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Video Game Genres: Everything You Need to Know
July 23, 2020
Although video game genres were once fairly clear cut, that’s simply not the case these days. There’s a growing variety of genres and sub-genres to understand, especially as game developers mix and blend different types of games in new and unexpected ways.
That means the video-gaming landscape is constantly evolving. Studios work on tight schedules and follow trends when the opportunity arises. We’re here to help you keep up. In our game genres list, we’ll cover 10 of the most relevant video game categories today.
- Real-time strategy (RTS)
- Shooters (FPS and TPS)
- Multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA)
- Role-playing (RPG, ARPG, and More)
- Simulation and sports
- Puzzlers and party games
- Survival and horror
Keep in mind that many genres have some degree of overlap with each other. Even in the early days of gaming, terms like “action” and “fighting” could cover a lot of titles. That’s why many gamers prefer to use more specific names like those we’ll cover in this article as a way to distinguish the style of gameplay.
The term “sandbox” may be more recognizable from its usage in tech or even as an open-ended mode available within certain games. It’s often associated with player choice, open environments, and non-linear gameplay. The sandbox genre has grown from a small niche to encompass a huge variety of titles.
In these games, players often have less concrete goals and narrative pathways to pursue. Instead of beating the boss and saving the princess, you may face a variety of tasks you can accomplish in a number of different ways. This draws players into more immersive experiences, encouraging experimentation with what may be unfamiliar mechanics.
Sandbox titles can sometimes be highly conceptual and even lack some of the most recognizable gameplay elements. The 1984 game Elite is a key example, with a simple design and play focused on combat, exploration, and trading. It also showcased an early instance of procedural generation.
Simulation games like The Sims are also increasingly touted as sandbox titles, as are many popular franchises, including both Minecraft and Grand Theft Auto. As game worlds expand and narratives diversify, expect more of an overlap with other gaming genres.
- Grand Theft Auto
- The Sims
2. Real-time strategy (RTS)
Originally coined as a marketing term for Westwood Studios’ Dune II, real-time strategy games were around for years before most players knew what the genre was. Thanks to their enduring popularity and the growth of new sub-genres, RTS games remain a conspicuous part of the video game landscape.
In the archetypal RTS title, Dune II human and AI players control different factions and compete against each other simultaneously in “real time” hence the term “real-time strategy,” as opposed to turn-based strategy. These games typically include resource and map management, and they often feature a top-down view.
Warcraft, Age of Empires, and Command & Conquer are among the most popular RTS titles, but the list doesn’t stop there. And when it comes to turn-based strategy games, enthusiasts tout the Civilization series and other notable franchises. There are also titles that deliberately blend elements of both styles for mixed gameplay, like the Total War franchise. To find out about more titles, check out our list of the best RTS games.
- Age of Empires
- Command & Conquer
3. Shooter (FPS and TPS)
The shooter is another long-standing genre that developed several early offshoots and branched out into two primary sub-genres: the first-person shooter (FPS) and third-person shooter (TPS).
There’s plenty of potential for overlap here, too, since many contemporary titles allow you to toggle between first and third-person viewpoints. Not only that, but most battle royale games – a sub-genre unto itself – operate as either first or third-person shooters, including Fortnite and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds.
The key difference is perspective. An FPS simulates a typical human viewpoint, showing essentially what your in-game character sees in franchises like Half-Life, Call of Duty, and DOOM. A TPS pulls the perspective back and showcases your entire character and surrounding environment, such as in the Gears of War and Tom Clancy’s The Division series.
The premise for these games is simple, but it’s been repackaged in many ways over the years. Older players probably remember the earliest arcade and gallery-style shooters with on-the-rails gameplay and relatively simple environments. Then there are shoot-em-ups (or shmups) and bullet-hell games, both of which rely heavily on twitchy gameplay involving plenty of shooting.
While most shooter games split into FPS and TPS gameplay, they’re frequently talked about as elements in other games. Grand Theft Auto V is an example of overlap. It rides the new wave of modern sandbox games, but it also has substantial TPS elements (and you can play it in first-person if you want). By contrast, the Halo series is primarily known for its groundbreaking FPS gameplay.
