However, I do think we’re pretty much at the limit, and going further might actually make games inferior.
Take map size. I’ve played a few free-roaming games, where you can go anywhere on the map, such as GTA: San Andreas, Oblivion and Fallout 3. The bigger the map, the more varied and interesting you can make the landscape, the more nooks and crannies you can put in to intrigue and delight exploring players and so on.
The problem is that if you make a map too big then a few things start getting worse. For a start, unless you have (and use) a fast travel system, it can be a pain in the arse to trek a huge distance. Secondly, it makes the work of a completionist (ie someone who likes to do, collect and experience every part of a game) almost impossible. Last, but perhaps most importantly, it makes a game’s production time longer, meaning that by the time it’s released it may be nearly or actually outdated by other releases that took years less to create.
Then there’s customisation, both in terms of character creation and options for variable gameplay (in Skyrim terms: the archetypes of warrior, rogue and mage and various mixtures between two or three of those). Would you want to play a game with 100 races to choose from? I wouldn’t, because the team making the game would have spent a hell of a long time fiddling with microscopic racial differences instead of spending their time on more important things. Likewise, a one-handed and two-handed (or blunt and blade) categorisation of melee weapons makes sense, but if you had specific skillsets for umpteen weapons (daggers, spears, halberds, maces, morning stars, swords, longbows, shortbows, crossbows, cestus, slings etc etc) character management would, for most people, become bloody tedious.
Whether a game is free-roaming, entirely linear or something in between (Skyrim, Final Fantasy Whatever The Last One Was and Dragon Age: Origins, say) also affects how big a game can be before it’s just become as fat and bloated as an oaf who gets a documentary made about how they have to be lifted in and out of bed with a crane. Skyrim (and its predecessor, Oblivion) will get away with being 300 hours long because if you play a character for 100 hours and then start a new one, the remaining 200 hours of questing, exploring and murdering poor people can instantly be got at with your new character. But if you’re playing Linear Fantasy 19 and forgot to do something important (I’d offer a specific example, but didn’t buy it and therefore cannot) in the 127th hour then your options are to play for another 173 hours of regret, or start a new game and plough through 126 hours of gameplay to do the thing you wanted to do, but missed.
So, let’s assume I’m right (no sarcastic comments, loyal readership!) and games such as Skyrim have pretty much reached the natural limit of geographical size and character customisation (there are 10 races to choose from. Any more would just be silly). That’s actually a good thing. Because instead of trying to make Black Marsh (or whatever the next Elder Scrolls will be) even more enormous the development team will be able to spend the extra resources they have on things that make the game better, rather than just bigger. Things like de-fusing trousers and shirts, for example, and making even more intriguing quests instead of standardised quests.
I wasn’t going to write any more Skyrim stuff until I got the game, but I did hear a snippet (it’s a non-spoiler) worth mentioning. Unlike Oblivion or Fallout 3 you don’t get to fiddle with your character at the end of the intro, so make sure you get everything right at creation, or you’ll have to quite and redo it.