Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Genre: How it Shapes Game Design

I often find myself looking across the breadth of the internet, hoping to find something interesting to share with other gamers.  Sometimes it’s a product, like the Wyrmwood Deck Boxes I’ve reviewed in the past.  Other times, it’s a game, like Last Days or This is Not a Test.  However, every so often I end up asking myself a question like “Is there a Steampunk minis game, or has anyone made a post human experience role-playing game?”  (The answer to both questions is yes, as Malifaux is definitely a Steampunk minis extravaganza, Eclipse Phase defines itself by the post human experience it offers.)  However, I’m overlooking a basic assumption in my decision process.  Why was I looking specifically for a Steampunk Minis game, or a post human experience RPG?  

What part of that genre was I specifically looking for?  Genre, according to Webster, is a category of artistic, musical, or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content.  What are the specific genre elements that attracted my attention to that game rather than a different one?  These are questions that help me as a player identify the things that I like about the game and attract me to it, or push me away from it.  
What are the aesthetics to the game?  Is it a grim dark world of fantasy where the good guys are barely hanging on by a thread?  Is it a steampunk dystopia where there are no good guys?  Have the atomic bombs fallen and bold survivors try to scrape by in the ruins of civilization?  Is the world overrun by zombies and things are increasingly bleak?  Is this a historical recreation of a battle from the annals of history?  
A genre can be used to convey the overall theme (not the purpose or the expected outcome) of a game in a short two or three word blurb, or at the longest, a sentence.  The questions in the paragraph above convey a rough idea of the stylistic elements of the game without digging deeply into the nuts and bolts of how it plays.  I can tell another gamer that this game is a post atomic apocalypse, and with those three words I have given him/her the basic style of the game without digging into it beyond that.  If he/she decides that those style elements sound good, then we can discuss the game a little further in depth and maybe try a demo game.  
One of the issues I’ve heard when playing games in the past, (and I think I’ve said it once or twice) is “Well, this game is okay, but it doesn’t feel like genre expected.”  Specializing in a specific niche opens up options for digging into rules that can make the game feel more like the aesthetics they are trying to put forward.  For example, in most fantasy games there is a faction of necromancer types that regularly make zombies to fight for them, and these are simple, rank and file monsters that shamble around the table and feebly swing at the other factions.  If you applied the same zombies to a zombie survival game, it wouldn’t feel right because the zombies aren’t behaving the way they should.  
So, looking at the zombie genre, (and it’s blown up a lot in the last twenty years), we find that zombies in a zombie movie, or novel or what have you, are supposed to predatory scavengers that attack in packs and roam in large groups looking for humans to eat.  They are hard to injure, usually requiring a shot to the head to disable, and are attracted to noise.  In most incarnations, they are the aftereffect of some cataclysmic event, (plague, curse, biological spill), and continue to infect and destroy the living.  Overall, these do sound like interesting traits to apply to a monster in a given game, and these characteristics should shape the game design elements for how they play on a table top.  
Genre when applied to game design can have a massive impact on how the game plays and more importantly, feels.  A game that you like how it plays is a game that you will pick up every so often and give a whirl.  A game that you like the feel of is a game that you will tinker and putter with regularly.  A game that you like both the play and feel of is a game that you will go out of your way to introduce to new players.  I am like this with Battletech, and as you’ve seen in my blog, I putter and tinker constantly with.
So what does this mean to a consumer of games?  It means that you should find a game that scratches the genre itch you’re looking for.  If you’re looking for a steampunk experience, find a game that embraces the steampunk genre full tilt and play the crap out of it.  You’ll scratch that itch, have learned a new game, and possibly given yourself a wonderful new hobby experience of painting models and terrain.  This also means that when the itch creeps back up, you have a starting point to get back into that game.  
What does this mean to producers of games?  It means that you should look at your genre as hard as you do for your mechanics when you design a game.  Calling a game Steampunk because all the art in the book has odd clockwork contraptions and goggles everywhere means very little when the substance of the game is not a steampunk driven experience.  It feels like it’s bolted on, and can leave an unpleasant play experience in the mouth of a new gamer.  
What does this mean to marketers of games?  It means that you should take a damn hard look at a new product and make sure that it is what it says it is.  No one likes to buy lemons (aside from lemon enthusiasts). People who buy a new game based on the premise you’ve sold them are going to be understandable unpleased when that game turns out to be something completely different.  
Neat Genres that have their own game systems
Post Atomic:  This is Not a Test
This is Not a Test embodies the idea of surviving a nuclear holocaust as a band of survivors working from one bombed out shell of society to another.  With a core rulebook in production as well as models and other accessories, This is Not a Test is an excellent skirmish wargame between you and your friends.  With options for campaign play and improving your group of survivors, it gives you the experience of a game like Fallout on a tabletop.  
Steampunk:  Malifaux
Malifaux is a steampunk wonderland that showcases the struggle between very different groups of people (in most cases).  They are all struggling with each other over the supply of a unique mineral only found on the other side of a dimensional breach.  These groups range from very traditional cowboy type law enforcement, magic wielding dancing girls, goblins, Asian style mystic monks and a barrel of other neat choices.  The fine folks at Wyrd Miniatures continue to add new models to each faction as the story progresses and new options to their game play.  (Interesting fact, Malifaux uses a deck of cards rather than dice for resolving all game play mechanics).  
Zombies:  Last Days
Last Days is a fast playing rules set that covers the struggle of two (or more) players fighting over resources in a zombie infested post-apocalyptic world.  Each player controls a warband of survivors from a specific idea (Cops, First Responders, Military, Civilians, and of course Zombies) and they battle for control of resources scavenged from what’s left of society.  It definitely embraces the aesthetics of its genre and feels like you’re playing your way through a zombie movie.  
Those are our deep gaming thoughts for the week, so check back for more random BattleTech, skirmish war gaming, and if my camera works, maybe some new pictures later in the week. 

Game on, Game Fans


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