Thursday, May 5, 2005

Game Genre Lifecycle: Part I

The life cycles of game genres and the lessons that they teach us

Over the years people have bemoaned the rise and fall of various gaming genres, but there has been little analysis behind the functional processes that drive this critical market systems.

Genres are a major defining factor in the creation of rich markets of avid gamers and designers ignore them at our own risk. We cannot assume that a genre will always exist, or that a genre will have competitive room for our latest title. A genre in the wane is a dangerous market where past success is no indication of future success.

Equally important is the opportunity that genres present. If we can understand how genres arise and change over time, we can tilt fate in our favor by releasing and developing new titles that hit emerging genres with the correct timing and release strategies.

Several pressing questions come to mind:

  • What are the stages of a typical genre's lifecycle
  • What does genre evolution tell us about creating financially viable new genres?
  • What are the common success strategies associated with each lifecycle stage?

Adventure Games: Just the Facts

It's all about the numbers

I have been guilty in the past of focusing on theory and not relying using a foundation of real world data to back up my discussion. Luckily, this the topic of genre evolution has a rich resource in the form of the database. The database lists over 20,000 games across 55 platforms. Games range from 1978 through 2005 and are organized according to a wide variety of categories and sub-categories.

Though by no means perfect, I was impressed by the breadth and accuracy of the information I found within. The large quantity of games and the historically minded nature of the site's contributors limits the 'survivor' bias that is common to data recorded after the fact. When possible, I double checked genre classifications against my personal recollection and other resources on the web.

I choose adventure games, a genre that many claim as 'dead' and tracked it from its first recorded inception in 1978 until the last valid data point in 2003.

The primary focus was the number of titles released per year. I would have loved to use sales numbers or aggregate review ratings, but neither piece of information as publicly available in any reliable form.

(A great service to the game research community would be sales numbers for all games released in a particular time period. Unfortunately, the competitive realities of the game industry make this unlikely.)

Adventure Games: "I'm not dead yet!"
The initial graph I ran just looked at 'adventure games' as defined in the following fashion:

Adventure: Denotes any game where the emphasis is based on experiencing a story through the manipulation of one or more user-controlled characters and the environment they exist in. Game play mechanics emphasize decision over action." - Moby Games

This was a good starting point and fit my preconceived notion of the traditional adventure game including classics such as King's Quest or even Grim Fandango.

Surprisingly, the number of adventure games rises time goes on. I was expecting to see a precipitous drop at the end of the 1990's. In fact, adventure games and their descendents are the second most popular genre as late as 2003.

Number of titles released in major genres in 2003
  1. Action: 573
  2. Adventure: 317
  3. Strategy: 266
  4. RPG: 179
  5. Simulation: 159
  6. Sports: 137
  7. Racing / Driving: 125

Genre Mutation
The major genres are by no means exclusive categories. On closer examination, day traditional plot driven adventure category has been mixed (or 'cut' in the language of gaming addiction) with game mechanisms from almost every possible alternative genre. There are strategy adventures, action adventures, etc. There are even racing-adventure games. (Beyond Good and Evil is one of the more interesting examples of this sort of genre-bending) The adventure game is dead, long live its mutant offspring.

Creating a useful definition of Game Genre
Much of this apparent growth in the adventure genre stems from poor classification. Let's go back to the definition of a genre that we started to develop in the genre addiction article.

Game Genre: A common set of game mechanics and interface standards that a group of titles share. The common set of psychological risk/reward systems present in a game determine it's membership in a genre grouping.

This is a rather rigid definition of genre, yet it explains much of life cycle trends the various genres. I hope to tackle the following topics with this particular definition:

  • Obtain a clear working definition of genres using concretely definable game mechanics, not ill-defined concepts such as 'fantasy' or 'science fiction'.
  • Track the lifecycle of various genres in a statistical fashion.
  • Gain insight into game design guidelines that may help reduce the risk of creating innovative game designs.

Market Factors: It is all a wash
To be clear, I'm intentionally ignoring differences such as whether or not a game is a fantasy RPG versus a science-fiction RPG. I am well aware that platform, setting, and plot, and license are important secondary market factors. The contextual elements of a game design can make or break a specific game.

