Mixing it Up: Creating Cross-Genre Games

We’ve all heard the typical descriptors for games – action-adventure, first-person shooter, puzzle, rhythm, and more. But what about the games that don’t quite fit with any one of those categories, and instead could be defined by several? These games, which I’ll be calling “cross-genre” games in this blog, take elements from more than one typical game genre and blend them together to create something unique and new. Through this blog, I hope to answer this question: What goes into making a good cross-genre game?

The first game I’m going to take a look at is a recent title called “Yoku’s Island Express”.  This game combines the 2D-platformer genre with pinball to create a fun, engaging experience.  During your travels across the game’s island landscape as the mail-carrying bug Yoku, you carry along a ball that aids in your exploration.  The character can’t jump, but there are luckily plenty of pinball flippers located throughout the world that can launch the ball, carrying Yoku along behind it to higher spots.  In certain parts of the map, the landscape closely resembles a pinball playfield with elements like bumpers, targets, spinners, and buttons.  The goal in each of these sections range from breaking certain objects to reaching a tricky spot.

Yoku’s Island Express, a bright and cheery game that takes the best elements from 2D-platformers and pinball games. (Source)

Platforming and pinball seem like two entirely different concepts, so how do they fit together? Well, to start with the simple facts, they both work well on a 2D plane. It may seem obvious, but it’s an important note that creates a common backbone for both. And as obscure as it may seem, platformers and pinball games have similar goals – moving a character (or ball) from one area to another, dodging obstacles while aiming for collectables (like coins or points).

The game also uses common controls; throughout the entirety of the game, using the left trigger activates blue flippers and the right trigger activates orange. These flippers work identically in platforming segments (as mentioned before, these are the only way to jump) and in pinball segments. Rather than making the player learn new techniques for each type of gameplay, they can use their existing knowledge. Besides the controls, there’s no delay when switching from platforming to pinball, which keeps the game from feeling segmented. It’s obvious when a “pinball area” is entered, but the game smoothly transitions so players don’t lose their flow.

Another game I’d like to talk about is Superhot.  I’ve only played the VR version, so I’ll mostly stick with that one for analysis.  Superhot is an action game where time moves only when you do.  Each level, you’ll come across waves of enemies that will either shoot at you or try to get within melee range to attack.  Both you and each enemy can be taken down with one hit, so it becomes important to prioritize your actions.  You also have a limited selection of tools at your disposal, which usually are just objects around you to pick up and throw. The levels often start with you surrounded on all sides by enemies, so any small mistake can lead to a game over. Luckily, losing just puts you back at the beginning of a level. The quick pace at which you’re back in the action helps to prevent frustration.

Image result for superhot vr
Superhot VR, an action-packed VR game that requires clever thinking to make it through combat-based puzzles. (Source)

When people think about first-person shooters, the last things on their mind are careful, considered actions. First-person shooters are typically about understanding your surroundings and responding with quick reflexes. Puzzle games, on the other hand, often don’t include a time limit since that can hinder problem-solving and discourages thinking situations all the way through.

Superhot VR uses elements of both of these genres with its innovative time-slowing mechanic. If it weren’t for the fact that stopping all motion stops time in the game, it would be difficult to call Superhot a puzzle game. However, giving players time to think about their actions, then letting them act those out gives players elements of action games and puzzle games. The quick respawn times also help contribute to innovative thinking; since it’s not a big deal if you lose, you’re not afraid to try out new things. This is helpful in both action and puzzle games, and thus works well with Superhot.

Ah, Spore. I remember having friends over just to design new creatures and not even touching the main features of the game. The magic of the game was how open it was. If you wanted to spend all of your time creating weird and wonderful creatures, go right ahead.

Agnes, a Spore creature my friend and I made. We were so fond of it that we even got t-shirts featuring the magnificent beast.

The gameplay of Spore was broken up into five different stages. The game opened with the creation of life itself. You’re given the responsibility to raise a cell. By outfitting it with different features and growing it, your cell gets bigger and more powerful. Eventually it moves onto land, where you continue developing it into a creature of your own design. You got to choose whether the creature was friendly, aggressive, shy, or a wide variety of other traits. From there on, you lead your creature through the creation of a tribe. That tribe eventually becomes a city, and before long, your creature’s civilization reaches the final stage of development: space travel. In each of these stages, you dictate how your creatures react to their environment. Are they peaceful? Vicious? Hungry for knowledge? Just about everything is decided by you.

The Tribal stage of Spore, the third of five stages of life for your custom-made creatures. (Source)

With so many fond memories of the game, I was surprised when, just recently, I found reviews of the game that criticized it fairly harshly. One of the major complaints is that, while the game tries to be cross-genre with its many game modes, none of the modes feel complete. Rather than mixing genres to create one cohesive game that follows one creature over time, many have stated that it feels like five separate games that happen to feature the same characters. In that sense, Spore is good to look at to see what could go wrong with cross-genre games.

Why is it bad to have five separate games? In my opinion, this is because each stage of Spore has entirely different objectives, controls, and strategies. Knowledge of prior stages doesn’t help future ones, so your investment in a stage is dropped as soon as you leave it. The choices you made in that stage matter, but how you played don’t.

It seems to me that the best way to make a game that involves aspects from multiple genres is to break those two genres down to their most basic elements. This makes any similarities between the games much more obvious. In the Yoku’s Island Express example, the similarities between platformers and pinball games are the mechanics of having fun moving from place to place and collecting things along the way. Putting a lot of focus on that group of similar mechanics means the game has a solid structure that feels good in both the platforming and pinball segments. In observing Superhot VR, the most important lesson is that the two genres, even if different, have to have some connecting element that allows for easy transitions in thinking. Superhot VR includes a time-stopping mechanic that allows for easy transitions from puzzle- to action-thinking, and vice versa. Finally, Spore teaches us that cross-genre games must have more than connected themes or characters. Simply throwing in several different types of gameplay can lead to disjointed, confusing games.

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