Ten years without a new genre

A decade is a long time.

A few days ago in the comments to “Houston, Wii have a success story“, I made a rather old-fogey remark about re-hashes of games that I’d essentially been playing since 1992 or thereabouts. This got me thinking…when I complain about developers making the same game over and over, what I’m really complaining about is the fact that they’re making games in the same genres. Do you remember the sense of anticipation when you first played Wolf3D or Dune II? It didn’t just come from what you could do within that game – it was a realization of what that particular game meant for the future…because its underlying gameplay mechanics were simple enough and yet deep enough that they moved from being differently quirky games to inspiring an entire genre of development and expansion.

With that feeling in mind, I started doing some research. It turns out that this past December marked an important anniversary in gaming; it has been 10 years since a new genre was introduced. I realize this is a fairly bold statement, and you are probably mentally preparing a retort about MMORPGs – but follow along with me for the moment and you’ll see what I mean.

There are many old genres of games, some now defunct and some holding their own, but I’m going to focus for the moment on those that developers are still releasing today. We all know that vertical scrolling shooters, interactive fiction, and maze-games were around before 1996.

Something tells me Night Driver takes place during the night because of technological constraints.

Racing Games were introduced in 1974 by Gran Trak 10. In 1976 came Night Driver, the first first person driving game.

Social Simulation Games were launched in 1985 with Little Computer People, which was essentially a 2-D version of The Sims.

God Games started with Utopia in 1982.

Action-Adventure Games began with Adventure in 1978.

Adventure Games go all the way back to Colossal Cave Adventure in 1976, or Valhalla in 1983 if you want animated graphics. (King’s Quest popularized the genre a year later in 1984).

Platformers started with either Space Panic in 1980 or Donkey Kong in 1981, and became side-scrolling with Jump Bug in 1981 as well. The first 3D platformer was Alpha Waves in 1990, with Geograph Seal maturing the genre in 1994.

MMORPGs date of inception can vary, depending on how important you think the graphics are to the definition of the genre.

In 1978, on the original MUD (called simply “Multi-User Dungeon” – with Dungeon being a potential release name for what was later released as Zork), people built characters, engaged in PVP, ground mobs for leveling purposes, formed guilds, crafted items, and sold their +5 Swords of Dismemberment for real life cash. Combat was realtime, with a set-and-forget attack mode, and commands to trigger spells and special abilities. To me, the fact that that all the gameplay elements were in place is enough for me to call this a MMORPG.

If you insist on adding graphics you’ll have to wait until the original Neverwinter Nights on AOL in 1991.

If you want to be really picky and argue that being in 3D is an integral part of the genre, then you’re looking at Meridian 59, which was released in September 1996.

Role Playing Games began as text-based games with pedit5 in 1974 in, with graphical RPGs appearing later in the same year under the name DnD. These games introduced both the dungeon-crawl, leveling, inventory, shop, and character systems common to computer RPG’s to this day, but also were some of the earliest games to focus on telling a story with a delineated opening, rising action, climax, and ending.

The game with the Japanese name you can’t say would later become Renegade.

One-on-one Fighting Games began with Warrior in 1979, although they didn’t really come into the mainstream until Street Fighter in 1987.

Beat ’em Ups began with Kung Fu Master in 1984. The 3/4 view and non-linear movement were introduced in 1986 by Nekketsu Koha Kunio-Kun.

Rhythm Games compose the most recent genre on this list, with PaRappa The Rapper being released in December 1996.

First Person Shooters began with either Spasim or Maze War in 1973. A point of interest is that both of these games featured worldwide, networked multiplayer. Battlezone brought the FPS to the arcade in 1980, and then Wolfenstein 3D brought them into the mainstream in 1992. Third-person shooters are considered part of this genre, but if you want to separate them out, then I know Duke Nukem 3D allowed full play with a 3rd person follow mode in 1996, although others may have come before.

Stealth Games began as far back as the original Castle Wolfenstein (the 2D version) in 1981, and were fully developed by the release of Metal Gear in 1987.

Sports Sims are some of the oldest games, starting with Tennis for Two in 1958, which was played on an oscilloscope. They entered the arcades in 1978 with Atari Golf, and the home in 1981 with Activision Tennis.

Flight Sims first appeared on consumer computer systems in 1975 with FS-0.

