The Product of Genre Sex
"A Shooter with RPG elements! The Platformer meets the Racing genre! A Brawler with Real Time Strategy excitement! The first time a Social Networking Farming Sim incorporates Online Dungeon Crawling and Space Marine Dating!!!"
We've all seen these and similar advertisements plastered all over several games from the past five years or so; and in this musing, I'll be presenting my simple argument for why I think we'll continue to see this trend in our collective future. To be sure, genre blending is nothing new; however, it's a feature (and unfortunately sometimes a gimmick) that seems to be a point of pride or benchmark for developers these days and something that I don't really hear people talking much about. It's my belief that this trend originated due to a poverty of innovation and will continue to thrive due to a handful of successful titles. (Warning: I use the word "genres" a lot. Get ready.)
Everybody wants to be the first person to do something, especially when they do that something well. I'm not quite old enough to remember, but there was a time when someone released the first real racing game, the first real FPS, etc. I'm sure there's probably a fair amount of debate somewhere as to what games hold those titles, but that's not the point. The point is that after these genres were established, it became the goal of other developers to either: A) Improve Upon Those Genres or B) Create New Genres. However, at another point in time that I don't care to specify (or look up), we became saddled with all of the common genres that we know and love. Sure, every now and then we get a quirky genre-defying title, but those usually involve creativity and originality (i.e. things that aren't guaranteed to cash out) so those types of titles will probably remain few and far between. Ultimately, I think until we see a significant change in our hardware, we're not really going to see any brand new genres established. Some might argue that we'll be seeing that change in hardware with Motion Control but I'm currently quite skeptical as to whether or not those peripherals will work as "currently" advertised. All this being the case, I again make the point that there are certain set genres that probably won't see much change in the near future.
Unfortunately for gamers and developers alike, playing the same game with different graphics can get a little bit tedious after a while. There is, in my opinion, a poverty of genre innovation. I think Super Mario Galaxy is one of the only recent titles I can think of that really broke some ground in a stale genre by implementing new gameplay and design. Thus enters the art of genre blending. When you run out of ways to make French Fries and Frosties, you combine them to make something new and, hopefully, tasty (or in our case, fun). Again, the first games that were examples of this practice are up for debate, but I think everyone can quite easily think of several current gen titles that reflect this style. Many are on our favorite and most wanted lists. It is for this reason that I predict we will continue to see this practice refined and developed in the foreseeable future.
If I was forced to explain why a successful genre marriage is like heroin to a gamer, I guess it's the fairly obvious concept of having your cake and eating it too. I really enjoy good shooters and I really love RPG's; therefore it's no surprise that Bioshock, which marries a beautiful shooter, with a rich universe, and the customization and upgrading mechanics of an RPG is one of my favorite games. The best moments of Destructoid's Game of the Year, Uncharted 2, are the sequences which deftly combine fluid platforming and thrilling gunfights rather than having you do just one or the other for half an hour. There are many more examples of games which successfully merge genres, but there is a much longer list of games that unsuccessfully try to marry different gameplay styles. Like those icing filled Nilla Wafers, they might sound great, but you end up with something that has lost what made the individual components good in the first place.
The sophisticated example above, Brutal Legend, illustrates a game that tried to do too many different things and didn't do any of them that well. The universe was brilliantly designed but the genre orgy inside will most likely leave a bad taste in even the most open-minded gamer's mouth. This is my biggest fear for the future; that developers will look at the success of the Mass Effects, Bioshocks, Borderlandses, etc. and "see" that consumers like merged genres. The whole Alpha Protocol debacle, where a game advertised itself as being an exciting foray into genre-blending got delayed because (allegedly) it wasn't enough like other successful genre blending titles, is proof positive that mixing your gaming types is not a fad and is, in fact, the future of this industry.
Now comes the part where I share my personal opinions about all of this; if they weren't already clear. I think mixing genres is a fine practice when done in moderation and when done in service of a developers creative vision. However, I think it's bound to fail when blandly employed to make a quick buck (Activision-style). However, if I've convinced anyone that it's a response to a poverty of innovation, then I think those of you will hopefully agree that it's a temporary solution for a larger problem; like a band-aid on a bullet wound. Better than games that continue to refine and refine the same mechanics with iteration after iteration, or those that try to Frankenstein-up new experiences by forcing genres together that don't quite fit, I think developers should continue to push our expectations for what those genres are in the first place. Games like Portal or No More Heroes, which definitely employ some familiar mechanics (platforming and brawling respectively) but are unique enough in style and design that they defy (in my opinion) traditional genre classification are my idealized future for gaming.
While I don't think we'll see any completely new genres created in the near future, I do think that there is a bright future for titles that push expectations and reinvent stale mechanics and tropes. This is obviously easier said than done, but I think it's preferable to continue striving for that than to rely on mimicry or stale formulas. Bottom line, I think the days of vanilla shooters, fighters, racers, and RPGs are coming to an end. There will obviously some hold-outs, especially (I predict) among the Fighting and Sports genres, but even Square Enix has recently gone on record as saying that they might be exploring different gameplay styles and abandoning the traditional JRPG (though I doubt it). While not inherently bad, I think that abandoning a straight genre in favor of a hybrid-style title for the sake of this new trend is risky. I will continue to applaud and seek out those titles that attempt to reinvent and innovate rather than combine well worn mechanics to pass for innovation. Hopefully some of you will join me in the days to come.