I was sitting in my friend’s apartment, watching him play Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, and ticking off the number of game design elements used. You duck and cover during the gun fights like in Gears of War. You climb around ruins like in Prince of Persia or Tomb Raider. You have rail shooting sequences. You have vehicle sections. What makes it interesting is that they are all competently sitting in one game. And it’s not just this title — many combat games are developing similar overlap in terms of their features. They are all marching towards being more realistic and giving the player all the options he could want in a fight. The question this raises is that if we are continually having our games mimic reality and allow the player to do whatever they would want to do in an actual fight, are we not basing this on a finite series of options? Isn’t there a point where you’re going to be able do whatever you want, where those features will be refined to the point of flawless? Could there eventually be one universal game design that competently lets you do anything in a game?
Lets not get into a semantics argument here, because I don’t mean level designs, stories, or weapons. I mean the basic physics and ways that you interact with the game environment. Nor is this really referring to an absolute recreation of reality. Games have already developed their own unique lore, as outlined in an excellent article in Popular Mechanics. Uzis are actually extremely accurate guns, but for the purpose of gameplay balance, most games make them much wilder. Pistols aren’t as useful at long distances as many games would have you believe. Not to mention the lack of recoil bruises and regenerative abilities of the average protagonist. I’m going to steer away from swords and sorcery for most of this essay, but I highly doubt many gamers would be pleased at having their sword get stuck inside an orc while swinging it either. But even deviation from the reality could merely be another choice for the player. Do you want to play on ‘real life’ difficulty, or set yourself up as a physics-defying super-human death machine? In either case, a big blow-out action sequence is still going to have a finite number of activities for you to do. Again, I’m not talking about weapons, plot, or basic environmental physics. This is just basic run, drive car, duck, reload, shoot, and electric slide actions becoming part of one unified standard.
With so many games copying and incorporating game designs from each other, the main difference between game options now really boils down to refinement. You might have a great FPS system in your game, but as soon as you jump into a vehicle your physics stop making sense and the cars become a pain to drive. Or, your great flight simulator becomes awful as soon as the kung-fu sequences break out. It’s a factor that developers have started to account for, and one of the most innovative ways is Midway’s method. All of the developers under that publisher share technology and resources. In the Gamasutra article cited, the developer explains that they actually borrowed the car physics and programmers from a developer who makes racing games for their free-roaming Vegas game. In return, they showed the other developer better streaming technology for their environments. Imagine a world where instead of a game being good at one thing and having a couple of mediocre sections, the mediocre sections were developed by an equally skilled group. Vehicles, gunfights, physics…these features would become so refined as to actually stream them all together. We would no longer distinguish a game about driving cars and one about shooting aliens. They would all become one game design, one epic experience.
A universal game design wouldn’t just stop with action games or titles where you’re directly in control of the protagonist. It could extend out to strategy, space combat, anything really. What else is Starcraft but an action game where you hover high above the battlefield? The concept has been experimented with before in games, but with the kind of refinement we’re talking about it’d be possible to mix completely unrelated players in one game. Take Left 4 Dead. One player controls all of the zombies, the others are all playing characters trapped in the fray. One is engaged in a strategic battle, the other is having a frantic shoot-out. A player who isn’t a huge fan of playing Halo may nevertheless buy a game where they get to control the battlefield while skilled players opt for FPS mode and try to take them out while they control armies overhead. Beyond the always promising broad economic perks of such a game, there’s the co-mingling of different players and preferences in one Universal Design. It’s not a game within the game, it’s a game that has every means of interaction possible in it.
Stephen Hawking once wrote that in order to create a universal formula for the universe, you’d need to design it like a series of maps. You need one kind of map to get around a park. You need another kind to tell you where a country is. One kind of map isn’t always going to suit your needs even if it’s just as accurate as another. It seems plausible that the same could be said for a Universal Game Design. You need a finite series of interactive options that change depending on what you want to do in the game. If I want to quantum leap into a space fighter and skillfully blast my way through a whole armada, it brings up a new series of options. If I want to coordinate a group of capital ships to surround that one pesky fighter, there’s a series of options for that too. A Universal Game Design doesn’t mean that there will be only one kind of game, it means that there will be one we can all play.