During my years of gaming I have experienced two major shifts in game design that I consider being paradigmatic. There are of course others, but perhaps not as fundamental as incremental. First we have the transition into 3D environments or the extended exploration of three dimensional worlds. This transition has progressed incrementally through dungeon crawlers like Eye Of the Beholder onto Wolfenstein and the game that managed to unify this experience - DOOM. The experience of moving around in space is the key quality I’m considering for the first paradigm. In my understanding it is not until this experience is publicly known to the broader audience that we can talk about it as a quality with mutual and shared understanding.
Since then everything is pretty much incremental with larger worlds to explore (e.g Elder Scrolls), more freedom in terms of story (e.g Fallout) and last but not least more realistic graphics (e.g Crysis). The point is not that it is a boring period, on the contrary the gaming industry is rather exploding as a medium. For instance, one game worth mentioning that caught my attention is Red Faction. In this quite ordinary 3D-shooter many things in the environment is semi-destructible and bullets even causes walls to tear apart. This was also a few years before physics became interesting.
A bit fast forward and I get to introduce the next big paradigm shift. The experience this time is about manipulation, and in particular whole-world manipulation. Undoubtly I’m talking about Minecaft. The paradox is that it could have happened ten years ago, but the 3D paradigm had inevitably been bound to a strong story telling heritage. And when there was no story to be told it became a “deathmatch”.
Minecraft brings this forward as a recognizable paradigm to us all, but the experiential quality is indeed whole-world manipulation. Notch, the father of Minecraft, makes a truly great effort in explaining what games he draws inspiration from. Every block in the game is available to pick up and reallocate. We can tear down and build up. The neat thing is that future games does not need to be as liberal, but they will need to consider how they can make the environment a hell of a lot more manipulable. Now, this is quite a bit too simplified and the vast majority of games must not feature a shovel worthy of digging to the center of the earth, but giving the user power over everyday things (still in game worlds) will be a worthy challenge to consider.
Whole-world manipulation offers quite a few new design qualities, and without analyzing the game-play mechanics of Minecraft too much, one such quality would be the strong tie to objects. A neat thing with objects is that programmers are well to familiar with them. The new thing is that such programmatic features are now conceptually visible to the entire game design team. So what can we expect then? Well, for one the industry won’t just sit around and right now many are pondering how to create the ultimate digg-experience or dare I say ultimate "A Journey to the Center of the Earth".