My initial assumption is that many of these factors are long term cultural trends that exist on a time-scale much larger than an individual game. Well delivered plot is eternally delightful. Visuals that fit the whims of the public are a development technique that was available to past designers as well as future designers. Smart developers across multiple genres will always take advantage contextual elements to increase their sales.

The point is I'm assuming that developers will execute on all these contextual elements equally well or badly in some statistically uniform distribution. I'm taking the grand bet that these factors are a wash when it comes to examining the lifecycle of various games genres. In fact, my initial look at the problem using aggregate game rankings shows same basic normal distribution of game scores within any genre at any point in time.

Modeling: "Imagine a spherical cow"
So why focus on game mechanics as the defining factor? Because we can. According to the game design layers theory, core game mechanics are the most tangible, well-defined aspect of a game. We are going back to the basics and seeing what that gets us.

In physics, we have a joke that sums up this attitude quite nicely. A man asks a physics professor how long it would take for Holstein cow dropped from a 747 to hit the ground. The professor replies "First, let us assume a spherical cow..."

Sometimes we need to simplify a complex real world situation in order to begin modeling it. My hope is that this simple mechanics-based definition of game genres will provide substantial insight into how genres grow, evolve and eventually fade away.

Interactive Fiction
Let's use our new genre definition to tightly define a genre. Interactive Fiction is pretty clear cut.

Defining Core Game mechanics

  • Risk elements are composed of puzzle solving with a simple text-based parser. Puzzle solving tends to consist of acquiring an object and then using that object in the correct location.
  • Basic reward comes in the form reading new plot elements.
Defining Metagame mechanics
  • Limited player statistics or meta-game elements.
  • A linear narrative is used to connect the series of puzzles.
Other Game Design Layers
The above definition takes care of almost any text adventure I came across in during data collection. We can talk about contextualized objects, plot, etc, but these vary dramatically across games in the genre without giving us too much additional insight.

Notes on the Genre Definition
When defining the basic elements of the game, I'm splitting up the core game mechanics into two groups:
  • Risk elements: The actions that the player must perform successfully
  • Reward Elements: The 'treats' that the player gets for successfully completing the actions.

Immediately, we run into an interesting discovery about reward systems. The physical form of the reward system appear to matter greatly in the definition of the genre. In this case 'plot' arises as a reward mechanism. As we look at additional genres, we'll be able to make some conclusions about how different reward systems affect the addictiveness of the title.

A side note on plot. When you start thinking of games using mechanics-based definition, eternal debates such as the importance of story become very clear cut. Plot points are merely one of the many forms of reward that the designer has in their tool box.

The Data: Interactive Fiction

I graphed the number of titles released in a particular year using frequency polygons. The data was culled from an automated search on Moby Games and then compared to my above definition to make sure that each title fit.

We can see five clear phases of the genre lifecycle. These correspond with the typical product lifecycles you would see in most consumer categories, with some key differences.

  • Introduction: A new and addictive set of game mechanics are created.
  • Growth: The game mechanics are experimented with and genre addiction begins to spread.
  • Maturity: The game mechanics are standardized and genre addiction form a strong market force. Product differentiation occurs primarily through higher layer design elements like plot, license, etc.
  • Decline: The market consolidates around the winners of the king-of-the-genre battles that occurred during the Maturity phase. New games genres begin stealing away the customer base. With less financial reward, less games are released.
  • Niche: A population of hardcore genre addicts provides both the development resources and audience for the continued development of games in the genre. Quality decreases.

The first four phases are quite standard product phases. The last phase 'niche' occurs in many products, but is worth calling out due it's impact on indie development design decisions. Let us see if this pattern holds in other genres and if we can glean any addition insights from it.

Graphical Interactive Fiction
Graphical Interactive Fiction is a clear evolution from the interactive fiction genre. Not only do games in this genre add graphics as an enhance reward, but they also focus more strongly on graphical puzzles.

Defining Core Game mechanics

  • Risk elements are composed of puzzle solving with a simple text-based or icon-based parser. Puzzle solving tends to involving gaining an object and then using that object in the correct location.
  • Graphical puzzles make an appearance as a major activity.
  • Basic reward comes in the form of watching new plot elements.

