Report from the Future
We at GamesRadar+ are trained to spot patterns. We sit in a dank warehouse in banks of 10 people, each perched inches away from a computer monitor flicking games-related images across our retinas at a high rate for days at a time, subliminally absorbing the total content of this industry, organising it internally. When one of us has spotted a useful correlation, we sit bolt upright, bark here!, and a Scribe runs over to be whispered to. This article is the sum content of our borderline-inhumane work.
And why do we do this? Because influence moves like molasses in the games industry. The trends that started this year will influence the games being planned now, which will in turn come out next year, and the year after that. We are turning mathematics into fortune telling. We are beyond the present. We are omniscient. Plus its fun. Here goes.
Games you'll never finish
Have you finished The Witcher 3, Fallout 4, Batman: Arkham Knight, Just Cause 3, Mad Max, Bloodborne, Assassins Creed: Syndicate, Metal Gear Solid 5, and Xenoblade Chronicles X? Congratulations, youre statistically certain to need to see a doctor. Single player AAA games have been transitioning from tight action to enormous, rangy open worlds for years, but 2015 felt like the moment the tidal wave hit after years of surging build-up. Old favourites returned, while games like MGS changed completely to adopt the style.
The upshot of all of this is that most of us had to pick and choose our experiences, or flit between them, never to feel true, credits-sequence-reached satisfaction again. Given that the majority of those games did very well indeed for their creators, you can bet that that trend will only continue - Mass Effect: Andromeda, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided and Crackdown have about 4 months of time filled between them already.
Animal helpers (mostly dogs)
AI companions are stupid - they get stuck on doors, disappear between lines of code, and get their physics all confused, twisting into wretched, eldritch shapes. The solution? Make the companions believably stupid. Make them dogs. Fallouts Dogmeat, The Phantom Pains D-Dog, Mad Maxs Dinki-D, AT-ATs in Star Wars: Battlefront (they look like overgrown laser-dogs, admit it) - weve had a tonne of four-legged friends, all of whom are adorably thick.
Animal helpers in general seem to be a globally-accepted ideal right now, but if I was to suggest how the trends going to change, Id say developers have started looking to the past for inspiration - Steam smash hit, ARK: Survival Evolved rightly made its name on tameable dinosaurs, and Far Cry: Primal is letting you use prehistoric mammalian beasts as pets. Then again, ReCore is using robotic animal companions as a core game mechanic, so who even knows?
Second-game season passes
It wouldnt be a year in gaming without one hunk of industry bullshit to sniff. This year, the great business devil manifested itself in season passes that cost close to the price of a second game - and rarely justified the price. Batman: Arkham Knight was the worst offender, with a slew of post-release content that almost all managed to disappoint in some key way.
Hard as it may be, lets not forget the game that 2015 forgot - Evolve. With two separate season passes (plus tens of dollars of more DLC to buy beyond them), it kicked off this little movement. Somehow, it didnt end it - Star Wars: Battlefront and Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 both have ongoing $50 passes. We hope they make us change our mind about the practice. We doubt they will.
Maybe there are just a finite number of ideas, huh? From the console giants of Gears of War and Uncharted to undersung gems like Darksiders or DmC, 2015 has seen an explosive uptake on tweaked, up-res offerings. And hey, if developers dont have the time to spend on a shiny side-project, console makers have started allowing for the next best thing - backwards compatibility has popped up on Xbox One and PS4 got PS2 emulation.
It all coincides rather nicely with a generation of gamers and developers who have begun looking back nostalgically at their childhood. What with Final Fantasy 7 being the biggest story at a games conference in 2015 - twice - we can safely say this looks like a pattern thats here to stay.
Episodic means something new
Trends warp and change over time. If youd asked us last year, wed have said the Telltale Game formula was the next big thing. Wed have been right - Telltale and others have been steaming out episodic adventure games at a mighty pace. But 2015 saw something a little more interesting - episodic didnt necessarily denote a new-age point n click anymore.
Resident Evil Revelations 2 is the best example, a well-paced collection of classic Resi survival horror that could have been a mere side-note, but became something of an event with every new piece of its staggered release. Now that Final Fantasy VII is being actively split into episodes, I think we can consider the format a little more substantial.
Everyone has a grappling hook
As open worlds get bigger, walking, and even driving gets duller. Thats why everyones bought into the Rico Rodriguez method, and got themselves a grappling hook. Just Cause 3 and Batman: Arkham Knight were always going to lead the charge, but Lara added a new kind of grapple to her armory in Rise of the Tomb Raider, and Assassins Creed, a series almost entirely about the pleasure of climbing buildings, added the Rope Launcher, which lets you bypass the process entirely.
Then there were all the announcements. Uncharted 4s got one, Dishonored 2 lets you zip around using thick tentacles, and even Mirrors Edge Catalyst - a game about a woman with magic shoes that let her jump really, really high, maybe even to space (I think) - is adding a mag rope. In 2016, prepare to fly behind very strong ropes.
People still talk about the Mexico moment in Red Dead Redemption, in which celebrated singer of songs put over footage of balls, Jose Gonzalez, made that game seem peerlessly cool. Its testament to the effect of the right bit of music, and 2015s games have been using that technique to good effect. Hotline Miami 2 had just as good an ambience as the original - even while the game got worse - Life Is Stranges indie-folk soundtrack was as much a clue to Max Caulfields character as the dialogue, and James Blakes Retrograde made Tales from the Borderlands final episode start with an unexpectedly mournful bang. Then Hideo Kojima created one of the greatest collectibles of all time in the form of his own favourite 80s music.
2016 might take that further, with a glut of games getting bespoke soundtracks from established artists. The Flame in the Flood has alt-country maestro Chuck Ragan on noise duties, while Thumper has appropriately terrifying audio for a game being co-developed by the bassist from Lightning Bolt.
Sports-likes went mainstream
The sports-like has been building up pace for a little while, mixing gaming fantasy and sporting relatability to make for surreal experiences we can all understand on a mechanical level. This year, it broke through. First, Microsoft made a surprisingly big deal of platformer/warped football clone/interactive Twitter experience #IDARB, and then Rocket League happened.
Car football is about as good a distillation of this weirdo genre as you can get, and it proved that by becoming everyones favourite game for a couple of months, kick-starting tournaments and thousands upon thousands of goal gifs on social media sites. With Rocket Leagues success, you can be sure a few more in-development sports-likes are getting admiring looks from money-grubbing publishers right now.
Persistent online modes
You might want largely single-player games to feel a little less isolated. You might want to keep players hooked into a multiplayer feedback loop. The answer has become the same for both desires - add features that keep playing with or without you. The simplest way is to introduce worldwide competitions - odd bedfellows, Splatoon and Mortal Kombat X both had players arbitrarily choosing sides in a war, then completing challenges to win it.
Then there are the stranger takes. Xenoblade Chronicles X lets your friends hire your main characters as an NPC, leading to a constant struggle to make him or her look cooler than anyone elses protagonist. You can tell a trends really kicked off when it starts popping up where its not needed - MGS 5s Forward Operating Base management-invasion system was a cool idea, but in principle became a stressful hassle to upkeep and protect.
Fire and a weapon
Rise of the Tomb Raider used fire and a weapon. Bloodborne has fire and a weapon. Below proves that fire and a weapon isnt just for the big boys. The Witcher 3 technically has fire and a weapon. Far Cry Primal proves that theres still room on the fire and a weapon bandwagon. Dark Souls does not count because it is all about aweapon in a fire.