Real-Time-Strategy began with Herzog Zwei in 1990, and was fully formed with the release of Dune II in 1992.

Turn-Based Strategy goes back at least to Computer Bismarck by SSI, and potentially even further if you include the play-by-mail mainframe games of Flying Buffalo, which began with Nuclear Destruction in 1970.

Survival Horror started with either Sweet Home (2D) in 1989 or Alone in the Dark (3D) in 1992.

Puzzle Games are the grandfather of them all, beginning with naughts and crosses, the first video game ever made in 1952. Distinct subgenres have continued to emerge, including Lemmings-like games, and block-dropping puzzles. All major puzzle genres emerged prior to 1996.

Mate Tossing is just one of the many caveman games in Caveman Games.

Minigame-Based Party Games generally emerged from sports sims, arguably with Caveman Games in 1990.

From the time I was born until 1996, new genres were appearing every few years. Since then? A decade of nothing new.

A decade is a long time. More than a third of my life. And for the past decade the list of genres has pretty much sat stagnant. Either nobody is making games in new genres, or nobody is following up when a new game breaks ground, leaving it to become a one-time quirk or a novelty, rather than the start of a new branch of gaming.

This stagnation has resulted in our becoming jaded. For a game to grab my interest in a mature genre, it needs to be better than anything that has come before. Gears of War is succeeding by being a very well done 3rd person shooter, and Geometry Wars has shown us what a well-done rehash of Spacewar can do, even today – but while both are great games, neither one brings anything new to the table in terms of what the game is, and neither has so far convinced me that they are good enough for me to buy a 360. While I will pay for better versions of what I’ve seen before, it’s a path of diminishing returns. What I really want is something new – something that opens up possibilities I had never thought of before, something that makes me feel like I did when I was young and I caught glimpses of great things to come.

*UPDATE – This article made it to the front page of Digg. Welcome, diggers.

45 thoughts on “Ten years without a new genre”

  1. Actually, I think one could argue that rhythm games are really just an extension of the sort of game that focuses almost entirely on timed button presses. The music can be seen as just another vehicle used to indicate the correct timing to the player, albeit a vehicle that is faster paced and arguably more abstract then the cues in old laserdisc games, or the patterns and visual cues in Punch-Out.It’s kind of like the timed button press sequences of Dynamite Deka (Die Hard Arcade) or Shenmue, except set to music and with much longer sequences, or a real time (as opposed to memorized) version of Simon.As far as whether new genres will arise, I’d almost settle for better use of existing ones. I think there is a question also of which genres have more room for innovation within them, and which are simply a matter of polishing it to the point where there are only a few subcategories, each with perhaps two great games in it, and no reason to continue the genre once graphics technology/cost of development hits a brick wall.That is where I see FPS headed. Classic shmups, on the other hand, have largely been abandoned when there there are still plenty of gameplay systems for those which have barely been touched, let alone refined to greatness.If anyone is trying to create anything new it is Nintendo, but they seem to be content mostly just making drastic modifications to existing genres in (an admittedly noble and probably successful) struggle to prevent the complete death of the art of making games, as opposed to remaking them with more buttons and shinier packaging.   

  2. Cool article, man. It does suck that nothing new is being created anymore. The only thing new that I can kind of see is Trauma Center, but that can almost be lumped into puzzle/simulation. Close, but no cigar. Also, what more can there be? It’s hard to come up with a game, but it’s even harder to come up with a whole new genre. At some point, there’s not much more that developers can do. Then you have something called "simulation" that can be used to describe a lot of different games. There was one game, I’m totally blanking on it right now, that was recently categorized as simulation, and I would have never thought of it like that. Like if Trauma Center was made to perfectly mimic real-life operations. It wouldn’t be a doctor genre, it would just be a simulation. And that sucks. Hopefully, once I become an uber-successful game designer, you’ll see a new genre that I’ve been working on. It can be described as an extension of what’s already been made, but I think it extrapolates enough to be called something entirely different. Totally selfish plug, but I deserve one every few comments.

  3. i played a lot of dune II growing up, and only recently realized how important it is.  im not sure how it fits in (definitely not a genre) but the katamari damacy games have led to loco roco, and may lead to more along the same line.  it at least means that there are new experiences to be had in gaming.  and general chaos, arent all games (possibly not turn based games) basically timed button presses? the differences among genres are the layers of abstraction between the presses and the action on screen, which to me means that rhythm games are probably a genre.  

