Which games in the year ahead are most likely to move the art and craft of gaming forward? And how will they innovate? We decided to take a selection of promising games, and ask the developers themselves.
Polygon contacted about 30 developers and publishers making highly promising games and asked them, what makes your game so special? Why should gamers be excited about your new game?
These games represent just a slice of the many great titles on offer this year and, judging by the responses we received, developers are finding different ways to use technology and design ideas to progress their particular genres.
The themes of 2014 are about going back to core genres, finding out what makes them really work, and then looking further afield to bring in ideas and mechanics that can bring some unique quality to the games. Shooters become more like RPGs, which become more like MMOs; puzzle games become more narrative and narrative games become more action-orientated.
Console launches are always an opportunity for game publishers and developers to introduce games that are entirely new, fresh beginnings that set a tone for the years to come.
DESTINY from former Halo-house Bungie is an open-world, multiplayer action sandbox that, at its core, is a post-apocalyptic sci-fi shooter. But it's also a product of new hardware and connectivity innovations.
"We're working on some of the most ambitious content I've ever had the pleasure to think about," said design lead Lars Bakken. "We're taking a lot of cues from other genres and combining them in ways that make players rethink how deep an action-oriented first person game can be. A kick-ass shooter that has RPG elements, character customization, menacing alien combatants, a killer story, matchmade co-op activities, challenging end-game content, competitive multiplayer, and is tied together in a persistent world where I run across other real players as part of my daily routine."
Like many of the games on this list, it seeks to try new things in terms of how players in the world interact with one another and how they, as a group of different individuals, interact with the world. This is definitely going to be the theme of 2014.
"The first time I was in the game and saw another human player going about their business, I was blown away," added Bakken. "You expect it in the real world, but to have it happen in a first person action game is unexpected and enriches everything. You can ignore them, just like you do to most of the other people you see in the real world, or you can engage with them. That freedom and the gameplay ramifications are incredible."
Ubisoft's THE CREW is also about linking players together in a continuous fantasy world, although in this case, it's all about street racing on a larger scale than seen in previous generations.
"When we started The Crew we had a vision to create a massive living, breathing world specifically tailored to car enthusiasts," said creative director Julian Gerighty. "We needed a playground that delivered over 1,900 square miles of the U.S.
"In our version of the USA, gamers are truly free to go where they want without any barriers, invisible walls or loading times. But what good is an enormous playground if there's no one to play with? So we have designed a revolutionary social driving experience for next-gen consoles that connects car enthusiasts from all around the world in a persistent online environment."
Also coming from Ubisoft is TOM CLANCY'S THE DIVISION, which takes post-apocalyptic New York City as its play-pen. "We are building what we want to become the largest and most realistic open-world New York City ever created in a game," said director Ryan Barnard from developer Massive Entertainment. "New York is a memorable place in the sense that everyone has an idea of what it is and what it looks like. In our game, players will find themselves in a familiar world that is in a very unsettling, chaotic state.
"The importance that we give to conveying a strong sense of atmosphere is one of the aspects in which we believe we are innovating. Players will have very different experiences whether it is day or night, depending on the weather and where they are in the city."
Some promising games have thus far shown themselves coyly, holding back full reveals for later in the year. One such, first glimpsed at E3, is PlayStation 4 exclusive THE ORDER: 1886 from Sony. It's set in an alternative-history Victorian London, offering a different take on weapons and machinery.
"This mix of real history and fiction makes our world so different," said creative director and Ready At Dawn co-founder Ru Weerasuriya. "We are striving to break the barriers of a regular action shooter, by introducing diverse moment to moment gameplay. We're finding interesting ways to introduce melee-combat in the genre that seamlessly moves you from gunplay to different combat experience."
The ability of new consoles to deliver visual realism is being exploited. "We've pushed to achieve a filmic feel to our game; from our materials to our lighting. Our technology allows us to create incredibly dynamic camerawork that resemble real-life physical cameras. All the cinematics are real-time which allows us for a seamless experience throughout the game," he said.
