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Weekly Musings #27 - The Importance of Genre
Author: Michael Ahlf 
Date: January 24th 2004

Genre in video games is one of the items that critics both love and hate, and gamers as well.

In one sense, Genre can be an incredibly good thing. It helps gamers decide quickly whether or not they'll like the basic premise of a game. It helps critics, in the span of a sentence or two, hand out a sweeping generalization of the gameplay options inherent in the game.

That said, Genre can also be a way to hamstring games. Some great games never really fit into a single genre, and are stuck on the sidelines because of it. Some never even get made, because execs who approve the titles are looking for a "it's like <insert game title that sold well here>" somewhere in the pitch for the game.

Back in November, the Guardian posted up a list of ten endangered genres, species of game that they felt were in serious decline. A few months later, the landscape hasn't changed all that much, and so it's good to take a look back. I'll touch on a few of the genres I think the Guardian goofed on, and then a few genres I'd like to see revived.

Fighting games

The Guardian thought that Fighting games - Street Fighter or otherwise - are in serious decline. Truthfully, however, that can't quite be the case. A new Dead or Alive is coming. Capcom's got the next SNK vs Capcom title coming as well as Capcom Fighting Evolution to bring back Street Fighter and Darkstalkers characters, and it looks like they've gone back to basics - no more hyper-numerous teams, just 1-on-1 fighting goodness. A favorite title for tournament play continues to be Soul Calibur 2, for obvious reasons; the sheer variety of characters and play styles leaves plenty of room for enjoyment.

God Games/RTS Titles

Purists may argue with this, but I tend to put God Games and RTS titles in the same category. Why do I do this? Well, honestly, it's that the two started from the same source - a little old game called Populous. Populous didn't let players directly control their henchmen, just give orders and incentives, to win the world (along with causing calamities for the other side). From this basic arrangement sprung SimCity, the Sims, Starcraft, Warcraft... you can see the elements of each inside of a play-through of Populous.

Arguably, the genres have split, but there's still plenty of room for both to flourish. Rome: Total War, for instance, combined standard RTS play with a Civ-style between-rounds setup, brilliantly done. There's plenty of room for pure simulation games along the lines of Rollercoaster Tycoon to flourish. The trick for creators will be to keep them fun, and find the right balance of advancement to keep players interested. And of course the Sims just keeps going strong, even though Sims Online didn't do so well. This is one genre that isn't nearly as dead as the Guardian thought.

Cute Character-Based Adventures

I'm going to disagree with the Guardian on this one, but not for the reason most players will think. Despite the Guardian's take that the characters themselves were no longer compelling, I'm sure that the ongoing success of Mario, the current success of Sly Cooper, and even Viewtiful Joe to some extent put the lie to their point.

No, I'm going to offer the following: recent attempts at cute character games have suffered, not because of the cute character, but because the designers relied on the character rather than the gameplay to sell the game. I really do believe it's that simple. Take a few more examples from back in "the day", whichever day you want to take. We can go with Oddworld, admittedly strange, but nobody can claim Abe doesn't have a certain amount of "cute" to him. Yet, what really was impressive about the Oddworld games was the fun in solving each level as a puzzle, and the fact that the puzzles were well laid-out. Go with each successive Mario title: the reason they sell well isn't that the fat plumber is in them, it's that gamers know to a certain extent that it's a game they'll enjoy, that someone spent time on trying to make it fun. Super Mario Sunshine may not have been quite as good on pure merits as Super Mario 64, but the effort was there, and it was certainly worth playing through at least once.

Now for a few hybrids...

The RTS/FPS Hybrid

We were all hoping, originally, that Starcraft: Ghost would go this way. Thankfully, since they've taken the game back to formula, that could still be the case.

The last time we saw this tried out, it was Activision's excellent Battlezone series. On modern hardware, the games are superb, even if back then they chugged a little. The AI was passable if not brilliant, the idea of commanding your troops from the ground and/or using your own vehicles likewise. In fact, there's a lot to be said for the gameplay of that series that hasn't been seen since. The closest we've come was S2 Games' Savage, which took the AI out of the equation by taking large numbers of players online to be the "units" and letting one guy man the top-level RTS stuff.

The Vehicle Title

To some extent, this stuff has come back to us in the form of the Grand Theft Auto series. But it's not JUST that series. Admittedly, there were some pretty bad titles in this line, such as Wreckless. In fact, part of the pitfall of this setup has always been that the controls are harder to do than your standard FPS or third-person platform game.

The "Giant Robot" genre, part of this mix, has all but vanished. Microsoft's development on Mechwarrior 5 was killed off for the piece of crap known as MechAssault. Heavy Gear never really went anywhere.  In like vein, Lucasarts abandoned the "Interstate" series (cars with lots of guns) after the sequel, Interstate '82, didn't do as well as the original.

It's a pity, because these games were BIG in their time. Mechwarrior 2 is still fondly remembered by many gamers, and there are still a decent number of players who enjoy and code new expansion packs of 'Mechs for the Mechwarrior 4: Mercenaries engine. Part of the problem for Mechwarrior 5 is that Wizkids, who bought the Battletech universe after FASA died, have retooled it into Mechwarrior: Dark Age (soon to become Mechwarrior: Age of Destruction) and were actively trying to kill off the old storyline/universe even as Mechwarrior 4: Mercenaries was proving that it had a lot left to give to gamers. Shame on you, Wizkids.

The Turn-Based RPG

With Square abandoning turn-based play for FFXII, instead trying to make a single-player version of their online game FFXI, what will become of the turn-based RPG?

Well, we can expect it to continue to a limited extent on handheld areas: the Game Boy Advance, for instance, and Game Boy DS as well. We can also expect a few rogue design companies who have ex-Square employees on their staff to do their part. For instance, we were recently gifted with the awesome and exemplary Shadow Hearts: Covenant (aka Shadow Hearts II).

But for the vast majority of titles, it seems that RPG gameplay is heading more and more towards real-time combat, either in the vein that Square has developed, or the d20 system conversions that Bioware gave us and which have been translated to numerous Dungeons and Dragons titles, as well as the recent X-men RPG. Will turn-based gameplay remain viable? I can hope, but the future seems relatively grim.

Got Comments? Send 'em to Michael (at) Glideunderground.com!
Alternatively, post 'em right here for everyone to see!

Weekly Musings #27: Genres


Added:  Monday, January 24, 2005
Reviewer:  Mike Ahlf

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