This post is a little outside the realms of the normal historical flare, but it’s something that I feel is important to discuss. I’ve previously mentioned in determining my boundaries for how I like to talk about games that the current genres we use are woefully inadequate. In terms of games, what I consider a genre to be is a categorization of games with a similar appeal value. Genres as defined in movies and books speak most often to their setting (sci-fi, modern) and only occasionally to their general content (action, drama). Descriptors like horror and thriller are more descriptive, leading to a strange mish-mash of helpful and unhelpful definitions. I feel that game genres should strive to be more consistent and useful from both a consumer and intellectual framework.
I am not going to spend time tearing down the genre terms that we use now, but instead present an alternative method using classic games as a testbed for these ideas. At the bottom you will find a spreadsheet where I have ranked a large number of games under this framework which you can scrutinize to your heart’s content. Below I will describe the six key pillars of this system.
This element is the most self-explanatory in itself. A game which is driven by competition inherently makes the player strive for betterment over a game or other players. Note this means that the betterment itself is the goal, not specifically how to get there. A competition driven game can easily have a low skill ceiling, so long as it’s tempting the player to best an opponent driven towards a somewhat equal goal. This enemy, or even friend, can be an AI or another person striving to come out on top.
The obvious, go-to example for this are high-score chasing games such as Space Invaders or Spy Hunter. The score compels a player beyond anything else, beckoning them to execute well as to conquer the high-score charts, becoming the dominant player. Later games like Ikari Warriors would build this system into the game by having points grant extra lives, furthering the need to be competitive even as other elements began to creep in. Street Fighter II is likewise competition driven even though the scoring system is heavily de-emphasized, beckoning players to win two of three rounds by any means necessary. Even in the single player mode SFII can still be called competitive both because the objectives haven’t changed and the story context – that of becoming the World Warrior – is the ultimate goal.
Multiplayer only games are almost by necessity crafted around competition, but not all of them. MMOs for example are largely not driven by the need to be better than either NPC or player unless the game is crafted around that style of PVP. Cooperative games can also be competitive even if the larger goal necessitates one player not winning over the other. Gauntlet has no direct incentive for trouncing your fellow players on score, yet the counter remains there to show who is succeeding. Don’t forget about the fact that one can deliberately steal food from their teammates in order to keep themselves alive (I certainly never forget). This ‘together but apart’ mentality has manifested strongly in many of Nintendo’s recently Mario titles like New Super Mario Bros where players can steal stars from each other. Even as the points don’t matter, it becomes an incentive for players to be adversarial.
I will belabor the point just in case it hasn’t come across clearly. Competitive games are not necessarily about mastering every single aspect or even knowing much about the game’s deeper side. They call players in that moment to win at any cost. These sorts of games are best encapsulated in single bouts though do not necessarily have to be encounter based. The core tenant to recognize here is that winning is the most important part of competition-driven games.
All of these points represent challenges, but execution is the most literal interpretation of mind to action. A game which finds it’s engaging elements in enactment calls upon player skill in the moment to moment to pull off plans which have already been deduced. Execution is about action, not reaction. It’s the moment of delivering on success once the challenges have been identified. It’s the force of fate where a player actually confronts a mini-challenge on a physical level.
Platformers are quintessentially about execution. In a good platformer such as Super Mario Bros or Rayman, the challenge will be immediately understood and follow a consistent ruleset. Once a player realizes what is required of them to succeed, they can intuitively execute what’s required using that knowledge. It’s the difference between doing a shorthop on a Goomba and running to cross a large gap with falling platforms. These trials are reliant on doing rather than knowing and extensive preparation won’t do much good when it’s all in motion.
Combo attacks are a very literal way to gain some depth out of execution. Games like Devil May Cry are reliant on the player wanting to master their button layouts and timing in order to make a fight easier. You could technically get through a game like Dynasty Warriors without ever engaging in a combo by strafing around and using single attacks, but that completely negates the draw of the experience. Likewise in God of War the points are scored, but the objective is not to get a higher combo than anyone else. It’s merely to fulfill the accomplishment of a chain of attacks.
The desire for this perfection can go across many different types of games. Ikaruga seems like a game that is based on score at first, but is really built around execution. The game is famous for it’s difficulty which is derived from the need to dance between the ship’s different states. It’s not hard to understand, it’s hard to actually do. Rhythm games like Beatmania don’t require a lot of strategic thinking, instead just tactical decision making.
It may seem that execution is entirely contained to real-time games, but this is not necessarily true. The visceral feelings of pulling off an attack may be lost yet one can still derive a thrill out of a dice roll or placing units. A move on a checkerboard can be exciting, pulling off a pre-emptive attack in Final Fantasy IV can be exciting as can fighting against the rolling counter in Earthbound. Even a basic dice roll in Pool of Radiance can elicit the same thrill of pushing a button once the player realizes it’s impact. The action of engaging with these often rigid rulesets can still be enjoyable even if there’s not a lot of direct control. The role of execution is as much about the choice the player makes as the result.
