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The Curse of Genre

When was the last time a game surprised you? I don't mean a bad guy in an FPS leaping out from behind a crate, but the game design itself catching you off guard. These days, that's generally quite rare, but it wasn't always the case. Step into my time machine...

I'm a late thirty-something gamer and an indie developer, so I remember the excitement as a kid when we first got to play Pong, and then the ultra-strategic complexity of Space Battle. Back in 1982, I got extremely excited at the prospects of my ZX Spectrum PC, which has a whopping 48k of RAM as standard, because it could do colour graphics and go beep. Imagine that. Colours...and...beeping. The world of possibilities this opened up was truly vast!

Now if gaming in 1982 sounds rubbish to you, in many ways you are absolutely right. Comparing the likes of JetPac and Ant Attack with modern games in terms of sound, music, graphics, complexity, depth and immersion is just laughable.

"Ant Attack was an isometric game where you control a stick man who flees from ants whilst throwing hand grenades at them. What the hell was that?"

Early games were simplistic, horrid to look at and prone to crash without saving at the most annoying moments. Gamers my age often look back on those glory days with very rose-tinted glasses. Like many thirty-something gamers I consider Elite to be the greatest game of all time. And like all of them, I tend to play Eve Online way more than I do Elite.

BUT!

There is something I miss massively about the early days of gaming, and that's the element of surprise, wonder and innovation. These days we have established genres such as FPS, RPG, MMORPG—even Tactical Shooter and RTS. In some ways, this is great, you can tell a lot about how to play a game, and what you will like about it from the genre. I love a decent FPS and RTS but I dislike RPG games and Beat 'em ups. I like some management and tycoon games, and so on.

But the problem is we have got so used to slotting games into genres we have all but forgotten how cool it was before they existed. Take the Spectrum classic Ant Attack, an isometric game where you control a stick man who flees from ants while throwing hand grenades at them. What the hell was that? An RTS in visual terms I suppose, but with only one unit it was more like an action or third person shooter. How about the seminal Lords Of Midnight?

"Stuart Hamm once said he'd deliberately avoided seeing how the other guy played bass because if he saw him it would lock him into doing things the same way, and prevent him working out his own style. I think he has a very good point."

Back then, there literally were no conventions when it came to how to make a game. You picked your subject (Jet packs! Giant ants! Wizards!) and just designed whatever seemed fun. These days it seems the designers pick their genre before they even pick the theme. Right away, at line one, page one of the design document, they throw away 99 percent of the freedom that game designers had in the old days.

As a designer myself, I can see why. Game design is a bitch; it's much harder than people think. You can write design documents until the cows come home, but until you get the thing up there on a screen being played, you have no idea if it works or is fun. Anything that makes the designer's job easier is a good thing, and not having to re-invent the wheel is a welcome relief. Plus, frankly both publishers and consumers tend to demand it. Try pitching a game to a publisher that does not fit an established genre. Will Wright had trouble pitching The Sims, and he was Will “I earn this company zillions of dollars with Sim City” Wright for crying out loud!

If you have huge success behind you, you can sometimes do it. Molyneux can, Meier and Wright generally can, Miyamoto certainly can, but 99 percent of game designers aren't in this position.

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Cliff Harris

Publishers will say "You should make a WW2 FPS with online stats tracking. Our statistics show this to be profitable," and that's the end of it. That's the first 99 pages of the design done already. Game design used to be about freedom and creativity. Now it's a matter of designing how long the build queues should be, or deciding just how many crates to have in a corridor. Game design has become safe, timid and predictable.

But let's not have a go at the poor game designers and pretend the gaming public aren't guilty of 'genre-boxing' too. And that includes me. I said earlier I don't like RPG games, and listed genres I like. How many of us turn the page of a review the minute we find it's not in our list of 'approved genres'?

The world of indie gaming, home to developers like me, is no different. Most indie games are sold on casual games portals that have categories for 'click management', 'puzzle' and 'hidden object'. When I try to see how my turn-based strategic life-sim game Kudos is selling, I often have trouble finding it as nobody knows which category to put it in. Indie gaming should be about innovation and risk-taking, but often it's about following sales trends and doing the same thing again, but shinier or wackier.

"These days it seems the designers pick their genre before they even pick the theme. Right away, at line one, page one of the design document, they throw away 99 percent of the freedom that game designers had in the old days."

The thing is, I do really wish we could throw off the genre limits and rediscover the freeform game design of the early years of gaming. Sometimes when we try, it falls apart terribly (Trespasser), but often it works wonders. Portal belongs in both the FPS and puzzle categories and is all the better for it. Spore will hopefully create a whole new category, as did The Sims.

When you forget genres and just sit down and think "Let's make a cool game," without any pre-conceptions, then you stand a chance of making something really good. I remember back in my wannabe-rockstar days, I was a big fan of two bass players (Stuart Hamm and Billy Sheehan) who both had very showy and complicated playing styles. Stuart Hamm once said he'd deliberately avoided seeing how the other guy played because if he saw him it would lock him into doing things the same way, and prevent him working out his own style. I think he has a very good point.

I'm not suggesting game designers shouldn't play games, but we shouldn't be thinking purely in terms of existing approaches and genres when we sketch out ideas either. My best selling games were inspired by a book on how the brain works (Democracy), and the film Donnie Darko. Existing games didn't get a look-in.

For the record, I've found this out the hard way. I've done an arcade shooter or two, a tycoon game, two top down racing games and a minesweeper clone, all of which sold fairly badly. Then I designed this weird 2D turn-based politics game which had no 3D and basically looked like a spider's web of connected icons. It didn't fit into any genre, and comparisons with other games on the same theme were difficult. It sold more than all the other games I'd made put together, and enabled me to quit my job and go indie full time.

Sometimes, throwing away the shackles of genre is the best thing you can do.