Posted On: 2019-12-02
Game genres are common tools for describing games, ranging in purpose from advertising, to design discussions, to water-cooler conversations between fans. Yet, this diversity of use seems to have impacted their consistency and usability. Genres can be essential for distilling a complex idea down to a simple, transmittable one, but the deeper I dig into game genres, the less clear it becomes which one could apply to any given game.
So far as I can tell, game genres can be categorized roughly based on what kind of information they convey. The genres (or sub-genres) currently in popular use appear to answer one (or more) of the following questions:
In the broadest strokes, genres categorize the problems that the player must solve in the game. Challenges in "action" games are solved using timing and reflex, while those in "puzzle" games are solved using thought. Additionally, some puzzle game genres also define themselves by what kinds of problem they are solving (such as "logic puzzle" games).
Many game genres succinctly describe the primary action of gameplay. Genres like "Shooter" or "Platformer" focus on a single action from the core game loop. When applied to non-action games, this approach sometimes is used to describe other important parts of the core loop (such as the "Match 3" genre describing the goal of each individual move.)
Some genres include the control scheme in their title, albeit only when paired with another genre. As an example, a "twin-stick shooter" is a valid genre (using two analog sticks to perform shooting), while, so far as I am aware, there is no "twin-stick" genre (which I would expect to include games like Ape Escape and Katamari Damacy).
Some genres are named to highlight specific features that are unrelated to gameplay. This can be anything ranging from the position to the camera ("First Person Shooter") to the level design ethos ("Open World").
While somewhat contentious, some game genres describe a game by comparing it to another, well-known game. Genres like "rogue-like" and "metroidvania" are contemporary examples of this category. Some have pointed to the obsolete "doom-clone" (now "first-person shooter") as evidence that new genres may start in this category and then become better refined over time.
One of the key issues of genres is that they describe features that may be used as design tools rather than as the product-defining feature. The Portal game series is a common example of how this becomes a conundrum: gameplay occurs in a first-person perspective, and involves shooting the portal gun to connect two locations in space together, for the purpose of solving puzzles. The game is, above all, a puzzle game, but the use of first-person perspective and shooting a (dimension-warping) gun makes it a technically fit the first-person shooter genre.
For feature-based or similarity-based genres, the problem can become one of managing player expectations. Without a clear distinction between what is essential and what is merely convention, there is no way to predict whether a differentiating feature will be perceived as a violation of the player's expectations. Roguelikes have a particularly complicated history in this regard - with some players expecting a set of 9 specific features (the so-called Berlin Interpretation) while others might expect only one or two features* (such as permadeath). As designers explore stretching these genres in different ways (such as 2D souls-likes or platformer rogue-likes) it can be difficult to correctly anchor players expectations. If one goes too far afield, attempting to use the genre risks adding confusion rather than clarity (ie. "a 3D metroidvania with a segmented map and no combat" would, perhaps, be better described less precisely, such as "3D platformer with adventure elements.")
Game genres are an amalgam of different purposes, answering a variety of different questions. As games explore new design territory, they can fall into the gaps between these existing genres, making them harder to describe or market. The inconsistency in genres can cause challenges for consumers as well - disagreements can emerge between individuals with different expectations, and fans of one game may have difficulty finding other games that are similar in relevant ways.