When it comes to of videogame, time is we have maybe five videogame genres to get really bored right now,” game designer Adam grim look of concern. optimistic and naïve, meaningful videogame discovered.”
discovering fresh types running out. “I think years to discover new before people are going with what we are making independent Saltsman says with a “This may sound overly but I think most of the genres have yet to be
Saltsman has cause for optimism. In 2009, he made Canabalt, sparking off the endless runner genre. The goal is simple: see how far you can sprint and leap along an endless track before you slip up and tumble into the Game Over screen. Following the release of Canabalt – a game Saltsman designed during a week-long game jam – endless runners stormed mobile app stores. One example, the Temple Run series, has now passed a billion downloads;
Jetpack Joyride has more than 100 million downloads to its name. If anyone has cause to believe new types of game are waiting to be discovered, it’s Saltsman.
Eruptions of novel form and style like the endless runner are uncommon in videogames, but so are fatalities. Once-ubiquitous genres are often pushed to the periphery over time, but few styles of play ever truly vanish. “No media ever dies,” Ninja Theory’s Tameem Antoniades told an audience at Helsinki’s Slush conference last year. “TV still exists, arcades still exist… the Venetian opera still exists. It was one of the most popular forms of mass entertainment in Europe, [but] when was the last time any of us went to a Venetian opera?”
The decline of a genre is a slow, creeping thing, and while today tens of thousands of enthusiasts play the latest Cave arcade shoot ’em up while text-adventure aficionados build their own interactive Twine stories, neither type of game thrives as it once did.
Genres instead tend to evolve, broadening their boundaries, drawing lessons or inspiration from one another and shifting into fresh shapes rather than dying out. Today, Activision staff refer to ‘ Call Of Duty fatigue’ to describe the growing ennui in the face of annual updates to the bestselling franchise. Familiarity usually breeds indifference when it comes to videogames.
After PaRappa The Rapper popularised the rhythm-action genre in the late ’90s, music games enjoyed a meteoric rise. Debuting in 2007, the
Rock Band series sold ten million copies in its first two years. Alex Rigopulos and Eran Egozy, the founders of Harmonix, developer of both Guitar
Hero and Rock Band, featured in Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people of 2008. The genre’s unflinching rise even begat the launch of a Rock Band game themed around the music and career of The Beatles. Viacom reportedly paid $10 million for the rights to use The Beatles’ music, but slowing sales from this point on eventually prompted an implosion that saw the genre and its attendant peripherals disappear from sale over a few short months.
“The music game genre reached saturation point by playing it safe,” says Dewi Tanner, a game designer who worked at the Tokyo-based developer NanaOn-Sha with Masaya Matsuura, creator of PaRappa The Rapper. “From the start of the boom to the end, we only really had the
“FROM THE START OF THE BOOM TO THE END, WE ONLY REALLY HAD THE GUITAR HERO MODEL AND SOME SLIGHT VARIANTS”
Guitar Hero model and some slight variants: the same game with more instruments, or the same game in a different musical style and so on.” For Tanner, creative stagnation was the main reason for the genre’s decline. “Very few titles looked at new ways of using music for gameplay, and when they weren’t as successful as Guitar Hero, they were immediately dubbed as failures. Perhaps if more risks had been taken earlier in the boom then alternative subgenres would have grown in time before the great crash happened.”
In the case of music games, some would argue Harmonix perfected the genre with Rock
Band 3, its near-limitless downloadable playlists and flexible modes leaving little creative room for reinvention or reinterpretation. Likewise, Super
Mario 64 simultaneously introduced and almost ended the 3D platform game through its creative dominance. It’s a point of view that Matt Boch, a designer and project director at Harmonix, rejects. “There’s no such thing as a ‘perfect’ interpretation when it comes to videogame genres,” he says. “The best version of a particular game at a particular time is dependent on personal, cultural factors and technological factors, like platform. The best version of Tetris may be on the NES for many of us, but for others it’ll be the iOS version. It’s possible we’ve all still yet to play the definitive version of Tetris.”
