At the Gates of Genre

Does not fit.

At the gates of Genre, Saint Pong-paddle awaits. Newly minted video games must register their official genre here.

Being two-dimensional and rather dated, graphically, St. Pong-paddle cannot handle a feathered quill and instead bounces a square cube into the appropriate category. It's a fun way to stay culturally relevant, at least until the inevitable HD remix of Pong.

The day's categorization has already begun. Modern Warfare 2 approaches first, warily checking the horizon for snipers before clicking the left stick to rush to the gate.

St. Pong-paddle says, "Soldier, I really shouldn't have to ask, but for the record: What genre are you?"

Modern Warfare 2 replies, "I'm a first-person shooter. Bang bang, tango n00bs!"

"Of course you are," says St. Pong-paddle, and knocks a cube into the FPS box. Modern Warfare 2 goes prone and crawls through the gates.

Dragon Age arrives next, covered in flecks of blood and glowing with at least three stat-enhancing buffs. With every step, magical breastplates and shields tumble out of a backpack that is obviously too small to contain them.

St. Pong-paddle selects from a menu of dialog choices. "3. Pretend I am speaking with a slight English accent. Pray, what genre faction do you identify with?"

Dragon Age's saucy response: "1. I carry the weight and grandeur of a role-playing game. Shall I unbuckle thy +3 corset, my lady?"

There is no dialog option to explain that a vertical line cannot wear a corset, so St. Pong-paddle chooses "4. [Awkward silence]". At least the question was answered. Dragon Age takes ten minutes to optimize its equipment, and finally strides through the gate after picking the lock several times for extra experience points.

St. Pong-paddle trick-shots a cube off several walls and into the RPG category, enjoying how well the day is going -- how straightforward. It's nice when new games know their roots and stick to their tropes. The growl of an auto engine in the distance heralds the arrival of the third game of the day. A driving game, certainly. Forza 3?

No. Something else. Something difficult. Brutal Legend roars up to the gates, jumping out of a skull-laden hot rod just before it crashes into the wall.

"Jesus Christ," says St. Pong-paddle. "Doesn’t that thing have brakes?"

"I don’t think so," replies Brutal Legend. "That wouldn't be very hardcore."

"Well you’ve ruined your ride. And my wall, incidentally."

"No problem. I can always get another car, just by playing a rhythm mini-game!"

Brutal Legend unsheathes its guitar. The ripping guitar solo that follows has the unfortunate effect of setting St. Pong-paddle ablaze. Luckily, the high-resolution flames quickly glitch and sputter out, incompatible with St. Pong-paddle's primitive form.

"Whoops," says Brutal Legend. "Wrong solo."

St. Pong-paddle says, "Ow, my pixels. Okay. Let's just get this over with. You've decided? You're a driving game with rhythm components?"

"Not exactly," replies Brutal Legend. "I have this axe too. It’s for smashing."

Brutal Legend smashes the gate to Genre with a resounding clang.

"Stop that," says St. Pong-paddle. "Third-person brawler, then? With questionable auto-targeting?"

"Getting closer," says Brutal Legend. "But I didn't mention my army yet."

A large group of cavemen and groupie sluts rush up to the gate and begin gnawing furiously at the iron bars.

"They like metal," explains Brutal Legend.

St. Pong-paddle is horrified. "Select them! Select them and right-click away from there! Micro-manage those idiots!"

"Not really my thing," says Brutal Legend. "They sorta listen when I play solos, but I’m not a thoroughbred real-time strategy game. There’s no clicking."

"Then what the hell are you supposed to be?" asks St. Pong-Paddle, glaring at the recalcitrant army.

Brutal Legend draws itself up proudly. "I am a bastard child of the schizophrenic postmodern age. Know only that I am metal, and that I was forged from the raw materials of innumerable genres. No single acronym can contain my all. I am pure hybrid."

"That's not going to work," says St. Pong-paddle. "Grandiose, yes. I bet you worked on that speech for a long time. But you know you need to pick a proper genre for the record."

"Why?" asks Brutal Legend.

An uncomfortable pause follows.

"Well," begins St. Pong-paddle. "We need something short and snappy to put on your box and in your reviews. Players need to know what to expect. What games you're similar to. How you play. Your place in the glorious Darwinian rhizome of video games."

