Developers agree: genres are an outdated mess

“I think genres should die,” American McGee told me. I'd asked him and a swath of similarly situated developers about genres, and what genres mean, and whether there's really any use for genres any more--and while McGee had one of the most colorful responses, he certainly wasn't alone in his sentiment. And even though their positions on the matter fluctuated from abolishment to tweaking, there was a consensus across the board: video game genres, as they are right now, don’t do the medium justice.

The problem: there’s no consistency among the genres. Every other artistic medium has genres that consistently deal in the emotional value of the piece. Drama, comedy, romance, thriller--the audience knows at least the family of emotion they’re going to be feeling when entering a movie. Video games? Matt Zagurak, the lead writer of The Mighty Quest for Epic Loot, threw in his two cents, saying that video game genres just aren’t consistently describing the same thing across the board. “‘Action-adventure,'" he said, "is a vague promise about content and emotional benefit, ‘first person shooter’ or just ‘shooter’ is a basic but very concrete description of the root gameplay mechanic of the game, ‘strategy’ refers to a skillset to be tested, whereas ‘Free to Play’ refers to a business model.” 

Some are based on mechanics, some are based on emotion, and like Matt Zagurak said, some are just about the business model. Gears of War and The Last of Us are in the same genre, yet I would recommend the interactive narrative Gone Home to somebody who enjoyed the Last of Us before Gears of War. Why? Because Gone Home and The Last of Us share an emotional state of mind--they transport the player to the same place. That's as opposed to the put-bullets-in-the-enemy commonality of the third-person shooter genre. Shouldn't the genre allow for this nuance?

How did we get here? Well, organic evolution seems to be the primary culprit. As Greg Kasavin puts it, their “definitions and terms change and evolve as people continue the conversations about games and as games themselves change.” Yet we’re the only industry “where very few genres maintain significance for more than a decade.” Kasavin references shoot-’em-ups, and even adventure games here. And it’s true, the term action-adventure holds little significance to anybody at this point. Steve Gaynor, of The Fullbright Company, chimed in. “We’re always just waiting for the next big innovation within a genre that will change how we play,” he says, “or the next new type of game that there’s no name for yet.” What a terrible construction for a genre system. We wait for something to break our rigid structure so that we can create an entire genre around that specific game. Then when something even newer doesn’t fit we either square-peg-round-hole it or we make yet another genre. At what point will we have so many niche genres that the system becomes pointless?

And that's to say nothing of the ultra-ambiguous genre known as "indie." It’s a stretch to find anything similar to the games of this genre beside the fact that they weren’t developed by one of the big name studios. Greg Kasavin of Supergiant Games put it best, “Even though games I work on benefit from being labeled this way...I would ban the term ‘indie’ as a genre because as this point it’s about as meaningful as ‘alternative’ was to music in 1998. It almost feels like we’re down to maybe 15 games released a year that don’t qualify as ‘indie’.” The Indie genre doesn’t inform anything now, it just points towards production value rather than any content that the game itself has.

Take a look at the graph above (full size here). It represents video game genres across the years. Maze, management, scrollers, run-and-gun, all meaningless now. Once a type of game goes out of style, so does the genre. Now we have MOBA, rougelike, interactive story, survival horror--these all have popped up because we just don’t know where to put the seminal game of that genre. When will these go out of style? When just “interactive story” not be enough to cover the breadth of titles under it. 

We’re getting bogged down by old categories from when we were nowhere near the limits of our medium. By no means are we near those limits now, but while we still have a manageable library of games to deal with, we should think about a reorientation around a classification system that is actually useful. Not only will this help us within the industry, but it will help the industry as a whole. Jenova Chen, co-founder of thatgamecompany, thinks that good genres are crucial for games to become a mainstream media. “[Video games] need to have coverage of all kinds of emotions and needs of the mass audience. When people think about needs, they think about emotions, they don’t think about a technical term.” He went on to say: “In the end, we ask people, ‘are you a gamer or not?’ We don’t ask people ‘are you a film watcher or not?’ Because we enter with the assumption that no matter what mood you’re in, there’s a film you can watch.”

Jenova Chen also placed the emotion of a game over its mechanic. And while it makes sense that emotion needs to play a much bigger role in the definition of a game, we must still include the mechanic of the game. It’s kind of our definition right? One of Greg Kasavin’s responses comes to mind, “I think video games are defined by only two characteristics: that they are electronic and that they are in some way interactive. Other than that, the medium is formless, and that’s a great strength rather than a weakness.” 

Since our medium is so incredibly broad, there needs to be a genre system that adequately encapsulates that. Film watchers and book readers have only one way to approach their medium, we have multiple. First stab at it: The Game, what its emotion is, what its gameplay is. The Last of Us: Dramatic, Third-Person Shooter. Gone Home: slice of life, discovery, interactive fiction. Project Spark: Creation, achievement, world building. Does it work? Sure gives me more info, and more categorization options.

So let's get this conversation started. As consumers how do we feel about genres? They've been with us since the beginning, but is now the time to update and evolve yet again? As usual, leave a comment below and let's see where we stand. 


