The Decade in Video Games, as told by Borderlands 3
I finished playing the main storyline of Borderlands 3 the other day, and I think that it is perhaps the game that best illustrates the trends of the whole decade in gaming.
Now, that’s not to say that it’s the best game of the decade. I would like to play through more of the side-missions before jumping in to review it, but I definitely feel like it’s a solid 9/10.
However, I think it’s a testament to a bunch of different developments in the games industry in general, and serves as a really good example when we look at trends in games.
I struggled to come up with the right term for this, and I fell back to my training as an educator to settle on the notion of generalization.
Broadly speaking, generalization is the ability to apply knowledge and skills from one area to another.
I think that Borderlands 3 does this in a way we’ve seen happening across the industry the past few years, and it has a particular way of lampshading it and giving a more direct approach.
The Borderlands series has always been a “looter-shooter” series at its heart, an odd hybrid of FPS and ARPG genres that has also blossomed into a genre of its own (think Ubisoft’s The Division). However, Borderlands 3 feels like it brought both genres together instead of being a method of presentation layered over a particular set of game mechanics.
Going back to the nearest equivalents from the last decade, it’s hard to draw a comparison. The Elder Scrolls had a traditional RPG experience packaged in first-person, but it was very clearly an RPG and not an ARPG; loot was generally standard-issue and modified by the player, rather than being randomly generated, and most of the emphasis on advancement was in the character themselves.
ARPGs pride themselves on being relatively simple to pick up and play, even if they wind up with complex layered game mechanics. The poorly-received Hellgate London and the more well-received first Borderlands game both permit players to combine FPS and ARPG experiences, and games like Global Agenda would continue the trend.
However, these games were plagued by being, essentially, first-person ARPGs. The interface changed, but the game itself didn’t.
The first Borderlands managed to succeed on its novel setting and comedy, and its willingness to make concessions to shooter gameplay and commit fully to it. Hellgate London failed on the same lines: it could be played in first person, but still felt like a traditional ARPG where one is clicking on bad guys to kill them.
During the mid-point of the Borderlands series, namely Borderlands 2 and the Pre-Sequel, the need to keep up with shifting genres became apparent. Neither was considered particularly innovative as shooters, and while they were both decent games in their own right they were starting to show their age, as modern cover-based shooters and improvements were notably absent.
Then, with Borderlands 3, we see a blending of the genres in a way that’s become increasingly prevalent in the end of the decade. It is particularly prevalent in games which are blending mechanics typically found in RPGs with other systems; the recent Assassin’s Creed games, Far Cry, Wolfenstein and Doom, Yakuza, even Shakedown: Hawaii. Other games, like Tetris 99, Metal Gear Survive, and Conan Exiles have sought to combine other genres with varying degrees of success, often taking a familiar hit and reworking it with elements from another popular genre.
We’ve also seen new genres: battle royales, MOBAs, and hero shooters are all popular in the competitive sphere of gaming, and with the exception of the MOBA they have been mostly limited to the second half of the decade.
All of these newer genres tend to look like old and existing genres, but as one really delves deeper it becomes clear that they have some untapped space to develop on their own.
There’s also a degree of increasing sophistication within genres. Even though a lot of genres are relatively old in the grand scheme of things, new innovations have tended to focus on letting players have focused experiences; from the increased popularity of grand strategy games like Stellaris and Europa Universalis, along with the more long-running Total War series, serving as just one example of games that now feel free to explore a single niche instead of conforming to a single genre.
And these sophistications are being applied back to the multi-genre games in a way that they weren’t previously. Borderlands 3 incorporates the improvements to movement and immersive environments from FPS games that its predecessors had fallen behind on, making it feel much more active and player-focused. From developments in the ARPG genre it incorporates more broad character customization options without losing a focus on central skill trees, providing the genre’s trademark “simple enough to pick up” newbie-friendliness while empowering players to make decisions that feel meaningful.
One of the challenges that confronts game designers in this space is the idea of comprehensibility. A really great game that is too far ahead of its time may confound and confuse players, but so much of the language of games has become standardized.
