The Structure-Impetus Paradigm
As I’ve established, genres shouldn’t concern themselves with novelties and gameplay styles. They should instead communicate their structure and impetus. We can call this a structure-impetus approach to game genre.
Impetus (noun): the initiating force; that which makes things happen.
I believe a game’s structure will always fundamentally be conjoined with the drive it creates in us to start interacting and participating. Rather than calling something a structure-impetus, even though it might be more accurate and descriptive, we can can simply call it a “genre” if we agree to. You’ll see how each of the four genres I’ve proposed has a radically different structure-impetus, and why they cannot be truly mixed together, only alternated between. Understanding the common ground beneath each of these genre’s appeal and psychology will be helpful when introducing an expanded terminology I plan to use when critiquing games later in this article.
The Contest genre frames all interaction as a matter of winning and losing. Like sports and competitive board games, the structure of the game tends to be clear and measurable, even if each side only knows their own exact situation. Fair rules and restrictions are imposed upon players to ensure each side can feel that they have a chance to win if they perform better than the other(s). Due to this structure, players are constantly enjoying the tension of making strategic decisions and questioning their optimization. However, just as important is the knowledge that the game consists of rounds, matches, etc. and that trying again is expected. Failure is inevitable, and the enjoyment comes from playing against worthy opponents who have the potential to overcome you.
To emphasize the enjoyable elements of the Contest genre, games will visually represent relevant data, usually quantified as resources to be managed. Time limits allow for each round or match to be convenient to the players. This also emphasizes the session-based replayability of the contest.
Examples: Mario Kart / Street Fighter / StarCraft / Call of Duty / Rocket League / Worms
(Competitive multiplayer modes only, even if only against simulated computer opponents)
The Challenge genre presents objectives to you, and expects you to complete them in order to progress. These challenges are not necessarily linear, but they are finite and can be failed. Completing a sufficient amount of challenges will trigger the conclusion of the game, framing your experience as a path toward an end point, or multiple end points. In most cases, an overall goal is presented which frames all the smaller nested goals as relevant. Degrees of success (or failure), ambiguous challenges, and a sense of discovery are all possible within a Challenge game, although the player knows that there is always something they should be doing, and there is probably a right way to do it. Perfecting challenges and mastering the systems of the game are often rewarded, and it’s common for these games to acknowledge progress.
Examples: Super Mario Bros. / Super Mario 64 / Half-Life / Diablo / Metal Gear Solid / Banjo-Kazooie / Baldur’s Gate / StarCraft
(Singleplayer, cooperative, or “story” modes only)
The Sandbox genre refuses to frame player choices and experiences as success or failures, even when players suffer or succeed at things that would normally be considered important. These games are almost always a type of simulation; this is because there needs to be a greater logic supporting the cause and effect happening all around the player. By not emphasizing winning or completion, the game places the impetus on the player themselves, asking them what they think is important at the moment. Natural, ongoing factors may compel players to respond to situations and adapt, such as a steady drain of their resources, a pending disaster, a monthly review of their work, etc. with game-ending consequences if things get bad enough, but this is less about pushing them in a specific direction than simply prompting them to find a method of satisfying the needs of the situation in their own way.
Even if a Sandbox game has challenges and rewards, if not “endings” that can be unlocked, the player will be returned to the setting afterward and maintain freedom to explore the Sandbox.
Examples: SimCity / Minecraft / Euro Truck Simulator / Kerbal Space Program
The Score genre is one of the oldest and most successful structure-impetus models, although it fell out of fashion for a long time. The important part of a Score genre game is that players know right from the start that they will never “complete” the game; they will only push themselves to their limits, and then fail. Typically, these games begin easy and become steadily more difficult the further you progress, increasing the likelihood of failure. This allows new players to adjust and learn without feeling overwhelmed, while still holding sufficient challenge for skilled players eventually.
Examples: Tetris / Temple Run / Frogger / Space Invaders / Donkey Kong
On Page Three we’ll add terminology that will hopefully provide insightful ways of thinking about game design.