Former PlayStation house Insomniac is using this generation shift to start working for Microsoft, and moving on from the graying Resistance series. SUNSET OVERDRIVE, an Xbox One exclusive, offers a glimpse into the color palettes that are available to developers and, hopefully, will be used to full effect.
"Sunset Overdrive best reflects who we are at Insomniac," said studio chief Ted Price. "It's a celebration of over-the-top-style, larger-than-life characters, unexpected weapons and explosive gameplay mixed with our signature snark. For those who've played our games, you'll see our DNA threaded throughout. But at the same time I believe we'll surprise players with our unique take on the open-world, action-shooter genre."
EVOLVE, from the makers of Left 4 Dead, was first shown only a few weeks ago. Perhaps its most interesting aspect is an asymmetrical multiplayer hunt mode, in which four players team up against a monster controlled by a fifth player, with the creature growing in size and strength as rounds of multiplayer action progress.
"Our philosophy is to build incredibly fun game experiences that we can't find anywhere else," said Turtle Rock Studios design director Chris Ashton. "Evolve has a unique co-op vs. lone wolf formula that has created some of the craziest, most intense multiplayer matches we've ever experienced."
Also trying out the scare tactics is Bethesda's THE EVIL WITHIN. Although a new franchise, it is linked to the popular Resident Evil games through director Shinji Mikami, who originally created Capcom's seminal series, although it exists entirely in its own universe. Tango Gameworks, his new company, is aiming to bring haunted house spooks back to a new generation.
"Fear is the most critical aspect of the game," said Mikami. "We're ensuring that the heart of survival horror is intact. Taking place in a world where the player can be certain of nothing will make for a very horrifying game. As the player you'll really feel like you are doing everything in your power to stay alive, and be on edge as a result."
Game developers who work in small teams, or alone, and who are largely free of the demands and concerns of marketers, have become more powerful in the age of Steam, able to access gamers through social media and adept at raising funding through Kickstarter. They are usually fiercely protective of their ability to create the things they want to create.
Few people represent this instinct so well as Brendon Chung of Blendo Games, best known for exploratory art-house title Thirty Flights of Loving. His new game QUADRILATERAL COWBOY is another highly personal take on the world, this time, on hacking and computer expertise.
"I'm basically making a game about things I like," he said. "Things like using the power of programming to do goofy stuff, pitifully janky robots, spending hours making detailed and finicky heist plans that immediately explode, and playing with power-saws and power-drills and user manuals."
In his game, players must program their way through the world, solving tricky puzzles that mainstream publishers wouldn't dare put in front of their players.
"The games I make generally appeal to a niche audience," he said. "Quadrilateral Cowboy is broadly about breaking and subverting security systems, but it's being made for a pretty specific kind of person. As a kid I grew up taking things apart to see how they worked. I'd remove all the screws and take a peek at the guts inside, seeing who connected to what and figuring out how everything fit together. Those are the people I'm making Quadrilateral Cowboy for."
Where Quadrilateral Cowboy is upending the model for puzzle exploration games, SUPERHOT is attempting to do the same with the first person shooter. Originally created for the 7 Day FPS Challenge and already a browser hit, the premise is that time only moves when the player moves, introducing all manner of tactical considerations.
"Superhot is about intense shootouts, but it's not a game that rushes you," said creative director Piotr Iwanicki. "You can take your time, play it as fast as you can and want. You can slowly move between the bullets as they crawl through the air, or just rush when you feel secure, or lucky. With time moving only when you move, the game tightly adapts to your skill level. We took the twitchiness out of the FPS and found insanely fun new gameplay. Also it's the first game ever that allows you to cut a flying bullet in half with a katana. How cool is that?"
From time manipulation, to the manipulation of size. SCALE from Enemy Airship offers the mechanic of making objects bigger or smaller. But this simplicity leads to a much deeper level of complexity than rote puzzle-solving.
