In 1994, encyclopedic game site MobyGames lists that 20 graphic
adventure games were released. By 2002, the number of titles had
plummeted to 3. The halcyon days of the graphic adventure genre are now
long past and many of its descendants are relegated to a niche status
in the modern gaming market.
This is all part of a much broader trend. Genres can be treated like
product categories that evolve through a predictable series of life
cycle stages. They rise in popularity and then decline. Along the way,
both the needs of your users and the competitive dynamics of the market
shift quite dramatically. Understanding the genre lifecycle trends can
help you strategically position your game design for an improved shot
A product category is a set of products that serve customer needs in
a similar way. For example, most people have the need to clean their
teeth. Two major product categories surrounding this need might include
electric toothbrushes and manual toothbrushes. They both solve the same
basic problem, but they do so using very different techniques and each
present a unique and clearly differentiated value to the customer.
Product categories matter to your business.
- Customer defined homogenous markets. Many customers are
trained to think about satisfying their needs in terms of product
categories. They don’t think, “I need to clean my teeth.” They instead
think, “I should pick up a toothbrush.” Product categories are
shorthand in the customer’s mind for a very specific set of benefits,
usually ones derived from their past experience with a similar product.
Releasing products into established product categories increases your
chance of releasing a product that serves real customer needs.
- Locus of competition.
Product categories are filled with similar products targeting similar
customers. Customers are inclined to substitute seemingly similar
products. In the game market where the purchase of a title means that
it is highly unlikely that a customer will buy another similar title
for multiple months, this competition has a strong impact on sales.
Understanding the dynamics of your product category better than your
competitors is a strategic advantage.
Games happen to be products that serve a person’s need for
entertainment. We may think of them as art, political statements, idle
frivolities, etc, but commercial games are products first and foremost.
As products, they have product categories just like any other product.
It can be a bit of a leap to transition from thinking about
toothbrushes to platform games, but the fundamentals hold true.
How do product categories map onto games?
Game genres are the most common way to splitting games into product
categories. A game ‘genre’ typically refers to group of titles that
share the same core game mechanics. Instead of ‘Romance’ and ‘Mystery’,
we have ‘first-person shooters’ or ‘2D jumping and exploration’ titles.
Day of the Tentacle and Monkey Island have radically
different settings, but players understand that they both belong to the
same game genre due to their similar play styles.
LucasArts' timeless graphic adventure Day of the Tentacle
Like most product categories, genres are ultimately defined by the
customers. A customer purchases a random game and discovers that it
fits their entertainment needs nicely. Since most individual games have
a relatively short burnout period, the player returns to the store
seeking another similar game. Often, they’ll find that the sequel is
not yet available so instead they pick up a similar title.
Occasionally, they’ll come across a game with the same brand, but
with a different set of mechanics. Perhaps someone decided to make a Kings Quest
3D action game instead of an adventure game. The customers are often
disappointed. For many game players, brand alone was not a meaningful
measure of value.
I find the strong connection between game mechanics and product
categories quite fascinating. A very profitable segment of customers
believes, despite all our effort spent on innovation, branding,
packaging and licenses, that similar game mechanics are the defining
characteristic of gaming value.