"I already told you. I'm heavy metal. Lot of history there, no?"

"Music genre doesn’t work here. Well, it does, sorta, but only as a corollary. As a setting. Some people called Halo a sci-fi FPS, but we all know that the first-person shooting is the important part. The kids shoot things, they get good at shooting things, and they want to buy a new playground to shoot things in and improve their shooting. Recycle to infinity. They could do it in space, or they could do it in Candyland. Shooting is a transferable skill."

"If you watch any game for about five minutes or so, you should be able to identify a core set of actions: the recurring gameplay loop. There's your starting point. Speaking of which, maybe I should just call you a multifaceted Gate-Destroying Simulator and be done with it."

Brutal Legend snorts. "It's not like I'm the first game to defy the establishment's lame taxonomy, you know. Remember Puzzle Quest?"

"Pretty easy classification, if you ask me. The word 'puzzle' is in the title. Puzzle genre."

"Blue Dragon? I met that game earlier. A bunch of huge-eyed kids JRPG-ing it up, and all of a sudden they're shooting moons with laser guns and flying around in a rail shooter segment and doing Quick Time Events to lock robots in a closet or some sh*t. That's some serious hybrid right there."

"Let's not talk about Blue Dragon's identity issues. It spent a good deal of time in counseling before it remembered that it was an RPG."

"What if you played me with a mouse and keyboard? Messed with the hardware? Would that change my genre?"

"Maybe," says St. Pong-paddle, feeling uncomfortable. "Some players think that certain genres work best with a particular type of controller. It’s complicated."

"I'm complicated too," says Brutal Legend.

"Yes," says St. Pong-paddle. "Yes you are. But listen. I've just devised this great new category for games such as yourself. It's called 'Action': terribly redundant for a video game, and not very descriptive, but it'll hold for now."

"Action," muses Brutal Legend. "Yes. Yes! They'll never see me coming. Everybody will assume I'm like Final Fight or something, and then POW! Stage battle! Drive around! Find all those dragons! Buy weapons from Ozzy Osbourne!"

"Indeed," says St. Pong-paddle.

"By the way," says Brutal Legend, finally convincing its army to abandon the ravaged gate and move on through, "What genre are you supposed to be, Pong?"

"Sports, obviously."

Brutal Legend raises an eyebrow. "Really? Sports? If you say so."

"I'm like tennis!" St. Pong-paddle yells after the vanishing horde. "I'm tennis, goddamn it!"

St. Pong-paddle sends a cube into the yawning crevasse of Action (wow, this'll be a huge category in a few years), and surveys the damage. The gates of Genre have been badly beaten, but remain upright for now.

Comments

WipEout wrote:

It'll probably be worse at that point. Internet people (ie, our behaviors over the internet) do not want to slow down and smell the buffalo-- if anything, we want things faster than we can reasonably get in real life. So things will need to be compartmentalized even more so as to better categorize and list them within a given structure, just so we can get to that item and get out as fast as possible.

If it weren't for chunking, I am pretty sure my brain would implode.

Cossak wrote:

Genre isn't something applied to a game after its finished, y'know. Geez.

That sort of depends on your perspective. Certainly a designer can build a game to fit or mostly fit a certain genre definition, but reviewers, critics, and players will also make up their own minds--particularly if the designer doesn't make it obvious.

Camping_Kindling wrote:

Brilliant article, particularly the first half.

As a side note, I don't necessarily think that the whole "it's like X but with Y" definition is such a bad thing; the Y just has to be compelling (oops).

Nah, the second half. Brutal Legend's confused earnestness really comes through there. Love the combination of humor and poignancy in the latter half of that exchange.

You just made Blue Dragon sound much more interesting than I hoped.

Nice article, sir. Clever are you.

Good article. Anyone who has worked with taxonomies will doubtless be cringing at the prospect of such sub-genres. The least we should do is coin some amusing ones now, before the media does.

wordsmythe wrote:

...but reviewers, critics, and players will also make up their own minds--particularly if the designer doesn't make it obvious.

Brings an old PA comment to mind: "And we gamers are not blameless, either. I mean, just look at us."
http://www.penny-arcade.com/comic/20...

