4) Co-operative gameplay
This is definitely nothing new, but it's amazing that the industry has taken this long to realise how much fun it is!
I can still remember as a little kid at the arcade with my older brother playing Double Dragon and Moonwalker (the latter involving Michael Jackson wondering a city at night looking for tied up children. No one suspected a thing back then).
Since those days, the industry has come a long way, and you can now play games with your friends on the couch or over the Internet. Halo had two-player co-op as a fun extra way to play the game, but it also reminded us why co-op should be in most first-person shooters.
By the time Halo 3 got here, it was a major feature, and Gears of War 2 added robust communication to the co-op experience in order to make tactical decisions as a group. And now, because these games nailed it, you’ve got co-op appearing all over the place.
Some developers are making it a major feature of their games. Left 4 Dead is entirely co-op, although the AI can jump in if you don't have enough local players to join. Army of Two wasn't the first game to focus on the co-op experience (some might argue the 1989 title Dogs of War was the inspiration for EA's shooter) and while it wasn’t perfect it definitely hinted at the potential this feature could have if you take it to the next level.
Resident Evil 5 had co-op as one of its major features, and to be honest the game is definitely less enjoyable without a human partner to back you up. Even RTS’s now have co-op campaign modes - Red Alert 3, Dawn of War 2, BattleForge - there's no shortage of developers eager to jump on the co-op bandwagon.
Of course, World of Warcraft and other such massively multiplayer online titles are really all about co-operative gaming, with thousands of players against thousands more on the same server. There are even some companies that like employees who have played World of Warcraft because they believe it encourages teamwork. Then again, there are some companies that won’t hire World of Warcraft players because they think they're lazy, so it evens out in the end.
5) Stuck in the sandbox
Grand Theft Auto 3 modernised it, and many have since copied it.
There's something special about having a whole wide open city that you can freely explore. However, many developers have discovered that just having an open world isn’t good enough if you can’t fill it with enough interesting things to do! Assassin's Creed was criticised for this reason, but it's hardly alone - every Spider Man game for the past few years has been disappointing. Same goes for Far Cry 2 and the last Hulk game.
While there is a definitely an argument to be made for open level versus linear level design (after all, it's much easier to give focused experience in a linear game), if it’s done right, an open world game can give you an experience like few others. Fallout 3 and Grand Theft Auto IV are but two examples. Those are large worlds filled with so much to see and do that not only will they keep you busy for hours, but you’ll enjoy most of that time too. And best of all, it’s completely your own experience. In a linear game you can share a great moment with your friends, as you all experienced it. However, in a sandbox world you will all have had a different experience with the game.
Some of my favourite games, whilst not technically open world, still have very open designs. You can't go everywhere in a large city, but you have complete freedom of how to go about handing a situation. The Hitman series did a great job of using open world design in a confined map. These games, in theory, should provide the player with more choice than linear games.
The Liberty City of Grand Theft Auto IV feels like a real breathing city, teeming with life. You really believe that even when you aren’t there, that the city is going on without you. Compared to a Spider Man game where it’s filled with the same few people wondering around, the same few building models/textures, the same billboards every few blocks - there's just no sense of realism to be found.
Most of these features have been around for a while in one form or another, but it is only lately that we've see them becoming major features in games.
It's difficult to say for sure where we're heading with game design, but if time has taught us anything it's that nothing will ever stay the same. With the current slew of similarly-themed shooting titles on the market, it's almost as if we're collectively awaiting a new breakthrough in game design to blow away the cobwebs and start afresh.
Perhaps some of the advances yet to be seen will involve 3D technology. We've already seen some tentative steps in this direction recently, and with the rise of LCD technology, portable gaming is set to make up a much larger proportion of the market. Game developers who fail to cater for mobile users could be left in limbo between platforms as the consolidation of console and PC technology gets closer to becoming a reality.
While not always the sign of a good game, more graphical horsepower is certain to emerge, with photo-realistic rendering and Hollywood-quality scripts pretty much upon us already. The real challenge will be in delivering innovation without overcomplicating things; most of the truly successful titles published to date have had, at their heart, incredibly simple designs.
Will 2009 be the year we see radical change? The best thing about the world of video gaming is that anything is possible.