Fast Forward 2020

Fast Forward 2020
Escaping the Box: Innovation and Genres

Dana Massey | 9 Aug 2005 12:02
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The movie and game industries have much in common. Both produce mass entertainment and often cross-pollinate content with movie-inspired games and game-inspired movies. In recent years, film has suffered from the same plight as gaming. Often movies are sequels, remakes or formulaic. At the same time, celebrity directors, producers and actors command more leeway than the unknowns of their craft. It is a shame and tragedy, in many ways, that a new face cannot get a chance without first being a proven success on Hollywood's terms. However, at the same time, it goes back to the idea of a guaranteed return on investment. Unknowns are risky and the gaming industry, like the film industry before it, has realized this. This realization means that just as famed film writer Charlie Kaufman may be free to pen out-of-the-box films like Being John Malkovich, people like Will Wright will be granted much more creative independence than a first, second or even fifth-time game designer.

It is with people like Will Wright that another branch of innovation may soon explode. Just as he pushed the envelope with the various Sim titles, which spawned several new genres (and maybe the only ones in recent history), he looks to do it again with the genre-blurring title Spore. For all the hype about procedurally animated characters, and sandbox gameplay - which admittedly have me salivating like everyone else - it is instead the concept of genre-defying game design that gives me hope for the future. If Spore comes to market and is the commercial success EA hopes for, suddenly there will be a string of investors willing to fund games that capitalize off its success. Does this capitalization on success sound like innovation? Not at all. Yet, in an industry that demands a guaranteed return on investment, this may well be the way of things. Some developers will be inspired by the basic gameplay model, some by the underlying technology, and some by the basic concept of thinking outside the genre box. This third group promises to be the most innovative and important in the coming years, a bright light on the gaming horizon.

Once game designers and publishers become more comfortable with the idea of combining genres, the possibilities seem endless. Aside from Spore, this mentality has slowly been creeping into a number of blockbuster titles. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas blends action/adventure and mini-games with a Hollywood-style story experience; Pirates! offers mini-games, turn-based war strategy and RPG elements; and in the near future, Age of Empires III will build RPG-like character advancement into the popular RTS franchise. While there is not an original property among the three - a sign of the times - all three do take tentative steps towards becoming cross-genre epics. The idea is not to taunt convention for its own sake, but to not be afraid to think outside your category and in so doing, create something new. Currently, game developers are taking the first baby steps in this direction. I look to Spore to blow the doors wide open.

The mere concept of genre does not offend me. I do not suggest that every game must be its own category. To not expand on brilliant gameplay ideas would be like halting a dig when you discover the first bone. Every genre has its "father game," such as Doom to first-person shooters. Had we said that was enough, we would never have experienced the wonders of Half-Life and the slew of other unique titles that have blazed new trails while still maintaining their FPS roots. The problem lies in the stagnant nature of genres, which I argue are becoming fewer rather than more. Genres like the platform adventure (e.g. the Mario series) are rapidly spiraling into oblivion, while nothing comes forward to replace them. In some cases, gamers and gaming companies - or perhaps just retailers - suffer from some leftover Victorian need to classify everything. IGN listed Katamari Damacy as a "third-person action" game. Technically, they may be correct, but can that be accurate when it is unlike any game I have ever played? It is precisely games of this nature that forge new paths and hopefully one day a genre will owe its genesis to Katamari Damacy.

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