User interface elements in particular have become much more intuitive, with press and hold inputs being used for distinct actions, something which helps span the divide between consoles and computers, which previously had significant differences in interface, without requiring players to sacrifice too much. Looking back at even something like 2006’s Phantasy Star Universe shows a case where adapting control schemes to a console had serious impacts on how a game would play on computers, but as the 2010’s rolled on more and more methods for overcoming the limited control inputs of the traditional game controller emerged and were adopted as standards.
You can probably first see the major change to how games are perceived by mainstream audiences to 2011’s Skyrim, but it’s a process that continued through the entire decade.
Games like Borderlands 3, which are quirky, stylized, and feature relatively complex game mechanics would have been niche games back in the early 2000s and late 90s. Earlier successful game franchises like Mario, Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty, and Pokémon all generally relied on either appeal to children (Mario, Pokémon) or a deliberate targeting of mainstream audiences (Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty), with other games like The Sims and sports games targeting “non-gamers” deliberately as an audience. A massive catalog of many of these games contributed to their impressive sales as well; FIFA, for instance, is a sports franchise that has yearly iterations.
Now games that are more traditionally marketed at hardcore gamers with more advanced setting conceits and less obvious gameplay mechanics have broken into the mainstream.
Some of this has to do with the fact that gaming as an industry has only been majorly influential in media for the past generation, so the first generation with media consumers who have been able to consider themselves life-long gamers in the way that people in the last century considered themselves filmgoers and people of previous centuries considered themselves novel readers has led to an expansion in both audience size and sophistication.
In addition, tangential industries such as tabletop roleplaying have returned to the mainstream as well with editions of Dungeons and Dragons and other games (notably Pathfinder, Call of Cthulhu, and a handful of others) have created affiliated audiences who can appreciate the narrative structures in games without requiring them to be adapted to fit more traditional molds and also have an increased demand for agency in stories.
There is also more gaming on more platforms in general; almost any machine can now run sophisticated games, even if they may not be the most recent and impressive titles. The medium’s ability to overcome technical and budget limitations of previous generations of games has also fostered a grand awakening of consumers to games that can satisfy them more thoroughly.
I think that this is one of the aspects that Borderlands 3 shows off well. It has storytelling that flows from both tradition and experimentation, including found-text, direct narration, exploration-based, and action-based storytelling. It also offers an experience that is immediately satisfying in visceral and intellectual dimensions, though the latter is not as fully explored as it could be.
The Epic Games Store is still relatively controversial, especially due to their exclusives policies, but it reflects a trend over the past decade of moving toward more varied digital storefronts; in the 00’s, the primary digital storefronts were Steam and GOG. There were other storefronts, but they were either smaller or were dependent on using another marketplace, typically Steam, for final order fulfillment.
As an exclusive on the Epic Games Store (on PC), with more traditional distribution on consoles, Borderlands 3 is a testament to how the industry has been changing over the last decade.
The 10’s brought us uPlay, Origin, Battle.net (as a storefront for third-party titles), Bethesda.net, Discord, Humble Bundle, the Epic Games Store, itch.io, and the Microsoft Store, each of which feature their own distribution and game storefront services.
This blossoming in digital distribution storefronts shows a mixture of issues in play. Publishers have overwhelmingly gravitated toward distributing games on their own platforms both as a form of DRM but also as a way to get around the middleman fees of digital distribution through a platform like Steam; Epic Games has used their store’s lower fees as a driving factor in pulling publishers and indie developers away from other storefronts, and some platforms like itch.io offer similar appeals to a larger target group of developers who don’t do well in large storefronts like Steam.
It’s worth noting that this also means that indie games, which once generally handled payment through a joint publisher (Humble Bundle once served this function for quite a few indies) or independently, now sell primarily through the same storefronts that sell triple-A titles and other indie games.
DLC and Games as a Service
One of the advantages of digital distribution is the ability to constantly update and improve games, but it also brings the notion of “games as a service” to the industry.
The games as a service philosophy is relatively recent, though its predecessor in the form of DLC dates back to the last decade.
One of the criticisms of GaaS games is that they often have been released incomplete or have dramatic changes over the course of their lifespan that make them undesirable for the players who originally were interested in the game.
