How (And Why) We Label Games

By Josh Snyder

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We’ve had to wait five years to rock again, but could faulty nomenclature have been responsible that delay?

Recently, developer Harmonix announced that after a five year absence, they will be releasing a new entry in the once-popular Rock Band franchise. With the announcement, the music video game genre, once the most popular of the seventh generation, was back in the spotlight.

But what’s fascinating about this news is that it calls attention to the fact that an entire genre very suddenly went from in-demand to a niche market, and the only way it could make a return was to take nearly half a decade off. The reason the music video game genre hit a wall was largely due to a fast-paced, aggressive release schedule – between Rock Band and rival franchise Guitar Hero, new music video games were coming out months apart, and they often brought with them little to no upgrades. Consumer fatigue hit quickly, and developers folded or faced bankruptcy just as quickly as these games burst onto the scene.

It may be easy to point the finger at greedy publishers, or developers who enabled this constant stream of new games, and I’ve often wondered what caused this furious release schedule, and why no one thought to slow down the release of these games. And while hindsight is always 20-20, from where we’re sitting now, it makes perfect sense that the genre could come crashing down as a result of oversaturation

At the same time, as I thought about the return of this genre, one that was responsible for more than one night of enjoyable drunken chaos at my residence, I began to take issue with the notion that we simply label Rock Band a video game, much in the same way that we call Tomb Raider or SimCity a video game without giving it any thought. Yes, all of these examples are part of the video game medium, but it seems odd to infer that they are equal or similar experiences, when in reality they are drastically different games. Which led to another thought  – does the way we label video games ever impact how they are perceived? Could part of the reason the music game genre grew too big too fast stem from unrealistic expectations placed upon them, expectations that arose from a fundamental misunderstanding of the genre? Does our language cast these games in an unfair light, either encouraging or discouraging certain behavior?

While the crash of the music game genre may be a result of faulty nomenclature, it is definitely not the only casualty. The further one digs into the issue, the more apparent it becomes that this could be an even bigger problem.

It’s A Sandbox, Not An Open World

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Labeling Fallout 3 an open-world game as opposed to a sandbox game is an important and necessary distinction.

Or course, we have dabbled in this exact topic before – author Nick Olsen explored the way we use language to discuss two distinct genres, the sandbox game and the open world game, and how mislabeling them can, and often, undermines the intent and core concepts of each. To call Fallout 3 a sandbox incorrectly assumes that the player will have control over the world itself. This may not seem like a big deal, but this language matters to developers and players alike – our roles are defined for us before we ever take one virtual step into these worlds. It also, as Nick argues, can either hinder or accelerate advancement:

“As the video game industry grows out of it’s infancy, developers, publishers, critics, consumers and industry insiders should strive to evolve the terminology they use to accurately reflect advancements within the industry. Many younger industries, such as search engine advertising, social media, etc., have rapidly defined new terminologies to accurately describe their processes, measurements and results – so too should the video game industry follow suit.

Doing so advances the industry lexicon and reduces confusion both within and outside of video game circles. By reducing the number of “catch all” phrases, the video game industry can speak more definitively on all matters while advancing the legitimacy of the genre and helping to overcome the “video games are for children” stigma which has been unfairly applied.”

Language and nomenclature matter a great deal, but there is more at stake than confusing Terraria with Red Dead Redemption. In order for any business or industry to succeed, they first have to make money, enough to remain profitable, and using the wrong language can put a video game in unnecessary jeopardy.

My Destiny Is To Rock

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Dark Souls has very little in common with games played with plastic music instruments.

I’ve always had an issue with labeling Rock Band a video game in the same way I do games like Dark Souls, but the fact of the matter is that they both are video games, they just inhabit different genres. The issue arises when we try to move a game into as many genres as possible, a phenomenon that, while certainly not unique to video games, is one that often plagues this medium far more frequently than film or TV.

