Game Genres: Making Sense of the Trends in 2002
By George Chronis
It used to be easy to tell console gamers apart from computer gamers. As recently as 1998, the two cultures broke down as follows:
Prefer white T-Shirts Prefer black T-Shirts
Prefer fast arcade gameplay Prefer more in-depth game experiences
Under 20 Over 30
Demand 3D arcade-like graphics Accept 2D graphics if gameplay is good
Fun is all about hand/eye coordination Fun is all about using your mind
Multiplay is better in the living room Multiplay is better across continents
Music is minimal and looped repeatedly Music is keyed to player action
Strategy is figuring out what TV to plug into Strategy is what you apply to opponents
Demand plug-and-play Accept plug-and-pray
Spend more available income on games More disposable income
Sports is all about executing plays Sports is all about managing teams
A funny thing happened on the way to 2002, many of the distinctions in the electronic entertainment world, both in platforms and genres, have blurred. Console gamers got older, their tastes in games becoming more refined. Computer gamers got younger, with a greater yen for action. As the industry became comfortable with selling millions of units of hit titles, the concept of electronic entertainment as mass-market packaged goods became a reality, leading publishers to ship games targeted at wider audiences. Videogame systems embraced compact discs as a storage medium, allowing games more opportunities for titles with more play depth and features than traditional cartridges could support. Lastly, computer technology has exploded in terms of expanded capabilities, as unit prices for components have plummeted, giving game developers systems for which they may create realistic environments as never before, and more consumers inexpensive platforms they can justify owning.
So where are game genres going today?
As the age demographic of videogame and computer game users converges to a median point somewhere in the mid-20s, we have seen a corresponding evolution in what game genres are growing in popularity. In short, gamers, even the die-hard console variety, are progressively responding to more "meat," depth, or realism in their electronic entertainment. No argument, gamers still want their experience to be fun, but older median ages lead to preferences for titles offering more than traditional twitch-dependent arcade games favored by the pubescent consumer.
This trend first turned up in the PC segment, and its got first widespread recognition with the success of Rainbow Six. Younger gamers raised on a steady diet of fantasy action shooters were raving about the whole squad concept, working with team mates (online or AI) toward a shared goal, living with the reality that one bullet kills, and getting maimed slows a soldier down. The same trend was accentuated with the success of Half-Life, and its squad-based add-ons, Team Fortress Classic and Counterstrike.
The scenario also plays out in non-combat simulations such as The Sims, Roller Coaster Tycoon, and Train Sim. Even a racing series as arcade-based as Test Drive is seeing the design team spend many hours and resources on realistic vehicle physics and damage models.
But it's just not computer games. Console titles are also witnessing much the same evolution in tastes. Take football games. NFL Blitz is the model of classic console sports games in which the actual game of football takes a back seat to a rock 'em, sock 'em condensed form of the real sport. But in the last two years, the football game that really turned heads was Sega's NFL 2K and NFL 2K1, with highly realistic play calling and player graphics. You can also see the same trends creeping into Gran Turismo, Metal Gear Solid, Goldeneye, etc. Despite the control handicaps presented by console gamepads, the games themselves, and their gameplay, are still getting more realistic.
Looking at the fourth quarter of 2000, we saw a switch in buying patterns that supports the contention that gamers want more depth. Compared to the same period in 1999, the unit share of action titles declined from 26 percent to 20 percent, while more involving strategy/RPG titles grew 40 percent to 25 percent. The increase in strategy/RPG was driven by a litany of Pokemon games, Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, The Sims, Final Fantasy IX and the continued strength of Roller Coaster Tycoon. The next most popular genres held their positions from the fourth quarter of 1999: sports, racing and fighting.
Another factor driving gamers to more depth in their electronic entertainment is the relentless march of powerful, and cheaper, new technology that provides game developers the opportunity to add more features to their games. The more computing power available, the greater the realism that can be added.
