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My Name is Daniel and I am a Genre Addict

The Role of Game Developers in the Drug Trade

Craftsmen, not Artists
Refining an existing genre into a more addictive mix is a finely honed craft performed by the faceless legions of underpaid, underappreciated, disposable developers. They walk a difficult path. A developer must create something that is better than everyone else, but not too different. If they fail, they are fired.

It is a bit like telling a thoroughbred horse that if it loses, it will be shot. But if horse puts all its heart into the race and beats the other horses by too many strides it will be shot just the same.

This narrowly focused environment favors hard working, yet somewhat generic craftsmen. When the going gets tough, the game developer's philosophical mantra is 'work harder', not 'work different.' Unique, revolutionary artists simply don't survive very long when radical innovation is punished by the marketplace.

Creating the ultimate drug cocktail
In order to win the king-of-the-genre battle, developers spend much of their time mixing and matching elements from existing games, cultural styles, and popular settings.

Typical psychological reward systems evoke a limited range of emotions from users. In general, stripped down game mechanics are capable of goal-oriented responses such as pride, pleasure, frustration, anxiety, and anticipation. A pure game usually has limited appeal.

A developer might mix a high intensity shooter mechanic with slower plot-oriented interludes. The speed alone would burn out most gamers. However, when you chase it with barbiturate, the developers can swing the player through a grand cycle of emotions that accentuates the addictive qualities of the game. Voila, Half-life is born.

Creating new game genres
The majority of games are set in particular well-defined genres. Still, occasionally, developers build a game that creates a new genre. Think of this as the Ecstasy of the drug world.

This drug has to compete against all the other drugs that came before it. Due to the bottlenecks on distribution, there are a limited number of drugs that can exist in the marketplace at any one time. A drug must be at least as addictive as pre-existing drugs to carve a place in the user community.

Most 'new' genres come from a variation of the drug cocktail approach to game design. Mix fighter combos with skateboarding and you have Tony Hawk. Mix racing games with free form environments of Elite and you've got Grand Theft Auto. Add a popular setting into the mix and you've got a potential hit.

A few games like Tetris and the Sims come out of left field and are usually the work of fringe individuals, not corporate R&D.

In general, creating new genre is expensive and - most importantly to the penny pinchers - horribly risky. Most attempts die during the drug R&D lab's selection process, aka 'getting a title signed'.

How to kill a genre
Killing a genre is fun and profitable. First, create the most addictive, polished example of a well established game genre. Since you are tapping the vein of a well established population of genre addicts, your title will sell millions of copies and make you quite a bit of cash. Retailers will adore your game as a proven, low risk product. Gamers and magazines will rabidly promote your game to all their fellow fiends. The shelf life of your game will last years. Your game will become the standard.

At a certain point you will saturate the market of that particular genre. Here is the fun part. Every game from this point forward will be compared to your game and most will fail to offer much value beyond what you've provided. While your game is on the market, all newcomers will be commercial failures because they couldn't push their way to become the new king-of-the-genre.

Publishers will take note and stop funding games in that genre. Why throw money at failures? Eventually, your game will become old and stop selling as strongly. Retailers may even drop it. There will be sporadic attempts to reignite the genre, but your game's massive legacy will overshadow all that follow. The publishers move on. The developers move on. The gamers are left with their fan sites and chat rooms. Amen, the genre is dead.

My list of genre killers who did their job too well:

Myst Adventure games
StarCraft Science Fiction RTS
Warcraft Fantasy RTS
Diablo Action RPGs
Civilization Historical TBS games
Masters of Orion Science Fiction TBS games
HoMM and Master of Magic     Fantasy TBS games

On the bright side, I've seen far less evidence of genre death on consoles. The well-defined console lifecycles means that there is always an opportunity to re-release an old game with better graphics. I'm curious to see if genre death becomes an issue once wide-spread backwards compatibility is adopted.

Marketing Lessons

  The Birth of the Genre Addict
  Publishers: How the Drug Lords of the Industry Profit
  The Role of Game Developers in the Drug Trade
  Marketing Lessons
  Closing thoughts

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