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The Designer's Notebook: Sorting Out the Genre Muddle
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The Designer's Notebook: Sorting Out the Genre Muddle

July 9, 2009 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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?"

Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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Dominic Arsenault
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I appreciate your attempt at clearing up terminology, and I think you succeed. I don't have any hope that we'll ever make it out of the muddle however. The ESA document you cited contains "super-genres", but does not say anything about the genres (or sub-) they themselves contain, which makes any sense of hierarchy moot. It's difficult then to know what they mean by "Action" games; all we know is they're not Shooters, Fighting or Racing games, since those are also Super-Genres. And their criteria are as diverse as anyone's: next to Role-Playing, Strategy and Adventure, they feature "Arcade", "Children's Entertainment", "Family Entertainment" and "Other/Compilations". Two of those, as you pointed out, are intended audiences without any gameplay implications; one is relative to the number of games in the package and the fact they have been published before; and one is tied to a context of play (arcade VS home) rather than specific gameplay. That ought to convince anyone of the relevance of writing papers like this.

Film studies and literature have been struggling with what I call "genre leveling", that is, identifying the levels of criteria used to distinguish genres, for about 50 years and more than twenty centuries, respectively. I don't think we'll be out of the woods soon. But maybe if we strike the iron while it's hot, we can have a bit more ground on which to stand.

Gregory Kinneman
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As always, Adams, you have a way of explaining things that anybody can understand. You bring up good points, and I think the brief nostalgia piece at the beginning set the mood nicely for what we can hope for in the future.

Tom Newman
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Some great points! I really believe what defines a genre in gaming will absolutely change in the future. Games are becoming less genre-specific and becoming more virtual worlds for the player to explore. Content will eventually drive what genre is (horror, western, fantasy; etc.), and play-style will replace what we now typically call genre (FPS, 3rd person action; etc.).

Overall a very enjoyable, thought provoking read, and it will be interesting to revisit this topic in a few years.

Kris Ridley
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I think what ultimately decides a genre is gameplay mechanics; what are you actually *doing*? In shooters you shoot, in platformers you jump on platforms, in rpg's you develop and level up your character(s), in racing games you race, etc... Obviously you can do much more than that within each game or genre, but what matters is the primary game mechanic, which is remarkably consistent between games in a genre. I think what causes confusion these days is that more and more games are coming up with unique and original gameplay mechanics, which is fantastic, but which makes it harder to fit into a genre.

Jamie Mann
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Interesting article, but I'm not sure why "games for girls" is not classed as a genre but "games for christians" are. They both feature heavily stylised gameplay and audio/visual design intended to target their specific demographic.

Ultimately, I think the "genre" term is outdated: games now feature so many influences and gameplay mechanisms that trying to boil them down to a single word is often impossible. For instance, how do you describe GTA:SA? It's a third person sandbox game featuring driving, shooting, flying, RPG elements, stealth antics - there's even a host of virtual arcade games to sit down and play!

Unfortunately, people tend to like simple, one-word labels...

Ernest Adams
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Correction, Juice: Games for Christians is NOT classed as a genre. Read it again; it's classed as a THEME.

Greg Costikyan prefers the term "play style" over "genre." He has a point. And yes, the Grand Theft Auto games are hybrids.

Jamie Mann
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@Ernest: true, I should have paid a bit more attention - it was on a coffee break! That said, I think there's a lot of shades of grey inbetween "theme", "genre" and "purpose" - I'd even be tempted to throw "target audience" into the mix as well, though the games industry still seems to be working with very heavy brushstrokes in this area. Still, that's something for another coffee break...

Ernest Adams
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And indeed "audience" is also there, on page 3. :-)

Noah Falstein
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Good points here. The definition of serious games that I like is "games with a purpose beyond entertainment", and breaking down games not just by genre by by purpose and audience is a good idea. One consequence of that definition is that the same game can change classification depending on how it is used. DDR wasn't built for anything except entertainment, but if you use it to lose weight, it's a serious game. I use Advance Wars on the DS for that purpose (combined with a recumbent bike). It works for me, but of course the game wasn't designed as an exergame. Creating a 3D matrix with play genre, audience, and purpose as axes might be intriguing. Or not - I'm writing this at an airport after a red-eye so forgive me if I'm rambling!

Gregg Tavares
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The Platformer genre (or play style) classification has always seemed loose to me. Mario and Sonic few will argue about, they are both platformers. What about Gunstar Hereos, Turrican, Contra? Are those shooters or platformers? They feel like they play nothing like Mario and Sonic. Their main gameplay is shooting and so most people call them shooters. Once they went 3d the problem got worse. Lots of people like to call the Jak series or Ratchet and Clank platformers but why? They are basically 3d versions of Turrican, not Mario because the #1 activity in those games is shooting. How is Ratchet and Clank at a very basic level any different from Tomb Raider or Uncharted other than Jak and R&C are cute? Yet, we find people want to classify by art style. I don't know what my point is except to there is no logic to what people will classify things as and that in any case classification is hard.