Games That Launched Genres
The video game industry may seem like a fount of creativity and innovation, but the truth is most games rehash the same few proven concepts. ‘Evolution not revolution’ is the guiding principle of the industry. Thankfully, sparks of genius do light up the industry from time to time. Often these flashes of insight come not from leading studios, but from newcomers or the gaming community itself. Let’s take a look at some of the games that brought new ideas to the table and launched entire genres of their own. Many of these are already decades old, but their influence is still felt among dozens of new releases every year.
EverQuest wasn’t the first MMORPG, it wasn’t even my first MMORPG. But it was undoubtedly the game that took the genre mainstream. Prior to EQ, MMORPGs catered specifically to internet pioneers who were willing to put up with simple 2D graphics, high network latency, player griefing, and very rudimentary environmental challenges. Ultima Online was certainly fun, but the monster AI and storytelling were largely not existent. EverQuest changed all that. It was the first fully 3D persistent world, fleshed out with a wide variety of playable races and classes. Players could choose to worship an extensive list of deities, each of whose influence was felt in the game world. NPCs patrolled the streets chatting as they bumped into each other, dungeons had bosses, and highly challenging end game raids awaited dedicated guilds. Many on the original World of Warcraft development team were avid EQ players and have stated that their inspiration for WoW came largely from EverQuest. Dig into any Western ‘themepark’ MMORPG and you’ll find EverQuest at its roots.
Originally released as a mod for Half-Life, Counter-Strike soon eclipsed Valve’s story-driven shooter in popularity. The PC shooter genre has never been the same since. It's difficult to understand just how monumental a shift Counter-Strike represented since almost every modern shooter has borrowed so heavily from it. To get a sense of the shooter landscape pre-cs, you would have to go back to the Unreal Tournament, Quake, and Doom days. Fragfest was the name of the game with bunnyhopping, rocket jumping, and maps filled with floating platforms and powerups. I often miss that gameplay style, but the more realistic ‘tactical’ approach made popular by Counter-Strike has clearly swept the field. Only recently have major studios begun to experiment with less realistic, more over the top shooters once again.
Inspired by the Starcraft custom map 'Aeon of Strife', the first moba, Defense of the Ancients took a simple formula and turned it into the most popular genre in the world: two teams, three lanes, one map. By blending RPG and RTS gameplay, Dota provided a satisfying start-to-finish gaming session that only took 30-60 minutes per match. Development of the Dota mod for Warcraft 3 passed through the hands of three developers. The first (Eul), and last (Icefrog) now work at Valve while the second, Guinsoo is at Riot Games. Dota literally seeded the genre; the two most popular e-sports in the world are still being developed by some of the original hands that created the genre. Like the other mods on this list, Dota quickly surpassed its parent game in popularity. Tens of millions of gamers across the world who would otherwise have no interest in a Western developed fantasy RTS ended up playing Warcraft 3 solely to access Dota. The stunted Battle.net lobby system even helped entire gaming platforms such as Garena in Southeast Asia get off the ground by offering players additional hosting and server options. These third party platforms effectively made Dota into a free to play game since a retail CD key was not required to connect users. Dozens of great custom maps were released for Warcraft 3 over the years, many of which also inspired stand alone games (tower defense, anyone?) but Dota is without question *the* map that everyone will remember from Warcraft 3.
Online sandbox games have been around for decades. My first taste of the genre was with Roblox after which I moved on to a MMORPG called Wurm Online. First released way back in 2006, Wurm Online was co-designed by Notch, the now legendary founder of Minecraft studio Mojang. While previous sandbox games had steep learning curves that limited their appeal, Minecraft hit upon the winning formula of simple ground rules combined by nearly unlimited freedom to build and explore. There’s no doubt that the recent slew of voxel based games draw their inspiration from Minecraft. Perhaps the most important game on this, Minecraft has set the standard for PC gaming for a whole generation of young gamers. Almost every genre, including MMORPGs, have felt Minecraft’s influence. Gamers have higher expectations when it comes to crafting, building, and interacting with their environment. Simply right clicking an ore node and waiting for a bar to fill just doesn’t cut it anymore.
Dean Hall’s zombie survival mod quickly eclipsed the original game it was built on. ARMA 2 was a highly realistic tactical shooter that might have even been a good game, but I don’t know a single person who bought it for any reason other than DayZ. The mod tapped into Minecraft’s insight that what gamers really want is freedom to create their own experiences. DayZ threw players into massive adult playgrounds where avoiding zombies quickly took a backseat to solo and gang brutality. While most shooters only reward twitch gameplay, DayZ required resource management, a silver tongue (open mic), and real (albeit temporary) trust between strangers. YouTube videos of hilarious raids, kidnappings, betrayals, and overall shenanigans quickly spread across the gaming community and the foundations of a new genre were thus laid.
Hearthstone was Blizzard’s first move into free to play. The premier PC gaming studio had long stuck to the traditional retail model with even their older titles still commanding hefty prices. As far as experiments go, Hearthstone has been a massive success beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. Originally released for the PC, Hearthstone has since blown up in popularity thanks to its cross platform mobile version. The game is a simple 2 player card game with lore drawn from the Warcraft franchise, specifically from WoW. What allowed Hearthstone to capture such a large market and earn over $20 million a month is its simplicity and the advantage of having been dreamt up specifically with digital platforms in mind. Magic: The Gathering, the premier and still finest TCG ever created, has had a digital version since 2002. Sadly, the game’s arcane ruleset and abundance of phases make it nearly impossible to play online. Even newer, more stripped down versions of Magic: The Gathering have failed to gain much of a following. But Hearthstone’s success has inspired a host of new studios to try their luck at digital card games that offer short match durations, simple rulesets, and a mix of single and multiplayer content.
When and where will the next genre defining game come from? There's no way to know for sure, but I suspect the first online game to properly pull off cross-platform (PC, mobile phone, browser, etc) play will redefine our definition of one or more MMO subgenres. A few titles are vying for this position including Lineage Eternal (Lineage 3) and Albion Online but none have seen full release just yet.