When I think of Rock Band, I think of a stretch of time where, every New Year’s Eve, all of my friends would come over, get unnecessarily drunk, and demand I sing “Sabotage” by the Beastie Boys as loud and hard as I could (full disclosure – I cannot sing, at all). Then more alcohol would be consumed and someone would insist on playing “Suffragette City” by David Bowie, and all hell would break loose (no one could ever get the words right). In other words, when I think of Rock Band, I think of a party game.

But according to a recent interview with Harmonix co-founder and chief creative officer Alex Rigopulos, Rock Band was more than just a party game. From his interview with Polygon, Rigopulos stated that he see the franchise in three ways: players competing to obtain the highest score possible for each song (competitive/co-operative multiplayer), the aforementioned party game and, finally, as a narrative game, one that has a “story that takes you through your career as a virtual rock star.”

It’s within that last category that I think issues start to arise – Rock Band works as a party game, and can definitely work as a competitive game, but as a narrative-driven franchise? Adding that element takes a tremendous amount of time and resources, and Harmonix runs the risk of diluting the final product (a point Rigopulos concedes when he says that later games brought less and less innovation).

But it’s more than simply watering-down the final product – the language used to describe the core of Rock Band casts the franchise in a new light, and given the climate it was developed in, may partially explain the aggressive release schedule. Think about what being a narrative-driven game in the mid-2000s entailed – publishers such as Ubisoft popularized the concept of story-driven franchises releasing on a yearly basis, back in the sixth generation. And despite some flaws, it worked – Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory is arguably the best of the Splinter Cell franchise, and it was the third entry, released one year after Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow. Gamers and publishers alike grew accustomed to narrative games releasing on a yearly basis, much in the same way movies and TV shows release so closely to one another. When we think of narrative in video games, we can assume that the franchise will be serialized in some way.

It’s a bit of a stretch to insinuate that Rock Band failed because of the narrative elements – over-saturation is what crippled the entire genre. But the fact remains that genre titles such as “narrative driven” and “competitive multiplayer” were being used to describe what is essentially a party game. This muddled language can cause high levels of confusion, not just within the development team, but with publishers and consumers. It’s completely understandable that publisher MTV Games would assume that Rock Band was something more than the sum of its parts, and therefore would push a schedule that was detrimental to the health of the franchise based on ill-conceived notions.

By the time Rock Band 3 was released, it felt more like a collection of new songs, one giant, over-priced piece of DLC that didn’t push the formula forward. But even that is missing the point – the franchise didn’t need to evolve, because for most gamers Rock Band was a party game, and all it needed to do was, simply, be fun. That may be easier said than done, but Harmonix already had plenty of practice in this area, nailing it with their work on the original Guitar Hero. Only the most devoted fans would be able to list the differences from Rock Band to Rock Band 3, and only an even smaller fanbase would purchase every version that came out in that time.

It’s no surprise that, in that same interview, Rigopulos stated that the next Rock Band would call back to “an existing gameplay core that is very powerful and very fun.” Unfortunately, part of that core, according to Rigopulos, is the narrative element, which is fine to include, but runs the risk of mislabeling the game yet again, and providing even more false expectations.

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Unfortunately, many gamers will miss out on this mode, which could be a result of poor labeling.

One could argue that this take on the downfall of the music video game genre is based in speculation – after all, Rock Band 4 could come out and be another huge hit, narrative elements and all. But there are examples we can examine right now that show how much of an impact faulty nomenclature can have on a game, and there is perhaps no better example at this moment than Destiny.

I’ve written (and spoken) at great length about the strengths of Destiny, and the rest of the internet has been kind enough to speak on its many faults. But at the recent Game Developer’s Conference, developer Bungie provided some interesting statistics on how players spend their time in Destiny. To no one’s surprise, the low-level co-operative missions and the story were the most played, followed by time spent in the Tower, the social hub for Destiny players looking to team up, as well as where to go to buy and upgrade gear. Competing for dead last were two modes – raids, which are high-level content that only a fraction of players will experience, and the Crucible. And this is where faulty nomenclature rears its ugly head.

