There has been something happening for a while in the world of video games: a broad, sweeping uniformity across different genres.
Before, you had games that stood out—either by visuals or mechanics. Some can argue that the rise of video game culture had something to do with this. As video games became a household name and game publishers and developers started taking pages from other industries’ playbooks—creating untold numbers of franchise extensions, reboots, prequels and, most recently, the rise of episodic content—it became more about volume and less about quality.
Previously, game development was the Wild West. With a limited and specific audience, game developers knew that gamers had already played Mortal Kombat or Grand Theft Auto. Now, because of the prevalence of gaming, that is no longer a guarantee. Gamers are able to find their niche and have plenty of options. This leads to redundant introductory design within games—that is, the inclusion of design elements to make sure that anyone who had never even looked at a video game knew what was going on—but to the point where it has become almost unnecessary. As of April 2015, the average age of a gamer in America was 35, and four out of five households have some kind of video game system. You’d think that kind of blanket dominance would buy respite from redundant design, but no. It’s only seemed to increase it.
MMORPGs have also become household names in the last decade, with games like World of Warcraft boasting upwards of 12 million subscribers at its peak, but because of that, many companies are simply trying to cash in with a more interesting veneer, but the same old design. Everyone knows what a “quest” is, technically—someone or something tells you to go do a thing, and you do it. Generally, quests are more epic than a ride to the grocery store, right? Wrong. Prevailing quest design in gaming falls into a few categories:
“Fetch” Quests—these quests request you to hunt down a specific item or gather materials and bring them back to the origin point. Very menial.
Faction/Reputation Quests—these are generally repeatable or “daily” quests, meant to raise reputation with in-game characters or factions. The end result is usually items or a title for your character.
Unlock Quests—Unlock quests are usually the ones with the most entertainment value. Designers put more effort into these because they actually mean something—a rare item, a new ability or the opening of a new place in the world. Unlock quests feel like a story and usually have been written as such. They’re meant to be highly immersive and interactive, and new prevailing design means that they also evolve the world around you in some way—building a city, gathering resources for a war, building a machine or simply moving the main story forward.
Those are the general buckets that most quests fall into—and we have World of Warcraft to thank for their widespread implementation. As companies saw the success Warcraft was commanding, they began mimicking the design—and soon, WoW’s design elements became the widely accepted foundation for most online adventure games. Level up, grind content, earn loot.
We can see these design elements in much more than simply games now; education, wearables, apps, fitness products and even the health industry have all begun incorporating goal-orientated “questing” to gamify experiences and make them more interesting to audiences and consumers.
The biggest problem with this design is that it is now old. It is boring. It is redundant. Millennials and Generation C both use experiences as social currency and value interesting experiences over many other qualifiers. And soon, Gen C will expand its spending power as its members grow into adulthood. This is one reason why “Let’s Play” videos that spotlight obscure or independent games are booming: Gamers want to see something new and make sure it’s good before they commit both money and time to it. The indie game scene has also blossomed in recent years as audiences crave something different. The recently announced retro-remake of Final Fantasy VII excited so many people because it was originally created in an era in which gaming was made to stand out, to pull in new customers and to stand on its own—as more than just a time waster, but as an interactive story. They know they can trust it to be engaging.
Entertainment as a whole is well on its way down the same path. Look at the swath of Harry Potter clones that popped up and were adapted into movies. All young adult novels, to make sure they hit the widest possible audience, focus on overcoming odds and, each in their own way, on revolution and dystopic conditions—with younger generations rising up and throwing off an older, oppressive establishment. It’s no wonder anti-establishment sentiment has spread like wildfire across America. We’ve taught whole generations it’s the right (and cool) thing to do.