A few weeks ago, while wandering the local software aisle, a certain box drew my attention. It advertised the game as a blend of the real time strategy and role playing genres, featuring an economy based on cows. Because of the cows alone, the game went on my list of games to purchase after they hit the bargain bins. It was the advertised mix of genres, though, that drew a closer look.
Every now and then, I want something new. All too often, it seems the biggest difference between games of the same genre is the artwork. Some are more playable than others. Some may have better voice acting, or better cut scenes, or maybe a few new elements to liven things up a bit, but beneath all that we are still dealing with a style of game that has been done before. For instance, take Diablo 2 and Diablo. These games were separated by half a decade, and yet the game play is very similar. Diablo 2 stands out in terms of diversity and depth, but both games feature largely the same style of game play.
Perhaps a better example would be StarCraft, claimed by some to be the best real time strategy game ever made, in comparison with Empire Earth. Empire Earth, while not all that well received by the critics or the market, is one of the more complex and difficult real time strategy games out there. It arrived about half a decade after StarCraft. Despite that difference in release date and scope, their descriptions could be identical. In both cases, you build a base containing several structures that allow you to create and upgrade several types of military units that you then use in an attempt to defeat the opposition. The ability to construct a well designed base is critical, as is the ability to manage a number of individual units in combat. In both games, there are important decisions to be made regarding the ratio of technology spending to unit spending, and on which avenues of technology to pursue early in the game. The successful player will make minimal moves with the mouse and make extensive use of hot keys and keyboard based commands. If you have played StarCraft, the most striking changes in Empire Earth will be the graphics. Unit and building names will change, but fundamental strategies will remain the same. You play the one very similarly to the way you play the other.
Cases could be made almost across all genres. A successful Quake 3 player will likely be a highly competitive Unreal Tournament player. The game play is very close to identical. Anyone who has played Pharaoh would likely be at home in any of the SimCity series. Again, the style of play is very similar. This is not to say that all strategy or all role playing games are the same. Far from it. Great games are great games for a reason, and those reasons are genre independent. Likewise, bad games are bad games for reasons that do not include the type of game it is. If you have played Age of Empires, WarCraft 3 is still well worth playing and will provide a lot of new entertainment. It is not a bad thing that games of the same genre are similar in game play. To the contrary, this similarity makes it easy to pick out a new game and to learn it more quickly.
The problem is in the limited number of genres. We could very quickly list the genres. There are not all that many. Within each genre, the games can always be better. Each new generation has improvements over the previous. Each new generation adds to the game play and depth; this is all well and good. But what about new genres? How long has it been since any of us has played something so completely different that we needed the tutorial to even get started? How long has it been since game designers came out with something brand new, something so unique that even releasing it was a risk?
There have been a few in recent history. Black and White came very close to creating a whole new genre. The Sims might have actually managed that creation. The Battlezone series, perhaps the best mix of base-building real time strategy and first person combat yet, remains largely outside the current classifications. Syberia brought back the adventure genre, but can not honestly be given credit for inventing it. Sacrifice was certainly unique, but again was not exactly something altogether new. To this list could surely be added one or two more, but not many. Groundbreaking games are few and far between.
But I think there is ground yet to be broken. Genre integration offers a world of possibilities. WarCraft 3 and Warlords Battlecry offer perhaps the best unity of real time strategy and role playing so far published. There is plenty of territory in that union for development, including the development of something that is neither one nor the other, but a brand new genre that blends the two. I would love to see the brains behind Battlezone 2 hook up with the guys currently working on UT2k4 and bring base-building combat back. But that too would be a union of genres, and not truly something new. So where do we go? For starters, follow the Revolution. Republic: The Revolution that is. This was something new, and while it was in development seemed to flirt with greatness. It seems to have missed that mark, but it could yet be the start of something new. A genre in which the gamer uses the tools of society to achieve a goal. A sort of role playing game that makes use of politics and bribery instead of battle axes and poison. Workable? Sure. It just needs a dedicated team of talented people to make it happen.
The computer gaming industry is right now perhaps at the height of its influence and success. But it still needs that brand new thing to come out of Nowheresville and shake things up now and then. The Sims did it. Black and White did it. But neither of these has as yet fathered a genre. There were isolated incidents, and not a sign of things to come. Hopefully, those things to come will arrive soon. In the meantime, there is always World of WarCraft to look forward to.