  4. General – I would tend to agree with you…there are actually a number of genres that I would condense in what I wrote, but where people draw those lines is very subjective, and I wanted to bring home the point that even with a fairly liberal use of dividing lines, you don’t get any new genres recently.  Subcategorization can breathe a lot of new life into a genre, the way Defender brought shooters out of the realm of space-invaders, or the way Tetris spawned dozens of new puzzle games (some great, and some terrible).  I think some genres were abandoned before their possibilites were exhausted, but in fairness to the business side of gaming, it takes a large user base to justify fully exploring all the possibilities of a genre, and I think adventure games and scrolling shooters just didn’t have it, at least at the time.  (Despite my jadedness, I still hold out hope for the future) 

  5. Matt and Pat – There are definitely games out there doing new things…Katamari Damacy and Trauma Center could potentially be the start of new genres…I think it all depends on the follow-up games maturing what started out as a one-time trick into a framework that can be explored and fleshed out by future games.  I haven’t played loco roco yet, but making a terribly unqualified guess based off what I’ve seen online, it might evolve into a new genre, or it may end up being lumped in with lemmings/lost-viking-style puzzle games.   I think that may in large part depend on its successors developing a core gameplay mechanic that differentiates it in people’s minds, otherwise it will end up in one of the vague, catch-all genres like "sim" and "puzzle."

  6. There’s a difference in being an original one off and actually spawning a genre, though. I’m as guilty as Stefan in wanting new, creative experiences, but don’t most other mediums stick to a handful of successful genres without much of a problem? I could be completely off, but I think movies tend to be dramas, comedies, action, horror, and a few others. I never complain that the industry needs to create a new genre of movie, only that they need to write a good script that hasn’t been written a million times before. An analog may be a game like Psychonauts, which takes a genre we all know well but then does some very creative stuff within it. Instead of holding out for new genres we may want to just hope for more titles like this.

  7. Also, whos to say that a new genre making game hasn’t already been released, but its taking time to achieve critical mass?  I’m not sure how many people playing Caveman Games would have thought of it as all that monumental (or enjoyable), but here it is years later and its apparently started something.  If first person physics puzzlers (like Portal) are one day considered a genre, we may look back "fondly" at Trespasser.

  8. MMO is where everything is headed, and hopefully we’ll start seeing things spawn from that.  My dream is an MMORTS.  Think Age of Empires meets Sim City.  You’ve got to build your city, create allies, build your army, protect your homeland, and try to take over the world.  You would be fighting battles in Central America against your natural enemies trying to secure your postition, while I was over in Europe sending you supplies via the Atlantic to help in your cause.  Shotgun Switzerland!

  9. I’m not convinced MMO is the future, at least not yet. There is currently no MMO game that has a satisfactory plotline and a good minority of gamers play for stories. Maybe 60% of the future of games lies with MMO, but until developers figure out a way to continually script new meaningful events that lead to a final battle (which is an oxymoron right now), many gamers just won’t be very interested.

  10. MMRTS have been out for a bit, doing the research for this I ran across Mankind (1998) and Shattered Galaxy (2001)…while mankind is really different from a standard RTS (for instance, gameplay continues even when you’re offline, and it will text you when someone invades your territory so you can run to a comp and organize your units), what I could find of the ones that followed seemed like they had gone a bit more conservative and didn’t convince me that they were significantly altered from online RTS play to make me name it a whole new genre.  Although I suppose if you want to seperate it out, that would bring it down to only 8 years since a new genre emerged…which is still quite some time.  Maybe there are games that will spawn new genres out there, slowly building steam…a lot of the old genres did take 6 or 8 years to mature, it’s just there were so many appearing that there was always a new one hitting the mainstream.

  11. I see a lot of commenters on Digg pointing out Katamari.  I don’t agree at all with their assessment; all Katamari has done is spawn two sequels that the creator didn’t even like, and possibly inspired LocoRoco.  Unless we see a genuine influx of "rolling games" in the next five years, it can’t be considered the pioneer of a new genre, since nothing else is out there.  Its far too early to tell, and unless that does happen, I think I would rather just classify KD in some other genre.  Also, I find it very hard to give the nod to Katamari without at least bringing up Super Monkey Ball as a counterpoint. 