Ask developers why they are so enthusiastic about the PS2 and the Xbox, and many of them will tell you that the key isn't whether the PC will catch up or surpass the new consoles in capability, but that these new consoles have so much power available in a locked platform where the lowest common denominator is far above the range they have to factor for with PCs. Therefore, the games can be more, and do more.
The results of this technology curve are greater realism in character modeling and movement, 3D environments, facial expressions; special effects, sound and music keyed to player action, as well as the ability to create huge worlds and gameplay scenarios that possess greater mission depth and experiences.
Despite being a given with the PC platform, for the first time developers will have the kind of CD disc storage, 3D graphics power, and hard disk storage to enable them to create realistic game worlds on the latest consoles, as well. Without any edicts from Sony or Microsoft, third-party PS2 and Xbox games will naturally gravitate more to this realism because the developers want to go there.
Nintendo's Genre Counterpoint
As the PC, PS2 and Xbox platforms move to progressively more realistic experiences, Nintendo is left staking out a much more whimsical beachhead by itself. Thanks to Nintendo's core business of character-based titles strong on a sense of wonder and serendipity. Nintendo isn't concerned with, or encouraging its third-party partners to be concerned, with using the power of it's upcoming GameCube system to push realistic physics models or highly realistic experiences. Nintendo is concerned with building a gameplay experience that promotes it's character licenses. So expect a continued emphasis on bright, beautiful, high-quality graphics pushing a cartoon-style anti-realism. Overall, this will give consumers (parents especially, if they equate realism with violence) one more reason to see a "difference" in GameCube games worth choosing over PS2 and Xbox.
Further supporting this beachhead is Nintendo's continued dominance of the handheld market via the hot selling Game Boy Advance, and the still respectable performance of the Game Boy Color. Possessing less processing power than their next-generation siblings, these handhelds will get less realistic games. In the case of the Game Boy, we've already seen how easy it is to port catalog NES titles. That trend is continuing with the GBA getting SNES, Genesis (and maybe Saturn) titles from earlier years. We've already seen how fanciful Pokemon games have done in the last three years. Therefore we can expect to see handheld titles offering an experience less realistic, but more whimsical and arcade-like in the foreseeable future. Especially since hyper reality isn't high on Nintendo's priority list for game design.
The good news for consumers is diversity of product and experiences for every taste. The better news for retailers and publishers, is that this genre divergence could better support the number of new consoles on the market.
As with the motion picture and music businesses, electronic games present something for all styles and tastes. This is true even within genres. There is a growing audience that wants realistic simulation of some real-life experience at the same time another huge audience that is looking for escape, excitement and fun. Of course there is some overlap between the two as some people like both realism and escape, just at different times. A sports fan may one week prefer NFL 2K or Madden NFL 2002, and next week want to indulge in NFL Blitz or NBA Street. So too within the racing genre that contains ultra-realistic sims like NASCAR Racing, mid-level sims like Gran Turismo, and fantasy kart-racing games.
Talk to executives at Sony Computer Entertainment or Microsoft Corp., and both camps will speak long about how their consoles will provide a wide range of realistic and fantasy themed titles for diverse consumers. But as mentioned above, our prediction is that Nintendo's dedicated concentration on character-based, cartoon-style games will lead to good tidings for that gamemaker, and at the same make it easier for three-plus consoles to survive and thrive.
Should the PS2 and Xbox gravitate toward more realistic experiences as a side-effect of their powerful technology, thanks to how developers choose to use that technology, buoyed by the growing interest by many gamers in more realistic experiences, then the console market may grow along progressively segregated consumer bases. So, it may not be PS2, Xbox and GameCube fighting for the exact same turf. Rather, the PS2 and Xbox will shoot it out in a classic two-system battle for similar consumer demographics, while the GameCube and Game Boy Advance start to carve out an overlapping "sense of wonder" consumer demographic mostly to themselves. Yes, there will be consumer cross-over between all systems, but this two-tier segmentation could provide the foundation to sustain stable overall growth numbers for the industry as a whole.