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The Circle of Life: An Analysis of the Game Product Lifecycle
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The Circle of Life: An Analysis of the Game Product Lifecycle

May 15, 2007 Article Start Previous Page 4 of 4

  Niche players

During the niche stage, the audience begins to fragment. Not surprisingly, people have difficulty maintaining nonessential skills at elite levels for long periods of time. Burnout erodes communities from within and many players lose both their skills and their urge to keep buying new games from the genre. The virtuous circle that produced the homogeneous market of gamers falters. Their addiction fades.

This leads to an interesting mix of players during the niche stage that make it particularly challenging to serve. There are three fragmented categories that emerge:

  • Keepers of the flame. A small percentage of players never lost their lust for the genre. The stereotypical keeper of the flame hangs out on a forum desperately demanding a remake of Gabriel Knight.
  • Lapsed players. A large percentage of players are lapsed players. At one point they were fervently into a genre, but now they have jobs, families and other, more exciting games that take up their time. They vaguely remember the basics, but have neither the time nor the interest in regaining their elite skills once again.
  • New players without a support network. Another substantial demographic are new players who are discovering the title for the first time. I’d like to imagine that selling millions of titles signals that the vast majority of the world knows how to double jump, but unfortunately this is not quite the case. Though the penetration of all game might be high, the penetration of a single genre into the broader population is often surprisingly low. When these new player discover niche titles, they typically lack the community or media contact that alerts them to the fact that there are more games of this type available elsewhere.

Sierra's supernatural adventure Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers

Opportunities: Using the genre life cycle

At each stage, we’ve seen how both the market dynamics change and the typical player skills change. Ultimately every game developer must ask “Who is my game’s audience, what are their needs, and how does my game compete?” The genre life cycle is a quick and dirty model that provides some rather useful insights into these questions.

  • Competitive landscape in the future. By identifying the genre stage, you can make rough estimates around a number of competing titles released a year or two down the line when your title is released. You can also start identifying and tracking release dates for genre kings.
  • Likely customer skills and expectations. By identifying the genre stage, you can clarify how skilled your players might be. It does little good to create a game with complex mechanics and a steep learning curve in a new genre where players are mostly unskilled. At the same time, it does little good to create a series of simple mini-games for well established genre in which players are looking to exercise and expand upon their existing skills.


It is perhaps mildly flippant to note that there is a big capitalist world out there full of thousands of industries that have been releasing products for generations longer than the game industry. The ‘genre life cycle’ is merely the well established product life cycle concept applied to the game industry. This is business 101 for many companies, yet I find that it is a surprisingly fresh concept for many game developers. Traditionally, we know that some product categories are taking the industry by storm, but there is rarely much discussion about why this situation might be the case.

Because we have poor predictive models of how our product categories evolve, there is a tendency to make decisions based off what is happening at the beginning of product planning. Yet, when the game is released 2 or 3 years down the road, the market has shifted, customer expectations are different and the livelihood of many a talented and amazingly hard working developer is harmed.

It is currently common for companies to spot an emerging genre during the expansion stage only to release several years later during the maturity stage. Titles that might have become staples of the genre are instead relegated to B-grade status when they come face to face with entrenched genre kings.

Heaven forbid that you started developing the greatest genre king adventure game in the mid 90’s. Your large development budget, mature gameplay, and expensive branding campaign would have met a remarkably anemic reception upon release a couple years later. The magazines might proclaim that your title to be one of the best of all time, but the customers just weren’t there any longer.

I’m struck by this quote from Bill Roper when he was asked about the canceled WarCraft Adventures from 1998, deep in the decline stage of the adventure genre:

“I think that one of the big problems with WarCraft Adventures was that we were actually creating a traditional adventure game, and what people expected from an adventure game, and very honestly what we expected from an adventure game, changed over the course of the project. And when we got to the point where we canceled it, it was just because we looked at where we were and said, you know, this would have been great three years ago.”

Blizzard's cancelled WarCraft Adventures: Lord of the Clans

Considering the poor market reception of competing high quality titles like Grim Fandango, perhaps cancellation was a wise choice. Sometimes simply making a great game is not enough to ensure market success.

It is worth our time to borrow a few analytic tools such as the product life cycle and apply them to our wonderfully vibrant industry. By doing so, we gain a conceptual framework that lets us expand our decision making beyond what is currently ‘hot or not’ and start taking note of previously unseen opportunities and pitfalls.


The game genre lifecycle (parts 1-4). Some early articles on the genre lifecycle.

What are game mechanics. A more in depth description of game mechanics and how burnout affects players.

MobyGames. An archive of older games and their release dates.

A discussion of Warcraft Adventures.

The history of CRPGs. This historical article gives a blow-by-blow account of how the computer role playing game genre evolved and fragmented over time. Note the numerous mentions of fan betrayal when the developers change the core mechanics of their titles. Over time, the ‘traditional’ CRPG genre fall into the niche stage and is supplanted by the 2D action RPG (of which Diablo was the genre king) and the 3D action RPG (where Bethesda’s various titles were genre kings).

Article Start Previous Page 4 of 4

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