Technically, the notion is not new; the first games as a service examples go back to the 80’s, but the distinction that came to be drawn this decade is that elements like season passes and microtransactions have replaced or been added to the more traditional expansion packs and DLC of the past decade.
This has generally been negative for consumers, with massive backlash against games like Electronic Arts’ Anthem and Star Wars: Battlefront 2, Bethesda’s Fallout 76, and even games like Blizzard’s Overwatch and Ubisoft’s Rainbow Six: Siege. While some backlash has to do with potentially exploitative features, like loot boxes and “pay-to-win” mechanics, players also sometimes object to changes to the balance of play styles and the increased changes that games undergo after their release. Always-online requirements, like EA’s SimCity launched with in 2013, also faced criticism, especially during a rocky launch when servers were not working, and there is some concern that many “games as a service” based games will be unplayable after official support ends.
A relatively new development is the expansion of game subscription services, with many major publishers and distributors (including Electronic Arts, Sony, Ubisoft, and Microsoft) offering traditionally published games with or without GaaS features as part of a subscription package, similar to Netflix or Amazon Prime for movies and TV. This promises some more benefit to consumers (as the cost of these subscriptions is typically less than buying all the games by themselves), but raises concerns about distribution schemes shifting.
For its part, Borderlands 3 has gone with a model that is generally uncontroversial (barring its Epic Games Store exclusivity), with a core game release followed by a plan for a handful of DLC expansions that can be purchased in a season pass.
It’s not entirely possible to predict the future of games distribution, but it seems likely that the various methods pioneered this decade will continue to be relevant through the 2020s.
Borderlands 3 is unlikely to win any awards on its technical innovations, but since it has a 00s installment to be compared against it can be used as an example of the progress that games have made.
Seamless multiplayer has been around for a long time, but Borderlands 3 highlights improvements in physics, AI, and graphics that just weren’t around until relatively recently, even as it lacks some of the most cutting-edge features like raytracing that have not yet become industry standard.
At the start of the decade, all of these things were available, but they were available in exclusion of each other. Volumetric fog? Sure, but it’s all the GPU can handle at a given time. Temporal anti-aliasing? The tech was in its infancy. Real-time intelligent image sharpening? Basically unheard of. Screen space reflection? We can mirror the render frame and do a little magic.
All of those things at once? A fairy tale.
On PC, where games tend to shine brightest in terms of visuals and customization, Borderlands 3 offers tremendous flexibility in setting up visual options, and this is one of the places where games have gone into a frenzy as we reach the end of the decade.
Games are now expected to run in ways that you wouldn’t have been able to reasonably expect most games to run a decade ago. Crysis, the defining high-performance game of the last decade, was not built with the assumption that people would be pushing high-resolution and high-refresh rate displays at it.
Now, however, games have become technically demanding in the same way that a film is technically demanding; there is an expectation, especially for triple-A titles, that a game feature post-processing and visual output formatting that is equivalent to the experiences one would get with recorded video.
Of course, this is not to say that every game must have this, but these technologies are increasingly available even to small developers, and things like physics based rendering workflows make it possible for even hobbyists to create games that push the boundaries of what would have been possible at the start of the decade in terms of visual fidelity.
Much of the technical element of actual gameplay lags behind, but this is in part because the previous decade made it so that most of the classical problems are no longer relevant. Computing power has advanced to the point that only the most complex simulations can slow a machine down; it is the increased precision, responsiveness, and scale of games that can threaten the computing limitations of machines, and all of these are likewise being tackled with optimizations and machine learning.
The Revenge of the Franchise
One of the general trends recently is that franchised games and sequels are actually pretty well-done. This hasn’t been a universal rule; games like Aliens: Colonial Marines and the disastrous Arkham Knight PC port have definitely failed to impress players, but there has been more of a focus on franchising games in ways that make sense.
One of the most important things here, and one that Borderlands 3 actually does right, is that these games are less frequently just similar games that have a broad continuity and instead refinements and enhancements on previous installments in the series, bringing characters and themes from previous games into question again.
