To celebrate Polygon’s 10th anniversary, we’re rolling out a special issue: The Next 10, a consideration of what games and entertainment will become over the next decade from some of our favorite artists and writers. Here, freelance writer Khee Hoon Chan digs into the challenges of predicting what directions the game industry will go.
When speculating about the future of anything, there’s a chance predictions will appear dated in hindsight. Take the concept of retrofuturism; despite its quaint, kitschy charm, its aesthetics feel rather (and sometimes deliberately) antiquated: curved geometric designs, chunky phones, and nuclear-powered zeppelins. That’s because the movement was influenced by ’50s- and ’60s-era design and tech trends, which were then extrapolated into the distant future. This datedness is a pitfall Chris Novak is wary of falling into when discussing the shape of gaming a decade from now — especially if that talk were to stem from current gaming trends.
“If you just look at gaming through [the generations of consoles], and you think about the things that became blockbuster hits or blockbuster breakouts […] if you were to try and predict what the one in the next generation would be based on the current generation, you’re basically always going to be wrong,” says Novak. “That’s the one thing history has shown: Nobody expected motion controls; nobody expected all of these things.”
As the former head of Xbox research and design, Novak has a breadth of industry experiences to draw from, having led the user experience journey across gaming at Microsoft for nearly 20 years, and overseeing projects such as Xbox Game Pass and Xbox Live. He suggests that it’s more realistic to deliberate over the future of player verbs: the act of play, discover, share, create, and more. He also feels that conversations around trending topics such as the metaverse and blockchain gaming are akin to talking about product and technical features, which are simply “not as existential” as discussions revolving around, for instance, designing future hardware around sustainability.
Johnny Hou, CEO of gaming PC manufacturer NZXT, agrees. “Talking about Web3 and the metaverse is like, I don’t know, 20 years ago or 15 years ago when people were talking about MMOs. [...] It’s a feature, and just because you made a MMO doesn’t mean it makes it a good MMO,” says Hou. “Web3 has this whole blockchain element behind it, and crypto is very exciting, and [there are] a lot of potential opportunities to make money. But from the perspective of a gamer, it just goes back to content.”
Hou defines that content as the next generation of games over the next 10 years. Quake, for instance, led to the WASD gaming configuration now used by PC players everywhere. The popularity of MOBA games, the likes of DOTA and League of Legends, has influenced streaming culture. Then there is the battle royale genre popularized by DayZ, PUBG, and Fortnite, the latter inspiring conversations about what it means to build a modern-day metaverse. Whatever platforms or hardware will come after will naturally be created to support the next big thing in games. “What’s next after MOBA? Is that battle royale?” Hou asks. “[Even] battle royale is really played out now. MOBA is obviously here but, like, what’s next? What’s the next innovation when it comes to gameplay?”
What this means is that designing future hardware, specifically targeted for gaming, can be a sizable challenge, especially when you can’t be sure what you’re designing for. Carl Ledbetter, partner director of device design at Microsoft (and, perhaps most famously, the inventor of the rubber wheel between the left and right mouse buttons), explains that some key considerations for designing gaming hardware include the technology powering the hardware, the design that can house this tech, and the input device — or controller — that is most compatible with the platform. Yet, all of these take a back seat to games; hardware will still have to be dependent on the sorts of games being developed in this not-so-distant future. “The conversation always starts with the games first. What is the game? How does the gamer engage with the game? What is the core of the game? Is it a short, snackable type of game, where you just want to get in and get out [like a] time-filler, or is it about ultimate immersion, where you want to really dive deep into the game and experience it with all it has to offer?” Ledbetter says.
And the answer can be a heady one to grasp. After all, one of the most viral games in recent months has been Trombone Champ, which is about the absurdity of playing classical pieces on the trombone. Not only did it inspire a hilarious glut of poorly performed covers; players were also crafting their own handmade trombones and controllers to blow along to these songs in Trombone Champ.
Yet as much as we love weird hardware, it feels like a safe bet that Nintendo’s next console won’t be based around a trombone. According to experts we spoke to, though, a handful of current trends seem like they will impact how games will evolve over the next decade.
Cloud gaming won’t be going away
Despite the unceremonious demise of Google Stadia in September, industry veterans we spoke to remain optimistic about the potential of cloud gaming. In a decade or so, gaming may very well become a pastime that will become increasingly accessible to more players due to the cloud. “What will evolve is the availability of people to access these more high-end gaming experiences,” says Hou. This has the capacity to change the way people can access more expensive hardware. “Maybe it’s not in the conventional way [...] in terms of [buying] a very powerful computer for the same price as a console, because I think that might be challenging, but [...] things like, I pay a monthly fee for a computer in a cloud that allows me to have access to a $2000 machine, for only 20 bucks a month... That is actually very similar in terms of affordability.”
And for Marc Whitten, senior vice president and general manager of Unity, cloud gaming will continue to have a presence in the near future, while also further enabling game development. “The cloud is a tool set for creating the games themselves, [and] I think will be much more advanced.” Bringing up Microsoft Flight Simulator as an example, he points out how it leveraged geographic information system data to construct photorealistic images (“AI meets some form of mapping of the entire world”), thus creating an incredibly immersive experience for flight simulator enthusiasts. “It’s going to be that you can rely on extremely rich cloud services, and [...] I just believe there’s going to be a digital twin of everything in the world, like that whatever you think of, there will be digital versions of it.”
