Anyone who’s read a “Joe editorial” before you’ll be aware that I have worked in the game industry for quite a while. I predicted two things around 2011 and 2012. First, I predicted that we’d see an increase in Roguelikes and second, that we’d see an increase in Visual Novels. How’d I know? I believe in one basic premise:
Games do not create new media.
Whoa, slow down with that lynch mob. I am not saying games are not creative. What I am saying is creativity in games is a mixture of cultural trends and practical needs. It doesn’t create from nothing, but simply rides on the back of each cultural wave.
A cultural wave is when an idea or media piece becomes SO prevalent that even people who have not experienced the source material know what it is. Can you imagine asking your parents 20 years ago to tell you who was on the Avengers? How popular do you think wizard and magic were before Harry Potter? Or to our point here: Where would Battle Royale games be if there was no Hunger Games.
Source: SuperData Research - A claim that Battle Royale games will hit 20B in revenue by 2019.
See, Battle Royale was a book (1999) then a movie (2000) but it never hit the widespread fame required to create a cultural wave. That came with Hunger Games, which borrowed a lot of the ideas and premise of both. The importance of that book embedded this idea of a dystopic battle for your life in our heads, making us more interested in playing out that fantasy and just as important, proved to game developers that a market for that kind of content exists. So it is no wonder that PUBG came to be and Fortnite soon after.
On the subject of visual novels, that was a prediction based on a different trend: Anime. The anime revolution was already in full swing by 2012. As anime became widely adopted by western culture I knew that VNs would follow. Their demographics, styles, and even their source material often overlap. The amount of visual novels being launched on Steam just 6 years later is staggering. In 2012 there were 5 visual novels launched. Now there are over 1,000 titles on Steam alone.
So what’s the most popular tag today? Survival (open world, building, crafting), and we can draw a straight line between The Walking Dead and our survival obsession. Walking Dead planted the idea in our minds, to pit ourselves against nature, un-nature, and humanity’s own depravity and the game world followed right behind to make our fantasy a virtual-reality. There’s a game practically for every place you could imagine having to survive, whether its the zombie apocalypse of DayZ, humans being dicks to each other in Rust, the oceans of Subnautica, or the ancient worlds like ARK or Conan, there’s something for everyone… as long as that everyone includes the person who enjoys collecting random debris to make a crappy weapon to help you get a better weapon until a griefer comes and ruins it all…
And to be clear, none of these things exist in a vacuum. Before Walking Dead there was Left 4 Dead. Before Minecraft there was Infiniminer. Wait… what about Minecraft?
Minecraft: The exception that proves the rule
My theory above is not a theory at all. It’s not a scientific rule. It’s a guideline at best. Minecraft copied Infiniminer and Dwarf Fortress as far as inspiration goes, but was it riding a cultural wave? As far as I can tell, no. Dwarf Fortress inspired a LOT of games built around procedural generation, and still does, but other than the few of us nerds who play it (many of which are the game designer types) it’s no cultural phenomena. Certainly Infiniminer is even less so. What, other than Legos, is behind Minecraft’s success?
Infiniminer: It also doesn't take a mathematician to see the similarity between it and Minecraft.
Nothing. It’s a success outside of this guideline I set forth. The kind of success that takes everyone (even the creator, Markus Persson) by surprise. Sure it’s a survival game, but it predates Walking Dead. Not that survival was started with Walking Dead or anything, Robinson Cruso was doing it in 1719… but as far as I can tell survival wasn’t in vogue when Minecraft took off, and it wasn’t really the survival aspect of Minecraft that made it take off. It was the building and freedom.
In fact, Minecraft bucks the trend so hard you can easily argue that it is part of the CREATION of the cultural trend of Survival games, affecting us every bit as much as The Walking Dead. If predicting game genre growth was as easy as I suggest at first it wouldn’t be worth writing this long article about. So, Minecraft doesn’t fit my premise, but generally speaking the premise will hold up.
If you’re so smart, what’s next?
Anyone can make claims about the past, but the real proof will be making a claim about the future! So I’ll attempt to put my proverbial foot in my mouth and predict the future.
If you’re watching popular culture close enough the trends that will shape the next big thing are usually very obvious and a game capitalizes on it 2-10 years later. So if I am right, where does that leave us? Super heroes. They’ve been in vogue now for a while and no game has done them Justice (league). I’m hoping one of them will be the Avenger we’re looking for and give us the freedom to create our own superhero universe full of the custom creations we want.
Source: Google Trends
Wait, what do you mean City of Heroes (2004) Champions Online (2009) already did it!?
Champions is one of the most under-rated MMOs of the 2000-2010 decade.
But trust me, someone is going to do it better than Champions and it will be gangbusters. Unless Marvel and DC go crazy with lawyers, but they wouldn’t do that, would they?