Categorising Games, Gameplay Spheres Theory

June 29, 2009

This whole blog post is going to be mainly a theoretical exercise and lays out an idea intended to provoke thought, because the chances of it doing anything beyond that are small.

At the moment I feel that the single categorisation used for types of films (Genre) is insufficient as compared to what happens with games, I think it needs to be set into THREE distinct categories, the first two are fairly obvious and these are what a games journalist or gamer might be most interested in knowing about. The third of these will take some explanation and is where the actual theory comes in, serving as a high level way of thinking about a game. I’ll rifle through the two obvious ones first:

1 – Gameplay Type – First Person Shooter, Third Person Action, Adventure Game, Side-On Fighting Game, and on and on. Basically, a one sentence overview of the mechanics of the game, notice here that I’ve stepped away from the use of the term ‘Genre’ because it’s becoming increasingly twisted up as new entertainment forms emerge. For instance, is film noire purely its visual stylings or the form of its stories? A mix of both, possibly more?

As an aside, I find myself somewhat concerned with an us versus them attitude that has developed between different console systems and even different kinds of games, there could be greater recognition that different folks have different tastes such as being horror film fans, or romcom (Romantic Comedy) fans and so on, and respect that difference instead of judging it! This can apply to games too.

2 – Genre
Traditional filmic genres (Horror, Action, etc). Obviously some games don’t have a genre as such, or certainly weren’t designed with one in mind, Pac Man probably inhabits a genre, but one based more on art style than narrative/story/plot/tragedy/what-have-you. In many cases the genre would best be described as ‘abstract’, after all just what genre is tetris, if not a puzzle game? You could think of Pac-Man as a sort of survival horror, only without a lot of horror to it.

3 – Gameplay Sphere Hierarchy – This is more of interest to a designer rather than a player and is a way of focusing the overall design of a game project. I’ve concluded that the following six are the main (or at least most obvious) gameplay spheres:

A Game Design as Simulation (Deus Ex, Thief, ‘serious games’) – These take a genuine real world principle, perhaps with some make believe worked in, in order to ground the game into realistic territory. For instance, though Deus Ex is ostensibly a game, what it’s really doing (Especially in the first part of the game) is simulating what it would be like to be a secret agent/police man with bio-modifications that turn him into a super-cop. The original Command & Conquer was more of a simulation of being a commander of armies, whilst later C&C games have more of an emphasis on the other gameplay spheres of fun, experience and challenge.

B Game Design as Challenge (Street Fighter series, PvP games generally with little/no single-player component) – This one is more self explanatory, basically games intended to be difficult to beat, this one has also subsided in value in design terms, where designers have been keen to avoid making games particularly difficult in order to minimise the problem of only a relatively small number of games actually being completed.

C Game Design as Experience (Story games, Beyond Good & Evil, Dreamfall:Longest Journey) – Typically this is an emphasis on creating a compelling setting, story and/or characters. Survival Horror games are probably the best example of this, where they focus on creating a gameplay environment that is unsettling so that horrific events have more impact on the player.

D Game Design as Social Interactivity (Mostly MMOs and co-op centric games like Left 4 Dead) – These games have focused on trying to bring players together, at which some are more successful than others. The emphasis is on providing players with the tools & motivation to work together to achieve a common goal, simple or otherwise. This might potentially also cover interacting with non-player-characters, this is yet to be defined.

E Game Design as Fun (Most games) – Currently the most popular emphasis for games (Not necessarily a bad thing, per se) where there is an emphasis on trying to make sure the player is having a good time all the time and preventing boredom, frustration and fatigue from getting in the way of the fun. There are of course many kinds of fun, so this category is slightly iffy in terms of pinning down it’s specifics.

F Game Design as Accessibility (Casual & Part Time or quick web/mobile games) – There’s been a big move towards  casual games, but I’m not yet honestly convinced that design philosophies have kept up. Theres certainly been a move to simplify games for console control schemes, but sometimes I’ll see what looks like simplification made to a game that should have merely been streamlining. Anyway, in this category, there is an emphasis on making the game easy to get into and easy to get out of, save points are counter-intuitive if you are aiming for accessibility as your primary gameplay sphere, let the player choose where to save/pause so that he/she can go put food in the oven or change a babies diapers (etc).

E Game Design as Discovery (Fallout 3, recent Elder Scrolls games, Grand Theft Auto series and several MMOs) – Games with Discovery as their primary Gameplay Sphere focus on providing an environment suitable for exploration. Few games attempt to follow this path extensively, due to the amount of content both in design terms and content creation terms required to pull off a satisfying world to explore, some may sidestep this problem altogether by giving players the ability to shape a lot of the content of the world such as Wurm Online which focuses on letting players populate the world with buildings and so on.

It is unlikely that any one game would only fit into a single gameplay sphere, what actually tends to happen is that a game will have a hierarchy of spheres, some with greater importance than others. These might intersect partially or be entirely one on top of another. When designing a game, consider which gameplay spheres are of the greatest importance to the design, then ask yourself with each feature how that feature fits into the gameplay spheres if at all… It may highlight that a particular feature isn’t really all that appropriate for the game, in which case, consider removing the feature altogether or changing it to fit into the primary & secondary spheres that your game is already encompased by.

Some analysis suggests that for the most part, games tend to have a primary sphere and then one or more secondary spheres. In some cases, a game might have two primary gameplay spheres with roughly equal value, if we were to return to some survival horror games, these are on occasion equal measure gameplay as discovery and gameplay as experience as a dual primary sphere, with a secondary sphere of gameplay as challenge which deals mostly with helping to maintain the overall tension of the game.


4 Responses to “Categorising Games, Gameplay Spheres Theory”

  1. buyvigrx Says:

    It sounds like you’re creating problems yourself by trying to solve this issue instead of looking at why their is a problem in the first place.

  2. Savannah Says:

    Awesome blog!

    I thought about starting my own blog too but I’m just too lazy so, I guess Ill just have to keep checking yours out.

  3. Robert Farr Says:

    Honestly, I’m impressed you both read the whole thing!

  4. Team Roster Says:

    You you should edit the post name Categorising Games, Gameplay Spheres Theory The Dreaming Game Designer to more suited for your subject you make. I liked the the writing even sononetheless.

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