They say that you can’t please all of the people all of the time, and they’re right. Everyone has her or his own taste, finding some things really great and other things really awful. That’s just human nature. Why then do so many videogames attempt to be everything for everybody?
Over time, videogames developed genres. These started off pretty specific (you had your role-playing game, your platformer, your simulation or racing game and so forth), but, because genres are really nothing more than handy descriptors, the lessons that developers took from playing one style of game began to blend into their own, very different ones. There’s nothing wrong with this at all. Blending genres together helped to create interesting new styles of games like the adventure/platform hybrid of Super Metroid or the action/RPG combination of Diablo.
Where the process of intra-genre influence begins to go off the rails is in titles that are developed without knowing exactly what they want to be to begin with — or fall victim to sloppy design choices. The boss fights in Deus Ex: Human Revolution are inexplicable, introducing purely shooter-inspired segments to a game meant to be played in a number of different ways (most importantly as a super stealthy character who sneaks through levels without firing a shot). Grand Theft Auto III blocks progression until the player has completed a difficult street race even though speedy, precise driving isn’t emphasized until that point. Final Fantasy VII even made the baffling choice of including mandatory snowboarding and tower defense sections along the critical path of its turn-based RPG.
It seems unbelievable, especially when you consider that all three of the above videogames are really good when they’re not trying to please some nebulous player who buys an RPG to enjoy some SSX-style action. Introducing these out of place elements to games is the end result of trying to have a little something for everyone, providing a bullet point for the back of a box or, in theory, a “crazy part” for one player to tell another about and inadvertently motivate a purchase.
This sort of thing probably happens fairly often because the modern era of mainstream game development is really bloody expensive. Putting together a large team of educated and experienced individuals, giving them one, two or more years and marketing the end result — a videogame — in a highly competitive industry is ludicrously expensive. In order for a publisher to feel good about their investment, it makes sense for them to ask developers to include material that may have fallen outside of their original design document. The same desire to spread sales across as wide a customer base as possible is likely behind the decision to streamline so many of the “old school” elements out of the sequel to Bioware’s purposefully old school RPG Dragon Age (a decision I personally didn’t mind, but one that seriously bummed out fans of the first game).
The rebirth of niche genre games seems like a response to this sort of genre-blending homogenization. When games begin to incorporate little bits from multiple genres in order to please everyone, people who enjoy only one bit or the other will be happy to buy titles that take a less inclusionary track. Don’t like Modern Warfare’s mix of cinematic storytelling and first-person shooting? Buy Serious Sam or Hard Reset. Not enjoying the changes made to the Deus Ex formula with the most recent entry to the series? There’s a game called E.Y.E that fits the bill.
The fact that the replacement games mentioned above have been developed by independent studios (and are all easily available through digital storefronts) shows that, when the costlier productions shy away from spending big money on potentially niche genres, the void can be filled by indies who are eager to provide whatever the medium lacks.
There’s nothing wrong with mixing genres, but videogames are a big enough industry for everyone to enjoy what they like without developers/publishers trying to please everyone with every release. Mixing and matching from different styles of gameplay can lead to fantastic results, but, as with every artistic endeavour, positive outcomes usually come about when this kind of mixture is done because it makes sense and not just because it increases commercial appeal.
Reid McCarter is a writer, editor and musician living and working in Toronto. He has written for sites and magazines including Kill Screen, The Escapist and C&G Magazine. He founded, writes and edits the videogame blog digitallovechild.com and is Twitter-ready @reidmccarter