The last decade of video gaming has seen some remarkable changes. It began with the release of two new consoles — the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One — and eventually saw the launch of a third, the Nintendo Switch. Meanwhile, PC gaming reasserted its dominance and mobile gaming continued on its disruptive path.
Along the way, the tastes of the gaming public changed dramatically. Those changes were marked by the creation of a number of entirely new genres. Here’s a look back on what’s new since 2009, and what it tells us about the gaming landscape in 2020 and beyond.
Alphabetically first on the list, this new genre actually broke onto the scene most recently of them all. Based on the tradition of drafting mechanics in collectible card games (CCGs) and the animated fights from old-school PC games like Battle Chess, the auto battler is a wild amalgam. Players pick from a random assortment of heroes who do battle autonomously once a round of play starts. The player who has the most heroes standing at the end wins.
The genre kicked off with Pokemon Defense, a mod built for Warcraft 3: Reign of Chaos that depends on players understanding how different Pokemon fight. So far, every subsequent auto battler follows the same formula, more or less depending on the institutional knowledge of a given fandom to really make sense. The fad spread to Dota 2 with the Auto Chess mod and, later, to Valve’s own Dota Underlords. Then Riot Games got into the action with Teamfight Tactics. All three remain wildly popular, while the newly announced Battlegrounds mode for Hearthstone looks like a perfect fit on PC and mobile.
As with the MOBAs that came before them, most of the popularity of auto battlers is inscrutable to those without inside knowledge of the properties they’re based on, yet they’ve found massive audiences. Where they go from here is one of the next decade’s most exciting questions.
The battle royale genre exploded in 2017 with the release of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. Created by Brendan “PlayerUnknown” Greene, the high-stakes game was actually the developer’s third bite at the apple. Inspired by the success of DayZ, Greene originally built a 100-player survival mode inside Bohemia Interactive’s military simulation Arma 2. Then he was contracted by Daybreak Games to create a similar mode for H1Z1, which went on to become more fun than the base game itself. But the success of his stand-alone game, commonly referred to as PUBG, was meteoric. It remains one of the most popular games on Steam, and on mobile platforms around the world.
Small wonder, then, that other companies were quick to follow suit. The most notable iteration of the battle royale formula was Fortnite’s Battle Royale mode, which is pretty much the most popular game in the world across PC, consoles, and mobile devices.
Outside PUBG, Fortnite, and latecomer Apex: Legends, other battle royale games haven’t quite caught on. The most notable exception is Call of Duty: Black Ops 4’s battle royale mode, Blackout, which is popular among that game’s fan base, to be sure. But nothing has emerged into the mainstream consciousness quite like PUBG or Fortnite.
Fortnite especially has been adopted by youth culture far and wide. For 2020 and beyond, not many publishers or developers seem eager to take that game on head-to-head. Rather, all eyes will be on Epic Games to see if it can continue to hold on to its relevance — and cultural cachet — into the next decade.
Digital collectible card games
The release of Hearthstone in 2014 signaled a new era for strategy gaming. No longer would CCGs be limited to the physical world. What followed was a flurry of additional titles, including but not limited to Gwent: The Witcher Card Game, The Elder Scrolls: Legends, and 2018’s Slay the Spire. Most relied on changing the pace and flow of the traditional CCG, which can be very interrupt-driven with players stopping each other mid-turn to counter moves. By contrast, Hearthstone and remains strictly turn-based.
What’s so interesting to see is that the growth of the digital CCG genre has actually forced the hand of the team at Wizards of the Coast. The creators of the original CCG now have their own, internally developed digital version called Magic: The Gathering Arena. I can’t help but see that as an admission that the digital world is at risk of overshadowing the granddaddy of the genre.
Fortunately, Arena is outstanding. It provides all the complexity of the traditional physical Magic card game, and is even keeping pace day and date with new sets of cards.
Expect more exposure for Magic professionals on the tour playing Arena throughout 2020 and beyond, and keep an eye on Wizards’ Dungeons & Dragons team, which recently picked up its own digital studio in Tuque Games out of Canada.
Prior to August 2013, there was no such thing as a clicker game. That’s when avant-garde developer Orteil put out a prototype of Cookie Clicker, which rapidly developed a cult following. Now it’s one of the most popular genres on Steam and mobile platforms alike.
What is a clicker game? It’s a game where you just click a single button or a series of buttons over and over. Given enough time, the games almost begin to play themselves. That’s why fans and detractors alike also call them “idle games.” Below the surface, the clicker genre is about distilling out the thrill of optimization. How do you click less, while making each click worth more? The best titles eventually reveal their character through their intricate systems, where the layers of tiny machines suddenly leap into the air, soaring like a kite.
Today, at the close of the decade, the Dungeons & Dragons-themed clicker game Idle Champions of the Forgotten Realms is among the most popular games on Steam. It actually keeps playing itself after you turn it off, rewarding players who return with obscene piles of loot to fuel their next run. It’s a delicious little dopamine cycle and, I’m sure, fairly lucrative as a free-to-play game. But you get the feeling that the clicker genre has yet to live up to its true potential.
Borderlands kicked off the loot shooter craze in 2009 with the promise of millions of guns, each one different from the last. Now, loot shooters are among the most successful games on the market, attracting the biggest AAA studios around.
