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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 at success.
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.
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.
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.