"It explores a unique mechanic without reflexively following the Portal or Braid structure," said creative director Steve Swink. He added that innovation in the game goes beyond its basic premise. "I believe that whole will be much more than the sum of its parts. People are fixated on the experimental part. What they should be excited about is how the parts fit together and the philosophy that lead us to put them together that way.
"Our focus is not making something new. Our focus is on building something good. It just so happens that scaling objects up and down is a great tool for an experience of exploration, wonder, and joyful discovery. Also a giant cat that you can ride."
HYPER LIGHT DRIFTER is one of the many projects that, in the past year, took itself onto Kickstarter in search of funding. With its retro RPG look and feel, the Heart Machine game managed to raise more than $640,000, from a $27,000 target. The 2D RPG features a drifter with a sprite companion, exploring a ruined world, along with all its discoverable technologies.
"We plan for a textless and voiceless experience; one of pure visual storytelling," said creator Alex Preston. "I think people should be excited because we've been hard at work developing a project with soul, depth and meaning. The visual style and general aesthetic, the atmosphere we're creating, and the personal story I've poured into the world and characters ... I hope that once people experience the game they'll find it intensely beautiful, mysterious, and meaningful, all supplemented with fun, fast and brutal action."
Most indie games are making their way to market, without the aid of publisher-might, usually focused on Windows or mobile. Some have been picked up by console companies, in an attempt to boost the unique qualities of their hardware.
One such is RIME from Tequila Works in Spain. First shown at Gamescom, it left many viewers yearning for its pretty world and its central story focused on a child. It's one of those games, like Journey, Gone Home or Brothers, that promises a powerful emotional connection.
"We want to combine the beauty of the Mediterranean with a thoughtful and evocative gameplay experience," said creative director Raúl Rubio Munárriz. "We're constructing a delicate, beautiful world that is more like an animated concept painting. The whole game is about the inter-relationship between the boy and the island, so much so that the island almost becomes a character in its own right. There is meaning in the island that is deep below the surface, it has many mysteries for the player to discover, and if the player works hard enough, the true identity and personality of the island will become clear.
"For us, it is important that the world is believable as well as beautiful. We use environmental narrative to tell a story with no words. Everything is there for a reason. Things with seemingly no meaning will become vitally important as the player progresses through the game. Every puzzle in the game has a purpose and a meaning that adds to the complexity of the island."
Historically, licenses have not been noted for their ability to challenge conventions, Yet the recent success of The Walking Dead and the Batman franchise have shown that care and due attention can make for great games, even accounting for the looming presence of a license-holder.
Right now, few licenses can generate quite as much anticipation as GAME OF THRONES in the hands of Telltale Games. Undoubtedly, the pressure is on to recreate the magic of those novels and the HBO series, while also adding something extra to the now two-year-old formula of The Walking Dead games.
"Above all else, we're going to be true to the world and characters you've seen in the TV show," said Steve Allison, senior vice president of publishing. "That's of paramount importance to fans and it's something we promised and delivered on in both The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us. We're working directly with the folks at HBO, so the game series is going to be an integral part of the world that they've created, based on George R. R. Martin's books.
"As a fan, you'll have agency in the world you love. That is, you'll affect the story and the characters you meet by the choices that you make. Choice and consequence is a big theme in Game of Thrones so there's a perfect match between the source material and Telltale gameplay dynamics.
"Innovation is going to come through your choices rippling through the narrative harder and more unexpectedly than any game we've done so far. It's going to be an emotional roller-coaster of highs and lows that'll leave you thinking about what you've done, or didn't do, for a long, long time."
Another license that has sent a frisson of excitement through gaming is the reappearance of an Alien game, this time based solidly on the original 1979 movie. Alien has been one of those video game perennials that has never quite delivered on the terrors of the source material. According to publisher Sega, the time has come. The focus of ALIEN: ISOLATION is going to be the monster.
"No one has made the Alien game we want to play, a game that is based on the values on the original movie, that took you back to the roots of the series," said Alistair Hope, creative lead on Alien: Isolation at The Creative Assembly. "Alien is 35 years old this year and I believe you can watch it today and still get an emotional reaction out of it, even though it's a guy in a rubber suit. We felt that by revisiting the past we could deliver something totally new.