InfluenceDevice wrote:

Good article. Anyone who has worked with taxonomies will doubtless be cringing at the prospect of such sub-genres. The least we should do is coin some amusing ones now, before the media does.

wordsmythe wrote:

...but reviewers, critics, and players will also make up their own minds--particularly if the designer doesn't make it obvious.

Brings an old PA comment to mind: "And we gamers are not blameless, either. I mean, just look at us."
http://www.penny-arcade.com/comic/20...

I used to have the same problem with attempts to classify punk sub-genres according to some twisted tree structure. By the time I was through with college, though, I'd done some work in literary genre theory--and learned enough to understand that a genre, in a practical sense, is much more a collection of common audience expectations than it is some tidily cropped box. Then, of course, there's the tech side of me that's also read Ontology Is Overrated (note: not philosophical ontology).

KidDork wrote:

You just made Blue Dragon sound much more interesting than I hoped.

Ha! Sorry about that.

One thing that I think is particularly interesting about genre, and something I didn't really get to include in this article... thing... is the way players accumulate skill and ability along genre lines. If game genre is useful at predicting what kind of actions the player will be cycling through, and from what perspective, then it's pretty obvious that players who affix themselves to a particular genre are going to get good (very good) at this kind of manipulation and are quickly able to identify and look for important signifiers.

Basically, someone who plays lots of FPS games just needs to pick up a new one, adapt to any changes that have been made to the core formula ("Shooting magic instead of bullets... okay, so I'm looking for ways to recharge mana, not ammo"), and go to town. A lot of this is due to getting better with your controller of choice, and accumulated understandings of genre tropes (learning to navigate 3D space, learning to identify threats and valued prizes/areas in this environment, learning to use thumbsticks or keyboard+mouse to quickly aim and shoot at targets).

New games come along every few months to help these players test their ever-increasing abilities against new challenges / variants. So, in a way, genre can act as a pipeline to mastery of a particular set of applicable skills.

So does this mean the barrier for entry for these longstanding genres (FPS, RTS, etc) is ridiculously high for uninitiated players, given that each game iteration builds a little something new on top of predecessors' formula? Or is there a regular 'breakdown' of genre conventions when an influential game comes out, redefines these interactions, and tries to start again with new assumptions / conventions? Or both?

Just wondering out loud here, feel free to argue. Of course, as wordy points out, genre is messy and a concept that is generally in a state of ongoing negotiation as opposed to a rigid taxonomy, but it is undeniable that many games are very similar in terms of the basic cycle of input action they require of players. How can this shape players over the long term?

Clemenstation wrote:

So does this mean the barrier for entry for these longstanding genres (FPS, RTS, etc) is ridiculously high for uninitiated players, given that each game iteration builds a little something new on top of predecessors' formula? Or is there a regular 'breakdown' of genre conventions when an influential game comes out, redefines these interactions, and tries to start again with new assumptions / conventions? Or both?

I've heard respectable games critics say they had trouble getting into Dragon Age because they hadn't been acolytes of the 1990s' western RPG tradition.

Clemenstation wrote:

So does this mean the barrier for entry for these longstanding genres (FPS, RTS, etc) is ridiculously high for uninitiated players, given that each game iteration builds a little something new on top of predecessors' formula?

There was an article in NextGen about 10 years ago that discussed just this, how the unwritten conventions of games makes picking up and playing a game difficult for newcomers. The example the author gave was 2D platformers, and how things like jumping on enemies heads, hitting boxes from below rather than above, etc. are usually never explained but must be understood to succeed.

Console FPSes are probably a better example. The basic act of moving through a 3D space in a first person perspective seems intuitive, because everybody does this by virtue of being human. However, FPSes introduce a fixed perspective (gun and view are locked), and the controller further constrains movement -- quickly looking 90 degrees left and then right is difficult, for example, forcing players to economize the act of observing the environment, while aiming while walking sideways slightly is easier than in reality, encouraging players to move and fire.

No one tells new players any of this, leaving them to wonder why it's so hard to see who is shooting them and why standing still to shoot is a bad idea.

I wonder though if there really is such a barrier, since most games start out with an introductory/tutorial level, and introduces the majority of the play mechanics one piece at a time. At this point, I believe if anyone has hang ups with "getting into a game" (that is, being immersed in the world and gameplay) it is simply a game they don't enjoy. To better explain that notion, though, I'd say that there is somewhat of a disconnect between ability to play and an ability to enjoy a game. For instance, my wife loves watching me play games-- she likes the stories, the combat, the puzzles, etc-- but she can't stand picking up a controller and playing herself. It takes her right out of the game.

