Saturday, May 7, 2005

Game Genre Lifecycle: Part IV

Profiting from the Genre Lifecycle
Let us revisit the genre life cycle and summarize what we have learned. I'll also discuss basic design strategies for succeeding during each phase of the genre lifecycle. I apologize ahead of time if some of these comments are a bit tongue-in-cheek.

"A new and addictive set of game mechanics are created."

During the introduction phase, there is lots of risk and not a lot of profit. You don't have genre addicts to boost your new game sales. The good news is that there isn't a lot of competition either.

  • Focus on innovative risk mechanics: The only way you'll create a new genre is by creating new risk mechanics. If you are able to think about game rules abstractly, attack the problem directly. If you are more focused on reward systems, pick a unique and powerful reward mechanism and then iterate on innovative risk mechanics that can package the reward more effectively. The Simon-style boss fights in God of War are a good example of this in a modern game.
  • Use Design Testing: This will reduce the risk of creating an non-addictive game and increase your chance of creating a massively addictive game.
  • Use an existing brand or theme : From a marketing stand point, game mechanics don't sell during the introduction phase. Remember, people can't get addicted to your title until they play it. So hoodwink customers into playing the title by using a brand or them that they already identify with.
  • Create a small diverse team: Interesting people from interesting backgrounds make for great creativity. Heck, hire folks who may not even be gamers. The original Sims development team or the team for Katamari Damacy are good examples of this tactic.
  • Avoid heavy plots, cut scenes, non-algorithmic animations, etc: These are expensive and inhibit your ability to rapidly iterate on the game's core addictive qualities. You'll need them when you enter into a hard core king-of-the-genre competition, but you don't need them now.
  • Focus on the learning curve: The initial few seconds of the game are critical. No one will know how to play your game and you'll lose most people the moment they pick up the controls. Tutorials and streamlined control systems are your friends. Tweaks to the control system for expert users can come later.
  • Focus on replay value: Word of mouth is important and the more someone plays they more likely they are to tell their friends about 'this exciting new game' on the top of their mind.
  • Aim for the future : Your goal during the introduction phase is to create a modest success by doing something different. Ideally, this lets you build a unique brand and fan base that can dominate your new genre in the future. Developers who followed this path include id (FPS), Peter Molyneux (god games), Will Wright (Sim games), and Westwood Studios (RTS).
"The game mechanics are experimented with and genre addiction begins to spread."

The growth phase is the primary period to set up a strong brand in a genre you have not invented. This is the perfect time for an opportunistic team to be heralded as an innovator without all the risks that comes from creating a new genre from the ground up.

  • Track new titles to spot innovation early: Has a new title emerged that has solid reviews, but poor sales? This is often a sign of innovation since good review indicate addictive game play is at work and the lack of sales may be the result of genre addicts ignoring the title because it is too different.
  • Watch for new game mechanics: Does the title differentiate itself with game mechanics or is it considered unique because of setting, plot, etc? Ignore the dressing. You'll likely want to replace that anyway. But new successful game mechanics can be like a pot of gold.
  • Spread your net far: Sometimes the most interesting game mechanics come from smaller companies. This is good, because these companies don't have the resources to build a strong competitive brand. If you just focus on high profile innovative titles (like the Sims) you'll have to compete with their brand and the comparison can hurt you.
  • Focus on a rich setting: If you know you have addictive game play that has no major competition, you can put substantial energy into creating an appealing mass market setting. This is an investment in a unique asset that cannot be stolen or copied. You can use this setting as part of a strong brand in the future to enhance your games. The KingsQuest setting is a good example of this tactic in adventure games. The Warcraft setting accomplished the same goal in the RTS genre.
  • Grab a setting niche: This is related to the above point. By being the first in a genre to release a solid fantasy, historical, or science fiction setting, you establish your title as the king-of-the-hill for players who prefer that setting. Often, you can maintain your leadership position for multiple months (perhaps even a year) which in turn gives you enhanced sales as the genre grows in popularity.
  • Focus on polish: No original game is perfect. There are typically usability flaws, a lack of length, etc. Play test the game substantially and fix the major issues. By 'bringing the game up to standards', in terms of graphics, cut scenes, etc you increase your chances of creating a break out hit.
  • Don't be too innovative: Be wary of reinventing the core game mechanics dramatically. This can pay off, but it introduces additional risk. Someone has already went through the work of validating the main game mechanics and now you just need to commercialize their efforts. 'Z' is a great example of a bright team that went too far in the RTS growth phase.
"The game mechanics are standardized and genre addiction forms a strong market force."
Unless you have a strong brand or legacy from early lifecycle phases, competing in the maturity phase can be difficult. You are in the middle of a vicious battle for king-of-the-genre status.