Live-service games will be everywhere
The rise of live-service games — that is, games with frequently updated and seasonal content — will likely also continue in the near future. “All games are live games [in the future],” Whitten predicts. “They’re live experiences, and it’s about a continually evolving experience that’s launched from the creator, but built as much from the community playing with it and evolving over time. The idea that they’re almost […] live destinations. But that trend, which I think changes design, it changes how people play, it changes how they think about the time and the game, and I think it’ll just continue to grow over the next 10 years.” Ledbetter, too, also brought up Minecraft’s content updates as an example, stating that this trend will continue to make future games more engaging.
More broadly, Whitten shares that this will lead to a sea change in how toxicity and player safety are being managed in the near future. “If you go back to my first trend, everything’s going to be a live game, and it’s about multiple people playing together,” he explains. ”You don’t run multiplayer services without a significant part of what you spend time on being, How do you evolve those services? And it’s a constant evolution, again, because players interact in new ways as the platform continues.” New technology, as Whitten suggested, may nudge this development along, such as using AI to “automatically find toxicity and field better controls.” While there may be an undercurrent of cynicism over such efforts — gaming toxicity has only peaked over the past few years — it’s imperative that game companies prioritize this change.
“[Managing toxicity] will be a challenge 10 years from now. [...] And if you put enough [players] together, you have to build systems that support making sure that the right tools are there to help protect people,” says Whitten.
Improved graphics, better (and badder) explosions
According to Novak, special effects like explosions are likely to be much more impressive in a decade — and more realistic, thanks to improved physics simulations. Play as a mage, set a distant town on fire with lightning, and watch gargantuan structures and towers crumble in real time, reduced to mere bricks in seconds. It’s a difficult technical feat to pull off for now, but this may just be possible not too far down the road. “The actual mechanics of playing a game are often limited by the CPU, not the GPU,” adds Novak. “It always comes to trying to do more advanced simulation. Making a bunch more enemies [become] very intelligent, making a lot of the world act ‘more real,’ doing much more sophisticated physics, being able to do things outside of where you can see. Doing all of that simulation is actually very, very hard, and typically it’s completely faked in games.”
At the same time, the upward trajectory of gaming graphics will most likely continue even a decade from now. Rendering capabilities will improve, Ledbetter notes, which means “more realism, faster frame rates and higher resolution, and even the ability to render people and faces and expressions.”
Community content will take center stage
Immaculate graphics and realistic explosions aside, Novak sees the next decade of gaming as defined by content generation. This runs the gamut of gaming content that’s more than just commercially produced, but also thrives among the community. What this translates to is activities like streaming and modding — which will only become more prevalent — but also something as simple as crafting short clips out of games so they can be shared on social platforms among small groups of friends. “If there was one change that I think is going to happen, it’s that creation, what it means to create — that entire process will be upended completely,” he says. “Right now there’s a lot of effort on the tooling — the tools that you need to create things — whether it be a video or an in-game mod. The tooling to create things for games is getting much better.”
Rather than just TikTok compilations crafted to the likes of content like “the biggest fails in gaming,” Novak is envisioning a gaming future where community content creation will be democratized and personalized. “Why can’t it be as easy as, you know, if there’s a funny line of dialogue that I want to create because it would be great in-joke between me and my friends in this game, I should be able to create that on my phone and insert that into a game?” he explains. And as such tools become more advanced, this can translate to a much more widespread culture of game modding. “Historically, DOTA was a mod, Counter-Strike was a mod. There have been mods over time, which have become games bigger than even the game they were founded within. That will no longer be an outlier event. You will now see content being published more and more into games.”
This accessibility can also be extended to game discoverability. Instead of just scrolling through web pages of games categorized strictly by their genre, players can instead look for games they like in a more intuitive manner. “The players won’t just be able to find another game. They’ll be able to find things within a game that they enjoy when they do their search, when that discovery option is in front of them,” Novak elaborates. “Imagine the power of being able to simply say, ‘Hey, show me games of great boss battles,’ ‘Show me the games that contributed to the game modes in this game that I love,’ ‘Show me just game modes that I would love.’”
Deliberating the future of games — an exercise that encompasses an astounding variety of interactivity and experiences — can feel like a nebulous thought experiment at times. Perhaps the next big thing in gaming is a wearable tech that’s as diminutive as contact lenses, easily fitted over the curvature of your eyes, allowing you to plug into virtual reality almost instantaneously. Or perhaps it’s simply a new take on first-person shooters that will let players gradually decimate their fragile environments till only the void remains. Such progress can be difficult to predict, but one thing is for sure: Past generations of games have at least shown that unexpected developments will continue to lie in wait.
“I think we will absolutely start to see things like artificial intelligence, the metaverse, game content, and the delivery of content come together in ways that we just started to understand today,” says Ledbetter. “I don’t think we’ll actually be all the way there yet in 10 years, but it’s going to be very different than how it is today. Actually, I think it’s going to be amazing.”