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Editor’s note: Suriel examines the trend of genre-straddling games like Borderlands and Puzzle Quest — and decides he’s generally pro. -Demian
As I mentioned in my review, Borderlands brandishes its “role-playing shooter” banner with pride — it’s a main selling point in trailers and on the back of the box. This hybrid factor (along with the cell-shaded art-style) is one of the game’s most defining features, and an antidote to the “sameness” that plagues the current array of first-person shooters.
But as I played the game, I felt it was constantly throwing its RPG structure and style in my face, with a combination of arrogance and overcompensation. It didn’t offend me — in fact, that arrogance was one of the things I liked about the game — it just felt unnecessary.
Mixing genres for the sake of a better product is actually quite common; most games just aren’t as aggressive about it as Borderlands. The most obvious “fusion” of genres is the action/adventure genre, which, at this point, is something of an ambiguous label. Action/adventure can mean any number of things, and can describe any number of games. In fact, I’d argue that the majority of games released nowadays have that label. It seems to be the standard for third-person games that offer more than just a linear path.
Other distinctive genre-benders include games like Brutal Legend, Gyromancer, and Knights In the Nightmare, all of which marry two or more concepts and attempt to make use of their respective strengths. Whether the end result is good or not, at least they’re trying something new and different.
Gyromancer. See also: Puzzle Quest.
However, it seems that many games combine aspects of multiple genres as an insurance policy. In an industry where an AAA title can cost in excess of $10 million to develop, a good way to secure as many sales as possible is to appeal to as many people as possible. And appealing to the fans of more than one genre is an easy way to do that. Exploring how different concepts work together seems to be a creative decision and a safety net at the same time.
The best-selling game right now, Modern Warfare 2, is a prime example. The singleplayer is pretty much “pure” shooter, while the multiplayer adds a heavy RPG layer on top, with a leveling system, incremental upgrades, and even loot chests (AKA care packages).
Meanwhile, RPGs are moving away from turn-based tactical battles of attrition in favor of action-oriented combat. Real-time battle systems are the new standard rather than the exception; equipment and stats still matter, but you’re much more involved in the action than ever before.
Dragon Age: Origins
I’m not privy to the development process, so this is speculation, but it seems like game narrative/story is part of this trend. While gameplay alone might’ve been enough to secure development funds in the past, today’s big-budget games have to be blockbusters as much as movies do, so telling a story can be as much of a marketing decision as a creative decision. This isn’t to say that a game’s story is usually an afterthought (far from it, many games seem to be centered around their story), but from a publisher’s perspective, it’s definitely part of a “complete package”.
Budget titles and indie games are often less concerned about mass-market appeal, so they can afford to experiment. Many independent games explore and build on a simple concept or mechanic. At the same time, originality is another trademark of indie games, and adding new flavor to genres by mixing them is definitely a way to make your game stand out.
In every aspect of gaming, developers are blurring lines. And that’s good, because it allows them to innovate and try new things, which will ultimately lead to better games. Borderlands may be cherry-picking the best of the shooter and RPG genres rather than really adding something new, but that won’t stop me from pouring over fifty hours in, and loving it.