"We want to deliver an Alien [creature] which dominates the frame and controls the world around it. An Alien that is massive and terrifying, that looks down on the player and doesn't run around the player's feet like angry dogs waiting to be shot with pulse rifles. It feels like there is an alternative experience the player could have with this iconic character, a different interaction. We want to make an encounter with a single Alien meaningful to the player.
"This is a creature that is lethal and intelligent; a killer, who leaves the player in no doubt that you are its quarry. We want to restore its position as the deadliest of the adversaries, where just one of these creatures would command the player's respect."
The Witcher series, originally a run of Polish fantasy books, has built up a growing army of fans in the hands of CD Projekt Red, which tackles its mature themes with the necessary seriousness along with a strong RPG and combat mechanic. THE WITCHER 3: WILD HUNT looks about ready to propel this franchise into an altogether bigger league.
"Our small heritage to the RPG genre is that we made fantasy gaming grow up," said studio head Adam Badowski. "We had a great weapon in our hand and it was the universe that Andrzej Sapkowski created. Reloaded with some really fresh ways to engage gamers, The Witcher series shot its way through stereotypes and brought us where we are today.
"The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt combines all the best elements of true, core role-playing with an entirely new approach to the the stories it tells. The problems faced by our characters and the characters they meet on the way are very similar to what you can see in the news, like acts of terrorism, horrible scenes of war, poverty or social inequality. You experience raw emotions of digital characters even though they live in a land where it's possible to cast magical spells and, occasionally, see a dragon. We try to tell you stories that don't require you to flick a switch in your head and you can dive in even if you think fantasy is not for you."
Gaming lives and dies by its familiars; those games that show up regularly, sometimes every year. They often have little new to show for themselves, even in times of technological innovation. New consoles can sometimes mark a turning point in the fortunes of hit franchises, and not always for the good. Nevertheless, it is also an opportunity for reinvention, or for ascendant brands to take a place among gaming's top tier.
Namco Bandai's DARK SOULS 2 is part of a franchise that is emerging from cult status, based on the ferocity of its combat challenges and the aesthetic purity of its dungeons. "Our intentions are not to just create a difficult game; we want players to feel a strong sense of achievement, the higher the hurdles the higher the sense of accomplishment," said game director Yui Tanimura.
Dark Souls games involve sudden death followed by scrupulous watchfulness and practice to avoid repetition of failure. "We hope to help players develop their skills by keeping the placement of enemies and their actions the same every time a particular challenge is attempted," added Tanimura. "We do this to make sure that even if the player dies in the first attempt without really realizing what hit them, by continually playing the game over and over, the player will gradually begin to understand the enemy placements and attack patterns, eventually leading to successfully overcoming the challenges. We feel that this is the core basis of the fun to any games in the action games genre."
Equally anticipated is BioWare's DRAGON AGE: INQUISITION, which the company says is its most ambitious project to date, seeking to realize the dream of a seamless story and role-playing on a grand scale.
"When we look around at the future of RPGs, we believe what people want is the quality of BioWare storytelling brought into a living, open world experience," said executive producer Mark Darrah. "Rather than a static world where the landscape never changes, you will physically change the world through your actions in the game."
He said that the game will focus on its Leadership system, that places a focus on teamwork and party controls. "With numerous endings, plus hundreds of additional permutations and the ability to continue adventuring after the game's main story has finished, Dragon Age: Inquisition has evolved BioWare's critically acclaimed games into a world for players to get lost in and enjoy for hundreds of hours."
Sony's INFAMOUS: SECOND SON marks a return for a franchise that has often promised more than it has delivered. The open-world superhero game features a kind of super-powered every-man. "The Infamous games have been about the fluid flow of the character across the game world." said Sucker Punch co-founder and producer Brian Fleming. "With Second Son we have the chance to top the previous games because [central character] Delsin can control multiple power sets, so now the movement skills can be not just fluid, but diverse.
