Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Removing Genre Awards

With the near release of the U.S. version of Super Smash Bros. Brawl, I'd like to comment on the petty arguments over whether or not the game is a fighting game. On one side, since the game involves characters fighting against each other, it's a fighting game by its most elementary definition. On the other side, people argue it isn't a fighting game since it has too many random elements, it lacks several standard fighting game elements such as health bars and command inputs, and half the game has to be turned off in order to make it competitive.

After a while, most people just stopped caring, as did I. So what if SSBM is accepted as a fighting game? It doesn't make the game any better or worse. Genres are simply marketing terms after all; they're there to help consumers find something that matches their interests. I'd like that to be the common sentiment, but unfortunately, the video game industry is stuck in a state in which genres do matter.

At the end of the year, every media outlet and publication gives out their "best of year" awards. These awards tend to fall under three categories. The first one is achievement awards, which include best graphics, music, writing, and artistic direction. The second is platform awards, which include best PC game, PS3, PSP, XB360, Wii, DS, or whatever platform is on the market. Finally, the third category is genre awards. Out of these three categories, the achievement awards are the only ones that are stable and ubiquitous. For example, "best graphics" is a stable category since all games of past, present, and future have some form of graphical display.

Platform awards, on the other hand, such as "best PS3 game" is not a stable category because 50 years into the future, someone would look back at these lists and have no idea what a Playstation 3 is. Platform awards also sometimes create ambiguous or paradoxical situations. For example, more than one publication of 2007 gave Call of Duty 4 the "best XB360 game" award over Bioshock, but Bioshock won "game of the year" award over Call of Duty 4. Isn't a platform award just a subcategory of the "game of the year" award? If we already establish that Bioshock is the better game overall, then shouldn't Bioshock still be the better game on the console? Personally, I think we should get rid of platform awards altogether and add a new achievement award called "best handheld game." It's the equivalent of "best animated movie" at the Academy Awards.

Genres are even less stable and more ambiguous than platforms. Genres fade away and new genres are formed every year. Beat-em-ups and shoot-em-ups are a rare breed, while rhythm/music games are relatively new. In addition, most games nowadays are a combination of multiple genres and it's difficult to place them into one specific category. Mass Effect is a role-playing / third-person-shooter, Halo 3 is a vehicular-combat / first-person-shooter, Kingdom Under Fire is a hack-and-slash / real-time-strategy, and Smash Bros. is a fighting / platformer. Who really is to say which one encompassing genre these hybrids fall into? It's okay if we attach arbitrary keywords to these games that would help other people find something to their interests, but to define exactly which genre they fall under is quite pretentious and irresponsible.

The way we think about classification is very different now than it was back then. I attribute this change to the advent of the Internet, specifically Web 2.0. We don't necessarily have this notion of a hierarchical taxonomy anymore, but more of a folksonomic classification system. Things aren't broken down into a tree-like structure where every node only has one parent. Instead, they resemble a giant spider-web, where nodes have multiple neighbors, therefore multiple precedents and derivatives. I made a mock-up of the two types of genre classifications for your viewing pleasure.

Game publications should leave genre awards out of their annual award ceremonies because it's irresponsible for them to define which genre a game belongs to. We don't define a game by its genre; we define genres by the games. Let's stop putting so much emphasis on genres and perhaps, the forum posters would stop their petty arguments over whether or not Smash Bros. is a fighting game, or if Zelda is a role-playing game.

Now, I certainly know why game publications have genre awards -- it's to give mention to games of niche genres that generally have no chance of winning game of the year. When was the last time a puzzle game, a sports game, or a fighting game won best game? These genres are the equivalent of comedies and horror movies at the Oscars. Removing genre awards would be removing any appraisal these niche games would get. My solution to this is a simple change to the nomenclature. Instead of giving out the "best puzzle game" award, we give out the "best puzzle mechanics" award, which makes it more of an achievement award than a genre award. As explained before, genres are not very stable and most games are cross-genre nowadays, so placing a hybrid game into one genre is an opinionated decision. However, the different mechanics that the game employs can be clearly defined. Attacking enemies with ranged attacks is a shooting mechanic. Getting from location A to location B before the opponents do or under a specific time is a racing mechanic. Gaining a form of experience points and upgrading character statistics, skill set, and equipment is a role-playing mechanic.

I find that this is quite an elegant solution that solves a number of problems. First off, hybrid games can be nominated in several mechanic categories, instead of being arbitrarily thrown into a specific genre. Secondly, the merits of its mechanics will be judged, not the overall package. So if a game like Puzzle Quest wins best puzzle game because of its RPG mechanics and not its derivative puzzle elements, then it's not exactly fair to other more innovative puzzle games. There's always the "game of the year" award for the overall package.

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