We humans like to classify and categorize things into nice boxes. It helps us relate things to one another. It was no surprise then that games developed into genres, a process called “genrefication”. Game designers would have a lot of fun playing a good game, see flaws in the game design, and then want to make their own incarnation to correct those flaws. This process over time, just like in film and music, guided the creation of new games into genres. For many years games were very distinct in which genre they were. Half-Life 2 was a Shooter through and through, as Doom was before it. Times have changed though.
While it is true there has always been a little mixing between genres through the years, at no time before has it been as common as it is today. Almost every day you will see an announcement of a new game that takes multiple elements from the previous distinct genres and makes a new game out of it. You would think this would make the games boring, but I still find hybrid games to be a lot of fun.
A big part of the fun in playing a new game comes from learning. That is, learning the rules of the game (the mechanics) and mastering them. A game that mixes elements of different genres involves a lot of new learning. Yes, key parts of it may be pulled mostly intact from previous games, but the entire picture, all the game mechanics together, can take some time to fully grasp. That takes learning.
Right now the most common strategy that developers use is to add RPG elements to non-RPGs. I have already written about this before in “The Proliferation of RPG Mechanics“. In short, it adds more progression to the game, extending the time players spend in the game and increasing the likelihood they will buy DLC down the road. As Shooter, RPG, and Strategy are the dominant genres, Shooter-RPG, Strategy-RPG, and Shooter-Strategy are the most common hybrid genres.
A good example of the Strategy-RPG hybrid is the Fire Emblem series. You play out turn-based tactical battles with units on a map (Strategy), but your units can level-up, get new abilities, and equip items (RPG). For the Shooter-Strategy hybrid, the Rainbow Six series comes to mind. The basic gameplay is like a Shooter, but before the mission starts you can plan the actions that other soldiers in your squad will perform during the mission and give tactical orders in the middle of the mission.
While mainstream developers are hybridizing their games, it is even more common in the indie scene. Because nearly everything is a hybrid, we have gotten to a point where games don’t fit into genres nice and neat. Developers are adding more and more words to the game genre in an attempt to make it clearer. Here’s a quote from the Gun Monkeys page on Steam: “GUN MONKEYS is a Procedurally–Generated, Physics-based, Online Deathmatch platform game”. I believe this is a very minor negative compared to the positives of all this experimentation.
Hybrid games are still a lot of fun to me, but I warn developers not to get too caught up simply repeating this over and over. Those tried and true game mechanics still work — some old mechanics have not even been fully explored yet — but players also want to see all new game mechanics. Perhaps the best combination is an even mix of new mechanics with old mechanics. With the high cost of most games, we want to know a little bit if we will like a game not. Familiar game mechanics will make us comfortable and willing to buy, but we also want a little bit of new.