  12. Let me throw out there the devil’s advocate: have we run out
    of game types?  Of course the answer is probably no, but still, I wonder
    if we’ve peaked creatively.  Also, you didn’t mention ‘alternate reality
    games’, such as Majestic, which flopped, granted.  But it was still
    something new(ish).  I guess we’re seeing a lot of failed ideas in the
    last decade, not necessarily for not being creative, but for not catching on.

  13. It’s a toss up with me on Katamari, but it certainly isn’t anything that can be categorized with this genre structure we use. You roll up ball a with garbage, trying to make bigger balls of garbage. Super Monkey Ball has a physical goal to reach in the end. That, to me, seems like enough of a difference to say they aren’t exactly related. There are some, but Katamari goes so much further with the idea that I can’t see a perfect relation.  I still say Typing of the Dead could be considered a new genre: action-typing. I’m also not a big fan of saying genres are only created when there are enough games using it. One game is enough for me. It would be bullshit to say Typing of the Dead is an action game solely on the fact that you need to make quick actions to kill zombies. You type in the game; that’s the sole mechanic. The outer ideas are just fluff, extrapolating the base gameplay. In the end, Katamari may be a new one.  Super Monkey Ball may be it too. Very hard decision really.

  14. As for Katamari, the reason I compare it to Monkey Ball is that both involve the control of a ball by rolling it with joystick motion and nothing else.  Both involve dodging obstacles and collecting things.  Both require knowledge of the physics of your ball to get out of certain situations.  They end up having different goals, but the mechanics are frighteningly similar.  Katamari’s biggest difference is that the size of the ball changes, though this only really dictates where you can and cannot go in any given level.  A difference to be sure, but is it a difference enough to say that it Katamari is a completely new genre?   And I don’t think that one game alone makes a genre.  Maybe it does technically, but what good does that do outside the world of technicalities?  If no other games come along to experiment with and challenge its gameplay paradigms, how do we establish the rules of the genre?  I haven’t played typing of the dead, but I had to describe the aspects of its "genre", how far off would it be from a Mavis Beacon program? 

  15. Cooking Simulation anyone? I know cooking mama for the ds was considered a mini game but theres now one coming out for the Wii. Will this be a new trend and create a new genre?

  16. Huh, I think we may have found a possible new genre with the Cooking Sim, Stefan. Part of the problem in game classification is that the genres are defined so broadly. Action? What isn’t action in some way? And anything that can be done in real life is easily labeled a Sim.

  17. Quote: arent all games (possibly not turn based games) basically timed button
    presses? the differences among genres are the layers of abstraction
    between the presses and the action on screen, which to me means that
    rhythm games are probably a genre.  
     Exactly. Rhythm games are a genre, because of, as you put it, the layers of abstraction. The problem as I see it is that game designers have become so used to looking at game design from the top down that they forget sometimes that games are nothing more than an intermediary between player(s) actions with input devices and the video and/or sound from output devices. What we really need is to look at the input, abstraction, and output layers, and look for new expressions of each.Nintendo has recently been trying their best to work on the input layer with the Wii. Rhythm games innovated in the output layer by making music a major part of the interaction as opposed to just gravy. FPS innovated in the output layer once graphics technology allowed for it. MMO games really innovated more in scale than anything else, which isn’t as as to pin to a specific layer IMO.Genres are the metaphors that lie between the input and output layers, giving them form. The metaphors need not have any real world equivalent whatsoever, so long as they provide players with what they are looking for. I would be hard pressed, for instance, to find a real world metaphor for Qix. The most difficult task moving forward is to break out of established modes of thinking and look for metaphors that have not been considered, at least seriously, in the past. I think it is acceptable, in a sense, to have a genre with only one game in it, such as with Katamari. Doesn’t that simply mean that it is a genre that could only be taken as far as one game? In my estimation there are countless such "one off" genres that have yet to be tapped.  

  18. There´s alternate reality games (like The Beast, from Microsoft at 2001). Though they started more like a marketing gimmick than a real game.

  19. Many ideas could argue to be new genres, even if they use controls systems already familiar to gamers. Take JFK Reloaded – obviously a first person shooter – but the first product ever to use real, historical data as it’s premise spawning the docu-game genre.