Deus Ex, Borderlands, Tomb Raider, Assassin’s Creed, and even Doom have received this treatment, either in reimaginings and reboots or as original endeavors.
These new franchises may still spawn spin-off games, but the important defining point here is that there is always a continuity between each game. Deus Ex brought us three games (Human Revolution, The Fall, and Mankind Divided) that all functioned as part of a grand story and were in the same general style with refinements and improvements, though The Fall was developed as a mobile game and got mixed reception when ported to Windows. Tomb Raider likewise brought us three games (Tomb Raider, Rise of the Tomb Raider, and Shadow of the Tomb Raider) that took place in the same continuity with similar consistency in genre and style.
It’s worth noting that there is a distinction between these games and the cycle of games like Call of Duty and Battlefield; multiplayer games tend to be more experimental and less consistent across entries, with both of the shooters experimenting with new game modes and styles of play to attract new audiences and maintain audiences more interested in other genres, like the burgeoning battle royale genre.
However, in an ironic twist, both Call of Duty and Battlefield are ironically decried as being more in line with their previous-decade methodology of releasing annual sequels with dubious justifications; while Call of Duty has split itself into a release schedule based around different products (i.e. Modern Warfare and Black Ops, plus sci-fi and historical spin-offs), Battlefield has generally stuck to focusing on a single product line and dressing it up in various historical periods (e.g. World War I or II) and setting conceits (e.g. Hardline) despite a few overtures toward more adventurous expansion of the franchise at the start of the decade.
In another example, Resident Evil struggled to find its footing after the quality of its sequels fell, but has attempted a soft-reboot with its seventh main installment (Biohazard) and a remake of its second game, and added spin-off action-centric entries (the Revelations series) to introduce more players to the lore of the setting.
This is the method that the Final Fantasy franchise has also gone for; instead of pursuing a single monolithic game that is split into multiple installments, its individual games are not necessarily related in setting or even genre. However, it’s worth noting that there is still a contract between Square Enix and their audience: Final Fantasy offers a particular experience that is updated to fit modern trends with each iteration (or at least attempts to be updated to meet modern trends), and the emphasis will always be on telling a story even if the core gameplay differs.
In a sense, both traditional franchises and smart franchises have focused on offering players exactly what they expect, but smart franchises tend to be released as monolithic entities; they are sagas that run the course of more than a single entry, pioneered by games like Mass Effect during the last decade, and typically released without a fixed schedule.
Traditional franchises, on the other hand, are designed with each entry as an independent stand-alone experience, and while they may share elements and themes they generally focus more on the branding to market their experience.
This decade has been the decade of independent developers, both on computers where digital storefronts have enabled massive access to customers and on consoles, where independent games have seen a rise in popularity. Games like Undertale have achieved broad appeal through internet memes, while other games, like What Remains of Edith Finch fill niches in the market that triple-A titles avoid.
Of course, this should not diminish the influence of indies in the earlier game market, but the truth is that there is perhaps more people making small games that achieve commercial success now than there were in previous decades.
This is partly due to crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter, which allow developers and studios to raise money to work on a game. However, the market’s tastes have also broadened and diversified. With more clearly defined genres and more niches within existing genres, indie games have found an opportunity to cater to people who are willing to engage in smaller, hand-crafted, experiences.
It’s also the case that microtransactions, large DLC catalogs, and “games as a service” philosophies have made many mainstream games less appealing than indie games, which often offer a single fee for a complete experience where triple-A studios have occasionally turned out games that feel incomplete.
I think that the overall trend of this decade is one of bigger and better games, but with serious questions about what will go forward.
If there’s one golden acorn of truth this decade brought the games industry, it’s to expect the unexpected. Tradition and experimentation have bloomed together, rather than growing apart, and games are better for it as a general rule.
Borderlands 3 shines as an example of this: it has dozens of elements which would have been revolutionary ten years ago, but are almost standard now. Only through the intersection of a whole assortment of elements does it define itself, but looking back to the last decade it’s clear that things have come a long way from there.
This is an entry for Archrdruid Gaming's Gaming Decades: The Present contest. Go check them out!