Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Genre, Genre, Who's Got The Genre?

Note: I'm posting this a few days late. Things have been busy - moving and all - I apologize in advance if some of the content is past its freshness date.

It feels like maybe I didn't quite come off correctly over at Corvus' blog concerning genre.

This happens to me often. I try to couch discussions of, well, pretty much everything in personal terms, but inevitably get seen as making proclamations.

And I possibly got too carried away on his commenting section. I'll try and reserve the bulk of my delusions for this vanity site.

It's tough, this writing thing. I purposely aim toward recognizing my subjectivity and qualifying responses with possibles, not absolutes. My feeling is that I'd rather be thought of as vague and unassuming than some kind of ideologue.

This seemed to happen with my post on difficulty in games. One of the commenters appeared to heartily disagree with my conception of a possible implementation of an idea. That just seems weird to me. The tone of the comments didn't seem to be, "Interesting concept, but I see it this way," but rather, "That idea will not work and should not work and should not be an idea." Maybe I'm just taking things too much to heart.

First and foremost I have a few questions for Chris (and Corvus and whoever else wish to chime in) concerning the game Ghost Master.*

Here are a few choice statements:

Chris -- "Games which defy genre conventions generally suffer badly. Our project Ghost Master’, for instance, suffered because it was neither sim nor strategy game (nor indeed a fit to any existing genre). Many strategy players disliked it because it was ‘too easy’ - because they compared it to other strategy games. But I didn't design it as a strategy game. Or a sim game. I designed it as a haunting game - because that's what it was (and because I defy, deny and resist genre-driven design practices). Sadly, stepping outside of genre hurt us badly . . . because genre in the industry is a marketing tool, and to deny marketing is a costly gamble. Or to put it another way, our innovation destroyed us."

Corvus -- " He intentionally avoided designing the game to fit a genre and when a 'strategy' genre label was applied to it, the game didn't do so well with fans of the strategy genre."

These seem like fair assessments. I can't attest to their validity because there are many things which are not transparent - the circumstances in which the game was developed and marketed, the general state of the game market at the time, the reactions of gamers that played the game.

The questions, then:

What specifically should have been changed in Ghost Master to make it conform more to genre? Assuming anything should have been changed, of course.

What genre do you feel it would have been better designed toward?

Do you think your practice, Chris, of not designing it as a genre game made it a "bad" game, or just a game that didn't sell well because it didn't match certain expectations? Is that a legitimate concern for you?

And as for it diverging from strategy games . . . what, exactly, are the defining characteristics of such games? What elements turned the strategy gamers away from the game (and made it not-quite-a-strategy-game)?

Would increasing the difficulty have been the simple fix to please the strategy gamers?

I'm not arguing purely about semantics here, but rather about the effect that semantical arrangements can have on our choices. Some say we group only because it's convenient, but we can also use the convenience of grouping as an excuse to dismiss.

And I'm not saying that games must be accessible to everyone, or appeal to everyone. Though if you make such a game, I want to know immediately.

There is both a subjectivity to genre and a commonality. At times it may be quite useful when communicating. Maybe that's where the line is for me - I use genre only on a social level and ignore it on a personal level.

I don't think genre is simply a marketing tool, but the marketing aspect of genre deserves to be examined thoroughly. I have read time and again, not just in the videogame industry but all forms of media, about how a project could not attain funding simply because it couldn't be hitched to a genre. Marketers, for the most part, understand genre to the exclusion of specific elements. Recognizing this may be perfectly all right, but that doesn't mean gradual change can't be implemented to alter the status quo.

I also realize that there are many different concerns of marketing that lead them to subscribe (mostly) to genre labeling. Defying expectations can involve risk, and risk must be gauged against profit.

Much of it becomes a question of what to compromise when. Which is an issue for individual developers. I can't tell them where to draw a line in the sand. Though I feel it's one thing to pitch to a publisher by couching your game description in marketable terms (It's an Action-RPG-Shooter! With boobs!), it's another thing entirely when the publisher begins to alter your work based around their expectation of a genre game to the detriment of your project.

In other words -- if working within genre confines makes the game more exciting, playable, fun, whatever, to you, then by all means, carry on.

Another aspect of genre lies in personal expectation. Contrary to some, I don't think that genres represent a strict consensus interpretation of form/content, but a fuzzy one.

Where, for example, to place Pikmin? Puzzle? Inasmuch as the player is manipulating game elements to solve problems . . . well . . . that's lotsa games (maybe all games?). Which might be good enough, but it also feels like an empty label, like labeling-for-labeling's-sake.

An important point, and possibly my main one, I feel should be made is that genres are often seen as fixed but do not have to be fixed. They can be expanded, altered, changed. New ones may be added. And maybe videogame genres are due for an update.

