UPDATED: Added a fourth genre!
The problem of how to categorize games has plagued the industry since its earliest days. Is there a solution that can reorient our thinking and help us escape the counterproductive conventions of the past? In this article I propose new genres to help better simplify and explore game design.
The language of discussing games needs to evolve, and it has for a long time. I’m not the first to say it, and I don’t expect it to change, but I may as well try.
Unlike movies, which have enjoyed at least a handful of genre categories that tell viewers what they should feel as they watch (comedy, horror, thriller, drama, romance, action, etc.) the game industry has limped along with categorizations that are extremely outdated and unhelpful because they prioritize novelty above design focus. When you want to watch a movie, the first thing you consider is how you want to feel, and after you’ve watched a movie you can judge it by how successfully it evoked the feelings you wanted to have; even if you weren’t sure beforehand, you’ll know by the end whether it did the job. This gives movies a great metric for judging, creating, and editing their experiences. Genres are crucial to understanding different film making techniques, from sound design to lighting arrangements. Without genres–clear categories that demand their own visual languages and artistic tricks–how could the film industry have evolved? Language, understanding, and mastery are all codependent.
The novelty-as-genre phenomenon has hurt game design because it has blunted the language we use, and conflated many ideas that shouldn’t be lumped together. It has limited the understanding and mastery we can develop as long as we continue to use such ineffective language. Of course it’s necessary and useful to invent new terms whenever new styles of gameplay are invented, don’t get me wrong; especially ones that force us to learn entirely new sets of skills. I call these gameplay styles, not game genres. You can have many styles within a genre, and you can have multiple genres using the same style. Just don’t get them mixed up. For example, in film you can have a Zombie Survival style within the Horror genre (Dawn of the Dead), or a Zombie Survival style within the Comedy genre (Shawn of the Dead). You would hate to confuse these two films when you’re not in the appropriate mood, which is why genres tell us what we need to know upfront. They are defined by the genre, allowing us to judge one Horror movie against another, and allowing critics to discuss whether the movie was effective at evoking the feeling or horror, and why.
Problems when using bad genres in gaming
The two big problems we have when using faulty genres are 1) we only know how to judge experiences based on what we were expecting, and 2) we tend to exclusively measure things against their categorical siblings. Game critics have failed to give us helpful categories, and so we are stuck not knowing what to expect, how to judge games, or how to compare them in a way that’s fair. If we had proper genres we could start talking about what makes one effective and the other frustrating.
At the risk of boring people who know this already, let’s go over some game genre history. “Roguelike” is a favorite example, because it epitomizes the timidness, shortsightedness, and unoriginality of the gaming media when it comes to discussing game design; simply adding a “-like” at the end of an actual game’s title is a lazy shortcut to describe a whole potential style of gameplay. Coining a genre name implies that there will be so many games that strive for the same effect that they’ll all need their own category, not to be confused with others. Refusing to articulate the actual common denominators they share prompts everybody to imitate the game which the genre is named after, because that is the only thing players and critics will know to expect when you call your game a Roguelike. “Adventure” might be an even better example of the confusion created by this moronic associative approach to genre creation. Clearly, you’d assume any game where players traverse strange lands in order to find or achieve something could be called an adventure game. Not so. There was a time when “Adventure” literally referred to the game sharing that name, released on the Atari 2600. This meant that only games which scratched the same gameplay style itch (puzzle games where you explore environments in a non-linear way to find stuff) were allowed to borrow that “genre” tag, even though it carries so much implication beyond puzzle environments. It would be like calling every film that focused on drama and a tragic protagonist a “Citizen Kane” movie. Actually, it’s even worse than that, because Citizen Kane is clearly the title of a movie so everybody would know what you’re trying to associate with. It would be like if Citizen Kane was so bland that it named itself “Tragedy”, but only movies that imitated its particular conventions and design choices were allowed to borrow that “genre”. I don’t know, you get the point. The “Adventure” genre thus expanded to include any puzzle/exploration style game where investigation was the key gameplay task–games like Snatcher, Myst, and Monkey Island–but it refused to accommodate games like the Zelda series, which are pure adventure in the classic storytelling sense, because although it included puzzles of its own, it had too much emphasis on combat to fit the strange archetype.
The more typical genres are useless as well. Describing the activity of a game (racing, fighting) or its perspective (first-person, top-down) doesn’t really tell me what I need to know. As a metric for judging games, how do I know if a First Person Shooter game was effective at fulfilling its genre? The mere fact that it enabled me to shoot from a First Person perspective? Does more shooting mean its a more effective shooter, by definition? If I’m buying a game based on my expectations, and my expectations are built on a genre label, I can only judge a game based on whether it did what it says on the box, so-to-speak.
When you feel like playing a game, what is the first and most basic distinction your mind makes? Not consciously, but before that, on a subconscious level? I propose that there are only four general types of games we actually look for when we decide to play, regardless of what gameplay entails. It’s important to note that many popular games have multiple game modes, and that these modes frequently step into a different genre (by our categorization) for the sake of appealing to more people. This is an extremely important and revealing phenomenon, because it shows that even though the industry has failed to articulate it, we instinctively see the appeal of each genre, regardless of the gameplay styles which have wrongly been labeled as genres.
Here are the four genres at their most pure and distinct:
A Challenge game is one that you can say you “beat” by completing all the challenges presented; however, this would be a stupid thing to say about a Contest or Sandbox game. Likewise, you can brag that you have a 2.1 Win/Lose Ratio in a Contest game; but this wouldn’t make sense in a Challenge or Sandbox game either. Lastly, you can never say you’ve beaten a Sandbox game or won a round of it, only that you’ve discovered aspects of the system and explored them in different ways. In a Score game, the objective is clear, but there’s no way to complete the game or “win” — you simply continue until you fail.
Now, it’s important to realize that although these are the “pure” genres, elements of each can be situated in the others. I will not say they can be blended or mixed, because I’m not sure that’s true. Completing a Challenge within a Sandbox game may give you a refreshing break from the Sandbox game you were playing, but that Challenge will be a different thing with a different appeal simply by virtue of being a Challenge, and not an organic part of the Sandbox. Likewise, a sudden Contest within a Challenge game may be exciting and different, but that Contest is resolved on its own and has its own design, for better or worse. Nevertheless, the potential for very different ratios of each genre within the same official game mode forces us to acknowledge a type of “genre balancing act”. You could get a hyphenated hybrid genre from this balance, similar to how films allow for Romantic Comedies, or Action Thrillers. You can have perfectly good Sandboxed Challenge game, or a Contentious Score game. If all four genres make frequent appearances to the point where it’s hard to distinguish which is most emphasized, I suppose you could have an All Purpose genre. Early films struggled with this problem too, so that before becoming specialized into more tightly defined genres, it was expected that a great movie would make you laugh, cry, and be afraid in equal measure. As awareness of genres became more prominent and stories became more focused, people expected more specialized films that catered to their particular moods with a more consistent tone and style. Gaming could use this same awareness.
I repeat: if a game has different game modes, these are to be considered different games that needs to rightfully be judged on their own. Plenty of Score games have a head-to-head mode where two players compete to see who can last longer or get a better score, but this is a Contest genre mode. You can average out the scores if you want an overall rating, but don’t confuse or pardon one’s mistakes because of the other. Many games have a good Challenge genre mode, but a lousy Contest mode, or vice versa. They may share the same assets, engine, and packaging, but these “modes” fail or succeed independently.
On Page Two I will explain the theory behind these new genres more deeply.