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