The Designer's Notebook: Sorting Out the Genre Muddle
July 9, 2009 Page 1 of 4
I think the game industry has finally matured. But it has matured into a form that has left the concept of genre in something of a muddle, and in this column I'm going to try to sort it out.
Background: The Origins of Game Genres
During the early 1980s, the game industry experienced an explosion of creativity. There were games about all kinds of weird things. Anybody could make a game for the Atari 2600, so a lot of people did -- some great, some awful. Ditto the Commodore 64, the Atari ST, the Amiga, and eventually the IBM PC.
It was an era when a game that sold 250,000 units was a smash-hit, and a map-based game about geopolitics with no animation whatsoever (Balance of Power) could find a publisher.
At this point the game genres were not hard and fast. Developers could try anything, and if it sold, it was good. The console industry crashed in 1983 due to a glut of shoddy products in the marketplace. When Nintendo rebooted the console game industry in 1985, it did so in a form that shut out the little guy.
To build a Nintendo game, you had to have a Nintendo developers' license, and they wouldn't give one to just anybody. All the other console manufacturers followed suit.
Over the years the big money moved in. As games became more popular, they also cost more and more to build. There was no indie movement to speak of. Only large publishers had a chance of making it onto the store shelves, and the large publishers were increasingly conservative.
During this period, games settled into a neat set of genres that everybody recognized: sports, strategy, racing, fighting, action, role-playing, and so on. The retailers began organizing their shelves along these lines. Publishers created product plans based on them. Gamers learned to prefer one genre over another, and to identify themselves as fans of shooters or platformers or real-time strategy.
Unfortunately, anything that didn't fit didn't stand a chance. I, and a lot of colleagues who think the way I do, spent most of the 1990s demanding, "Is this really all we can do?" Video games had gone from being a kiddie medium to a hardcore gamers' medium, but they were dominated by a few big publishers and they were stuck in a rut. We weren't reaching a truly mass market, we weren't serving the niches, and we weren't innovating creatively.
Then came internet distribution, Flash games, the casual market, free game-building tools and perhaps most importantly, the Independent Games Festival to give it all a focus. ZOMGWTF!
The explosion we're experiencing now makes the first one look like a damp firecracker. It's great. We've got stuff like Blueberry Garden and Everyday Shooter and Passage and Darwinia. All these games are living happily alongside Mass Effect and Grand Theft Auto and Pro Evolution Soccer.
Of course, they don't make as much money, but that's OK -- they don't have to. The business is no longer a zero-sum game limited by available space on the retail store shelves.
That's what I mean by saying that it has matured: we have big companies making blockbusters and indie developers making indie games and artists making arty games and goodness knows what all else. And I'll never moan, "Is this all we can do?" again.
But it does mean that our nice neat collection of genres has turned into a serious muddle. Where in the world do you put something like Blueberry Garden or Passage?
And that's not all; the use of games for other purposes is creating confusion too. Recently someone asked me, "Where do we put Christian games? And what's the story with serious games? And games for girls?"
Page 1 of 4