For those not initiated, the Crucible is Destiny’s version of player versus player, or as it is more commonly known in massively-multiplayer online (MMO) games, PvP. At best, PvP is seen as something players who have completed every story mission and every high level raid can partake in, using their specific builds to dispatch other players. At worst, PvP can be seen as a fun distraction, a feature that every MMO needs to be complete, but one many players will simply ignore. And that certainly seems to be the case with Destiny, which may seem fine at first until you realize that their version of PvP is essentially the same thing that Halo called competitive multiplayer. The biggest distinction? Nearly everyone bought Halo for its competitive multiplayer, while the same mode in Destiny is seen as a distraction. The reason? It’s all in the name, PvP. Many gamers who enjoyed Halo’s multiplayer will simply pass on Destiny because they see it as an MMO, while Destiny players attracted to the MMO label will assume it’s a distraction for those who have exhausted all other single or co-operative player options. In the end, only a slight fraction of players will experience it, which is unfortunate because it continues to be the best mode in the game, and perhaps Bungie’s best multiplayer mode yet.

It’s All In The Name

One of the difficulties the video game industry has is that it is sometimes impossible to define a video game accurately when using strictly genre titles. Take Fallout 3 for instance – an argument can be made that it is a first-person shooter (FPS), a role-playing game (RPG) and an open-world game. Although it may feature traits from all three, each of those genres attract a variety of players, and even if there is overlap amongst fans of those genres, players hearing that a game is an FPS will go into it with different expectations than they would an RPG, a problem that genre titles are supposed to avoid in the first place.

This confusing, crowded mess of genre titles and definitions is something that other mediums seem to avoid, or at least solved. Part of the problem is that, unlike other mediums, video games are missing a crucial layer of classification that can help identify what type of experience a game may offer. Take film for example – under the term cinema exists a wide-array of films, such as recent Oscar winner Citizenfour as well as the Oscar-snubbed Transformers: Age of Extinction. We label each of these as films, but where we avoid confusion is that, before defining a film by genre, we have three categories to help sort them out – short films, documentaries and feature films. From there, we can describe Citizenfour as part of the Cinéma vérité style of documentary, whereas we can describe Transformers: Age of Extinction as science-fiction action feature film.

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Games like Antichamber are so difficult to describe and prove why genre titles are so important.

Of course, video games are their own unique art form, and with experiences ranging from Rock Band to Mass Effect to Clash of Clans, it may be impossible to limit that initial layer of classification to three categories. But that doesn’t mean that the industry doesn’t need that layer, and it could help tremendously when sorting out and defining the myriad of genres. Perhaps their needs to be a clear distinction as to how these games are made and on what platform they are played, before defining their specific genre. Indie titles, AAA titles and mobile/handheld games might be a good start – this way, we can understand the differences between first-person puzzle games such as The Stanley Parable and Antichamber (two indie games, which focus more on ideas over production values), and Portal 2 (a AAA title that has stellar production values).

Of course, from this layer of classification comes all of the genre titles we already know and use, but even here there is room for improvement. In an ideal world, video games would be defined by the genre that makes up the core experience of the gameplay. However, games prove time and time again to defy traditional conventions, and require a slew of genres to properly identify. While Fallout 3 is, at heart, an RPG, it’s more accurate to call it an open-world FPS-RPG, because those other elements are important to its core identity. However, this means that we have to be as accurate as possible when labeling games. If we wrongly attribute MMO conventions to a multiplayer game, it could struggle to find an audience that otherwise would flock to it. Much of this confusion can be avoided by using not only accurately defined nomenclature, but only using it when it is absolutely necessary, therefore ensuring more success across the industry.

Words Matter

This whole exercise quickly falls apart if we do not stick true to the definitions applied to each genre. Everyone involved in this industry, from developer to gamers to publisher, needs to be as honest and focused as possible when using these terms. As Nick discussed in his essay on sandbox games, to mislead and confuse the market is to hold the entire industry back. If video games want to continue to see financial growth and increasing acceptance as either a serious art form or form of pop-culture entertainment, we need to do a better job at identifying just exactly what it is we’re playing. The more confusing those conversations are, the less likely the industry will ever truly achieve that level of acceptance, and the benefits that come with that recognition.