That said, I would be hard pressed to believe that there is a growing barrier for entry to genres, as that would imply that at one point in each of our lives, we will simply be left behind by the future generations of games that continue to grow and evolve those genres. Seeing as how games have evolved and continue to evolve and we all keep playing them, though, I just don't believe it. The advent of the Wii's popularity among senior citizens is a testament to that idea, as well. If developers want to keep making games, they will need to keep a larger fanbase, and in order to do so they must maintain accessibility by the greater majority, even change the way games are played to include a new demographic that, on a whole, previously had no desire to pick up a controller and play a video game-- or in some cases simply couldn't pick up that controller. With this means of accessibility, they must include tutorials in some form or another, so once those people do pick up the controllers, they don't toss them back down in frustration.

This is all assuming, however, that game development continues on the current path of interweaving gameplay elements. The actual act of playing a game, again, has little to do with the genre to which the game adheres (or borrows from). Anymore, the success of a game depends on the level of fun a player will have, and that level will be further immersed by the art and details. It will be solidified by strong gameplay, and a quick and fun tutorial to bring the players up to speed so as to fully enjoy the game right out of the gates. To me, genres appear tied more to the art side of things (fantasy games involve elves and orcs, racing games involve cars, shooting games involve some form of army and weapons, etc), but the gameplay itself might have very little to do with the genre which the assets appear a part of. Basically, nowadays FPS games involve player choices a la adventure games, racing games use weapons and FPS/fighting game elements, etc. So again, there is something of a disconnect between the art side and the gameplay side of genres, and thus, it will be even more difficult for developers to create some sort of barrier for entry-level gamers.

Clemenstation wrote:

So does this mean the barrier for entry for these longstanding genres (FPS, RTS, etc) is ridiculously high for uninitiated players, given that each game iteration builds a little something new on top of predecessors' formula?

Personally speaking, the poster-child for this sort of problem is text-based adventure games or interactive fiction. There are a lot of conventions built into how users navigate through and interact with the environment and characters, and few games take time to explain this to players. It's been difficult for me to enjoy some of these games as I've struggled with the basic mechanics of play while also struggling with the stories themselves.

(And yes, I've read some of the how-to-play article out there, and I still have a hard time.)

Staats wrote:
Clemenstation wrote:

So does this mean the barrier for entry for these longstanding genres (FPS, RTS, etc) is ridiculously high for uninitiated players, given that each game iteration builds a little something new on top of predecessors' formula?

There was an article in NextGen about 10 years ago that discussed just this, how the unwritten conventions of games makes picking up and playing a game difficult for newcomers. The example the author gave was 2D platformers, and how things like jumping on enemies heads, hitting boxes from below rather than above, etc. are usually never explained but must be understood to succeed.

Console FPSes are probably a better example. The basic act of moving through a 3D space in a first person perspective seems intuitive, because everybody does this by virtue of being human. However, FPSes introduce a fixed perspective (gun and view are locked), and the controller further constrains movement -- quickly looking 90 degrees left and then right is difficult, for example, forcing players to economize the act of observing the environment, while aiming while walking sideways slightly is easier than in reality, encouraging players to move and fire.

No one tells new players any of this, leaving them to wonder why it's so hard to see who is shooting them and why standing still to shoot is a bad idea.

I think things used to be this way, especially 10 years ago when the NextGen article was written-- and way before that, actually. But in today's industry, developers have evolved and learned from the past, and realized that not everyone is a hardcore gamer that is willing to figure it out for themselves. Most players are casual, and may need a bit of nudging in the right direction to get going. But most games today have either subtitles with tips at the beginning of the game (Battlefield 2 had a narrator tell you what to do and what keys to press for the first few matches you played), or a straight-out tutorial or integrated tutorial level to introduce players to the gameplay (Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare). After that, once new abilities are learned, the game will give a quick tutorial or at least show on-screen what the player needs to press to use the new ability.

adam.greenbrier wrote:
Clemenstation wrote:

So does this mean the barrier for entry for these longstanding genres (FPS, RTS, etc) is ridiculously high for uninitiated players, given that each game iteration builds a little something new on top of predecessors' formula?

