Posted by: Chris | December 9, 2010

The Genre Wheel

The Escapist tries its hand at a subject which absorbs an embarrassingly large amount of my idle thoughts: the classification of genres.  They call their proposal “the genre wheel”, a name that mostly operates to obstruct the fact that they have basically just created coordinate plane.  On one axis is Strategy vs. Action while the other axis represents Exploration vs. Combat:

We started with what we believe to be the two main types of play: Action and Strategy. (If you subscribe to the theory that all games are wargames, then you could call these divisions “tactical” and “strategic.”) What is the difference between Action and Strategy? Well, in an Action game, you are in direct control. In other words, you are your avatar and its success depends on your own abilities to respond to challenges and reach your goals…

A Strategy game, on the other hand, calls for a more distant point of view. You may still be focused on a single avatar, but you don’t inhabit it the way you would in an Action game. Meeting the challenges of the game is based more on what the avatar or avatars can do than on any physical ability of the player. Success in strategy games depends more on your decisions and less on your reflexes. You frequently are attempting to juggle multiple inputs and are often indirectly influencing what happens on-screen..

Strategy games are large, cerebral, and academic. Action games are immediate, smaller in scale and more visceral. One is contemplative, the other reactionary. Utilizing these two divisions, we felt we could move forward and further classify the experience of play.

Yet if every game is either an Action or a Strategy game at its core, then what to make of both types frequently featuring similar modes of play? Combat, or “Conflict” features prominently in strategy games, many of which are in fact wargames, but Conflict is also a prominent feature of many games that would be considered Action games. Conflict here merely means that the primary challenge in a game is presented by other similarly powered avatars. We contrast that with games of “Exploration,” where the primary challenge is merely surviving or traversing the environment itself. Now the environment in this case may be defined as a physical space, as in a game like Sonic, or it may simply be a story, as in many adventure games.

 The distinction is serviceable enough, focusing on the players actions and involvement over the game’s structure or purpose (my preferred approach).  I am a bit unclear about some groupings (driving games and action-adventure do not seem immediately similar), but others are illuminating (grouping platformers and music games together, both rush games that require quick reflexes and the ability to accurately survey the upcoming “landscape” is genius, even if neither have much to do with survival horror). 

I do have a problem with their theory of complementation (where one would be expected to like games on opposite ends of the wheel) not only for being quite facially ridiculous and failing a quick sniff test (my beloved strategy games are directly opposite vehicle sims, the genre I probably most loathe).  But more substantively, it belies that the graph’s creators simply did not understand the nature of the dual-axied classification they devised and truly bought into the whole wheel thing.  Genres opposite along the four cardinal directions will obviously have elements in common, because only one variable changes as you switch from one to the other, while games separated by diagonal hold no elements in common and one would expect (as with strategy games/vehicle sims as well as shooters/adventure games) that fans of one would not be amenable in the least to the other.  This seems pretty obvious and I am surprised the editors stuck with their mysticism of the wheel approach here, when what is going on is pretty obvious.



  1. As you say, they’ve come up with a Cartesian plane onto which they’re mapping games and genres. It’s a reasonably serviceable one. As they note, it has the benefit of making it somewhat easier to explain why a game is in one particular category or another.

    As they say, “If genre classifications help you get your head around what a game may bring to the table before you plop your money down and are stuck with it, then they’re a good thing.” However, what I see them as having done is supplementing traditional genre classifications rather than supplanting them. For a large fraction of all games, their two “axis” will do a reasonably good job of grouping them into similar camps. And their two axis also are reasonably well chosen for the purpose of advising the buyer – someone who likes “RPGs” has little to go on when choosing games that are not RPGs, and someone who likes “creative” games may struggle picking out a game just based on the 5-minute glimpse you get from reviews, videos, and short demos. But you often can judge how much you tend to like games that provide serious competition vs. how much you like ones about exploring a world, so thinking in those terms could provide guidance. That said, as a categorization it simply isn’t very good. Traditional genre classifications sometimes fail to categorize a game – they are incomplete. Their classification scheme is complete, but often incorrect. I would argue that Portal and HL2 are very similar games, but one is probably best judged as ASE while the other is either an ACE or an outright AC game. I would argue that on their terms, Metroid Prime falls smack dab in the middle of their graph… which means it categorizes Metroid Prime in with any other game which simply doesn’t tend towards any extreme. But that includes a lot of games with almost nothing in common with it, so it ends up declaring games “similar” despite their having nothing significant in common.

    My second point is that if you insist on sticking with a their general approach, their “Action/Strategy” axis isn’t very well defined. It’s a weird amalgamation of two very distinct characteristics – the tactical/strategic divide, and the contemplative/reactionary divide. If the two traits were generally related than you could make a case for grouping them together, but I would argue that simply because a game is tactical makes it no more or less likely to be reactionary (and vice versa). For example, almost all RPGs are tactical and contemplative. They’ve used this to their advantage here to “cold-read” some genres in order to stick them near other genres they felt ought to be related.

    To my mind, the more significant of the two traits isn’t the “tactical/strategic” divide (which is easily evaluated, but does very little to predict whether I, or anyone I’ve met, will like a given game), but the “reactionary/contemplative” characteristic… which is a bit of an inspired question, and ALSO does a nice job of suggesting why RTS games might have so much difficulty catching on. A typical RTS is almost purely contemplative at low levels. As you acquire a basic familiarity with the mechanics of the game, it shifts to become almost purely reactionary – there’s a large group of “average” players for whom almost all that really matters is actions per minute. As you begin to finally master it, both traits come back into full prominence. Which means a player who only likes reactionary games may well try it once or twice, get fed up with figuring out the mechanics and general strategies, and stop playing. A player who only likes contemplative games is likely to stop playing after they’ve figured out those basics, when things like micro. and macro. start to become more important and it’s no longer sufficient to simply have a good idea what you’re opponent is up to and have a coherent plan yourself. It’s only players who enjoy both (or for whom this is not a significant trait) that will stick it through long enough to become really good at the game, come back for sequels, recommend the game to friends, and so forth.

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