Thursday, May 5, 2005

Game Genre Lifecycle: Part II

How to kill a genre: Revisited
In my previous article, I discussed how a single king-of-the-genre title can take such a large market share of genre addicts that it gains a market monopoly that crushes future competition. This tale is certainly quite palatable to many craggy old genre addicts who reminisce about their favorite genre. However, now that I've looked at some more data I'd like to revise my theory of genre death.

  • First, genres do not seem to die. Instead they fade away with a long tail of minor product releases during the niche phase.
  • Second, genres die because they are out competed in the market place by other more addictive genres. These new genres typically improve on some core game mechanic of a precursor genre.
  • Third, the consolidation that results from the epic king-of-the-genre battles creates a rigid development structure that is unable to adapt to market challengers.

Near the decline of a genre, companies have clear investment patterns:

  • Investment in higher layer design activities: Major effort spent on elements such as plot and setting.
  • Investment in low-yield low layer design activities: Minor tweaks to game mechanics that don't fundamentally change the addictive nature of the game play.

From a portfolio management stand point, this investment pattern makes a lot of sense. Publishers want to reduce risk and out compete the other publishers for the king-of-the-genre dollars. Winning these battles can mean life or death to a publisher.

From a genre management perspective, these publishing tactics merely put a nail in the coffin of a potentially long lived genre. By focusing on pleasing genre addicts, the genre becomes prone to stagnation.

The craftsmen's downfall
This last point is worth exploring further. In both the case of text adventures and graphics adventures, there emerged a strong, highly dominant genre leader. With text adventures, this was Infocom. With graphic adventures this was Sierra (with perhaps LucasArts sharing the title). These companies became market leaders through mastery of their chosen game genre.

Yet, their skills were their downfall.

  • During the peak of each genre, the genre leaders released large numbers of titles with fundamentally the same core game mechanics.
  • Innovation was limited to variations on a theme (A Mind Forever Voyaging, Police Quest, Hero's Quest, etc).
  • Decline phase titles focused heavily on high layer design techniques. Skilled craftsmen and cowboy designers, schooled in the 'perfect genre formula' moved into key leadership positions. They caused massive amounts of money to be poured into elements like plot, improved graphics, new settings, etc. These low yield design activities did not substantially increase the addictive qualities of the titles.
  • If game's addiction rating stands still, it falls behind other more innovative titles. Players began sampling other genres.
  • Average per title sales began to decline. Even though they were 'following the formula', the dramatic leap in sales that accompanied early successful king-of-the-genre titles was not reproducible. This increase in sales traditional came from genre addict consolidation, not from pure market growth.
The craftsmen attempted to adapt, but this was difficult. With their skills so heavily entrenched in a specific genre, their attempts in other genres were of limited success. Infocom was sold to Activision. Sierra released a large swatch of poor titles that failed to achieve king-of-the-genre status in emerging markets. LucasArts dumped their adventure teams and focused on the safe haven of the Star Wars license. The hemorrhaging of talent in all cases was brutal.

When I see the great craftsmen of past genres, I'm saddened by their end. The truest craftsmen amongst them rarely make a comeback. They succeeded because they were polishers, not innovators. They fade into obscurity, unable to escape the rigid lessons learned during their long ascension to mastery of a faded genre.

And this is how the genre is put on life support. The best development teams are destroyed and the skills to create great titles are lost. A passionate few attempt to keep the genre alive, but they focus on recreating the past. Historical blinders prevent them from creating a new mix of potent game mechanics that can compete in current market conditions.

take care

Read next chapter: Game Genre Lifecycle Part III
Read previous chapter: Game Genre Lifecycle Part I