Personally speaking, the poster-child for this sort of problem is text-based adventure games or interactive fiction. There are a lot of conventions built into how users navigate through and interact with the environment and characters, and few games take time to explain this to players. It's been difficult for me to enjoy some of these games as I've struggled with the basic mechanics of play while also struggling with the stories themselves.

(And yes, I've read some of the how-to-play article out there, and I still have a hard time.)

I'd say it's those developers in today's industry that won't go very far. They appear to be copycatting older games, and aren't really showing a true understanding of the broader audience and what it wants. Or, they are simply catering to the hardcore players who might be the only group, on a whole, that wants to even play those games. They're assuming that the only players will be those familiar with the genre, and so there's no need to introduce anyone to the gameplay, when it's been around for decades-- and that assumption is a mistake if you want to gain a broader audience.

WipEout wrote:

I wonder though if there really is such a barrier, since most games start out with an introductory/tutorial level, and introduces the majority of the play mechanics one piece at a time.

...

That said, I would be hard pressed to believe that there is a growing barrier for entry to genres, as that would imply that at one point in each of our lives, we will simply be left behind by the future generations of games that continue to grow and evolve those genres. Seeing as how games have evolved and continue to evolve and we all keep playing them, though, I just don't believe it.

The fact that you've kept up on genres as they evolve probably goes a long way to keeping you informed. Forgive me for saying this, but it's very possible that you don't realize how much you've internalized genre conventions for interface and dynamics.

wordsmythe wrote:

The fact that you've kept up on genres as they evolve probably goes a long way to keeping you informed. Forgive me for saying this, but it's very possible that you don't realize how much you've internalized genre conventions for interface and dynamics.

I found a blog last year that illustrates how much we internalize and assume basic genre conventions.

This guy started Half-life from scratch, never having played an FPS in earnest before, and some of his struggles with basic controls and navigating the tutorial level were quite mindblowing. It's frustrating to passively observe because, to me, some of this stuff seemed so obvious. But he writes very earnestly about his problems, and it's a great way to see just what kind of things experienced players take for granted.

How Do I Play Game? (first post)

That's a fascinating blog, Chris. Thanks for linking to it.

First an article from Gamasutra that goes over a study citing genre as the top deciding factor for games purchases. It would then seem that any game that can't fit into a genre is probably shooting themselves in the foot in terms of sales success.

Unrelated,

wordsmythe wrote:
Clemenstation wrote:

So does this mean the barrier for entry for these longstanding genres (FPS, RTS, etc) is ridiculously high for uninitiated players, given that each game iteration builds a little something new on top of predecessors' formula? Or is there a regular 'breakdown' of genre conventions when an influential game comes out, redefines these interactions, and tries to start again with new assumptions / conventions? Or both?

I've heard respectable games critics say they had trouble getting into Dragon Age because they hadn't been acolytes of the 1990s' western RPG tradition.

I played the 360 version of Dragon Age Origins (the easier one) on normal and once the tutorial section is done and you have access to the world map, a newcomer would likely hit a brick wall with no help from the game. At that point, party choice is essential and managing each member's tactics is almost necessary.

If you didn't understand the need for a healer and a tank, you would likely not be able to succeed in any of the battles, even small ones. When I managed these classes with the preset tactics, my party would often still quickly fall to their deaths simply because they would never heal themselves or do so too late. I needed to pull aside one character and make sure they spent their whole time healing the rest of the party as well as running away from fights. This doesn't even approach the level of detail that goes into the differences between defense and armor and between attack and damage.

I've been playing RPGs since they got pictures, and I'm still not sure how backstabbing works in Dragon Age.

I haven't played Dragon Age, but if it's as opaque as Mass Effect, then I can understand the confusion. Mass Effect relied heavily on genre conventions to make up for half-baked explanations of the game's mechanics.

Um. Play a rogue, move behind your target (attracting the targets attention with another party member or keeping it still by stunning it) and...attack. My impression was that it's not even genre specific. That's kinda the inherent definition of "Backstabbing". I'm curious what you found different about it in DA:O.

