Multi-Genre Games

I recall a print advertisement that I saw for a game, when I was young.  It was for a game for the Apple ][ computer, and proclaimed that it was the ultimate game;  it had spaceship flying, sidescrolling run and jump, car racing, shooting.. you name it.  The ad called it “the game for everyone,” because no matter what genre of game you liked, it was contained within this game.

I don’t know what the game was about, and I’ve long since forgotten its name (although I have a vague sense that it was a painfully generic and forgettable name), but it would have been one of the earlier attempts to attract devotees of many different genres to a single game title. I’m not talking about schemes like the infamous Action 52 which merely aggregate many games of different genres under a single launch menu; no, I’m talking about games which actually put the chocolate of a racing game into the peanut butter of their third-person brawler game.

More beneath the fold.

Take Enter the Matrix, for example, where about half the levels were on-foot running through a building, and the other half were driving through city streets.

The marketing folks behind multi-genre games approach this concept as “gosh, look at how many people like driving cars.  That’s a lot of people who might buy our game.”  And “wow, a lot of people sure do like run&gun games.  It’d be great if we could sell to them, too.”  In their minds, they say “If we make a game that has both car driving and run&gunning, then we’ll be selling to both of these groups of players, and make far more money than if we just made a car driving game, or just made a run&gun game!”  However, it never seems to work this way in practice.  There are a few reasons for this.

1.  Competition

By definition, if you’re selling into two different target demographics, your competition is the best entrants into either demographic.  That is, if we make a game which is both a car racing game and a run&gun game, then our competition includes both, for example, the Gran Turismo series, and the Halo series, whereas if we’d picked one or the other genre, we would only have to compete against one of them.

Of course, the counter to this objection is that although we would have twice the competition, we’re also selling to twice the customers, and so it’s really not as bad as it might sound.  However, we also have to consider the inherant…

2.  Complexity

When implementing two different game styles, you have to actually make two different compelling games, and make them both happily sit in the same project, with program flow passing smoothly between the two.  This is at least twice as difficult as making a single game to the required quality standard.

The more the two genres are merged together into a single game (as is done in Grand Theft Auto), the more complicated this becomes, and the more development time and resources will be required just to manage the interplay between the various genre requirements, over and above the development time required to build and tune the two different games.  This complexity directly translates to substantially increased development time and staffing rates required to create the game.

3.  The Consumers

While it’s true that we can sell our game to the group who like racing games as well as to the group who like run&gun games, most members of these groups are not in both groups, and so don’t really care that we provide their non-preferred style of gameplay.  This means that for this majority of our customers, when they choose what game to buy, they will be comparing us only against games in their preferred genre.  That is, for those who like run&gun, we’ll be compared against Halo, and for those who like car driving, we’ll be compared against Gran Turismo.  If our game isn’t better than both of these “best of breed” games at the same time, then our game won’t actually be selling to both markets.

4.  Annoyance

Even if we do make our fantastic uber-game which is simultaneously better than Halo and better than Gran Turismo, our run&gun players will be annoyed if we include enforced car driving sections;  that’s not their skillset, that’s not what they want to play.  They’ll be especially annoyed if we expect them to have strong driving skills, like those possessed by the players who love Gran Turismo.  The same is true in reverse, of the Gran Turismo players when our game expects them to be able to point a gun accurately and shoot things.

In practice, we’re not selling to both groups, we’re selling to the intersection of the two groups.  That is, we’re not selling to everyone who likes car driving games or run&gun games;  we’re selling to everyone who likes car driving games and run&gun games.  We’ve actually substantially shrunk our market of potential sales.

5.  Minigames

Minigames are kind of a special case of what I’ve spoken about above.  These would include everything from the “Unlock a door” minigames in the Ratchet and Clank series to the “Unlock a door” minigames in Fallout 3 to the “Unlock a door” minigames in Oblivion to the “Unlock a door” minigames in Splinter Cell.

These aren’t as bad as going fully multi-genre, as they don’t split development efforts too much, and typically it’s pretty obvious which genre is the “lead” core genre.  But I’d argue that if you feel the need to introduce an entertaining diversion from your game into your game, that’s a warning sign that your core design might be a little monotonous.

And if you do decide to include a minigame.. you might consider making it do something other than opening a door.  See my earlier essay about lazy game design, for more on a similar topic.

5.  Conclusion

I’m not saying “don’t do it.”  I’m not saying that going multi-genre is bad, necessarily.  I’m just saying that before choosing this route, it’s important to be aware that it will substantially lengthen a development timeline, that it will shrink the market for the game, and that it will raise the quality standards which must be met for the game to do well commercially.

If these caveats aren’t a concern for you (as is often the case for experimental games), then by all means, go for it.  But if your livelihood depends on the sales of the game you make;  it may be better not to try to compete on too many fronts at once!