August 18, 2020
The Evolution of Video Game Genres: From Pac-man to Fortnite
Still think gaming is for kids? Well, you’d be wrong...
As of 2019, the video game industry is now bigger than the movie and music industries combined. In fact, conservative estimates predict the industry to reach 160 billion dollars in revenue annually by the end of 2020.
The growing number of gamers means that gaming has had an undeniable impact on our culture. This boost in popularity is due to the gaming’s interactive medium, ease of playing with friends, and recent surge of online streamers like PewDiePie, Tfue and Ninja, who have more subscribed viewers than some countries.
Like movies and books, video games are often categorized by their genre. Unlike other mediums though, video game genres are not decided by their setting, characters, environment or even their gameplay. Instead, each genre has specific characteristics and objectives that make them feel distinct.
For example, “role-playing games” normally have an economy system for players to collect items, weapons and currency. This contrasts heavily with “shooters” which seldom include this feature, instead relying on precision and fast reflexes. That said, video games can be a combination of multiple genres, or subgenres.
So how did we get the vast variety of video game genres we enjoy today? To better understand, we first need to have a brief history lesson.
When you think of the earliest video games, you probably think of the sports genre game Pong. But believe it or not, Pong was not the first videogame. Although Pong is one of the earliest arcade games, video games actually got their start back in the 1950’s.
Cambridge professor Alexander Douglas is credited with creating the first graphical computer game to incorporate monitors, called OXO, which simulated tic-tac-toe.
Shortly after OXO, developers began to test different types of games.
Before we start looking at each genre’s peak, let’s first define them.
Action video games are fast-paced and rely on a player’s dexterity, quick thinking and skill in order to succeed. To beat the game, players typically need to navigate through levels, while using their character’s abilities. These abilities include jumping, running, shooting, climbing and traversing the game environment. Players may also need to collect weapons or objects, avoid obstacles, and battle enemies throughout the level. The action genre is extremely varied, and includes several sub-genres like Fighting, Platforming and Shooting prior to its breakout in popularity.
Adventure video games are characterized by exploration, character development, item gathering, puzzles and a focus on story rather than player’s reflex skills. Unlike Action or Shooters, pure Adventure games have limited combat or action elements. Due to this nature, they’re normally single-player games.
Fighting video games have players engage in close combat until their character’s health depletes or match time expires. Fighting games usually feature martial arts, boxing, or swordplay as the primary gameplay mechanic. Players must use blocking, dodging, jumping and striking to defeat their opponent. Additionally, players need to master “combos”, which involve quick successive strings of attacks that lead to further damage. The fighting genre normally features side-scrolling levels that only allow players to explore left to right, and strict boundaries within the stage to maximize player interaction.
The puzzle genre includes games whose primary gameplay emphasizes puzzle solving and brain teasers. Types of puzzles include, word games, logic, trial-and-error, tile-matching and traditional puzzles. Although Action, RPGs and Adventure games usually borrow elements of puzzle solving in their gameplay, pure Puzzle games focus on problem-solving.
Racing games have players compete on racing tracks across either land, water, air or space. Games of this genre can be realistic driving simulators or arcade style games with simplified driving mechanics.
Role-playing games have players control characters whose story unfolds during the game. Players must interact with non-playable characters, obtain items and weapons, and collect in-game currency to progress. RPG stories often use environmental storytelling, evoking mystery and encouraging exploration to understand the overarching story. Along their journey, players make choices on how to tackle missions or obstacles. These choices impact the progression of the game’s story and shake up the variety of gameplay scenarios.
Shooter games are one of the most popular genres and place a heavy emphasis on ranged weapon combat. Using their dexterity and reflexes, players must avoid taking damage while using firearms to destroy enemies and advance levels. Shooters can be first-person, allowing the player to experience the game from the character’s point of view, or third person, putting the camera behind the character.
Simply speaking, Sports games focus on recreating real-world sports. Like their real-world counterparts, sport games are highly competitive and require players to use strategy, dexterity and skill to score more points than opponents.
Strategy games focus on long-term thinking and planning, rather than brute force to achieve success. During the game, players must tactically move characters, armies and vehicles across the map to win key locations, defeat enemy factions or collect resources.
Now that we’re familiar with the different genres, we’ll discuss each genre’s respective peak, along with the games that defined each genre.
That said, there’s always going to be debate on which genre was the most popular during a given era. We organized our decades by comparing each genre’s worldwide physical game sales and number of titles in each genre.
By the 1970’s, the reduced cost of transistors and microchips led to a new generation of minicomputers. These technological advances eventually gave birth to the coin-operated arcade machines we know and love today.
While games like Pong enjoyed critical success, arcade games continued to struggle against traditional bar amusements like pinball and billiards which dominated the 1970s.
This balance in power shifted abruptly in 1978 with the release of Space Invaders and Asteroids, which proved coin-operated arcades could be commercially successful. Space Invaders even introduced several new gameplay concepts including: “earning extra lives”, “high scores” and “background music”. By 1982, Space Invaders sold over 400,000 arcade cabinets and collected over 3.8 billion dollars.
In 1980, Japan’s incredibly popular game, Pac-man, released in the United States, introducing the maze-chase genre. The iconic character is often cited as the gaming world’s first official mascot, and is largely responsible for broadening gaming’s appeal to women.