- Halo (FPS)
- Gears of War (TPS)
- DOOM (FPS)
4. Multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA)
An increasingly popular subgenre with connections to a variety of other styles, multiplayer online battle arena games share many features with real-time strategy games. There’s a top-down perspective that emphasizes map and resource management, plus real-time competition between players.
The major difference between MOBAs and RTS games is the player’s character and role. In a MOBA, you may have a faction alignment and many of the RTS basics in play, but you typically only control a single character. That’s a significant contrast with most RTS games, where you build communities and command multiple units.
MOBA games also prioritize multiplayer and team play. While some well-known titles feature AI-controlled elements, you usually play with and compete against other human players to meet a set of victory conditions.
The niche is dominated by Dota 2 and League of Legends, both of which have developed substantial audiences in eSports. Want to know more about this growing genre? Check out our list of the Top 10 Best MOBA Games for PC today to dive into the most popular titles.
- Dota 2
- League of Legends
5. Role-playing games (RPG, ARPG, and more)
The basic premise of the role-playing game is simple and ubiquitous in numerous games: you create or take control of a character that you can then level up through experience points. RPGs are a cornerstone of gaming, but no single game can represent the genre because it’s grown and blossomed into numerous sub-genres. With that in mind, here are the most popular sub-genres with a short explanation for each.
- RPG: Encompasses a variety of different niches and sub-genres, ranging from tabletop gaming with cards and dice (Dungeons & Dragons) to video game RPGs (Fallout).
- ARPG: Action RPGs have a strong emphasis on combat but include many of the characteristics of a standard RPG, like The Witcher 3.
- CRPG: “Computer RPG” is typically used to describe Western-developed RPGs created for PC gamers, like the first two Fallout games.
- MMORPG: Combines the massively multiplayer online genre format with RPG gameplay, with notable titles like World of Warcraft, EVE Online, and Elder Scrolls Online.
- TRPG: Short for tactical role-playing game, TRPGs resemble strategy games but place a deeper emphasis on creative thinking and short-term decision making, like the XCOM series.
- Roguelike: Strict definitions feature turn-based gameplay, some form of permadeath, tile graphics, and procedural generation. However, many newer and popular examples, like The Binding of Isaac and Spelunky, focus more on action and platforming, respectively.
- Roguelite: Does not include one or more key elements of a typical roguelike. Definitions for this sub-genre will vary, but Rogue Legacy is a widely accepted example.
While you may see other RPG-associated terms used during gaming discussions, these are some of the most common ones to keep in mind. Read about The 10 Best RPG Games of the Last Decade here.
- The Witcher 3 (ARPG)
- Fallout 4
6. Simulation and sports
These genres have evolved a lot over the years and you may actually see them in the same light. But it’s only with advances in graphics technology that they’ve begun to offer unique immersive experiences. The latest iterations provide impressive levels of detail and showcase just how much is possible with games.
Sports games have expanded in variety, offering full-fledged partnerships with major sporting organizations, from race tracks to the field or court. NBA 2K and Madden NFL are two well-known examples that feature detailed recreations of professional basketball and football, while Forza is a simulation-style car racing game.
The simulation genre encompasses many sandbox titles, world-building games, and virtual reality games. The typical focus is on creating an immersive and realistic game world with epic scenarios, while smaller experiences may center on a particular area or experience.
Minecraft and The Sims are good examples of simulation games that also fit into the sandbox niche. For more reading on the sim genre, check out our article on the 6 Best Simulation Games on PC.
Sim and sport examples
- Forza Motorsport
- Madden NFL
7. Puzzlers and party games
Puzzlers and party games also have a significant overlap, with both emphasizing game mechanics. You can expect to play a game based on a theme or a traditional tabletop game with particular rule sets.
Party games take that premise a little further and often include multiplayer elements. They also double-down on gameplay. The Mario Party series is particularly popular, and it spawned more than 10 installments and spin-offs.
