Series Info...Building Stories, Telling Games #23:

Exploring Genres: Part 1

by Travis S. Casey
December 14, 2001

The real attraction of a virtual world is that it lets us escape from the everyday world we live in, and experience something different. You can be someone else, somewhere else, in a world where things are a bit... larger than life. Better. Faster. Stronger! We have the technology! We...

Whoops. Sorry about that. Got carried away for a second there. The desire to see a world that's different from ours goes beyond online games, of course — you see the same thing in movies, TV, and books. There's fantasy and science fiction, which both deal with things that simply don't seem to exist in the real world. Even fiction that deals with things that really do exist exaggerate those things: in the real world, spies generally work quietly, relaying information back to their superiors; in fiction, we have James Bond. In the real world, private detectives spend most of their time finding out what somebody's spouse is up to, or tracking down missing persons (and not usually someone who's "disappeared" — just someone who's got a lot of bills and hasn't left a forwarding address); in fiction, we have Mike Hammer.

The term for different categories of fiction, of course, is genres. Dividing things up into genres is convenient for publishers and consumers — if I'm looking for a fantasy novel, I can go to the "fantasy" section instead of having to search the entire store. However, the division into genres creates its own problem: dividing things up into clear categories, when such divisions don't really exist.

For example, some bookstores have separate "Fantasy" and "Science Fiction" sections. But where, then, do you put something that has elements of both? There's a lot of cross-fertilization between those two genres, leading to works like C.S. Friedman's Black Sun Rising, where you have a work that involves magic, vampires, and the like — but is set on an alien world in the far future. SF and fantasy fans can have long arguments over questions like, "Are the Pern stories fantasy or science fiction?"

Of course, a lot of bookstores simply lump fantasy and SF together into one section. But there's a lot of crossover between both of those genres and horror, and I've rarely seen horror lumped in with the other two in a bookstore. (Video stores are another story — in those, there's often a "Sci-Fi/Horror" section... which just happens to also include fantasy.)

The vast majority of multiplayer online games are fantasy games. There's a fair number of science fiction ones, and a few horror as well, and outside that... well, there's practically nothing else. Why aren't there mystery games? Spy games? Westerns? Romance? Well, there's three big reasons, right off:

  1. Ease of implementation. D&D has given a standard mold for fantasy that's easy to implement: the shoot-and-loot dungeon crawl, supplemented by outdoor shoot-and-loot. It's easy to program up something like that: make a map, put some monsters in it, have ways to kill them, give them loot. The SF genre in general doesn't fit this pattern, but the sub-genre of military SF can be made into something similar fairly easily.

    Other genres, though, don't fit into such a simple pattern quite so easily. Take mystery, for example — most mystery stories rely heavily on interaction between the main character and other characters. The state of NPC AI is such that mystery games either require a lot of people to run the NPCs, or will be reduced to puzzle-boxes.

  2. Suitability for long-term play. Another, related problem is that the main challenge in a traditional mystery is the mystery itself. A fantasy character can fight the same orc half a dozen times, and still have the outcome be uncertain — but adding the same sort of replay value to a mystery is harder. You have to be able to constantly generate new mysteries. The same is true of the spy genre — you'd have to be able to constantly generate new missions. These things are theoretically possible, but doing them in practice and having the mysteries/missions be consistently interesting is hard.
  3. Suitability for a multi-player environment. Take the romance genre, for example. What do you have when you have a game with dozens or hundreds of romantic leads? Nothing resembling a standard romance novel, that's for sure! The same applies to mysteries — what kind of mystery has dozens of master sleuths running around? (Besides Murder by Death, that is.) And how many superspies can you have running around in the same area?

You may have noticed that I didn't mention westerns while going through those reasons. Those reasons apply somewhat to westerns, but not quite as much as to the other genres I mentioned. Another reason, however, does apply to westerns: demographic inertia. For a long time, computer users, and especially computer gamers, overlapped heavily with science-fiction and fantasy fans. Because of that, the early computer games were oriented towards those interests. Those attracted more SF and fantasy fans into computer gaming, which led to the creation of more SF and fantasy-based games, and so on. The simple fact is that people who like westerns, but don't like fantasy or science fiction, aren't likely to be computer gamers these days. To some extent, that's a Catch-22: a western game needs game players who like westerns, but people who like westerns are less likely to become game players, because there aren't any western games for them to play.

This is really a problem for someone better at marketing than I am to solve, but it seems safe to predict that as time goes on, we'll see more games in other genres. For one thing, time is likely to bring improved AI in computers (which will make it more possible to use NPCs as a real supporting cast, and make it easier to automatically generate more complex scenarios); for another, as time goes on, present computer gamers will branch out into other interests, and some of them may want games for those interests.

For the next few columns, I'm going to be talking about genres — starting with the "big three" of online gaming, then covering some of the genres that aren't common in online gaming now, and speculating on how online games might better be able to serve them, or how they could be integrated with other genres. See you next time, when we hit the really big one: fantasy!

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