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I'm a game designer by trade, just getting started. With any luck I'll get my money where my mouth is and have something on here soon to prove my mettle.

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Genre Pollution

2010-12-14 12:40:05 by gmerriment

You're playing an awesome game. It's everything you wanted it to be, right up to the point where suddenly everything changes and you're doing something you absolutely didn't pay for. Maybe you bought a first-person shooter and suddenly you have to solve some intense block puzzle to proceed, or you have to be all sneaky or you'll die instantly, or you have to hop into some souped-up car and do some racing. It's sort of like going to a concert and having the guy on stage stop the music so he can tell you about starving children in Africa. You find yourself staring at the screen and wishing the developer would stop arsing around with your game and just sell you the product you paid for: a first-person shooter.

It's called "genre pollution", and we see the most exaggerated examples of this phenomenon in games like Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker and James Bond 007: NightFire. In the former example, the actiony-adventurey goodness is interrupted a couple of times by annoying and banal stealth sections. In the latter example, you frequently have to hop into an ungainly vehicle and give chase while stuff explodes around you.

Genre pollution is the direct result of business thought and has nothing to do with good game design. Essentially, the idea is that by adding sections of a different genre to your game, you will make it appeal to more of your target audience. In the case of Wind Waker, the stealth sections are meant to appeal to stealth fans.

There are hoards of problems with this concept. The most obvious is that when I buy an action-adventure game, I want action and puzzle-solving. If I wanted stealth, I'd buy Splinter Cell. So by adding stealth and taking away the elements of the game that I paid for, you've alienated me as an action-adventure fan. But say I'm a stealth fan. I think any of us who've played both Wind Waker and Metal Gear Solid can agree that the latter game has a far superior stealth mechanic. Wind Waker's stealth sequences are boring and trite, and utterly disappointing to anyone who enjoys stealth. In some games, like Red Faction, the stealth mechanic is so poor that the stealth sections are literally impossible, meaning that eventually your pistol is coming out and you are going to kill everyone. So much for low profile. The end result is that the stealth fans are going to be disgusted and alienated as well.

Very few games are able to mix genres together effectively, because the simple fact is that if you have a game in which the action element is as polished and fun as Super Mario Bros., while the stealth element is as polished and fun as Splinter Cell, you have, in essence, successfully put two complete games in one package. Consider Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion for a moment. This epic game combined a multitude of genres-action, adventure, stealth, rpg, with elements of a couple more-and it was a decent game. But none of its facets were as strong as a totally dedicated game in that genre would have been. In order to accomplish that feat, the development cost would have been around four times what it was.

Unless you have the kind of money that it takes to make two games, and are willing to invest it in making one instead (and only getting back the profits for one game), your best bet is to stick to a single genre for the strongest product.

A lesser example of genre pollution is minigames, and in my humble opinion, minigames are crap. Minigames are short, smaller games within a larger game, intended to "mix it up a bit". But this idea is fundamentally flawed: if you think your game needs to be "mixed up" to keep it from getting boring, that means you think your game is boring-which I'm pretty sure makes you a terrible game designer. I'll use Fable III as an example here, because it's a great game that blew it by polluting itself with minigames.

In Fable III, you can take jobs like piemaker, lute player, or blacksmith to make money. Okay, but, isn't there a way to let me make money playing the regular game? in Legend of Zelda, when I kill bad guys, they drop rupees. Why don't the the enemies drop gold in Fable? Or, if that's too "unrealistic" for you (really, Lionhead? Really?), you could maybe have the incredible quantity of fetch quests provide some cash ("Thanks mate, here's a fiver for your trouble" would be more satisfying than "Now we're friends! Yay").

Essentially, if I wanted to play Cooking Mama, I'd buy Cooking Mama. If I wanted to play Guitar Hero, I'd buy Guitar Hero. I wanted to play Fable; please stop forcing me to make pies to earn some scratch.

Of course, all this isn't to suggest that genre fusion (which is a different concept) is bad. I've mentioned a few action-adventure titles, and of course you might be thinking that this is a pollution of the action and adventure genres, but since action-adventure games are arguably more fun than any adventure game will ever be, genre pollution isn't always bad.

I must respectfully disagree with you, vocal reader I'm imagining in my head, in that I don't think action-adventure games are a pollution of the adventure genre, so much as they are the result of addressing the major weaknesses of adventure games and patching them up with action elements. When you fix the inherent problems with a genre by adding elements from another genre, you have genre fusion, which is almost always good when done properly.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare's multiplayer component is a great example of genre fusion. Deathmatch can get old very fast. Companies have been looking for ways to keep things interesting ever since Quake III properly introduced the Deathmatch Game (as opposed to "game with deathmatch"). MW2 discovered a way to defeat that inherent entropy by infusing RPG elements, namely, the acquisition of experience points, levels, gear, perks, etc. through ordinary play of the game. You can level up weapons by accomplishing challenges with the weapon and gain bonus experience by accomplishing more generic challenges-both of which turn a game which is normally just a string of endless fragging into a more tactical operation. Want that new camo? Headshots. Want a shotgun attachment? Break out the Noob Tube. Want akimbo? God help you. Akimbo is terrible.

There is a very strong difference between filling the holes of one genre with the best features of another and haphazardly ductaping two genres together in the hopes of creating a monster that is more than the sum of its parts. Now you know the difference. Go forth and make better games.


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