The secret to the loot shooter’s success is an exacting refinement of the shooter’s core gameplay loop. If it’s not fun to pull the trigger, reload the weapons, and move around, then players simply aren’t coming back no matter how much loot you give them. Theming varies wildly, from the high-fantasy science fiction of Destiny 2 to the more pedestrian post-apocalyptic concerns of Tom Clancy’s The Division 2. Whatever your poison right now, there’s likely a loot shooter made just for you.
The side effect of the looting aspect of these games is that a large portion of the community will play a given title to the exclusion of nearly everything else. Elite gear isn’t stumbled upon so much as it’s earned through dozens of hours of play, and that means showing up on a regular basis to get the work done. Player fatigue is a real problem, and not one that’s easily solved by spooling up production of the next numbered title in a series.
Look for loot shooters to become more like gaming platforms. Existing titles and new entries will each have longer and longer life spans throughout the next decade, with additional new gameplay modes built inside to keep players coming back for more.
One of the biggest surprises of the last decade was DayZ. The zombie-infused mod for Arma 2: Operation Arrowhead quickly transitioned into a stand-alone title, selling millions of copies before it was even finished. Now both PCs and consoles alike are absolutely littered with games that require players to forage for their own food and water in order to survive.
The survival genre isn’t just about roughing it, of course. Much of the allure comes from the crafting and base-building systems. Games like Ark: Survival Evolved and Conan Exiles can feel a bit like real-time strategy games, with streamlined build orders and optimizations being the key to establishing a foothold in the wilderness.
Survival doesn’t always mean playing a first-person game or an online game, either. Don’t Starve showed that survival works in third-person too, while The Long Dark works well as a single-player, narrative experience.
But by far the most interesting aspect of the survival genre is the social interactions the games inspire between players. Whether it’s bullying people in Rust or playing medic in DayZ’s wasteland, the survival genre has shown that meeting another player online doesn’t always have to result in a gunfight.
Souls-like games are among the decade’s most popular new genres, and by their very nature are among the most difficult. The genre owes its name to FromSoftware’s 2009 cult classic Demon’s Souls, but the style of gameplay was eventually popularized with 2011’s Dark Souls and its sequels.
A subgenre of the action role-playing game, Souls-like games require patience, cunning, and absolute mastery of their gameplay systems. The in-game characters themselves don’t grow so much as the real-life player gets better at controlling them. In that way, they’re almost a throwback to the early days of coin-operated arcade games like Donkey Kong and Pac-Man.
The very best Souls-like games still come courtesy of FromSoftware, which has turned over new titles at a startling pace over the past 10 years. Its most recent entry, 2019’s Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, was to many its best offering yet, while other fans will cite 2015’s Bloodborne as their favorite. Other studios have been slow to follow, although there have been a few notable entries, including Nioh and The Surge. Look for incremental growth over the next decade, which will likely continue to be led by FromSoftware.
VR light gun games
The biggest challenge for developers working in virtual reality is making movement comfortable for players. VR sickness is real, and avoiding it requires compromises in nearly every aspect of gameplay ... except when aiming down the barrel of a gun.
One of the challenges of shooting a gun in the real world is acquiring what’s called a “sight picture” — that is, interposing the aiming device on the firearm between yourself and your target in order to line up a shot. Getting advanced optics that allow for a better sight picture is a major part of the progression system in modern first-person shooters. But in games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, those progressions mostly have to do with how quickly you can bring a gun into a shooting position and the amount of cruft that blocks your view of the target.
Getting a good sight picture in VR, on the other hand, is no different than getting a good sight picture in real life. Practice makes perfect, and the results are satisfying. Plinking cans off a fence is just as much fun in VR as it is on your uncle’s farm. That fact has opened up a massive new genre for developers.
One of the most popular VR light gun games is Space Pirate Trainer, a turret shooter that doesn’t require players to move around very much. There’s also the puzzle shooter Superhot, which allows players to dodge bullets like Neo in The Matrix from the comfort of their own homes. The VR version of that game is completely different from the console version, and once again requires almost no walking on the part of the player.
At the other end of the spectrum are games like Onward, which wants to recreate all aspects of a tactical first-person shooter in VR. That means moving through environments, albeit much slower than you’ll ever see someone running in a game of Call of Duty. As room-scale VR systems like the Oculus Quest continue to enter the market at lower price points, look for VR light gun games to become even more popular.
Perhaps the most derided of the genres created in the last decade, the walking simulator is also among the most artistic and expressive.
First released as a Source engine mod in 2008, Dear Esther kicked off the decade of the walking simulator with a proper commercial release in 2012. Players walk from point A to point B while a narrative plays out all around them. It’s an experience not unlike a multimedia art exhibition. But it confounded player expectations by not really requiring any input at all; the game works because it frees the player up to observe and reflect. Almost immediately, some wondered if it could be considered a game at all. Later, games like Gone Home and Firewatch would raise similar questions — all while achieving both commercial success and critical acclaim.
Other games have borrowed from the walking simulator genre with mixed success, including Jonathan Blow’s The Witness and Hideo Kojima’s Death Stranding. Both use travel over massive landscapes to tell their story and evoke emotional responses in the player. Of course, both also layer on more traditional gameplay mechanics. Meanwhile, 2017’s What Remains of Edith Finch was mostly unadorned. It’s a walking simulator about mourning, life, and love. In our review, Polygon called it “beautiful and bittersweet.”
Expect even more walking simulators to show up in 2020 and beyond from creators eager to get their messages across.