Genrefication is the process by which media like movies, music, and video games are classified. When it comes to video games, this involves categorizing games based on a combination of their gameplay and narrative styles. Some games, such as Tetris, are purely game with no narrative whatsoever. Other games, such as Heavy Rain, are almost entirely narrative. Most games have some combination of both. While the definition is pretty basic and easy to understand, what is interesting are the issues genrefication has created in the game industry.
In the early days when computers and consoles had many technical limitations, it was all about the gameplay. These days we are getting to the point where narrative heavy games are feasible for the big studios to make. Developers now can choose to innovate in story or gameplay. There is a lot of debate within the game industry on whether developers should focus on creating new, interesting stories or new, interesting game mechanics. It is usually very hard to do both. There is just not enough time in most development schedules.
There is debate even from the player perspective. Sometimes a good story is enough. Bioshock Infinite had a great story. Even though the gameplay was not anything new, it was still a fun game to play because of that story. There were a few key player choices in the game that could influence the story too. Story-heavy games are also easier to introduce to non-gamers. If video games are ever to be a serious medium, we need people of all ages playing them. A game that feels like a movie will naturally feel more familiar to non-gamers, and maybe they will branch out to more gameplay-heavy games.
It is possible narrative games will become their own entity separate from traditional games. Perhaps a better name is interactive story. Imagine going to the movies. At certain points, you could vote for what choice a main character would make using a device attached to the back of the chair in front of you. The other people might not always vote for the choice you wanted, so later you could buy the interactive story to view at home and get 100% control over those choices.
Another issue caused by genrefication is getting funding from game publishers. When developers are trying to pitch a new game to publishers, it will many times be turned down immediately if the game does not fit into the clearly established popular genres (Action, RPG, Strategy, Sports, etc.). The publisher’s stance is actually backed up by studies. Games that fit the mold usually sell more than games that do not fit in. Most consumers like their familiar genres and do not want to take chances.
This problem has caused a lot of anxiety with developers. They feel like they have no creative freedom. There is a blueprint for making a popular game, and that is what they have to make. It is grunt work, plain and simple. Many developers have given up on AAA games and now make indie games. It is a lot harder financially to pull off, but that freedom can be worth it. Without the big budgets, indie developers have to focus on gameplay innovation, which is great for those developers (and players) that are not interested in the movement to make more narrative-heavy games.
Lastly, is the issue of how useful classifying games into genres really is. As indie games have become cheaper and easier to make, there is an incredible amount of experimentation in game development these days. Some games take elements from many different genres. They cannot be described by a simple genre label. You can read more about this in “The Age of the Hybrid Game Genre“.
The game industry is still young compared to the other media. It will be many years before these issues are cleared up. They may not be in favor of developers either, but it looks like indie games will be successful for years to come. Even indie games are not agreed on though. I will cover this in a later post.