Genres evolve over time as players discover, fall in love, grow
bored and then move on to other forms of entertainment. The life cycle
of a genre follows a pattern often found in other product categories
throughout our capitalist landscape.
- Introduction. Early on in the birth of a genre, the core mechanics that define the genre are introduced. Titles such as Zork
contain early examples of what would evolve into the core graphic
adventure mechanics. This early stage is quite fuzzy by its very nature
and picking innovative seed titles that will blossom into a new genre
is a difficult art.
- Growth. Follow-up titles begin appearing on the market. They
experiment with the initial formula in order to make it more
marketable. Often you’ll find genre kings emerge at this time. Genre
kings are breakthrough products with the right mix of setting, gameplay
and marketing that generate strong mass appeal. They dominate sales and
establish the genre in the eyes of the public. Kings Quest is an example of a genre king.
- Maturity. In the maturity stage, a few genre kings dominate
the market and set the standards by which all other titles are judged.
You see a standardization of control schemes and genre specific
conventions such as the double jump or wall jump are established.
Designers can rely on the fact that most gamers will understand these
common concepts and they design their gameplay around them. AAA teams
from large publishers are typically the only groups with pockets deep
enough to win in this highly competitive, winner-takes-all market.
Companies can reap vast profits, but if they are not in the top few
percent of titles released, they can also lose exorbitant amounts of
- Decline. Over time the core audience burns out on existing
stagnant game mechanics. This decline can be exacerbated by platform
transitions or the emergence of newer, more appealing genres. At this
point the genre goes into decline with fewer titles being released into
the market. Existing genre kings extend the public perception of the
genre’s health, but are typically only updated every several years.
- Niche. Finally, the genre dies in the mainstream market. AAA
teams actively avoid the genre and the existing audience for the genres
must rely on re-releases or independent games made for love, not money.
Does this work?
The genre life cycle is useful for garnering insight but is not foolproof:
- Some genres, such as match-3 games, experience strong resurgences when new platforms or business models arrive on the scene.
- Others, such as console RPGs, trundle on into the maturity phase with little evidence of decline.
- Other genres are simply hard to track because they are still in the
introduction or expansion phase and there is no commonly understood
definition of the genre. For example, is there yet a Katamari Damacy
genre? Alternatively, the data is simply poor. “Action” or “Strategy”
tells very little about the core mechanics that ground a quality genre
Namco's innovative, yet difficult to classify Katamari Damacy
However, despite these edge cases, the model holds up remarkably
well. Most genres including RTS, text adventures, graphical adventures,
2D platformers and others that can be identified cleanly in historical
databases like MobyGames or various review sites follow the genre
lifecycle pattern when you crunch the data.
An example of the genre life cycle in 2D action platformer – Genre peaks in 1991