Saltsman agrees: “The idea of perfecting a videogame genre relies on two faulty assumptions; one is that there is some kind of singular Platonic form of that genre, and the other is a kind of uniform or homogenous audience with the same feelings about that specific form. Neither of these exists in the real world.”
Nevertheless, he concedes that a particular genre can be explored and iterated upon to such a degree that both creators and consumers lose interest. “You can find yourself in a situation where most of the low-hanging fruit has been plucked from an orchard,” he says. “Whether that fruit is actually gone or the weight of precedence only makes it seem that way, the effect on many designers is the same: if there’s a more obvious harvest elsewhere, we migrate.”
The need for gamemakers to break new creative ground while maintaining a certain familiarity for riskaverse players and publishers is one of the great paradoxes at the heart of this medium. “Players tend to prefer new versions of familiar games,” argues Julian Gollop, director of the original X-COM. “They can’t know if they want something new and fresh until they try it; it’s a catch-22 situation.”
“Players are like any consumers in that they find the familiarity of what is already known and understood not only reassuring but essential to make sense of products and experiences,” says
James Newman, a senior lecturer in media and cultural studies at Bath Spa University.
For Tanner, meanwhile, the curve towards iteration rather than bold invention is something dictated by the market as much as anything else. “It’s usually a safe bet to take something that’s popular and come up with a twist or innovation that makes it worth engaging with [again],” he says. “This is the kind of hedged risk that allows most games to be funded. Making leaps of faith is a bigger risk and therefore a much harder sell. It’s like needing to cross a canyon with no bridge – you’ll have to make the bridge yourself and hope people like what is on the other side.”
If overfamiliarity is a slow-burn terminal illness, the shifting sands of technological disruption can sink a genre in an instant. “The videogames business, like other technology industries, prides itself on its apparently continual forward motion,” says Newman. “Some of the rise and fall of videogame genres is simply to do with natural cycles of fashion, but there is a technological element at work, too.”
In the early days of the medium, technology dictated content. “Certain genres, particularly in the earliest days of gaming, were defined by creative solutions to technological limitations,” Newman says. “The link between videogames
“PLAYERS CAN’T KNOW IF THEY WANT SOMETHING NEW AND FRESH UNTIL THEY TRY IT; IT’S A CATCH22 SITUATION”
and sci-fi must surely be partly attributable to the ease with which you could draw black backgrounds in the ’70s and ’80s. You get the black for free, so just add a couple of pixels of light and you have a starfield.”
As time has marched on, however, technological advancement has injured as many genres as it has created. “If we think back to the emergence of the first generation of 3D consoles,” Newman says, “the idea of making, selling or even wanting to play the kind of 2D platform game that had been the staple of the 1980s and 1990s was practically unthinkable.
I remember the widespread disappointment expressed about Yoshi’s Island, which seemed to come from a different age now that realtime 3D and polygons had arrived. 2D games appeared to be dead: they just didn’t look modern any more.”
Side-scrolling beat ’em ups, scrolling shoot ’em ups, point-and-click adventures, top-down racers and countless other 2D genres were lost to the 3D revolution of the mid-’90s. Gollop, for instance, witnessed both the emergence and decline of PC strategy games, an ebb and flow that he believes is directly linked to technology. “The rise of realtime strategy games was to some extent driven by the PC/mouse combo,” he says. “It was the same with firstperson shooters: these were game genres that rose out of their interfaces. Technology also played a role in their waning popularity. The decline of RTS games matched the decline of PCs as gaming platforms and the rise of more powerful consoles, which were not really suited for that style of play.”
But today, turn-based strategy games are coming back, thanks in part to active communities backing the likes of Gollop’s own
Chaos Reborn on Kickstarter, and new technologies offering new ways to explore old ideas. XCOM is arguably at its best when played on an iPad’s touchscreen; even action game specialists such as Ninja Theory are exploring the touchscreen’s potential for the kinds of games they specialise in. “The touchscreen, yes, it limits you,” Antoniades told Slush. “Certain genres don’t work on it, [but] throughout the course of history, from arcades to consoles to PCs, games have died. The 2D side-scrolling beat ’em up has gone. Entire genres of gaming won’t exist or have a very clunky existence on mobile. But, happily, things like the point-andclick adventure game genre are coming back.” Fitting then that Ninja Theory’s first mobile game,
Fightback, is a 2D side-scrolling beat ’em up. The return of certain genres, often decades after they were initially popular, is sometimes driven by nostalgia for the former eras that they represent. For instance, Yoshinori Ono, producer of Street Fighter IV, has argued that Capcom once believed it had perfected the Street Fighter formula with Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike. But nostalgia for the series enabled its reemergence after almost a decade, smartly updating the underlying formula with Focus attacks as well overhauling the game graphically.