  • Standardize your interface: Genre addicts are out in force and you want to make it as easy as possible for them to adopt your title. Look at other popular games and copy their interfaces down to the smallest detail.
  • Focus on the higher layer design: Your mature title is all about elements like graphics, plot, license, etc. You are trying to squeeze out the last bit of addiction from game mechanics that are locked in stone by the demanding genre addicts. This means fluffy plot and lots of it. Why not add a half-naked alternate character? Script writers, Hollywood directors, voice actors...these are your bread and butter.
  • Craft finely tuned game mechanics: Your designer should be someone who has made at least three or four major titles in this genre and everyone on the team should be completely and absolutely addicted to the genre. Are they hardcore? Keep them. Are they innovative or different? Kick them off the team. The goal is not innovation. The goal is perfection.
  • Focus on movie-like pacing: Treat the title like a block buster with each minute of the game play massaged for the optimal (and identical) player experience. It is okay of the game has no replay value. You don't need to worry about word of mouth and you want to sell sequels.
  • Spend lots of money: The maturity phase is one of the few times you can buy your way to the top. Better graphics, more content, etc can sway players wallets as they search for their next big fix.
  • If you can't do the above, leave the genre: If you aren't a big player, don't play the game. You generally aren't going to out-KingsQuest a genre leader like Sierra. Why spend millions of dollars on a highly competitive genre and ultimately fail in the market place? Drop out and try to innovate. The rewards are likely much higher than almost certain financial failure.
"The market consolidates around the winners of the king-of-the-genre battles"

Big brands rule the roost with only a few smaller 'appetizer' titles making money. The number of titles is dropping, but the consolidation that comes from genre addiction still means there are a few big hits left.
  • Be a big boy: If you have won a genre battle or two during the maturity phase, you are a fat cat. Your games may sink in quality, but you'll still release one or two more sequels that do reasonably well financially. The big teams of hardcore craftsmen and bloated budgets left over from your glory days are slow to change. Either bankruptcy or other publishers will cull you in due time.
  • Release off season: If you release a B-grade title off season, you can avoid the massively hyped release of the genre kings. You may pick up some addicts who need a fix immediately. But when the next Half Life 2 comes out, you'll be forgotten.
  • Leave now!: Get out while you still can. Too many great titles are released with a whimper during the decline. Grim Fandango comes to mind.
"A population of hardcore genre addicts provides both the development resources and audience for the continued development of games in the genre."

By this time, most of the publishers no longer support the genre. Now is the time for the indie copycats and Eastern European sweatshops to clean the carcass.
  • Go independent: Release online and market to remaining genre addicts through fan sites and ancient journalists still remember your niche genre fondly.
  • Copy the most popular game possible: Some innovation is okay because the player don't have many choices, but be warned that many addicts will complain feverishly that "Your title doesn't work exactly like genre king XYZ!" If it does work just like their favorite title, you can build a cult addicts that will spread the gospel of the Second Coming across the net like wild fire.
  • Try to pick up a license for cheap: Sometimes publishers are in financial straits (cough, cough) and it is amazing the deals you can get.
  • Pay lip service to higher layers game mechanics: Definitely keep things like plot and such because the genre addicts expect it. However, you can do it on the cheap with no real retribution. Sure, your game will look 5 years old, but that's okay. The addicts will still buy it.

Well, it took longer than I thought, but we've started a great discussion about game genres and how they evolve. Some key points of this essay include:
  • Risk mechanics are the most meaningful defining aspects of game genres
  • Rewards grow with intensity as genres out compete one another in the market place. Sometimes, intense rewards will cause the evolution of risk mechanics and spawn a new genre
  • Genres grow and fade away just like a traditional product category. The standard product evolution stages of innovation, growth, maturity, decline, and niche are very applicable to understanding how genres evolve.
  • There are distinct, optimal strategies for both game design and marketing that should be followed during each stage of the genre life cycle. Break these rules at your own risk.

As I journey down this exploration of genres, it is apparent to me the importance of innovation, both as a market shaping activity, but also as a sound business strategy. In a period of several years, a genre can go from the introduction phase to the mature phase. Only the genre kings can play in the later stages of the genre life cycle and their advantages are substantial.

Innovators like Peter Molyneux and Will Wright are onto something. Each game, they drop out of the race and start the battle anew with fewer competitors and the chance to make their own way in the world. If all else fails, why not innovate?

take care,
- Danc.

Read previous chapter: Game Genre Lifecycle Part III