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Weekly Musings #4 - Game Genre Copying; It's Old News
Author: Michael Ahlf
Date: July 6th 2004
This week's column is going to be a tad shorter than normal - but last weekend was the 4th of July, and I was visiting family. Bear with me.

This week, I'd like to talk about something that goes on in the gaming world far too much - games that are otherwise good, but are poo-pooed by the gaming community because they are very similar to previous titles. You've all seen the comments - "yet another boring RTS", "yet another Doom clone", and so on.

The important thing to realize about games, however, is that they all take from previous sources - other games, well-established literary works, popular TV shows, and so on. Or, if they're not stealing storyline/characters/world setting from them, they're taking gameplay pointers.

You don't believe me? Count on two hands (at most) the number of true genres in gaming. There's RPG (roleplaying game), RTS (real time strategy), MMO (massively multiplayer online), FPS (first person shooter), Adventure (ala Myst or Starship Titanic), Puzzle, Fighting, Third-person exploration/adventure (ala Soul Reaver/Legacy of Kain or Tomb Raider), Third-person Action (Gex, Spyro, the Mario 64 line), 2D Platformer (the original Mario line, Commander Keen)... did I miss any? There are a few other claimed genres, but with little effort they can all be pigeonholed into one of those categories.

Then again, it's not so different from books, or movies, either. Nearly all books sold today have a genre; to not have one is to invite booksellers not to carry the book, on the mere grounds that they don't know where to put it on the shelves. And certain genres - Mystery, for example - always get more shelf space in the front of the store, at least until recently during the craze surrounding Harry Potter, than genres like Fantasy. Likewise, genres like Sci-fi or Fantasy, or even Comedy, inevitably have to bow down at Oscars time and accept their acclaim in categories like "best editing" and "best special effects" while, with RARE exceptions, Drama goes home with "Best Picture."

Why does this happen? Functionally, because it's the path of least resistance. Going into an established genre of book, or movie, or game, automatically grants you a certain level of prestige. No reviewer likes to review a book that doesn't have a genre; they have nothing to compare it to, nothing to claim it's better than, or worse than. Sequels are likewise the case; anyone who's seen black-and-white movies from times before TV's becoming commonplace, will appreciate serial monster movies like Godzilla or Frankenstein that featured the same monster over and over, or serial mystery series like Sherlock Holmes in book form... serials are a well-established way of jump-starting writing, because the world and characters are all relatively established, giving readers more time to enjoy. Really, really prolific writers like Anne McAffrey, Larry Niven, Agatha Christie, or Isaac Asimov (remember him?) all live off of serialized novels, set in the same world/universe as a basis for their stories. Even Homer relied on the serial format; nobody tells the Iliad or the Odyssey in one evening, and nobody could deny that the Odyssey is a sequel to the Iliad.

When it comes to games, it's no different; having a setting in which to work speeds things along. Having a genre to follow likewise speeds them - you start programming for what people expect. If it seems familiar to gamers, and better yet to non-gamers, they tend to adapt well and become acclimated to the game more quickly. Not that the story has to be the same, but most use established plot hooks and patterns, just as do Warner Bros. cartoons, or do movies. Those really well versed in the genres can always pick up on early cues, and tell you the end of the story - unless there's a bizarre, untelegraphed plot twist - about halfway through the game/movie, with a pretty high degree of accuracy.

In some senses, the presence of genres is comforting. We await Doom 3, not because of the game itself, but because we ourselves build it up - "hey look, the archetypal game of the FPS genre is coming back." We look for new MMO games in hopes that one of them WILL become the archetype, or some of us already revere Everquest as that archetype. And we tend to remember not the first game necessarily, but the first mind-blowing game, in a genre as the best - witness the memories that still surround Warcraft and Starcraft, as opposed to the father of the RTS genre, Populous.

Next week - those Wacky Mac People.

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Weekly Musings #4: Game Genre Copying, It's Old News

Added:  Wednesday, July 07, 2004
Reviewer:  Michael Ahlf


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