There is a lot to pick up on in Dragon Age though. E.g. Unlike Mass Effect, you often can't tell what the "good" option in your dialogue choices is. Unintended consequences are expertly used in this game, and keep you on your toes.

wordsmythe wrote:

I've been playing RPGs since they got pictures, and I'm still not sure how backstabbing works in Dragon Age.

When you are in the black area of the circle, you auto backstab as a rogue. Also, if you were sneaking you will backstab no matter where you are. You can also get an ability which makes it so that whenever the enemy is stunned, you will always do a backstab.

Bullion Cube wrote:

There is a lot to pick up on in Dragon Age though. E.g. Unlike Mass Effect, you often can't tell what the "good" option in your dialogue choices is. Unintended consequences are expertly used in this game, and keep you on your toes.

I'd disagree, it's pretty clear to me which are the 'good' and 'bad' choices, even though they aren't color coded like Mass Effect. I thought they also tend to put the 'good' choices at the top and 'bad' at the bottom, just like all the other games. There are some ambiguous dialog options that happen when you talk to party members. You have to learn what types of actions each prefers.

Spoiler:

For example, Morrigan hates it whenever you aren't 'practical' which is annoying because there were several times that I lost friend points because I chose to do side quests.

Bullion Cube wrote:

Um. Play a rogue, move behind your target (attracting the targets attention with another party member or keeping it still by stunning it) and...attack.

See--I wasn't sure if you had to use stealth or of it was a power like everything else seems to be. Thanks, though.

PandaEskimo wrote:

When you are in the black area of the circle, you auto backstab as a rogue.

Black area? Circle?

wordsmythe wrote:
PandaEskimo wrote:

When you are in the black area of the circle, you auto backstab as a rogue.

Black area? Circle?

Look at the circle on the floor around an enemy, part of it is black corresponding to their back.

wordsmythe wrote:
Bullion Cube wrote:

Um. Play a rogue, move behind your target (attracting the targets attention with another party member or keeping it still by stunning it) and...attack.

See--I wasn't sure if you had to use stealth or of it was a power like everything else seems to be. Thanks, though.

PandaEskimo wrote:

When you are in the black area of the circle, you auto backstab as a rogue.

Black area? Circle?

I found a really awesome resource for the game over here.

MrDeVil909 wrote:
wordsmythe wrote:
Bullion Cube wrote:

Um. Play a rogue, move behind your target (attracting the targets attention with another party member or keeping it still by stunning it) and...attack.

See--I wasn't sure if you had to use stealth or of it was a power like everything else seems to be. Thanks, though.

PandaEskimo wrote:

When you are in the black area of the circle, you auto backstab as a rogue.

Black area? Circle?

I found a really awesome resource for the game over here. ;)

I'm far too important to slog through that monster thread! Next you'll be asking me to go on some fetch quest so you can falsely declare your own adulthood!

Also: This whole "black area of the circle" thing has proven quite useful. I don't die half as often now!

Clemenstation wrote:

I found a blog last year that illustrates how much we internalize and assume basic genre conventions.

I thought of this post and the blog you mentioned here when I fired up the demo for NHL '10 last night. I haven't played a hockey game, or even a sports game, since NBA Jam on the Sega Genesis, and despite the fact that I was going through a basic tutorial for the controls, I was completely lost and overwhelmed. There were a decent number of things they weren't explaining for the sake of brevity on the assumption that anyone playing NHL '10 had probably played NHL '09 or a similar game. However, I was completely lost and frustrated, because despite being quite familiar with hockey itself, I wasn't familiar with any of the game genre's control conventions.

adam.greenbrier wrote:
Clemenstation wrote:

I found a blog last year that illustrates how much we internalize and assume basic genre conventions.

I thought of this post and the blog you mentioned here when I fired up the demo for NHL '10 last night. I haven't played a hockey game, or even a sports game, since NBA Jam on the Sega Genesis, and despite the fact that I was going through a basic tutorial for the controls, I was completely lost and overwhelmed. There were a decent number of things they weren't explaining for the sake of brevity on the assumption that anyone playing NHL '10 had probably played NHL '09 or a similar game. However, I was completely lost and frustrated, because despite being quite familiar with hockey itself, I wasn't familiar with any of the game genre's control conventions.

I know what you mean. I remember when the NHL franchise switched over from push-to-shoot to that right-stick business. All my expertise with one-timers in previous games was suddenly rendered moot.