"You take some great writing, add a spectacular performance by Troy Baker, and capture every nuance of it with our groundbreaking performance capture system, and you'll be amazed."
Games that operate outside the easily definable constraints of genres offer, potentially, the biggest opportunity to innovate, as they seek to simply try to achieve something new and fresh.
CHILD OF LIGHT is a small-scale development project from Ubisoft led by Far Cry 3 director Patrick Plourde. It's a JRPG-inspired game modeled after the art of classic fairy tales.
'The UbiArt Framework has enabled us to create a really unique painterly world reminiscent of the art from the golden age of illustration," said Plourde. "The whole game is written in rhyme, providing the game an original flavor in line with the rest of the game's direction."
Combat is inspired by Grandia 2 and, once again in this roundup, the potential of asymmetrical co-op comes up. "Having a second character that acts as a modifier is seamlessly integrated in the fight system and really enhances the experience," he added.
Zombie games are nothing new, but DYING LIGHT, from Techland, the maker of Dead Island, appears to be attempting something different; a sandbox survival game with randomly generated side missions. The point is to try to create a survival game that doesn't feel like a standard hack-n-slasher.
"The freedom of movement is what makes Dying Light stand out," said producer Tymon Smektala. "We give you skills to surmount walls, corridors, fences, gates and all other irritating obstacles that restrict you in the majority of first person games released so far. Players can move a lot faster than the enemies and can generally avoid confrontation."
This, of course, is not the same as being outrageously overpowered, as any of the open-world survival games currently infesting Steam can show."We combine the freedom of movement with absolutely relentless enemies that will test you like no other game adversaries before," added Smektala
PROJECT SPARK from Team Dakota is a game-creation adventure that is also a movie-making tool, designed to make use of Xbox One's Kinect. Players can create their own game worlds while starring in filmed cut-scenes. It is, to be sure, an oddity.
"We think there's magic there," said developer Saxs Persson, "Creating is playing. Project Spark is an incredibly powerful tool capable of making high quality games, and it's also a sandbox where you can just drop things down and play with them. Users can not just create beautiful environments, but also actual life, fun and humor. It is easy to learn and fun to master, it democratizes game making and puts the power of creativity in the hands of everyone."
Some major game brands are being welcomed back in 2014, in part due to Kickstarter's ability to allow seasoned developers to create something that represents their true vision, and also because publishers see value in big game names, but want to give them a new lick of paint.
Some hark back to the very earliest years of gaming. Their continued absence over the years has been cause for comment. Take ELITE: DANGEROUS from David Braben's Frontier Developments, a space exploration game based on Elite, one of the most influential games of the early years of home computing. In the recent years of publishing exec dominance, such a game seemed almost impossible to imagine. And yet, here it is, backed handsomely with pre-purchases.
"As a gamer, Elite: Dangerous is a game I have wanted for a very long time, and I know that is true of a lot of other people too," said Braben. "The most important aspect of the game is freedom. Freedom is something often talked about in games but rarely is truly there, particularly from the start. I have always seen Elite as an open-world game, set in space, in the whole Milky Way galaxy, in fact.
"We have overcome issues of incredible scale. There are 100 billion star systems, each one complete with planets, moons, asteroid fields, all modelled using real physics principles."
Aside from scale and freedom, Braben points to the game's multiplayer aspects, and its ability to be reshaped by human actions. "There is never any breaking of the experience as you travel vast distances either alone or with a party of friends," he said. "We also offer persistent MMO-like features and crowd-based changing of the game-world based on player actions, for example whether a planet that is rebelling and is blockaded eventually overthrows is oppressors or they ultimately are able to continue subjugating their population for vast profit."
Brian Fargo is another name from the past. The onetime head of Interplay is back with party-based role-playing game WASTELAND 2. The original Wasteland was responsible for the Fallout series, which has taken a recent swerve into action-RPG territory. But this game is focused on strategy.