Execution does not necessarily mean that a player has to succeed to find enjoyment, which is one of the pillar’s advantages. It’s okay to not dodge every blow or hit every enemy so long as the user’s skill is continually engaged. If I were to wager under this system, I think it would be fair to say that most video games would lean towards being based around execution than any of the other statutes. It’s fundamental to most games to create systems which call the player to continuous action and to keep them pressing buttons through the whole of their playthrough.
Games which rely on players seeking out information and holding it firmly in their memory are discovery driven. When thinking about discovery it’s best not to simply thinking about it in terms of objects and locations. Discovery of mechanics, new or reinterpreted, can be equally as engaging as a new locale. When looking at games in terms of this quality, we look at how much a player is presented with something new and how often they seek it out.
The prototypical series for looking at discovery is The Legend of Zelda. Even if later games had far less that was ‘unexpected’ to veterans, the fact of the matter is that Zelda creates a compelling environment by feeding the player content which changes many things about the world. Items which open new possibilities and areas which beg for a player to explore every corner in order to progress. Discovery is noting all of the doors you can’t cross in a Metroid game, then finding a way to get around them later.
However, it is not that games with elements of discovery to lock away content even on the basic level, nor must it be difficult to unlock the intended potential. Mortal Kombat 3 has it’s fatality system as a draw which is unlocked through a difficult button combo. These moves used to be hidden in earlier versions but are now printed on the cabinet itself for all to see. That does not mean that there is no discovery element to these mechanics, since the act of internalizing these skills through memorization is just as important as if they were discovered ‘organically’. The internet has not killed discovery, it has simply made it less about attrition and more about the benefits.
An element of discovery should ideally change the game to some degree. Elemental weaknesses in Final Fantasy games can cause the player to adapt their specialization. The introduction of virtues and riddles in Ultima IV cause the player to do things which might cause them some degree of disadvantage. Stashes of weapons and health in Doom are meant to keep the player aware of their surroundings, looking as much forward to the next room for what it might contain as the next level.
Bringing out discovery doesn’t simply mean showing the player things they didn’t know before. A tutorial does not invoke discovery, not does simply seeing a new level. It requires action and navigation of the spaces and systems by the player to unfurl these pages of knowledge. The strategies must be accessible and the effects must be tangible to create a cathartic release. Even if some elements of discovery are ones which a player may never experience, like dialog options, they provide a sense of completeness to the game experience.
While it’s one thing to overcome a challenge and claim a space, it’s another to hold onto an advantage and assume control over a system. Games based around control are by necessity recursive ones as they rely on a continued evaluation of the state of a system with the ultimate goal of a player being to surmount all opposition to it. Basing the appeal of a game around control calls on the player to understand the systems very deeply and to constantly seek to fortify their position when possible.
Many board games such as Risk feature control as both an objective and a marker of accomplishment, therefore making many elongated turn-based games a perfect ground for regulatory mechanics. Civilization sees player’s juggling their various landmasses as computer opponents attempt to stem the tide of your territory. X-Com is about gaining ground on your opponent and limiting the opponent’s options. A game like Fire Emblem has aspects of control both in the combat and the fate of your party through it’s character-driven upgrade systems. The pace at each step is something that the player can wield sometimes at their own pace, sometimes not.
Upgrades which can be chosen also exhibit features of control even if it’s not something the player can have access to at all times. One can see an item in River City Ransom and work towards it’s purchase. Dune II has a hierarchy of units that lead to different advantages once devoted to. The non-linear upgrade path of Metroid Prime had the added bonus of some zones becoming devoid of monsters once conquered, leading to a feeling of taming the wilderness.
Multiplayer games lend themselves well to a dominant style of play, especially when there are several types of ‘control points’. Super Mario Kart allows players to use items to retake their advantage at the front, giving them a master position at the race track from which to use many of the game’s items. High level Quake play focuses on knowing exactly where and when items spawn for maximum advantage in dealing with opponents. The complexity of DotA comes largely out of establishing multiple control zones, waning the ebb and flow of battle where necessary to break through.
Control is not simply choice which extends to the next screen. The pace in Mega Man for instance is not which stage you choose first, but to deliberately pick an order of stages based on the weapons that can be acquired. In this way, many mechanics under this banner can be missed if a player is not incentivized to seek them out. A level of transparency must exist for this sort of interaction to be mastered. As in competitive games, winning is the goal, but losing can be more of a motivator than a deterrent.
The brain element of a game is interpretation. In many ways it’s the most passive form of interaction in terms of the software. A player with all the information and tools available to them has to synthesize the information on both a tactical and strategic level in order to fulfill their objectives. The more moving pieces, the further that something can be interpreted though it’s not necessary for all possible options to be explored. Evaluating the space on both a micro and macro level gives the sense of problem solving which most games use to build active challenges.