“It’s generational,” says Harmonix’s Boch. “I don’t think we’d have the rise of puzzle-platformers if Mario wasn’t big in the ’ 80s. I don’t think we’d have the resurgence of adventure games if this generation of developers hadn’t grown up playing Lucas-Arts and Sierra games. In many ways it’s similar to the reason why we have new, high-quality reboots of My Little Pony or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: the people whose childhoods were deeply impacted by those characters are now at the age where they are making the media and they want to share the aspects of those characters that were special to them with a new audience.”
But if many types of game are cyclical and immortal, then the notion of genre itself isn’t. According to the American novelist Rick Moody, genre is “a bookstore problem”, not a literary problem. His point is that categories exist not to guide or restrain creators, but to aid shopkeepers; when a book, film or videogame can be neatly categorised, it has its place on the shelf. For Moody, the idea of fixed genres robs an artform of its indefinable edges as well as the flexibility to draw inspiration from other styles. Moody’s point is applicable to videogames, too – an RPG’s experience points can be layered atop another game’s stealth systems and another’s platforming, so how should the resulting chimera be classified?
Indeed, many of today’s biggest and most respected games, such as Tomb Raider, Mass
Effect, BioShock and Assassin’s Creed, defy a simple genre tag, and yet videogames are still often grouped by their dominant verbs – running, shooting, jumping, hiding – and these can help as much as hinder. “I think genre classifications are useful,” says Gollop. “If you are pitching a game and identify its genre, this can be a shorthand to immediately communicate the idea to a potential audience. But I like games that tend to stretch or transcend the established genre definitions – they are more likely to have something innovative about them.”
For Boch, the idea of fixed game genres is more problematic. “The use of genre in games is kind of broken in the way that it refers willy-nilly to both content and form,” he says. “What is Saints Row IV? A satire or a sandbox? What is Brütal Legend? A music game or an RTS? They’re all of these things and many others at the same time. That said, finding an audience is one of the most important things for many developers and, as such, classifications like genre can be useful, in so far as a potential player can figure out what kind of experience your game might offer. They also play an important role in organising most digital game marketplaces.”
Valve’s digital marketplace, Steam, favours identifying tags rather than traditional genre classification, perhaps to reflect the fact that the lines between videogame genres have become less defined. Today, genres often spill into one another and some games, such as Grand Theft
Auto V, encompass multiple genres into a single entity. Rockstar’s opus is variously a shooting, driving, business simulation and tennis game. Designers at Sony Computer Entertainment even brainstorm new ideas by placing the titles of dissimilar games in a hat and drawing out names to create unusual hybrids.
“It’s clear a key methodology in contemporary videogame development is combining elements of genres to make hybrids,” Newman says. “In that sense, ‘genre’ as it refers to videogames isn’t always enormously helpful, [because] there are approaches to game development that set out to confound our attempts to categorise. However,
“THERE IS A WHOLE GAMUT OF HUMAN EXPERIENCE OF WHICH WE’VE BARELY SCRATCHED THE SURFACE”
simultaneously, it’s quite easy to find games that stick closely to the parameters of genres that were laid out many years ago. Many games are all the better for not dramatically playing with the kinds of codes, conventions and expectations that the genre establishes.”
One thing that most designers and academics agree upon is Saltsman’s assertion that there are a great many more genres to be discovered. He maintains developers have “only discovered the corner-most tile of the chessboard” in terms of ways to play.