"My favorite RPGs were ones in which I carved out my unique story and approach without feeling like I was being dragged around by the nose," said Fargo. "If I decide to shoot someone, ignore pleas for help or save a village I want the logical result that comes about from that. If there is no sense of world outcome then the experience can quickly feel empty. This level of reactivity is the central tenet of Wasteland 2.
"Along these same lines we re-visited what it means to have the game end. If I decide to go rogue and kill everyone in sight then there needs to be permanent repercussions that flow logically from my actions. And I don't mean a simple 'game over' screen but let the story unfold differently if I take extreme actions. I have no problem having there be a different ending at the 10-hour, 20-hour or 40-hour mark based on how you chose to behave. It's the ultimate in cause and effect and makes replay of the world both entertaining and meaningful."
This is the age in which game creators, long frustrated by the fiscally conservative machinations of marketing-led organizations, are finally getting to make the games they say the world really wants. Braben and Fargo represent that opportunity, as does Richard Garriott, with his SHROUD OF THE AVATAR, heavily influenced by his classic Ultima series of RPGs.
He too has firm opinions about how games, in 2014, ought to be headed. Shroud of the Avatar's main innovation is its selective multiplayer modes in which players can approach an MMO-like game, both offline, as a solo player game and online in a meta reality within which the game auto-pairs players into local area instances, alongside friends and players in a similar social graph.
He has also introduced a new NPC conversation system that aims to offer a more in-depth and complex relationship with in-game characters.
"I'm really getting back to what I do best, making a fantasy RPG," said Garriott. "Shroud of the Avatar is both a return to the game design approach that made the Ultima series great, yet has not been seen much in games since, as well as a bold move into the future for online role-playing games."
The need for MMOs to evolve has never been more urgent, and it is not just Garriott who is taking up the challenge. Sony Online Entertainment's EVERQUEST NEXT is another game borrowing from past glories, while grafting on new(ish) ideas.
As well as freedom, emergent storytelling and lasting consequences for actions, the game plays host to an opportunity to build and create. Players can even profit from their creations.
"This team is not taking anything as a given when designing these new experiences." said director of development Dave Georgeson. "There are fundamental elements to our game that are completely different than other MMOs, like the worldwide destructibility of objects and terrain, permanent change caused by the players, amazingly adaptable AI, removal of experience levels and changing the core game with multi-classing, even providing the players the tools that the dev team uses to make the game. Now the players can do everything we can do.
"I've been in thousands of conversations about RPGs over the last quarter-century of game development," he added. "This game responds authoritatively to all of the daydreams and visions that developers have had since we started making computer games."
One of the most eagerly anticipated MMOs of the year is THE ELDER SCROLLS ONLINE, which makes use of a game world that is pre-eminent in RPGs. Skyrim's sales of 20 million in two years is testament to that. But will Bethesda's MMO try anything that is new?
"I believe that innovations of a single feature or features aren't as important as how those features work together," said creative director Paul Sage. "The way I think we truly innovate is by having our features support one another to make a truly unique experience."
He added that getting 200 players on the screen for minimum spec machines and not dropping the frame rate is one example, as well as a large PvP area where a single player can become an emperor. "This is the first time you can play an Elder Scrolls game with your friends. The water-cooler talk happens while the game is happening, and not after," he added.
Curiously, there's been a lot of buzz about another noted name in gaming lore, also from Bethesda. It might reasonably be expected that WOLFENSTEIN: THE NEW ORDER would arrive as an out-and-out walk-and-gun shooter, but like many games on this list, it seeks to surprise by stirring in other genre elements, like stealth and even role-playing
"It's a dark-roasted blend of drama, mystery, humor," said Jens Matthies, creative director at developer MachineGames. "It's got shooting, it's got adventure and it's got a deep story with a colorful cast of characters to become lost in. The game posits a sharp blast of highly involving story, right from the beginning.
"We take perhaps the most iconic first-person shooter franchise in history and push it into a strange new world. It delivers a mature and personal story matched with stellar shooter mechanics, yet still grounded in the gameplay roots that made shooters fun in the first place. In 2014, we're going back to the roots of the first-person shooter."