Using the metaphor of verbiage inherent to many descriptions of game design, interpreting requires asking questions. How do I get that Star in Mario 64? Can I defeat the boss at the end of this Dragon Quest dungeon? Do I have enough units to take on my opponent in Starcraft? How much time to I have to complete a mission in Shenmue? These are macro topics which will rest on the player’s mind to drive them forward in each challenge, contextualizing everything in between.
Micro challenges also require that same sort of reasoning. Bounding over pits, sequencing abilities in a turn order, gathering resources, and juggling quests are answers to the above which all require interpretation to solve. Puzzle games are entirely about appraisal of the current state and goal. Tetris is brilliant in it’s way of playing with it’s rules to upend perfectly laid plans on both scales. A game like Lemmings equally has constantly moving pieces whose potential for action requires pre-emptive interpretation.
While it may seem like all games have an element of interpretation – which isn’t strictly wrong – the difference between being interpretation-driven and simply presenting challenges is it’s consistency. A game like Pac-man with discrete, consistent rules (even if most players don’t truly understand them), calls for a reaction of the game state based on where each of the dots and ghosts are. They act according to a specific ruleset that can be worked around. RPGs certainly still do have a range of possibilities, but interpreting a critical hit in Baldur’s Gate isn’t very reliable. Assessment of each system and it’s emergent potential is something that weighs heavily onto whether a player spends a large amount of time pondering their decisions.
As mentioned, interpretation is a rather passive element. There are ways to bring up more information to examine but once an action is made calculation is no longer at play. It can be immediately afterwards such as in a combat system, but the thrill of an interpretation heavy game tends to be in slower chunks where a lot of information can be rooted through. Think of it as the difference between billiards and basketball where the former has more possibilities of thinking through the whole game state than the latter. The mind can be a wonderful thing.
The pillar of advancement is the most self-centered of them, but it is hard to discount the thrill of evolution over time. The unilateral improvement of a system, character, or location does not specifically have to be better than anyone else’s. The mere act of progress provides that rush of dopamine that game designers love to exploit for good or ill. When properly managed it can provide and actual sense of pride and accomplishment and not simply layer time-wasting on top of weak game systems.
It’s obvious that RPG mechanics like greater power and increasing health are the most obvious example of this system. Wizardry, Rogue, Ultima Underworld. I won’t just stay here listing RPGs. Of course it trickles into other genres such as Grand Theft Auto and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. A game like Elite obfuscates it’s RPG elements by using the banner of currency, but it works basically the same as granting yourself a skill in Deus Ex after leveling.
Characters and skills aren’t the only tools which can be periodically enhanced of course. Locations can be upgraded such as in The Sims or Dungeon Keeper. Lovers of those games know that reflecting on the beginning and the end of a game’s map state is a pride in itself. Joy can also be found in completing a level and leaving behind accomplishments, players knowing that they have succeeded in their own personal realm of accomplishment. Getting to Double Dragon’s next stage is as much about the thrill of the battle as it is the expectation of an even greater challenge ahead.
Advancement doesn’t have to be consistent or permanent. Power-ups provide a burst of satisfaction for any shooter fan, even if that second ship in Galaga will be quickly dispatched. Arthur’s armor and special weapons in Ghosts and Goblins are a precarious, often required upgrade for some players. This can also work the other way with the regression of progress being a motivating factor to return to normalcy. The Dark World in Final Fantasy VI has a player primarily motivated not by leveling, but instead by gathering the party back up to continue the story.
A game with no advancement would be completely boring, but just as with the rest of the pillars this doesn’t mean that all games have it as a core value. The draw is about private ambition the desire to see one more checkbox ticked even if that action doesn’t advance anything else. Completionist type players are very accustomed to the thrill of advancement even in it’s mundane form, though more actively there should be incentives for a game that wishes to thrive on that ambition.
This framework is not meant to pass judgment as to the quality of a game or attempt to explain the specifics of how each pillar is defined in a game. I believe that all examples under these headers have an equal amount of appeal to players who enjoy that element. The system is meant to sort like with like and draw comparisons so as to formulate possible genre boundaries. I believe that video game genres can be placed within this framework even if a different definition of player engagement is used. One major deficiency in this system is the inability to distinguish between simulation-style and fantasy-style elements of a game, which I believe are also important to the central tenants of appeal.
I present to you a spreadsheet with graphs detailing my quick summation of a wealth of famous games, including all the examples put forward in this article. Each game is sorted with ten points which must be allotted. The absence of a point doesn’t mean the pillar isn’t at all present, instead that the core focus does not emphasize this for the majority of players. Going through the weeds of detail again as to why would be a tiring exercise for us both, but I encourage you to ask questions as well as post your own rankings based on this system in the comments below.
Thank you for having a read through this admittedly self-indulgent examination which is only tangentially related to history. I think about this stuff a lot alongside my usual delving into sources and I have wanted to better explain my divergence from the standard lettering which will be present in my series. It would pain me to identify every “first person shooter” under that moniker as to diminish the vast array of difference that has always existed within that form. I want to be better.