This week we’re talking about genre - how does it change expectations, and does how does it affect the sales of a game? Can it be a springboard for creativity or does it hold game development back?
Making his second appearance in Objection is Leigh Harris, who we spoke to previously about solving video game problems with guns.
MARK: Genre is a weird one to me. In music I think genres work as rules to be bent and broken. In music most new genres evolve through attempts to merge discrete types of music together, and I think that games are starting to head in the same direction. Genres seem to be borrowing elements from one another and using that as a springboard to evolve – Borderlands is a shooter with RPG elements, for example, whereas Fallout 3 is the opposite.
LEIGH: Absolutely. Hybrids of genres can be risky, however. I think if you look at the first Assassin's Creed game, there was a lot of backlash when it wasn't quite as stealth-oriented as the first trailer made it seem. Yet if you left your expectations at the door, you were left with a beautiful hybrid which I struggle to describe as anything other than an open-world 3D platformer. I do find it odd, though, that no developer or publisher can seem to decide whether to describe their game in terms of its gameplay (shooter, RPG etc) or its aesthetic genre (horror, crime, fantasy etc).
MARK: Yeah it’s funny, and I find that most of the time people will try to merge the two – Fantasy RPG, World War II Shooter – but what’s really strange is that we’ve never seen anyone try and make a Fantasy Shooter or a World War II RPG!
Depending on your perspective the existence of Genre can either be a launching pad for creativity or a lifeless chasm where good ideas go to die. If you look at Brutal Legend for example – that was a game that had flaws, but it was awesome to see Double Fine try and merge genres that were supposed to be discrete. In that way genre is this 'thing' that can help people invent new gameplay experiences.
But the flip side of that proverbial coin are the restrictions that come with genres – the rigid framework and expectations.
Assassin’s Creed is a great example. As a game that worked as a fresh experience, it was difficult to quantify, which may have contributed to its mixed reception. Genre is that way can be limiting, and can often cause developers to latch onto a genre that is selling, then rinse and repeat said genre into oblivion.
LEIGH: It's possibly a sad fact that our somewhat limited gaming history is littered with examples of daring cross-genre games which have failed, or at least not warranted sequels. You mention Fantasy Shooters - a very rare thing indeed. The only one that comes to mind is Dark Messiah of Might and Magic. As for a World War II RPG, only example that I can think of is only an RPG by a technicality - fitting the mold of a MMORPG - but it certainly isn't an RPG in experience (World War II Online by the way).
Assassin's Creed was a great mold-breaker actually. It took a lot of courage for Ubisoft to green-light a period piece action game like that. It's not like there was a huge history of massive-budget open-world games which were huge successes. Add in the possibility of offending a few religious groups in the process, and baffling convention with a sci-fi twist and you've got all the makings of something way too risky to be worth considering by most publishers.
So here's a question for you: since we can all agree that the Crusades period wasn't exactly a massive selling point (it was the game quality and gameplay innovations which sold it), should publishers be freer to select their own time and place in a post-Assassin's Creed environment? Are we now happy with whichever time and place our games go, as long as the gameplay genre is one we're keen on? And by extension, does this mean we actually don't care about a game's aesthetic genre?
MARK: If I was to put on a marketing hat, I would say that cool concepts that can be easily described and shared are the ones that sell rapidly. Genre can be part of that, because it works on a shared understanding of what an RPG/FPS/RTS is. If I were to ask you if you wanted to play a Sci-Fi Shooter set on a ring planet where you fight a hyper intelligent race of Aliens on the search for the ultimate weapon, you would probably respond with a hearty ‘hell yes’, based on your understanding of genre merged with a pretty cool concept.
So genre matters in that sense - but if you can find another way to sell your concept quickly and efficiently I think that works just as effectively. Assassin’s Creed sold because it was an awesome game. But it also sold because the idea of being an Assassin during a crazy tumultuous time period was a frickin’ awesome idea.
It’s also worth noting that Ubisoft were very cautious and clever about how they revealed the Sci-fi element of the game. They didn’t officially talk about it until after the game’s release. Part of that was to avoid spoiling the surprise, but I’d bet that the major reason for keeping schtum was to avoid confusing the super sticky, easily described 'Assassin in the Crusades' concept.
LEIGH: And yet when we think of 'being an Assassin' in the crusades, we're all thinking of using the acrobatic flair Altair possesses to silently get the jump on his opponents before making a daring escape. We're not thinking of extraneous sword-fights in the open streets every few seconds with incidental guards. 47 from Hitman would hang his head in shame at such antics.
It seems that the gameplay genre is (for now) the more relevant of the two aspects. Bioshock Infinite already has a massive following, yet is no longer a claustrophobic underwater sci-fi horror, however we shouldn't deny the impact of the aesthetic, since we're currently seeing a little backlash at Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception for selecting a rather bland setting. But do any of us really believe the game will be anything less than yet another fine addition to an exemplary series? Our prejudices are there, and we do exercise them; they just end up crushed under the weight of gamers' savvy recognition of some amazing gameplay coming down the pipeline.
Fundamentally, the most important aspect of genre decision-making is that the gameplay fits the story and world. We may doubt that developers will manage to pull off some of the more odd combinations (Beyond Good and Evil must've looked bizarre on paper), but we're still open enough as an audience to recognise it when they deftly string a series of discordant concepts together.
What do you guys think? How important is genre when you're deciding what games to buy? How important is genre to game development?