Escaping the Box: Innovation and Genres

This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the Nintendo Entertainment System. In 1985, the legendary gaming console was released, irrevocably altering the gaming landscape with such iconic franchises as Super Mario Brothers. Over the last twenty years, a lot has changed. Gaming has gone from being a toy industry to a multi-billion dollar entertainment industry that, more often than not, markets to adults over children. Over the next fifteen years, gaming must continue to evolve. Game developers, publishers and media alike must strive to ensure that we continue to innovate and bring imagination to life.

In recent years, development budgets have increased, freezing out hobbyists, and the new age of corporate gaming has emerged. This was never more apparent than at E3 2005, where big gaming companies erected quasi-corporate mini-cities, teeming with projection screens and publicists, and had the audacity to call them booths. The neon-green themed Microsoft booth had overhead traffic and felt more like a mall than a temporary trade show structure. While the fine folks at EA treated media, fans and developers to the image of various sports stars spouting company slogans on a three-hundred-and-sixty degree screen. Atari even chose to erect a full-on “exclusive” club/lounge that could rival the best nightspots in my hometown. Gaming has never been more lucrative and corporate. These days, games do not enter production unless guaranteed to sell hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of units. How do you know if a game will be that successful? One way is to look at history. This kind of logic has led to a slew of sequels, movie tie-ins and remakes. Admittedly, many of them were fun, but where does this leave those of us who seek something new?

Too often, game companies begin production with a blanket statement such as “we wish to create a third-person action adventure game set in a sci-fi world.” Immediately, they have pigeonholed themselves. More companies and individuals need to step back, forget genres altogether and consider only who they wish to entertain and how to do it. Namco’s Katamari Damacy did just that. A description on begins with “Ever wonder what it would be like to roll around and collect everything you touched in one massive heap?” Of course not! But in Katamari Damacy, that’s what you’ll find. Players roll a ball that expands as it collects anything it rolls over. You roll through diversely sized environments, starting out with a Katamari the size of a dustball in what appears to be a child’s bedroom. Eventually the ball grows into a giant nearly the size of the big city in which you’re gathering “stuff.” In multiplayer mode, you can even frantically race to pick up junk while bashing into your opponents in an attempt to steal their girth. “Whimsical,” “Silly” and “Bizarre” are words that I would use to describe this game. Most importantly, even though it is completely and totally ridiculous, it remains fun, challenging, competitive and highly original. What more can you ask for from a game?

At their root, games are about escapism. As settings have become more and more clichéd, developers need to remember this basic premise: Gamers want to experience things that they cannot in real life. Whether this experience is a crime spree in Grand Theft Auto or the role of NFL player, coach and GM in Madden 2005, these popular games cater to that desire. All too often, developers forget this basic need or, nearly as fatal, allow players to escape to worlds they have explored many times over.

At E3 2005, I found myself under-whelmed. Several games touted refinements to various genres, but almost none left me with a burning desire to play them any time soon. There was an exception and from an unlikely source. I was looking forward to my viewing of Jaws Unleashed about as much as doing my taxes. Hooray, another movie-based game! Guilty of not doing my homework, I knew nothing about the game and cynically assumed I would be hunting a shark through a series of movie tied-in missions. How wrong I was! The game took a step back and, despite the unoriginal license, came up with a rather original approach. In Jaws Unleashed, players control Jaws himself and take up the task of wreaking havoc on fish, wildlife, and unfortunate boaters. Eventually, another anxious gamer had to kick me off the machine, though not before I had eaten everything in the level. Jaws reinvigorated me and instilled hope for the future. It would have been easy to make a simple third-person action-adventure title, but they chose instead to take a step back, go outside the box and create something fun.

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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.

The tired and often-kicked gift horse that is the RPG genre could specifically benefit from innovative thinking. By definition, RPGs offer advancement systems. However, too often, especially in the online medium, this is limited to a bigger stronger character with a bigger sword. Already, some companies have begun to look beyond this. The upcoming Gods and Heroes from Perpetual Entertainment promises to incorporate squad combat, thus taking the step of letting player characters grow from lone warrior to commander of many NPC allies.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Imagine a game where you begin as a single character, alone in the world, who completes mundane tasks for money and food. Eventually, you gain an entourage of characters to aid you in more complex tasks, incorporating tactical and social elements. Over time, this entourage becomes an army, at which time you sit at the head in an RTS-style interface. Then take this a step further, and position the player as the monarch over an entire nation, as in Civilization. Now, combine all of this into an online game. It sounds like a lot of fun, at least in its hand-waving infancy, but some will say that the idea is unwieldy and impossible from a production standpoint, at least on any kind of realistic timeline.

Who are we to declare what will be possible? Gaming breeds imagination. We should be the last industry to be confined by what is “possible.” The inability to agree on anything is the hallmark of the gaming community. Some lament that games have become too complex and these people would rather see more basic, simple ideas made into reality. Others advocate larger, more complex games. Unfortunately, gaming suffers from a lack of innovation on both fronts. Sticking to formula, relying on sequels and capitalizing on trends will lead to a decent but unremarkable string of titles. The goal is to identify whom the game is supposed to entertain and do so by any means necessary. Whether this means forgetting all assumptions and making simple, yet fun and addictive games, or cross-genre epics, the effect is the same. History will only remember those that take a chance and create something truly remarkable.

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