  • closer2192 - October 23, 2013 4:08 p.m.

    SuperGiant Games, The Fullbright Company, and American McGee? Did you just ask for opinions at the most recent "who the hell are these developers" conference?
  • travis-keeler - October 23, 2013 10:31 a.m.

    Words have multiple meanings. For books and movies, genre is about the emotion. For games, though genre is about the type of game. However, if they want to appeal to more people, it does make sense to say that "This is a drama game where you find out who killed your husband" instead of "This is a video game with a 3rd person perspective where you find out who killed your husband"
  • fvangeirt - October 23, 2013 12:23 a.m.

    To some point I agree with the article. Some genres are indeed mechanics, some are business models, etc. However, a world of games without genre description is not possible. A game should have more tags. When I'm in a (game) shop, sometimes I do like the cover, but since I can not fully understand how the game is played (mechanics, point of view, etc) based on the text on the back I do not buy it, but instead I am going to watch some game play videos first. A good tag system would help. So a categorization with general / conceptual tags would benefit. There are a few interesting topologies out there. Not saying they are perfect; probably they need to be tuned further. But the topology of Christian Elverdam and Espen Aarseth (2007) for example seems to me a good start for categorizing games and stick tags to them. Like I said, the topology perhaps still misses some dimensions, but even with the current topology, there are already 17 dimensions, each with 2-6 possible values. A rough calculation gave me about 4,4 million possible combinations / game categories. Some of them probably very popular, some of them probably unplayable. But enough to categorize the complete game world, I presume. Some years ago I already wanted to start up a project based on this topology, but time and funding is always an issue on such research projects. But I strongly believe in a conceptual categorization system.
  • GR_ZachBetka - October 23, 2013 10:13 a.m.

    I definitely agree that abolishing genre description is just not possible, what I was saying here is our current classification system isn't cutting it. I've had that same experience in stores as well, where the game itself is lost in either A) the visual disaster of trying to cram everything into the back cover or B) the screenshots on don't really fit with the genre they're trying to fit it in. It seems like you and I are nodding towards the same type of solution (correct me if I'm wrong): which would be a tiered classification system. Sort of like the genus-species classifications, I think it'd work to have good top level families with more specific tags underneath. Much more powerful then, is this what you were going for yourself? What kind of project were you thinking about? Because I think right now the time is quite ripe for a well thought out solution to step in. You should think about picking it back up :)
  • fvangeirt - October 23, 2013 11:21 a.m.

    I am still interested in that project. My working environment has changed from a research institute (where we were busy with serious games) to my own company (where we are busy with serious games ;-)), but I am still interested in (research) projects about games & game genres. It's a bit difficult to explain in here in a few sentences. Perhaps I'll better send you a private message, so we can discuss it in further detail if you're interested. The idea basically was to first gather enough data by the crowd towards an existing topology. Possibility is to start with an existing game database in which people already indicate which games they like or not. Then place the topology on top of that database. With the topology in place, the users can help to gather data by selecting the values of the dimensions of the topology per game. People like to complete datasets of their online collection (LibraryThing, Discogs, ...), it's making use of social media. And even when people are selecting different values, the principal of the "wisdom of a crowd" will lead to a proper data gathering. When enough people (critical mass) have entered data, it will become clear how the current/older games are matched on the topology. From there the topology can be tuned (useless dimensions, new dimensions?). Next to a proper categorization I see a lot more interesting marketing stuff come out of such a data set...
  • james-myhre - October 22, 2013 9:42 p.m.

    i think genres have kinda deluded into what they mean over time more realistically you get more information thru the esrb description better i personally have to look to the designers interviews to understand what im buying
  • freeden - October 22, 2013 8:02 p.m.

    As a developer, I can understand how this might be seen as useless, but as a gamer, the genre often tells me at least where I will be starting from. If you tell me than I am going to be playing a shooter or FPS, I know what I am getting into. Sam with a genre like RPG or third person action adventure/shooter. It's like the analogy of Gears of War and Last of Us. I would hardly put those in the same genre just because they're both third person. One is very clearly a third person shooter, one is very clearly a third person action-adventure. However, whatever genre something is, it usually doesn't matter. The only thing that matters are the keywords: indie, platformer, FPS, action adventure, sports, party. There are certain games I am just not interested in, like the many indie games out there. I certainly like a few, but if I hear the keywords indie and FPS, I will likely ignore it since I am simply not interested. To me, that's a heck of a lot better than having to research about some new indie shooter based on a title alone. I will also likely be more interested in a third person stealth game than a straight up third person shooter. While there are a huge number of genres, they're really nothing more than indicators of what we can possible expect from the game and little more. I think the developers simply don't want to be locked into a specific box that categorizes their game based on tropes as opposed to standing out as unique. However, I value these key words while deciding what I do and don't want to play/buy.
  • Subgenre - October 22, 2013 7:25 p.m.