A year later, Donkey Kong released. Mario’s first appearance brought several groundbreaking features to gaming including: platforming, cutscenes, pre-rendered graphics and atmospheric music.
The barrage of hit releases catapulted the arcade industry from $968 million annually in 1978, to $4.9 billion annually in 1981, surpassing Hollywood (3 billion) along the way.
At its peak, Arcade and Action games made up 72% of all total video game sales.
The popularity of arcade and action games soon crumbled after the gaming industry experienced its first crash in 1983. The 1983 gaming crash occurred due to over saturation of at-home video game consoles, the release of many bad video games and the rise of personal computers. While arcade and action titles suffered a severe setback, this period led to the rise of platformers in 1985.
Originally dubbed, ‘climbing games’ due to Donkey Kong’s many ladders, the platforming genre saw a renaissance during the mid-1980s. As a subgenre of action, platformers rely on player dexterity and skill to jump over uneven terrain, avoid enemies and complete the level.
In 1985, Japan released the newly rebranded Nintendo Entertainment System to the United States. The new console brought with it some of gaming’s most famous platformers, including: Super Mario Bros. 1, 2 & 3, Mega Man 2 and Metroid.
Shortly after, SEGA debuted their platformer Sonic the Hedgehog on the SEGA Genesis.
The gaming industry seemingly couldn’t get enough of the platforming genre. This all changed in the mid-90s however, as the gaming industry readied itself for the next wave of consoles, promising something revolutionary - 3D graphics.
Platformer’s cartoony graphics, music and characters began to feel dated, compared to the mature storytelling themes of RPGs. Gamers yearned for more gritty and realistic-looking games.
During this period, the top selling games were not tracked accurately. As a result we do not have accurate sales numbers for platformers. With the launch of several high selling Mario games, it’s highly likely platformers were the top performing genre during this period.
With the updated hardware of PlayStation and Nintendo 64, RPGs would push the graphic fidelity to new heights. The new tech allowed RPGs to have expansive environments, real-time cutscenes and more enemies on screen.
Final Fantasy 7 (FVII) quickly made use of these hardware updates, ultimately becoming the second-highest selling video game on the PlayStation console. The success of FFVII brought RPGs further into the mainstream.
In 1998, Nintendo released The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (TLoZ), an RPG game that allowed players to visit dungeons, mountains, lakes and castles within a grand story. TLoZ also introduced the z-targeting gameplay mechanic, which allowed players to more easily target enemies, characters or objects. This mechanic would later be adopted by many other RPGs.
In 2004, World of Warcraft popularized Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) games. MMOs brought persistent and evolving worlds to RPGs, along with hundreds of real players on the same server.
As console online multiplayer games began to take off with Xbox Live and PlayStation Network, RPGs quickly became a dying breed. Gamers instead looked to test their grit with a genre primed to take advantage of updated tech and online play - sports & racing games.
During this era, RPGs made up 21.5% of all total video game sales.
Although originally released on arcade games, sporting games didn’t quite find their footing until Tony Hawk Pro Skater in 1999. Unlike arcade sports games before it, Tony Hawk strived to accurately represent skating. The charm of the game, along with its legendary soundtrack, brought skating and its culture to a broader audience.
In 2005, Mario Kart DS sold over 23.60 million, making it the second highest-selling racing game of all time, a record that stands even to this day.
In 2006, Wii Sports launched and reached millions of new gamers with it’s charming graphics and simple gameplay. Wii Sports has sold over 82 million copies, making it the most successful Wii game to date.
As of 2013, EAs Madden has seen over 100 million copies sold to NFL fans worldwide. NBA 2K has seen similar success with its sales figures.
The sports and racing genre made-up 27% of all video game sales during its respective peak.
The Shooting genre has its roots in the earliest of video game consoles. Games like Doom, Golden Eye, Counter Strike, Halo and Call of Duty paved the way for the Shooters genre and are still around to this day.
Between 2015-2018, shooters were at their absolute peak in sales, with games like Destiny 2, Red Dead Redemption 2, Battlefield 5, Far Cry 5 and Call of Duty: Black Ops 4.
Between 2015 and 2018, shooters made up 19.5% of all video game sales.
Thanks to professional gamers, post-launch updates and online streaming, shooters have continued to obtain new players. Analyzing Year to Date (YTD) sales figures, only confirms this notion. The shooters genre accounted for 40% of the top 10 games sold so far in 2020. With shooters able to easily adopt other genre characteristics, there seems to be no end in dominance for the shooters genre.
The evolving popularity of game genres is simply a reflection of consumer tastes and technology of the era. Previous changes occurred due to industry shake-ups, technology innovations and even staleness of tried-and-true genres.
The fortunate news is genres are rarely ever dead. Modern games can and often do borrow elements from different genres. This creates interesting sub-genres of their own, like the recent trending “Battle Royale” genre, which mashes up characteristics of RPGs and Shooters. The new trend of “gaming as a service” has also shaken up the genres we consume. This free-to-play subscription service has allowed gamers to try hundreds of games in niche genres they may otherwise have missed.
As video games continue to evolve, we’re excited to see the next genre that rises to the top of the charts.