Defining Metagame mechanics
  • Limited player statistics or meta-game elements.
  • A linear narrative is used to connect the series of puzzles.

Notes on the Genre Definition
The major apparent shift here is in the reward system. The introduction of graphics provides a more intense reward for the player.

The risk systems also change to a more graphically oriented method. Text parsers start to die as developers figure out that iconic puzzle solving offers a more streamlined approach to puzzle building.

The Data: Graphic Adventures

This graph was generated in the same method as before. It was a bit more interesting coming up with the data this time since the adventure genre was in full evolutionary explosion. The graphic adventure may be the clearest descendent of the text adventure, but it was not alone.

Others include:

  • Action Adventure
  • Puzzle Platformer
  • RPG
Examples of each of these emerge in the early 80's and some have a strong market presence even today. (A delightfully future project would be creating a chart that shows the evolutionary relationship of historical genres. Unfortunately, the query engine of Moby Games is limited in the current iteration and I did not have the ability to cull through the thousands of games in the database in an efficient fashion.)

A more informative graph shows the relationship between text adventures and graphics adventures

This chart shows three identifiable genres: Interactive fiction, graphical interactive fiction, and an unexpected new genre: adult graphical interactive fiction. We'll dig into this later.

Text adventure were some of the earliest games and peaked in popularity in the mid-80s. Graphic adventures came into existence shortly after the text adventure, but peaked in the early 90s.

It is impossible to determine an exact causal relationship, but graphics adventure arguably supplanted text adventures.

take care

Read next chapter: Game Genre Lifecycle Part II

I'm starting to build up a list of specialized terms from my previous essays. Here is a short cheat sheet

  • Genre Addict: Someone who strongly prefers to play a specific genre. There are elements of psychological addiction driving this preference.
  • King-of-the-genre: The top title in a genre that wins the purchases of a majority of genre addicts.
  • Game design layers: The concept that a game is built in layers with the most basic systems being core psychological risk / reward systems and higher layers focusing on contextual elements such as plot, characters and setting.
  • Craftsmen designers: Designers who prefer to focus on higher layer game design elements such as plot, characters, etc instead of core game mechanics. They are often strong genre addicts.
  • Design testing: The process of systematically instrumenting and logging player addiction statistics as a feedback mechanism for turning core game play. The goal of design testing is to increase the addictive nature of the game.
  • Player addiction: The concept that games are psychologically addictive systems that use risk / reward mechanics to produce measurable player behavioral change.


  1. Hey Danc,

    I've been fascinated by your posts and reading them quite avidly as of late. Please continue the excellent work.

    You mention above that once a genre reaches "niche" status, quality decreases. I understand that, with less competition developers may not be giving it their full effort. Or, perhaps a smaller market share reduces developmental resources. Is it fair to say that the games that come out during this phase are necessarily of less quality? Perhaps you could provide any example to illustrate.


  2. The question of quality for niche titles is one bound to spawn debate.

    The forces going against increased quality in niche games:
    - Reduced competition
    - Reduced resources
    - Reduced talent pool

    The forces benefiting quality in niche games
    - Developer experience
    - Highly evolved gameplay mechanics to borrow from.

    There is also "perceived" quality. Here you start dealing with memories of past games and comparing them to current niche titles in an uncrowded market place. It becomes quite difficult to gain an objective perspective.

    Graphics adventures seems to be a classic example. It is certainly in a niche phase. The Grim Fandangos and Monkey Islands of the Day seem much more successful (as games, not in terms of sales) than titles like Leisure Suit Larry. Is this a statistical measurement? Certainly not.

    Looking at 'quality' of niche games may be beside the point. If you can make an okay game in an abandoned market and tap into a lapsed audience, then good for you! Quality only truely matter relative to competition. If you produce the most desirable graphics adventure *currently available* on the market, then ideally you can make a profit on your investment. Niche games often win their customers by default.

    To paraphrase the Art of War, if your enemy builds his camp on a hill, don't attack him. Build your own camp on a different hill.

    take care