  20. I think that may be true. So many genres exist already and some of them are so wide open that nearly anything created could be pigeon holed into one of the existing categories.

  21. I’ve been thinking a bit about katamari – and I think I have to disagree with the assesment that it’s starting a new genre of rolling games. If you think about it, rolling has almost nothing to do with the gameplay mechanics of katamari, it’s just the way your movement and growth is presented. (admittedly, it’s a clever way from which I derive almost endless amusement) The gameplay itself is about moving around the environment, absorbing things that are smaller than you and growing so that you can absorb larger things. You could replicate a lot of the same basic mechanics and play structure with a giant that eats things and grows as it walks around, or even 2D fish in a pond.

  22. Action/puzzle might be better for Katamari, since it lacks a lot of the hallmarks of an adventure game. But honestly, you could call it an absorption game, and I’d be cool with it. You can draw it as wide or narrow as you want, my main focus was on the core mechanics of gameplay.

  23. Pork – Defcon looks pretty similar to the Amiga game Nuclear War and Uplink‘s description sounds like it was taken off of the back of the Shadowrun for Genesis box. I haven’t played either so you could be right, but then I also think you work for Introversion, who happened to make both games you mentioned. Points for the sarcasm, though.

  24. What about Sandbox type games like GTA? Yeah it borrows bits from other genres… but surely it’s free roaming, do anything, completely ignore the story if you want approach has been imitated enough to have now become a genre in it’s own right?This is all very subjective though. I mean you’ve lumped sport games in all together, but you could have a list of sub-genres twice as long just in sport games… 

  25. Tail of the Sun for the PS1 was sandbox-y. I don’t know enough of the genres history off the bat but I suspect there are earlier examples. Oh, as far as I could tell (i sucked ass at it), Origin’s Autoduel for the C64 was sandbox style.

  26. tail of the sun came out in 1997 and was predated by a game called aquanauts holiday, which was released in june of 1996.  basically the same game, but underwater.  it seems to me as though general sandbox type games have to have been around longer than this, but off the top of my head thats the earliest i can remember.  im not sure when a game came along that gave the player the option to play in a sandbox while also providing a plot based, goal oriented game at the same time.  that may have been gta’s innovation, but im not sure.

  27. In the comments on this site and on sites which have linked to this article, there has been some confusion over what I meant when I used the word “genre”. Tiny Dancer over at gaygamer.net put forward an explanation that I think captures the distinction I was making very well:

    I do think it’s important to reiterate the distinction between “genreâ€? and “description of gameplay.â€? Seems to me that “genreâ€? doesn’t refer to any one given game or how it plays, but a type of game that’s been codified and imitated such that it is recognizable as “that-type-of-game.â€?

    Take fiction, for instance. When Chesterton and Dunsany and Lovecraft wrote their stories almost a century ago, they didn’t know anything about “Science Fiction,â€? “Fantasy,â€? or “Horrorâ€? as we know them today. It was only after their innovations (their Katamari, you could say) caught on with other writers and, of course, a marketable public readership, that we began knowing them as distinct genres and seeing books separated by genre at our local bookstore.

    So wherever you’re coming from, if you read this, remember that I wasn’t saying innovation has stalled, or that there have been no unique games in the past 10 years. Instead I’m saying that innovative games are left by the wayside, without the kind of exploration by the industry that allows a new type of game to really mature into a genre and produce the amazing games that truly fulfill the promise of the early examples and prototypes.

  28. I’m sorry, but I’m gonna have to disagree with some of the things said here. Just because there hasn’t been a name assigned to a game like Katamari doesn’t mean it isn’t something new. I really don’t like that fact that a genre is only created after 10 knock-offs are made in the vein of the first game. In my mind, it isn’t mathematical. It either is something or it isn’t. You can’t call something action for 10 years, and then change it’s category after others were made. I mean, look at Metroid Prime. Many consider it an FPA (first-person adventure), but how many have come after it? Basically none. But that doesn’t negate Prime’s official status as an FPA. Just because reviewers haven’t come up with a catchy name for a game like Katamari doesn’t mean it isn’t something other than what we can give it. And that category thing when going to buy a book is merely for organizational purposes. If there’s enough of a genre, they will group them together, but that does not mean the one book isn’t that genre. If someone called Metroid Prime a FPS, they would be wrong, and it would be a disservice to the developer and game. Sorry if I sound like a dick. I’m definitely not trying to, but I guess its that time of the month.

