Back in the early days of the industry, it was usually very easy to tell what kind of game you were playing. Role-playing games were turn-based and had tons of menus and numbers to crunch. Shooters were fast and furious, putting skill first and lacking elements like levels and character progression. Action games and platformers were about memorizing patterns and honing your reflexes. It's a lot more difficult to categorize games these days, as I was reminded when watching the latest footage of Mass Effect: Andromeda. RPS have borrowed a ton of elements from shooters and action titles. Shooters have leveling and character classes. Action games are full of side quests, and everybody seems to have a map full of icons denoting various activities and collectables.
On one hand, this genre-blending is a good thing. We get some of the best parts of gaming no matter what the base game type is. Many of our games are deeper and richer than they once were. On the other hand, they're also becoming a bit too much alike. Do we really need levels in a hardcore multiplayer shooter that's supposed to be about player skill? Do platforming segments really belong in an RPG, especially when they block progress? Does every game need a map that's so full of sidequest and collectible icons that you can't see the geography beneath? These are all important concerns about this trend that has slowly taken over most of the industry.
I mentioned Mass Effect: Andromeda, and Mass Effect was certainly one of the pioneer series when it comes to modern genre-blending. It purposefully mixed shooter elements with the classic Western RPG formula. With talk of things like resource gathering and base building, it appears that Andromeda could be taking this trend one step further by greatly incorporating elements of space strategy games as well. This could turn out great, giving players a real sense of being an interstellar pioneer. It could also work against the game if players find they're spending too much time on space chores and not enough experiencing the great cinematic and character development moments that define Mass Effect for many fans.
Horizon: Zero Dawn is another upcoming game that is taking genre blending to the next level. I feel like the developers are doing it right in this case. The action-adventure, platforming, and RPG elements we've seen from the game so far all fit quite well with its themes and its goal of playing a pioneering hunter in search of the world's secrets. This genre-blending is also being done in service of allowing the player to choose their preferred way to approach the world. RPG fanatics can focus on things like trap-crafting and clever character builds. Shooter fans can play with a straight-up action combat focus. Action-adventure types might prefer exploring ways to strategically take down foes or tame and ride dinosaur friends. This sense of flexibility existing within a game that nonetheless keeps a solid individual identity demonstrates the best of what genre-blending game design can be... assuming Horizon ultimately fulfils its promising premise.
On the other side of the coin, we see a company that has seen the downside of the genre-blending trend. Ubisoft discovered a winning formula in its Assassin's Creed and Far Cry series. Players loved the company's semi-open-world games starring maps thick with player objectives, until they didn't anymore. Over the last few years, complaints have grown that all the major Ubisoft games were starting to look and feel too much alike. Their action-shooter-RPGs with icon-packed maps and ever-more-fiddly crafting systems were getting out of control, and something fresh was desperately needed. Ubisoft has now entered a refresh period, putting a hold on several series (notably Assassin's Creed) to give new ideas time to ferment. Hopefully in the near future we'll see an Ubisoft more willing to give its series more unique identities and to think more carefully about which gameplay elements best fit a particular title. Just because something is popular, after all, doesn't mean it's a good idea to put it in every game.
Much to the chagrin of certain genre purists, our games are moving beyond the strict classifications that once defined them. Personally, I'm cool with that. I think it's required to allow developers to flex their creative muscles and bring fresh ideas into the industry. We have to be careful, however, that genre-blending doesn't cause all our games to become too much alike. Ideally, every game franchise should have a strong individual identity, not just in terms of characters and setting, but in terms of its particular gameplay style. Maybe we won't be sure if we should call it a shooter, RPG, or action adventure, but we'll be able to point at a cluster of gameplay elements that make it uniquely fun.