The genre is outpacing the fore-runners.
Space Engineers, Kerbal, Medieval Engineers, Minecraft, and many similar games have started to create a pair of new genres. We're going to ignore the "survival crafting" genre, and instead focus on the "unbounded construction" genre.
Players have always wanted to build anything they please, and devs have always struggled to let them. But it requires three things, and only in the past few years have all three become widely available. The raw power to render and simulate large constructions. The fast, fluid UI to allow players to quickly build, refine, and import their constructions. The easy, integrated sharing of constructions.
These three recently came together to form a new genre.
It's becoming clear that the fore-runners of the genre aren't what the genre will look like in the long run. Let's see if we can talk about what the genre might become.
(Of course, maybe I'm the only one seeing this genre, but let's look at it anyway.)
The genre's name gives away what I consider the core concern: unbounded construction. But we've always tried to create unbounded construction. What makes something like Minecraft different from something like Sim City or Civilization?
Well, when I say "unbounded", I mean unbounded in the logical sense, not the logistical sense. I don't simply mean you have a limitless plain to plunk down physical blocks. I mean that you can invent your own purposes, build to meet your own goals and tell your own stories. Your visions can be pushed into the game, and the game can inform your vision.
In Sim City, you could build a big midwestern city. Just that. You couldn't build anything else you wanted. If you want to build a replica of ancient Greece, you can't: the buildings are clearly modern midwestern American. You want to make a Martian city? No dice. The pieces just don't match up.
But if you make the pieces small enough and the canvas large enough, you can get a lot closer to your vision. You can pack more customizable details into more space.
In Minecraft, you can build a replica of ancient Greece. Sure, the pillars are weird and square, but you can get pretty close. In Space Engineers, you can build a Martian city. Sure, the cargo pods look different than you would like, but you can get pretty close.
Each individual piece might not match perfectly, but you can choose where to place which pieces, and the result is pretty good. It's the Lego approach.
Moreover, modding is a lot more powerful at this scale. If you want to simulate ancient Greece in Sim City, you have to find an ancient Greek buildings pack, which is awfully specific. But in Minecraft, you can scrounge together a variety of generic medieval parts and come out with a pretty convincing Greece. Similarly, if the cargo pod in Space Engineers bothers you, you can replace it. You don't have to find a "Martian city" mod pack, you can just find a slew of random parts that are closer to your vision.
This "small parts" approach is very powerful for those reasons and more, but it requires some things that weren't available until recently: a massive amount of computational power, flexible UI, and integrated networking.
Computation allows us to combine the many small pieces into an integrated whole, including functional pieces such as doors and machines. Moreover, computation allows us to execute code on the fly, integrate new models and textures, and do other things that used to be too difficult to really allow. This allows modding to be plausible, allowing us to create new parts.
Computation also allows us to have much more intricate emergent scenarios. This is just starting to come out, because it requires a whole new class of play. You can see hints of it in Space Engineers when ships collide, or in Kerbal when you try to use 60 mods at the same time.
The flexible UI is absolutely necessary as well. When you have a lot of small parts and a big canvas to paint them into, you need average players to be able to do so without getting confused. Without a tutorial.
This is partly accomplished through a new class of UI controls involving flexible lists and adaptive spatial interactions, but it's also accomplished by simply evolving player familiarity with controls. Modern FPS controls are extremely complex and opaque, but because the audience has played so many of them, they quickly grasp whether this game allows for parkour, what the weapon switch button is, whether the reload has a timing event, etc, etc.
We're seeing the same thing here. Minecraft's clunky construction controls have given way to Space Engineer's more powerful, fluid interface. But even that is clunky compared to where we're going: the emergence of VR and AR will create a new class of immersive interfaces that will rapidly evolve. While unbounded construction probably won't be explicitly VR/AR, it will benefit from those UIs and steal them wholeheartedly.
The integrated networking is necessary in order for the game to have a powerful, flexible metagame. This is not simply a nice perk: it's a core part of the genre. You need to be able to show off your creations, and see where your creations fit into the grand scheme of things. You need to be able to see the wonders other people have created in order to be inspired to create your own. You need to be able to steal techniques. You need to be able to cooperate and compete in construction, not just in gunplay. You need to be able to get mods or even whole worlds to integrate into your vision.
At the moment, Space Engineers has the best integrated networking around - automatic mod sharing, quick and easy ship/world sharing, a place to chat and share pictures/vids, all built into a reasonably large existing user base (Steam users).
But, again, Space Engineers is already showings its age. The content isn't properly integrated into the game experience, and it isn't properly partitioned away. In the end, we will see unbounded construction games where mods are local to each ship or town, not to each universe.
It's not that Space Engineers is bad, it's that the concept is bizarre and wasn't even on the radar when the game was laid out.
... I should stop playing Space Engineers and finish programming some of this stuff, I guess.