Standing on the Shoulders of Genres

[ I wrote the article below for Wireframe, a British game dev magazine which ‘lifts the lid on video games’. And, inexplicably, lets me have a monthly column. This one’s from the very first edition back in November 2018. ]


Indie devs know they need a punchy elevator pitch. ‘X meets Y’ is the classic formula, but the significance of genre is often overlooked. Genre’s the path that leads many players to your game in the first place – only then can you hit ‘em with your Wildean ‘X meets Y’.

Players who liked Rollercoaster Tycoon are liable to try management sim Two Point Hospital. LucasArts fans are likely to enjoy point-and-click Unavowed. Players of World of Goo may resonate with Semblance, ‘the first true platformer’. But what do you do when there isn’t a clear fit? My own game, Cultist Simulator, certainly struggled to belong: it’s a Lovecraftian horror card game! It’s a roguelike narrative simulator! With cards! It’s… oh it’s only £15 please just buy it. Please.

Genres are used as marketing touchstones, conveying significant information economically to players. Some are tight, functional labels: visual novels and racing games set clear expectations. Some are larger, contested groups: roguelikes are numerous and multiform and wrestled into apparent submission by the Berlin Interpretation, a crowd-sourced manifesto. But others are wide, woozy things: RPGs cover everything from Skyrim to Stardew Valley, no manifesto in sight. By the time you get to horror you’re wedged on a sofa with Amnesia, Detention and The Evil Within and it all gets a bit uncomfortable. What once were paths leading you to fertile ground are now deceptive tracks with many slip-roads and few signposts. And as one of the biggest dev pitfalls is setting the wrong expectation (please see No Man’s Sky), not playing nicely with traditional genre is a Real Problem.


In reality, devs label games with multiple genres. Hob’s an ‘action-adventure puzzle platformer’; Rocket League’s a ‘physics-based sports-action game’. But we’re now up to 200 weekly releases on Steam. Never before has it been so important to do something new and distinguishable. Taglines like ‘Lovecraftian horror card game’ are useful because it’s not just another Metroidvania, but they’re also useless as they don’t immediately convey what the game’s actually like to play. Therein lies the issue: indies have an increasing need to make games that break molds, but the more molds we break the fewer molds we have to shape our games into pleasing forms for the passer-by.

Alternatives to genre as indie filters include curation, nicher stores, better algorithms, crying. Newer, more specific genres may seem a solution, but they’re a perpetuation of the issue, not a fix. We’re seeing attempts at all of these (in order: the App Store;; Steam; myself), but nothing yet has really cracked it. Genres remain godlings and indies are polytheists laying offerings at one or two of their altars. But year on year their power shrinks, and all we can do is await the apocalypse when a new god comes. Whom that god is, I don’t yet know. But I hope they like card games.

on Standing on the Shoulders of Genres

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