Genres and Conventions: Known Patterns of What Works

Oct 1, 2013

Hating on Genres

Game designers sometimes speak poorly of genres. I strongly suspect that this same dialog has occurred and continues to occur in all other creative communities, from novelists to screenwriters to visual artists, though of course game designers are the community that I’m (we’re?) focused on. Closely related are the complaints about all games seeming too similar, that there isn’t enough experimentation.

In reality there has been a ton of experimentation in terms of creating non-formulaic videogames – for decades – since the dawn of home computers, and even as published (though now largely forgotten) games on early videogame consoles. Such games likely outnumber those titles that fit easily into genres. Whether or not it has already been the case historically, it has undoubtedly come to be in the tidal wave of noncommercial or small scale (ad supported etc.) game development within the rise of web games and smartphone apps. Videogames have basically been in a constant Cambrian explosion since their inception.

Finding Less Formulaic Games

I’m not even bothering to highlight any counterexamples, because that would give the wrong idea that they’re a handful of exceptions rather than a sizable fraction of the games being made. Instead I’ll just point out how to find them. The notion that there are and have ever been only a handful of types of games is a side effect of selective awareness. In particular, it arises from only giving attention to those games that received chart-topping commercial success or extraordinary critical acclaim. Both of those tend to disproportionately be genre works. Want to find the more experimental videogames? Look past the top 10 lists, into the greater catalog of games with a metacritic/average score in the 60’s and below, or even more so among games too small to be reviewed or listed on metacritic, and you’ll find a lot more of them.

That domain has plenty of failed shots at the top 10 list, too, but within that low/no score space the weird projects are much more common. When there’s news about a genre-breaking game among the critic, developer, and player communities, it’s not simply because it’s genre-breaking, it’s rather because it succeeded on top of being genre-breaking, unlike the rest of the genre-breaking shovelware in the bargain bin and buried countless pages deep on web game portals.

Why is it that so many people think and say that they don’t want genre works, but then go buy them and tend to rate them higher? Let’s take a brief look at how and why genres work in videogames.

Why Genres Get Attention

Some of the angst against genres, at least among indie developers if not players, perhaps inadvertently overlaps the Red Ocean / Blue Ocean distinction. Lazily painting with broad strokes we might consider genres as Red Ocean basically by virtue of having been established enough to gain a distinction as a genre, while work that is without a clear genre might seem Blue Ocean by the opposite: it’s less contested space because it hasn’t yet been identified as lucrative to iterate on/within.

It makes sense, I think, that once a particular style of product has clicked with the public and a clear demand has been demonstrated for it, then and only then does Big Publisher move in to try to outdo everyone else at making the biggest, most impressive version in that category to capitalize on that trend. This of course folds back into the visibility of the games that fit squarely into genres relative to games that don’t: games in those clearly understood genres connected to substantial consumer demand are what can get the most development funding, marketing budget, and iteration in the form of companies battling out every variation and sequel they can think of in a struggle to get that formula just a little more right than the other and previous efforts.

There’s more to the success and frustration over genres than that, though. I think it’s essential too to not doom ourselves, as solo and small team developers, to obscurity by ceding genres to big studio games, when the two really aren’t quite a 1-to-1 mapping to Red Ocean / Blue Ocean.


Where do genres come from? Generally, someone doesn’t deliberately invent a genre and coin it. Companies and people simply make a game, and if the game does very well then other people clone and vary it… until those clones and variations constitute a genre.

At some point after enough of a game design’s derivates begin to fill up the retail shelves or front pages of review sites, it starts to seem strange to refer to them anymore merely as “GAMENAME”-clones. First-person shooters were Doom clones, platformers were Mario clones, first-person puzzle click adventures were Myst clones, overhead turn-based RPGs were Final Fantasy clones, overhead real-time combat adventures were Zelda clones, head-to-head fighting games were Street Fighter (2) clones, while match-3 puzzles were Bejeweled clones and open world driving city games were Grand Theft Auto (3) clones. Those last two still are referred to as such in some circles, these being a comparatively more recent. Note too that in none of these cases are those actually the first game of that type, they were just the first breakout success, or otherwise the first highly visible, such that those games defined what the projects following their formula afterward desired to emulate or improve upon.

Downsides of Ignoring Genres

I did much of my personal exploration into questioning genres with the InteractionArtist series of experimental gameplay projects spanning from 2007 to 2008, when I developed mostly genreless digital interaction prototypes daily for 7 months. Aside from a few iOS apps that my favorite few led to (Tumult, feelforit, and burnit), one of my main takeaways from working on the series was to better appreciate the value of genres and conventions to developers and players alike. A bunch of those prototypes, anything beyond the most simplistic, left most visitors simply scratching their heads, literally unable to even make sense of what was in front of them. Oops.

There’s only so much learning, attention, and new consideration that a typical player is willing to give to a new amusement activity. Building upon a player’s prior knowledge and experience can enable more depth or richness with considerably less ramp up. Expectations embedded into genre distinctions are one way that a player’s cognitive load can be, if not necessarily lightened, then at least focused on what makes a game special or different, atop a central framework of interactions and events that the player already understands how to navigate and operate.

