Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Getting To Know Genres

Talking about the genres of computer games is a bit like looking at shades of red trying to call one maroon and one burgundy, at least that's the case nowadays. If we go back only ten or fifteen years the genres were strictly separated, you could tell just by looking at the box whether you were going to get an empire building game or a first person shooter. The reason for this lay more with accepting the hardware limitations of older computers than any strong desire to keep the genres apart.

Then the year 2000 came and game designers began to have more and more processing power to play around with. Their customers steadily bought better and better computers that could handle larger worlds with more intensive 3D graphics. Suddenly designers could make the games they wanted to make. If you wanted to tell a classic gangster story in sprawling New York with gun-fights and car chases, you could. If you wanted to tell an ultra-realistic Post-Cold-War spy story with all the gadgets of a modern James Bond and the twists and betrayals of a thriller, you could. If you wanted to tell the off-the-wall story of a young boy with psychic powers attending a Summer Camp for Psychics only to discover there's a hidden monster out there sucking people's brains out of their heads, you could.

Those three games exist and they were all made almost ten yeas ago, and in order they are Grand Theft Auto 3, Splinter Cell and Psychonauts. In an aside, I cannot recommend Psychonauts enough - it blurs tongue-in-cheek, off-the-wall hilarity with a deeply emotional story as you travel through the minds of your camp-mates cleaning up their Freudian tics and emotional baggage. And best of all, in terms of genre Psychonauts can claim to be (at different times) a shooter, a racer, a puzzle-game, a turn-based strategy game like Risk and a whole lot of fun.

Why talk about genres then? If all these current games are a pastiche of different genres and game-types, what's the use of talking about genres at all? Well, it's simple. To use anything you have to know about it, even on a basic level. Genres are like the archeology of games, they reflect the ancestry of a game. Now that game designers have the computer power to tell whatever story they like, good game designers have to know about the narrative techniques of games in the same way that a good writer has to know about the science-fiction genre and the film-noir genre to tell their story about gritty robot detectives trying to track down a serial killer with telepathy.

Sadly this idea has yet to be realised

Keeping in mind that in recent games the genres can be very blurred, it's important to know what makes up each genre so that you, as a good game designer, can identify genres where they are used and apply that knowledge to your own games. Let's have a closer look at some of the more popular genres that most games can claim a connection with.

The Empire Builder
You are the leader and commander. Your people look to you to take this newly-founded colony and turn it into a vast empire. Protect your citizens, build them houses and temples and walls. Manage your resources carefully. Build an army and crush all others beneath your heel.

Also known as: Real-Time Strategy (RTS) or Turn-Based Strategy (4X)

Real examples: StarCraft, WarCraft, Age of Empires, Civilisation, Master of Orion

The key elements of an Empire Builder or RTS are Resource-Management and Unit-Management from a Bird's Eye View perspective. Simply put, you sit in the clouds looking down on your growing empire. Everything costs money, whether that is food, wood, gold or some other natural resource so establishing an economy is fundamental to your survival. Without an income you can't support your armies, or house your citizens.

The game can play either in real-time, that is to say without pauses or breaks in play, or in a turn-based style, where action is broken up into turns - first you move your armies then your opponent moves his.

The Shooter
You are a one-man (or one-woman) army. You are the quintessential Hollywood Hero, often going out with guns blazing to take on a horde of baddies.

Also known as: First-Person Shooter (FPS)

Real examples: Unreal Tournament, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, Counter-Strike

Shooters are the games that concerned parents usually point to when they say games are too violent. And, to be honest, in terms of the popular games there really isn't much to say to contradict this claim. The shooter is at its heart a violent game, the object is generally to be the last man standing. However, just looking at the violence is missing the point. It's almost like looking at a piece of art and complaining about the brand of paint used. Games do not need to be violent, however some games use violence because it provides simple ways for the player to identify with and appreciate what's going on in the game. This is a topic I feel strongly about, and it's something I'll deal with in greater depth in another post. Shooters are competitive and rewarding on a visceral level, thus shooters use gore as both a threat to the player (if I lose, I die) and a reward for good work. Guns are a big feature, whether they are realistically portrayed or fantastical objects of high-technology and the story (if there is one) reinforces to the player a 'One against a thousand' mentality to capture the player's emotional interest.

A contemporary twist on shooters are Team-Based Shooters: games where you have to rely on your team-mates for success. These games often give the player a choice of characters, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. To win, all roles have to be played together, like an orchestra. For this reason the competitive spirit is drawn from teamwork, winning as a team rather than single-handedly taking on your opponents out-right, and the violence and gore doesn't need such an emphasis to trigger the player's emotional reaction.

The Role-Playing Game
You are a hero of fantasy! You are fighting valiantly to save the world from orcs and monsters and dragons. You can be a paragon of virtue or a heartless mercenary working for the clink of cold coin in your pocket. The world is an exciting and dangerous place, and it's your job to explore its darkest corners.

Also known as: RPG

Real examples: Dungeons and Dragons, Baldur's Gate, Mass Effect, World of Warcraft

The RPG is perhaps the oldest of video games and at some level all games are RPGs. All games give you a role to play which serves as an emotional hook and ensures you have some investment with the game. However, above all an RPG gives you choice. Are you good or evil or just thoughtless? You see a man being chased by a mob - do you leap to the man's aid or do you join the mob? The world is yours and there is no wrong choice to make. RPGs are very story-driven, typically set in a fantasy universe of swords and sorcery though you're only limited by your imagination. A player plays an RPG to have a story unfold around them and to grow more powerful with every act. With each small victory you get experience points (XP), and when you reach a certain number of points you level up, suddenly becoming stronger, more capable, more hardy.

Contemporary games take RPGs down a slightly different route. While there's still a story line behind Massively-Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMOs) like World of Warcraft focus on racing up the levels and competing against other players. Players are rewarded for investing the most time in the game. The more you play, the better your armour and your sword will be, the more impressive you look to other players and the stronger you are in the field of battle.

There are other genres out there, including the Racing Game, the Puzzle Game and the Arcade Game. Maybe we'll come back to the others at another stage but for now the three main genres are a good starting point. I'll end with a piece of advice: rather than looking to build a game around a genre, take a hint from our current games and build your genres around the game. If you've made a high fantasy world of knights and goblins but you want to add horseback racing go for it. If you want a science-fiction shooter that expects the players to match symbols on a circuit board to hack into computers, don't let the shooter genre stop you. Good game designers use genres as guides rather than limits. Let your imagination run free!

Next time we'll be looking at the top ten mistakes a first time game designer makes, and how to avoid them. As always, I absolutely welcome any comments and questions. Looking forward to seeing you again next week.

Stay tuned!


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