Every developer likes to sit down and toot their own horn, informing gamers about how their game will immediately change the shape of things to come. However, the fact of the matter remains that very few games manage to do this. Change within the gaming industry rarely occurs with a single title. Once a trend has been established, every other developer out there naturally jumps on the bandwagon and it becomes difficult to veer away from the newly imposed norm. A fantastic example of this is Call of Duty and Medal of Honor, two first person shooter franchises that have been at each other's throats for longer than most care to remember. They were the first to set the stage for an epic single player experience before moving on to define what core FPS gameplay can be like on consoles. We, as gamers, have a lot to thank - or perhaps blame - these two series for. Yet, while Activison and EA use these flagship titles to duke it out, other developers have been trying to change the shooting genre in their own way. Slowly, but surely, they are making online a lot more interesting and forcing these two titanic development teams to rethink their game plan.
It makes sense when you think about it, Call of Duty as a franchise has completely tapped out its market. It is the best selling game in the history of the United States. Not only has it made enough money to be considered a success on almost every single level of the entertainment industry, it has also defined the way non-cooperative online FPS titles are handled. Who is really left on the planet that has yet to buy the game? I'm sure there are those few out there that have no interest in the title, but the fact remains that those people probably never had any sort of interest in the series to begin with. They were never the target market, and that's just fine, but taking into consideration that, since Modern Warfare, Activision is now three games into the "Modern FPS" generation, with few changes made to the series. Thus, it's natural for gamers to grow concerned about its stinted growth as a game.
After all, if Killstreaks, Perks and weapon attachments are all fans of the franchise have to look forward to, it is perfectly reasonable for gamers to consider the future of Call of Duty to be fairly weak. However, where does that leave development teams like Treyarch and Infinity Ward? If they try something new, they'll simply receive instant criticism for the changes to the series, but if they keep things the same, they run the risk of tanking the series Ã la Guitar Hero. This is where, interestingly enough, the competition comes in and, quite frankly, it's the very same reason why I spend more time looking into alternative titles.
With the freedom to make dramatic changes and explore new styles of gameplay, competition has been the real driving force of design change in the industry. It doesn't just boil down to the sheer volume of players in a title either, to take a reference to MAG, but the mechanics that overlay the entire experience. How big a deal are graphics? What are some good alternatives to killstreaks, loadouts, and how can a player feel truly unique on the battlefield? These are questions that are subtly being explored online and though gamers may not realize it, their voice on what changes they enjoy the most is going to shape the future. MAG encouraged a surreal amount of teamwork with its rank hierarchy system, where commanders are appointed based on player rank to disseminate orders on the company, platoon and even squad level, in order to successfully claim objectives. While Battlefield 2 implemented a similar system to a certain degree, it was all but lost in the spinoff Bad Company series, where DICE and EA streamlined many of its core mechanics in order to compete with Call of Duty.
Another example of a mechanic that affects a game's experience would be online "leaderboards", a series of stats that players can typically look at to judge how well they have performed in a match - or to stroke their ego. A title like Call of Duty awards points and bragging rights to players who accomplish the most but only after the round is over and usually only to a singular entity. Battlefield titles, however, award additional points during the match for spotting, completing objectives, earning kills, healing players, providing more ammo and whatnot, making the after-match stat tracker far more meaningful.
Moreover, it is possible to look at a game like Homefront where players who do particularly well are not only given bonuses during a game, but are also flagged by the enemy team for their performance, becoming dyamic, moving objectives in their own right. Killzone 3 does similar work with their Objective based game mode, allowing the top three performing players to see their characters scramble about in cutscenes against the opposing forces. This kind of interaction may feel small and inconsequential, but it's the sort of game design that makes gamers feel like they aren't just faceless, nameless entities.
Ironically, the Achilles Heel of these titles will ultimately be these differences, as many players will have a hard time getting past the fact that they aren't another Call of Duty, but, in a way, that's alright too. Not every game needs to be a record setting title to make an impact on the industry and there are very few rational people that would say that a game that failed to make billions of dollars would also be considered a failure of a game. Not every single title out there is bound for record-setting sales, but that doesn't mean the title can't be a success.
So while it's nice to kick up a game of Black Ops every now and then, and although the game's design will likely stray little from preceding titles in the future, I'm comforted that the real interesting stuff is happening elsewhere. Other developers are trying harder than ever before to work the player into the struggle by finding intuitive means of encouraging teamwork or even simply pushing the limits of the scale of online battles. Just like most businesses, it will be no surprise to watch the most successful of these practices become adopted by the competition in an attempt to make a more enticing game experience. It's for that exact reason that I'm looking forward to titles like Homefront more than I am interested in hearing about what the next Call of Duty or Halo title will be offering. They've already done it all, and as a result I've already seen it all. I'm just more interested in seeing what the competition can do next.