While it was common until quite recently to argue that action gamers and RPG users were like polar bears and penguins - shoved into the same category but actually worlds apart - games like Fallout 3, Mass Effect 2 and Borderlands have proved one or both of the following: that shooting mechanics can appeal to RPG users, or that RPG mechanics can appeal to shooting users. Nobody's quite sure which, but it seems to work.
And yet while shooters are becoming more RPG-like, RPGs are ditching their RPG-ness as fast as you dump crappy Level 1 armor. "I'm not sure I even call Fable an RPG anymore," Peter Molyneux said of the recently revealed Fable 3, which is doing away with an onscreen HUD and the concept of XP. "Certainly not a 1990s RPG, for sure. In a way, you could look at it and say it's like an action adventure. There's a lot of drama, there a lot of story, there's a lot of emotion in there - but with leveling up."
For once Molyneux might be understating things. His description of Fable 3 could just as easily apply to Modern Warfare 2. Indeed, the original Modern Warfare was crucial in popularizing what seems, in retrospect, to be a stunningly obvious design choice - marrying gamers' love of customization and leveling with the desire to keep users playing online on a regular basis.
Even Gears of War creator Cliff Bleszinki seems to think that "the future of shooters is RPGs", and with the continued success of Borderlands - a new IP with a risky visual style, which is usually the kiss of death - who could argue?
Games these days are becoming ever more about the polish, less about the "gimmick". Games that follow the "[recent hit title] with a [gimmick]" formula no longer seem to perform so well - suggested by the relative disappointment of THQ's Darksiders. This suggests to me that gamers care less about the "uniqueness" of a single game's mechanics, and more about the sheer enjoyment of an in-game experience. A game like Dragon Age: Origins has very little original, but everything in there is polished to a very high degree.
Last year's most praised title, Uncharted 2, is the prime example of this: Uncharted is a mish-mash of genres with barely a single original idea to call its own, but that doesn't matter. Its production values are off the charts in every aspect, and as a single, ten-hour experience it's very hard to beat.
Anyone who has read this column will know that I am an advocate for the average gamer, and in this respect I welcome a greater mix of genre and titles that go for broad appeal. This is pretty much the opposite of what happened to the 2D fighting genre - which got too hung up on its own intricate mechanics, and in refining those ever further it appealed more and more to the hardcore. In reality, most of the kids who made Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat a success knew very little about the mechanics other than on an instinctual level, and just enjoyed the feeling of beating their friends up.
The genre is only just recovering from that mistake - and games like God of War have largely filled the gap in the meantime (to follow up on last week's God of War In Space idea, a two-player game based on God of War-style mechanics is just begging to be made, surely. Go ahead, you can have that one for free).
Admittedly, there is a danger that in trying to be all things to all people, unique experiences will suffer - whereas once Borderlands and Mass Effect 2 would have felt like two completely different experiences, and attracted two completely different types of gamer, now you have a choice between an RPG with shooter elements and a shooter with RPG elements. (I'm not actually sure which description is for which.)
But overall I say, let our unhelpful notion of genres die - or at least fade into the background. Far too many titles cling to archaic mechanics because of an absurd notion that such-and-such a genre "needs" them. Gamers are showing with their wallets that they just want to have fun.
Christian Ward works for a major publisher. The bouncer-types have not come for him yet.