Fash­ion Vic­tims

EDGE - - MULTIFORMAT AND PC - By Si­mon Parkin.

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


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


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,


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

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