Puzzlers, also known as puzzle games, can be as simple as Minesweeper or more deeply immersive, with fully developed environments and hybrid gameplay. The Tomb Raider series is a good example, where puzzles are built into a conventional adventure narrative and setting, making them a key game mechanic. Also, mini-maps are often presented as puzzles you solve (or uncover) throughout the course of the game.
Puzzler and party game examples
- Jackbox Party Pack (party game)
- The Talos Principle (puzzler)
- Portal 2 (puzzler)
Among the earliest recognizable hybrid genres, action-adventure games have a deep focus on plot and combat through story involvement and tight gameplay mechanics. As a result, many games can fit into this category, including the classic Legend of Zelda franchise that paved the way for numerous franchises.
Most users draw the line between action and adventure in how a game balances story and features like simulated combat. Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed series has been a mainstay since 2007 thanks to near-annual new releases featuring a high degree of immersion. They have also taken gamers to myriad locales and historical landscapes ranging from London during the Industrial Revolution (Syndicate) to ancient Greece (Odyssey).
Released in late 2019, Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order is another well-received action-adventure title from the folks at Respawn, who previously worked on the Titanfall series. Other more modern examples include the Watch Dogs series, Sekiro, and the Arkham games.
It’s worth noting that adventure games encompass their own genre as well. Many of them fall into the point-and-click sub-genre, which typically involves players solving mysteries or puzzles in a first-person perspective. Think of classic titles like Escape From Monkey Island, King’s Quest, and Day Of The Tentacle as mainstays of this sub-genre.
- Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order
- Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
- Assassin’s Creed
9. Survival and horror
Survival and horror games have a lot of overlap, to the point that they even created their own sub-genre (survival horror). In particular, horror games often share some basic features with their survival counterparts, though the reverse is less often true. As developers add more FPS and conventional shooter features to certain horror and survival titles, there’s even ongoing debate about how to define these games.
The core mechanics of a survival game centers on resource management, often incorporating crafting or salvage systems that you can use to help keep your character alive. Minecraft is a popular standout, as is Don’t Starve. And then there are games like The Long Dark, which focuses entirely on survival elements with a dedicated mode that increases difficulty.
Horror is an even broader category, arguably encompassing dozens of survival titles. Almost anything with zombies, a post-apocalyptic storyline, or loads of jump scares is considered horror. These titles are often psychological, too, and use tension to immerse the player in the game. On the pure horror side, you have games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Alien: Isolation, and Blair Witch. However, the most popular horror titles tend to fall into the survival-horror side of things, such as the Resident Evil and Evil Within franchises.
- The Long Dark
- Don’t Starve
- Resident Evil (survival-horror)
Looking for a genre that hasn’t changed much in concept over the years? When it comes to nostalgia and devotion to craft, the platformer genre covers a huge variety of games that still proudly showcase their roots in the earliest 2D side-scrollers. Platformers involve running, climbing, and jumping as the player explores and works their way through challenging levels.
Platform games feature a side view and simple controls, with Donkey Kong often considered the first true example. That game passed the torch to Super Mario Bros. and later Sonic the Hedgehog. Moving another several years forward, Naughty Dog’s first Crash Bandicoot title found its audience with a different camera angle (head-on) and loads of charm.
Platformers are extremely popular with indie studios and gamers, as well as legacy releases. There are also plenty of RPG crossovers and excursions into even more obscure niches as well. Ori and the Blind Forest is a popular example that incorporates puzzles and adventure elements, as is Cuphead, which is both beautifully animated and deeply challenging.
- Crash Bandicoot
- Ori & The Blind Forest
The proliferation of new games and styles means the list of video game genres is constantly growing, primarily because developers are constantly pushing the boundaries of gameplay. And while it may all seem complicated at times, the variety is a strong indicator of just how healthy the gaming marketplace has become. It also means that, ideally, you have plenty of different types of video games to consider for your next session.
About the Author: Dwight Pavlovic is a contributing writer for HP® Tech Takes. Dwight is a music and technology writer based out of West Virginia.