Objection! How Useful Are Game Genres?

Objection! How Useful Are Game Genres?

Welcome to Objection! This is where we take the time to go on-depth on gaming issues, and let you guys continue the discussion in the comments section.

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?


  • Genre is usually more trouble than it’s worth. Certainly for designers/artists. Genre is a concept that is troublesome because, if I may quote a film scholar here, “If you set out to study the Western as a genre, you are analyzing films that can only said to be Westerns *after* the analysis,” which makes picking films to study pretty difficult, or, very easy because you already know what a Western is. Either way it makes for bad study.

    Genre is something that comes after, something critics come up with after enough time has passed and enough of whatever art has been made to find palpable differences, themes, approaches, assumptions etc etc that are catagorisable. (if that’s a word)

    Designers should always be focused on what they want the player to DO and FEEL, not what genre the game is. If the marketers have to figure out what genre it is so the retailers can put it on the right shelf, fine, but that has NOTHING to do with art.

    • Couldn’t agree more. 🙂

      Genres limit the direction of game design, stymie the efforts of artists and designers to break out of boundaries and impose an artificial boundary on what games can be.

      You make a good point that genres are only ever imposed in hindsight once there’s a large enough sample of similar games; in my view this creates a sort of staid conservatism in game design that drags down the quality of what is being produced. Developers stick to the ‘tried and tested’ features of that particular ‘genre’, consumers (though I don’t like the word) get used to certain ‘genre features’ and a whole lore of what genres are meant to contain is built up.

      In terms of appreciating games for purchase, I think genre plays a role in (for better or worse) defining very clear common features (we all know what to expect from a Call of Duty game, for example) – but it’s by no means the most important factor, at least for me. Good story, design, an interesting concept and attention to detail will trump genre any day.

    • Your comments remind me of something. My wife has been studying the history of heavy metal, and last night I was discussing it with her. It was odd because in many ways one could say that Black Sabbath were the first heavy metal band, however it wasn’t really until Judas Priest rolled around that it became a “genre”, because, well, Black Sabbath were the only band (of note) playing heavy metal before then. And to carry the analogy further, it was what made Black Sabbath “different” that created the metal genre, so in actual fact the genrefication could be seen as the antithesis to the idea that created said genre in the first place. For instance Wolf3D was amazing “because” it was different to anything else before it (of note).

  • I would say that The Saboteur is a shooter RPG set during WW2.

    I think genre has become less important as the elements have started to bleed over.

    Mass Effect was an RPG with shooter mechanics, where as 2 is more shooter than RPG.

  • I think there’s always a place for genres. Humans by our very nature like to put things into boxes, categorizing and organizing based off similarity, whether real or percieved. It’s pattern recognition and it’s the way our brains work. The problem, I think, is that we haven’t allowed our genre definitions to evolve along with the things we’re classifying. Some genre identifiers still make sense. Music games are pretty much always going to be music games, for example. Others, though, might not be so useful now.

    I think if there’s any genre that needs to be re-evaluated, it’s the RPG. No one can come up with a proper, widely acceptable definition of what the genre actually entails. It varies enormously between different regional areas too – a typical Japanese RPG and an American RPG are so far apart that we have to have to qualify the genre by splitting it up in multiple ways. Additionally the basic elements of the genre – stat building, character customisation & development, strong story etc have all been absorbed into other genres, which blurs the line even further. To illustrate the point: The Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy, World of Warcraft, Baldur’s Gate, Mass Effect 2, Disgaea. These are all RPGs (Action RPG, JRPG, MMORPG, CRPG, FPS RPG, Simulation/Strategy RPG) and yet between them they probably have more differences than they have similarities.

    Personally I think the ‘RPG’ designation isn’t useful any more. Fifteen years ago, we used to all play Adventure games if we wanted to experience a game with a strong storyline, dialogue, cinematic presentation etc. Despite the point-and-click’s recent resurgence on portables, the genre has pretty much died, because the selling points for that style of game – the characters, the story, the dialogue etc – have all been integrated into modern games. I think that the classic RPG elements are in the process of being sucked into other games as well.

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