Genres 2.0. Maybe I'll have more on this later, when different ideas have been masticated thoroughly.

Trite Personal Anecdote Time:

In high school I had a band. Ah, glory days. In the wink of a young girl's eye.

I really liked this band. We weren't good, necessarily, but we liked to play and people liked to watch us play. Not that we had a ton of gigs.

One of the reasons I really liked this band, other than that we often started practice late due to Final Fantasy VII, was that nobody was overly concerned with what type of music we would play.

I know many bands get hung up on this point. Some of it speaks to personal preference, some of it to concerns that nobody wants to see a band that flits from song style to song style (Ween notwithstanding).

Perhaps we were blessed with indecisiveness or laziness. Whatever it may have been, we never really decided on a restriction. We pretty much just said, "If there's something you've got that you made up, let's hear it. Or if there's a cover you want to do, we'll try it."

Our first song was a funk instrumental, wisely named "The Funk Song." It was a good showcase for my masturbatory blues noodlings.

Eventually we built up a repertoire. We did a folksy instrumental with a jangly 12-string. We did some jazzy numbers, some metal songs. Our covers included The Humpty Dance (Digital Underground), What I Am (Edie Brickell), songs from Sublime and The Beastie Boys and whatever pop songs from the radio we could fake our way through. They even let me play Bourree (JS Bach) when the mood hit me.

Now much of what we played was loud and fast. This was, I feel, an effect of our own styles rather than adherence to genre. We weren't averse to playing slow and soft. The world of music was our lyrical oyster.

We probably wouldn't have "made it" without pushing toward categorization. But none of us seemed to care.

It's hard to find a group like that.

*This is not meant to sound cheeky, though I am pretty expert at sounding like a dick. Really, though, no offense meant to the parties I'm addressing - my questions are asked in all seriousness.


Anonymous said...

Did diverging from genre make it a "bad" game? Not at all. It got 90% review in PC Gamer (US), the reviews on Amazon are hugely positive and, perhaps least importantly, I still think it's a great game.

But it didn't sell well, in large part because it didn't get marketed *at all*. And as a direct result, Sick Puppies, a development studio with incredible potential, no longer exists.

Do I think we should have conformed to genre? Well what freaks me out is that we termed it a 'haunting sim' throughout production, yet many strategy gamers insisted on drawing comparisons with strategy games instead of with sim games. Why this happened is still not entirely clear to me.

What would have changed the fortunes of this project? Having a better publisher. Everything else is just fallout.

Anonymous said...

Inviting discussion and shrinking from a counterpoint to your idea just doesn't really work. I mean, if you want discussion you need to put out some ideas and more often then not, someone will see some aspect of those ideas on which they disagree. By having your ideas on a blog, with comments, you're more than likely going to get harsh responses from time to time. If you take it as a personal affront and it wounds you, I'd suggest you stick to a regular paper journal, or disable comments or somesuch. I think it can be interesting to look back on a failed project, and most unsuccessful games are indeed failed projects because they impact the lives of the development teams in negative ways. Very few people can afford to be altruistic in their game making and those that can rarely do such things because game development is such a long and sometimes painful process. I think genre is more than a tool for marketing. Genre is a context with which you distinguish yourself from others. Even a haunting sim still includes the base of sim which people in the gaming world recognize as a word to associate with strategy games.

Anonymous said...

Hi Rama. I scribbled a quick comment in this blog before going off and writing a huge post at my own blog explaining (I hope!) all the issues that I thought Johnny Pi wanted answering in connection with Ghost Master and genre (amongst other things). Then I trackbacked (trackedback?) to this post.

Never meant it to look like I was hiding from discussion or anything, nor that I was on the defensive (although I was tired when I scribbled the comment!). I assume, from your comments at least, that you thought I was offended by something Johnny wrote - I assure you I wasn't. I will sometimes shrink from discussion, however, because there are only so many hours in the day and I can't tackle everything. :)

Genre is certainly more than a tool for marketing. I'm pretty damn sure I never said that genre is only a tool for marketing, though. The discussion has become fragmented by being split across three different blogs, however, so my apologies if my argument is lost in the shuffle somewhere.

It hadn't occured to me that people conflate 'sim' with 'strategy game', but you're right it does seem to happen quite often. It doesn't fit with how I think about those two genres, but that's the trouble with genre terms, after all - we all use them differently. :)

Anonymous said...

PS: I see my trackback never registered here. You can see the Ghost Master post mortem that your post inspired at http://onlyagame.typepad.com/only_a_game/2005/09/post_mortem_gho.html
although I have to say, I got *seriously* off the original point. :)