Game Design is a funny thing. There are many ways to create and build all types of games. Over the past twenty years we have seen the tremendous rise of video games into our popular culture, and now they are here to stay. However, in this latest batch of games coming forth in 2015-2016 there is a new element to design as studios try to capitalize on a growing market: eSports.
Recently playing the Overwatch beta for the past week it dawned on us quite early that the game is set up to be an eSport more than anything else. Yeah, we knew this from last year's unveiling, but it's even clearer the more you play the thing. You have your range of heroes with no customization. You have short matches. You also have rankings built into the game after each match, stat tracking, and all the things you've seen from other competitive-heavy games in recent memory. The feeling that Blizzard wants this game to become a spectacle for viewers as well as players commands every aspect of the game itself. In short, Overwatch is more burgeoning eSport than video game, but can you really blame Blizzard for this decision?
League of Legends dominates the MOBA market, with DOTA2 being the very close 2nd. Love them or hate them, you cannot deny that both games ares world popular and hosts millions of players and more importantly, viewers. As major sponsorships enter into the ring to throw their huge names around it starts to become a global trend. Investors know where to put their money to make more, and eSports carries the vast numbers of an entire new generation of gamers. You may be asking yourself (as I often do), "I have played games all throughout this new millennium, so why don't I get or care about eSports?"
ESport games are not really new to the scene, but what is new is that companies are now designing games from the ground up to function on a competitive stage. Need an example? Okay, here it goes: Battleborn, BattleCry, Overwatch, Gigantic, Crossout, War Thunder, the newly announced Paragon, and almost any battle arena game out there. To their credit, World of Tanks, DOTA2, League of Legends, and SMITE sort of built this trend on their own a few years back. Not to mention the endless see of shooters like Counter-Strike and Team Fortress which became an eSport market over the last few years. Sadly the game industry is now chasing the almighty dollar and building loads of these games in order to make money on eSports, viewers, and advertising dollars. Let’s take a look at how this formula works in a nutshell.
You have predefined heroes or characters in pretty much each one of these games. These are a cast of characters for players to love, root for, and discuss the merits of. This means that your art team does not have to go crazy putting together customization for players. You box out an entire set of tools that most MMOs or RPGs start you off with. You also have a limited map. You are not building a world. You are building small places, usually mirrored for fairness, for players to fight over. These can be small and filled with lots of terrain or obstacles, but they are still just small maps. Think about the scope, and then think about the results. This concept of design is infinitely cheaper than any game with a large open world and customized characters.
The other factor you can leave out is progression. However, the lack of heavy character progression is really offset by the fact that your game needs to be extremely balanced. So instead of building progression trees for characters which will take hours to achieve, you instead have to work tirelessly to make sure balance screams across your game. Many games add levels for accounts, or levels for characters within each match, but the progression and diversity is usually basic at best. Those games that go too heavy on customization set up a never-ending headache of balance design for themselves. It's often "back to basics" when eSports is the focal point.
If you look at the latest batch of games hitting the market over the next few months, it is easy to spot this trend. Sadly, these games are really like popcorn movies in terms of true depth. Are they fun? Absolutely, however the competitive nature of the games will mean that not everyone will be a pro eSports athlete making millions through sponsorships and tournaments. What it will do though is change the way we see sports and programs across the country. If this trend continues, you will start to see college teams and town programs. The question starts to become, how will games be built in the future? Will they only be built as eSports? Doubtful. Just look at the success of story-heavy games like Witcher 3 for proof that there's still money to be made from strong role-playing adventures. Even MMOs are still seeing successes without eSports as a focus, but now even popular titles like Guild Wars 2 are getting in on the mix.
Fortunately, games offer a massive medium with something for everyone who tries them. They combine so many elements that you will see all the game genres continue forward in their own way. For now though, be prepared for this wave of MOBA and Arena games to continue over the next few years. Even as many fail, just as so many MMO knock-offs did, expect the investment dollars to chase this dream for a while longer. As far as Esports goes, well folks, that is here to stay in a huge way.