For Gollop, it’s likely that new genres will emerge in the aftermath of a disruptive new technology, just as the MMORPG was seeded by broadband Internet connections. “There certainly are genres left to be discovered and they are possibly connected again with the issue of input devices,” he says. “I can imagine something directly reading your brain waves, perhaps creating ‘emotion-driven games’; or perhaps with sufficient AI development we will get better natural language input with intelligent responses. There is a lot of scope for amazing stuff still to come.”
For others, innovative ideas will unlock new genres. “There is a whole gamut of human experience of which we’ve barely scratched the surface,” Tanner says. Newman agrees: “One of the things that is interesting about videogames is that for all the innovation in certain areas, types of gameplay have remained remarkably consistent. Some styles and genres fall from favour and may resurface later, but the palette of things that you can do in videogames has been pretty stable so far. I would be surprised if there weren’t innovations in the future.
“One thing we should probably also remember is that videogames are still a comparatively young medium. If you think about how film developed and what the early days of film as a form looked like, it is probably fair to say that in those days, few people, whether they were makers or audiences, would have guessed that the 90-minute narrative would have become the norm. It might be that what we currently see in the history of videogames to this point is still the beginning of the journey, and the form and format that comes to define what videogames ‘are’ has yet to be created.”
Boch is excited not only for the unforeseen genres, but also about the scope for invention within existing categories, both current and largely forgotten. “Much as there is still wonderful new orchestral, jazz and rock music being created, despite the emergence of music such as hip hop and contemporary pop, I think we’ll still see new works in many of the existing genres we know and love.”
Sony London’s SingStar gave Konami’s karaokestyle rhythm-action games an MTV-like sheen that they had hitherto lacked, featuring original backing tracks, official music videos, and a stylish, uncluttered UI
Canabalt, Temple Run and Jetpack Joyride may feel new, but the auto runner has its origins in the 1980s with games such as BC’s Quest ForTires, which hit several 8bit systems
1996’s PaRappatheRapper was not Masaya Matsuura’s first foray into music software. Earlier that year he also released Tunin’Glue, a game-like music mixer for Apple and Bandai’s short-lived Pippin console
Alex Rigopulos set up Harmonix with Eran Egozy in 1995. The studio has worked almost exclusively in the music genre ever since its inception
RockBand2 launched at the height of the music game boom. Alongside the 84 songs included on the game disc, more than 1,400 additional tracks were launched for the game on a digital store, all of which were compatible with subsequent series titles
Harmonix asked George Martin’s son, Giles Martin, to convert The Beatles’ original two- and fourtrack recordings into multipart version suitable for the RockBand title based on the band’s career
Matt Boch, designer and project director at Harmonix
For many, SuperMario World perfected the Mario template in the Super Nintendo era. Its sequel, Yoshi’s Island, took the series down a different road. Arguably Nintendo wouldn’t return to this pure style of play until New SuperMarioBros on Wii
The iterative nature of game design within a strict genre template is evident in both the design and titling of Nintendo’s most famous series: 1983’s MarioBros evolved into 1985’s SuperMarioBros
Street Fighter IV’s revitalisation of fighting games was due to more than a graphical update – the first 3D titles in the series, StreetFighterEX and its sequels, failed to have a similar effect
James Newman is a senior lecturer in media and cultural studies at Bath Spa University and an expert in videogame preservation
SuperMario64 may not have invented the 3D platform game, but it set the bar so high that no rivals in that hardware generation came close to its power and appeal
SuperMarioSunshine was Nintendo’s bold and idiosyncratic attempt to take the 3D platform game in new directions. For many, it fell short of its glorious predecessor
Best known as the designer of X-COM, Julian Gollop has a slew of titles to his name, including 2011’s experiment within the Tom Clancy universe, GhostRecon: ShadowWars
The GrandTheftAuto series may be the quintessential open-world game, but that term is becoming increasily redundant given the variety of types of game that fit under its broad umbrella
A challenge for developers working with a classic series is how to evolve an established template without discarding what made the original game popular. Opinion is divided as to whether Crystal Dynamics succeeded in this with its TombRaider reboot
BioWare’s MassEffect series began life as an RPG but in subsequent games it became more of a traditional shooter. These days, even individual series defy genre classification