripherals, so not everyone will have one, and they can cause disorientation and nausea for some players.

So how to decide which tools to use in next-gen game design? Frazier said each drive has its own correlates among the next-gen features. For example, "Feeling it" is helped by more powerful hardware, motion detection, voice recognition, virtual reality, and possibly second-screen functionality. Frazier suggested a next-gen Wing Commander, where a virtual reality headset lets players look around the cockpit, motion controls allow them to flip key switched in the cockpit, voice recognition lets them communicate with wingmen, and a traditional controller gives them the direct control of the flight yoke.

If skill mastery is the primary drive, Frazier said taking advantage of faster hardware will allow developers to push games to super-smooth 60fps action that competitive gamers demand, while improved motion detection will let developers require more manual dexterity from players, whether it's for dance games or lock-picking minigames. On top of that, the ability to share video of games will let those who mastered games show their skills off to the world (which obviously ties in to the "peacocking" drive as well).

Ultimately, Frazier said it's up to each developer to figure out what next-gen features will work best for their own projects.

"The fundamentals of what makes a good game haven't changed," Frazier said. "Next gen doesn't mean, 'We're throwing it all away. Do it over again!'"

What it does mean is that developers will just need to intelligently identify what new features and areas of the game experience they are going to invest in.

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Latest comments (10)

Rick Lopez Illustrator, Graphic Designer 4 years ago
Honestly, to me its the System Specs and interface, which is the game pad. I think the single most significant step has been in the touch screen/ touch pad interfaces. Its a huge step foward comparable to when Analog sticks and motion controll debuted. It allows for custom interfaces and added functions to the standard game pad. I think Nintendo had it right. So the sky really is the limit. Like now I can map my weapons and moves to the touch screen and access them instantly, as people used to do on a keyboard with first person shooters.

And systems specs because they allow more things to be done in games, period. Try to do the things you can do now on a 16-bit or 32-bit system and you will see my logic. System specs is always a good step foward.

Then we have the network connectivity, social connectivity and wireless features and multiple/mobile divice integration. Walled gardens are coming down. So yeah Im really excited for this generation.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Rick Lopez on 12th November 2013 12:12pm

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Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 4 years ago
How about devs making matter good games FIRST over just adding whatever gimmicks du jour come flying off the Kickstarter line? And when gimmicks are used, they NEED to make sense to anyone playing. Innovate and create experiences without the gimmick so your game can still be played with a basic controller (so as many can play as possible) and if you DO use some fancy device, make sure it's as perfect as possible so even the naysayers will want to try it out.
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To be honest, a decent current/next gen game does NOT need all the fancy tools.
Does not need motion control, voice activation or second screen or touch/gesture control

Movement: They need to move around, duck/cover, jump, strafe maybe.
Visual: Look around (and switch into different visual modes for spy/military interactive experiences)
Interface: pick, handle, move, lift, throw objects <----- (in a modern adventure, maybe a 2nd screen could act like a real GPS, or act like a virtual ibooks/journal magazine in the next Uncharted)

Nice to have:
Motion Control - Wand duels, dance/spa work out, space walk, or other adventures, this works best where you can combine it with a VR headset.

I believe Motion control is too advanced a interface for humans (for now).
Humans love haptic feedback,so unless you can recreate life, being able to use the kinect system without any haptic feedback is pointless. Henve the SOny Move is a logical half way house. If you're going to pretend to fight a dragon with a sword, make a fake plastic sword you can wield around.
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Show all comments (10)
James Boulton Owner, Retro HQ Ltd4 years ago
You'll often find if something doesn't make sense in a game, or doesn't add anything to it, then the decision hasn't come from the developer, but rather the publisher or platform holder. This is especially true of new control hardware or platform features. It really frustrates me when the developer is blamed for pitfalls in a title when they were not the decision maker.

I totally agree with Greg, though, make good games! If they happen to fit well with whatever feature or peripheral is available then exploit it as well as you can.
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Mihai Cozma Indie Games Developer 4 years ago
The new generation has two characteristics: it improves upon existing one in terms of performance on one side, and it also makes standard some of the new technologies that appeared during the current gen like motion controllers, touch interfaces, second screen and maybe VR. The point is that many developers will benefit from knowing some features will be standard in any console packaged shipped and so it is reliable to use in his game.
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Steven Hodgson Programmer, Code in Progress Ltd4 years ago
Simple answer, no features matter, it is always about the games. Everything else comes second
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Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development4 years ago
Q: Which next-gen features matter?
A: Price

Next-gen won't make games better. How can it, unless your fun metric is polygon count or shader length. I used to obsess about both of those things in a previous life, but they never made games any better even when I got it right.

In fact the only game that a next-gen console can make better all by itself is "Top Trumps: Gadgets"
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Christian Slater DevilBliss Games Consultancy 4 years ago
"Next-gen won't make games better. How can it, unless your fun metric is polygon count or shader length"

But won't next-gen processing power enable advances in material and object physics, AI, environmental scale, detail and persistence that will have a direct effect on the potential nature of the gameplay?
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Tom Keresztes Programmer 4 years ago
good games?
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Sandy Lobban Founder, Noise Me Up4 years ago
The democratisation of the marketplace is all that matters. The content will follow if the market place is right for both consumers and creators.
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