Recognizable Transfer of Skill

Since I have a particular interest in pinball (video presentation), for sake of illustration think of pinball as a genre of electromechanical games. Once someone knows how to play even one machine pretty well, even if there are many scoring details and artistic differences between pinball machines, their basic flipper techniques can largely transfer to other tables. Unambiguous visual clues in the machine’s physical structure and playfield layout communicate to the player whether an arcade device that they’ve never even seen before is also a pinball machine. If it is then they know even before paying or playing that it’s like something they’ve liked before, something they’re capable of doing well, and something they have some head start on understanding.

The same can be said for head-to-head fighting games, RPGs, platformers, first-person shooters, real-time strategy games, and virtually any other videogame genre. People can look for visual and other clues to know in advance whether it’s something similar to what they’ve enjoyed before, and if so, when they start into it they already have a huge head start on understanding how it works and what to do with it. They can get right into the game. That’s a tremendous advantage over the many forgettable videogames that strive to eschew (or what one might optimistically reframe as “attempt to start a new”) genre.

In Traditional Narrative

As another way of thinking about the above, to an extent genres in videogames serve some of the same function that genres do within general storytelling: a set of established conventions to serve as a background, any deviation from which can be a source of meaning. If the sheriff in an old western is the bad guy, that’s interesting. If the aliens in a sci-fi movie are less advanced than humans, that’s interesting. In the same way great games are often firmly fit within a genre, so that for the most part we can count on understanding what’s going on, except with one or two central twists (the player controls gravity, the player controls time, the player can possess enemies…) and a ton of polish and iteration evident in the execution. That frees the mind to focus on what makes it interesting or different, without needing to exert much brainpower for understanding the core of what’s going on.

Comparisons in Music and Artwork

However it’s not merely a matter of what people have practice in, or what knowledge they’ve already learned. That can make it seem much more arbitrary than it is.

Genres and conventions reflect patterns that have been found to be well received by many people, and perhaps more importantly, particular people (the same many keep coming back for more!). Consider music or images: most of the technically possible arrangements of notes do not constitute anything even remotely musical, and likewise most of the possible arrangements for color on a 2D plane produce something not just nonsensical but uninteresting (as opposed to nonsensical and interesting, which of course actually describes a great deal of rather famous art). Tell me however whether music is techno, hip hop, rock, or country, and I immediately have some notion of whether I’m likely to enjoy it, since despite there being such great variety within genres it’s of a significantly more limited scope than genre-less sequences of sound. Likewise tell me that an art exhibit or even just a picture is surrealist, cubist, impressionist, splatter painting, a graphic novel illustration, etc. and even without knowing more specifics about the picture I can form some sensible guess of whether it’s something I’d at least be interested in seeing.

Most of the possible interactive graphical programs that could be written do not constitute anything that even remotely works as a videogame. Whether a videogame is 25 kb, 25 MB, or 25 GB, most other possible configurations of those bits go beyond meaningless into the realm of unusable. But tell me it’s a platformer, first person shooter, third person adventure game, or puzzle game, and I know enough from past experiences with games we assign those labels to to make a decision about whether I might like it.

Bakers Ignoring Chocolate and Cake

The analogy I find most useful for thinking about genres for videogames though isn’t how genre applies to music, or image, or novels, but instead the parallel to how genre applies to food. At the core of gameplay, rather aside from narrative bits and the environmental art or audio content of the game, is a relationship between input, movement, and camera that creates what Steve Swink labels “Game Feel”. Expectations for how this does or doesn’t work out varies between genres. As with those previous examples most of the theoretically possible combinations flat out don’t make sense, leaving islands of flavors that one player community or another might tend to prefer.

Imagine a food preparer trying to combine flavors and food preparation steps in a truly random way in hopes of producing food anyone would actually want. Consider that process in contrast to, for example, making a cake. Or a muffin. Or a cookie. Or a hot dog. Or a donut. Or french fries. Or a burrito. Or sushi. Or falafil. These are all recognizable food concepts, an incredibly narrow slice of the possibly mixtures of ingredients and preparation methods. People can order it knowing what to expect, and have some sense for how to judge whether it’s a good or bad version of what it’s aiming to be (a good french fry, for example, would be a very bad cookie). Their value to people however is not merely that they’re recognizable, and not only that because they’re recognizable they can be judged meaningfully, but also because out of the however many millions of possible foods created throughout history, these templates survived while the countless other attempts promptly went extinct, not because anything in particular went wrong, but because so much has to line up just right for a recipe to really work. So when a pattern that does work well gets discovered, it’s only sensible for many creators to deliver on variations of and masterful attempts at making those, and for consumers who know what they want from past experiences to go looking for just that.

To some degree – and it’s not quite the same thing, but I think close enough to warrant consideration – complaining over a game designer working within a genre would be akin to complaining over a baker working on bread or a pie instead of actively trying to rethink and reinvent or challenge what baking is. People want things that bakers make, there’s still plenty of room within those “genres” for creative interpretation and for the work to come out amazing or inferior, personalized or generic. Most random other combinations of preparation methods and materials at the baker’s disposal would be very likely to yield things that even given time would be incredibly unlikely to become an acquired taste, especially alongside recipes and patterns that have evolved and been refined for so many generations.

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