  29. Well researched article. But is this not inevitable in any entertainment industry? How many ‘new genres’ of film have we had in the last decade? And music – can we really argue that wholly new genres of music have emerged in the last decade?

  30. To respond to Matt first, and then Miffy – I’m not arguing that there is nothing new coming out.  There are some amazing new things coming out, and have been on a regular basis.  This is where my response to Miffy comes in, because while it’s inevitable with any medium, I think video games are a very flexible medium, where you can vary both plotline and the way in which users interact with the medium.  Designing interaction is still a very young art, and like Matt points out we are seeing regular examples of new things that haven’t been done before.  What concerns and frustrates me is that they are not expanded upon, and are not codified into an industry-wide genre, but are left as one-off games.  Sure, we could all do without  all the cheap knock-offs, but the gems of a genre tend to come well after its introduction, toward its maturity.  I wouldn’t want to have missed Halfl-ife and had to remain content with Wolf3D, or have missed Starcraft because nobody followed up on Herzog Zwei, and it frustrates me that the same thing may be going on with the games that would be following and expanding on Trauma Center, Metroid Prime, and others like them.  You can define your terms differently and call these one-offs genres if you want, it doesn’t really change my primary point, which is that new styles of games have not been reaching maturity and consequently we will never see the Grim Fandango to their King’s Quest.

  31. Great point, Stefan, very good response. I definitely have to give you a cookie for that one. And I totally agree with you on every point. 

  32. I guess a question that needs to be answered is whether or not there are any valid avenues left for new genres. With labels like simulation out there, any specialized game like Trauma Center or Cooking Mama can’t hope to be a part of a new genre, so that knocks out any profession that could become a game. Then we apparently cannot control a character within a world without it being "adventure" (i.e. little or no combat) or a shooter (a gun is involved) or an action game (a non-gun hurting device is involved). So what new genres are even possible? We can have quirky unique games like Katamari, Monkey Ball, and WarioWare, but is it really possible to create a new genre at this point without people automatically categorizing it as just a branch of an existing genre? We can look at film and literature and has there been any new developments in either of these mediums? Perhaps we can borrow from these mediums, Facade makes a good bid at becoming the first drama videogame. Perhaps a game based entirely around romance. These are the sort games that will absolutely require incredibly powerful hardware just to get complex enough AI routines. Of course we don’t want to merely mimic other mediums when videogames probably have the most potential of them all (by being interactive). I think its going to take more artists into game development to assist the computer-focused staff in creating some truely unique genres that we’ve never seen before.  Can you guys think of a genre that hasn’t been done either because the idea has been neglected or its just not technilogically feasible? I have trouble. 

  33. Thanks matt –  I wish I had been able to express it that clearly in my initial article…a week or so of discussing it across various forums/blogs has honed a lot of the phrases and terms I’m using.  And theBrain, for film and literature the developments have slowed, but are still coming.  Looking at literature, – an art farm that is _very_ mature – the 19th century saw the introdcution of gothic horror and science fiction among many others.  The 20th saw the creation of high fantasy (held distinct from fairy tales), free verse, alternate history, steampunk and cyberpunk (although if you want to argue that they fall under sci-fi or alternate history I’ll grant that one), Southern Gothic, and the Legal Thriller.  You can call these new genres, or you can argue that they’re part of existing ones – poetry, psychological novels, speculative fiction, etc.    Either way, the fact remains that cyberpunk was introduced within my lifetime and has grown into a codified, recognized genre/sub-genre, with people imitating and expanding upon William Gibson’s initial work.  For an art form that has roughly as many millenia under its belt as video games have decades, I’d say that constitutes the continued emergance of new things.

  34. Hi, I’ve just found your article and would propose that Grand Theft Auto was a new genre of game. Do you know of anything similar pre 1998? Thanks

  35. Hi!  Just a mention of a hybrid genre that didn’t seem to quite make it: 6DoF.  I realize you’re talking about new game genres of games that are still around, but I like to think that 6DoF games (Descent series comes to mind) caused a major shift in videogame history.

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