    Action-Adventure is the most frustratingly non-specific genre ever. Telling someone that a title is an action-adventure game tells them nothing since you could mean anything from Zelda to Shadow of the Colossus to Enslaved to Tomb Raider. The worst part about it is that it is so loosely defined that it gets slapped on any game that features action and adventure but no other mechanics or game play that lean strongly towards a certain genre. It's basically the label slapped onto game when we don't know what to call them, since nearly every game features action and adventure.
  • FoxdenRacing - October 23, 2013 10:17 a.m.

    I'm gonna show my age here, but once upon a time Action meant Contra, Ikari Warriors, or JACKAL, while Adventure meant Metroid, A Boy and His Blob, and Pitfall...sometimes also games that shared a lot in common with Platformers, but the notable distinction was the precision required. Generally, the questions to ask for telling them apart: What is the tempo? Is the primary danger from the enemies or the environment? Are you expected to defeat the non-boss enemies to proceed? Is jumping a test of skill, or a way to spice up the levels?
  • supergiraffe - October 22, 2013 4:48 p.m.

    As a consumer I usually look for the genre by presentation first, then look at the genre by emotion. I'm gonna have a hard time playing a game in a genre I don't like, regardless of the story. That being said, I usually have to do further research to figure out the emotional core of the story, and it'd be nice to just have a genre name that could deliver that information.
  • garnsr - October 22, 2013 5:40 p.m.

    I don't like first person much, but I've played Bioshock 1 & 2 and both Portals, and generally liked them. I wouldn't play a straight-on first-person shooter, but I'm more likely to play a third-person shooter, like that Warhammer Space Marine one. Games have different ways of playing essentially the same games, whereas movies and other media don't have that kind of flexibility, really. I've heard a lot of people saying things like Gone Home aren't really games, because there's no fighting, just interacting with things on the screen, or there's no point in playing Prince of Persia '08 because when you don't make a jump it just takes you back a little way, instead of pretending you died, then taking you back a little way. Many gamers won't play a game because their perception of how games need to play gets in the way. Games have more facets to them that make them harder to organize than more restricted media, so we end up with more names for the way they play. I don't see how we can really cut down on genres, and don't see why we'd want to, as long as we're able to play anything that a developer wants to make, and doesn't have to stick with a genre that's already there.
  • supergiraffe - October 22, 2013 5:45 p.m.

    I think it's a bigger problem on the developer end. If your boss notices that first person shooters sell, and wants you to make one even if that's not whats best for the game, it can be annoying, especially if a game sells well because of the emotional punch rather then the game play.
  • FoxdenRacing - October 22, 2013 3:44 p.m.

    Then it sounds like they're categorizing games poorly, category definitions need to be updated, or new categories need to be coined...not that the idea of categorization has outlived its usefulness. Genres make wonderful descriptors for what to expect from a game, if those descriptors are used appropriately. It's not an 'First-person Sandbox Action Adventure real-time combat RPG'. It's a western RPG. Genre stereotypes need to die, or at least evolve. Calling something it's not because they share a tiny slice of a venn diagram [how many shooters are diluting the term RPG because they have a performance-for-equipment system in place?] needs to die. 'Artistic' needs to be its own genre. If you're trying to create art instead of trying to make something that's fun to play, it's artistic. Bah, don't mind me, I'm having one of those days.
  • garnsr - October 22, 2013 5:42 p.m.

    I don't understand why RPG came to be applied to any game that has your character change at all.
  • FoxdenRacing - October 23, 2013 10:36 a.m.

    It used to be [bah, I'm old] that unlocks came from play time, or reaching certain milestones within the games. Then somebody got the idea to cabbage Experience Points from RPGs; award points based on performance, grant 'levels' at certain tiers, tying unlocks to that. When marketing got their hands on that, since they couldn't straight-up call it an RPG...and wouldn't anyway, given it's a niche market that would probably hurt sales to non-RPG buyers...instead started referring to games with those systems as 'having RPG Elements'. It's neither good nor evil in and of itself; it's all in how it's used, and whether it should be there at all. I've seen good implementations, and bad that were better for having it, and games that were better off without. Codies' F1 series does it well; in the single-player mode, what teams will offer you a contract depends on how you perform on-track, how you handle the press, etc. Front Mission Evolved, for as much praise as I heaped on the game as being a brilliant translation of old-school action to 3D, did it excruciatingly badly. A shameless carbon-copy of CoD's advancement system [reach mini-achievements, score kills, win matches for XP] where the power curve was just plain insane. Bulletstorm made good use of it; Killzone: Shadow Fall doesn't need it, and Forza 2 was held back by it. One thing I'm surprised we don't see more often is a 'total power' system, like Tenchu Z, Carmageddon, and NFS: Underground had. You could reallocate points between missions on a whim, but were capped by how many you'd acquired to date.
  • garnsr - October 23, 2013 8:39 p.m.

    I like gaining experience in games, and I played lots of RPGs in the 8- and 16-bit eras, but when someone says something has RPG elements just because you gain points to progress, it irritates me. It's been so long since it was just RPGs that did it, and most players today probably never go near RPGs, beyond Skyrim.

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