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  1. Game Development
  2. Game Design
Gamedevelopment

9 Rare and Underused Game Genres Ready to Explore

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There are lots of game genres that haven't really been explored, save for maybe the one or two games that pioneered them. Each underused genre offers a niche and a lot of possibilities to developers experimenting with it—especially for indie developers.

In this article, we'll take a look at some genres that some successful games belong to, but that never caught on in a major way and have never been fully explored. We'll go through some examples of games in each genre, then look at some of the major game design elements that make it up, to see what makes it tick.

Space Roguelike

  • Flotilla
  • FTL - Faster Than Light
  • Weird Worlds - Return to Infinite Space

The Space Roguelike is a rare genre, despite space games and roguelikes separately being well-known and popular.

FTL - Faster Than Light
FTL - Faster Than Light

A space-roguelike is made of almost equal parts space navigation, decision making, and battle sequences. You choose a destination from a starmap, have to make a decision with meaningful repercussions (you encounter pirates; do you pay them off or do you fight?), and then (possibly) fight battles.

Flotilla
Flotilla

The games given above each have their own approach to fighting mechanics. In Flotilla you decide how to move while the game is paused, after which the movements are executed. Weird Worlds presents a top-down 2D-shooter. In FTL you see a view of your ship and those of the enemies, and chose which sub-systems to target.

Most systems and mechanics of the space roguelike can also easily work in a pirate setting. A good example of a game like this is Pixel Piracy.

Pixel Piracy
Pixel Piracy

Pirate Overlord Simulator

  • Tropico 2: Pirate Cove

The Tropico series usually centers on managing a banana republic in a modern setting. Tropico 2 made a unique choice: it was about building and managing a pirate hideout.

Tropico 2 Pirate Cove
Tropico 2: Pirate Cove

In this genre, the gameplay centers mainly on city building. A vital part of gaining resources, however, is sending out pirate ships to gather plunder and captives. You can build and capture a variety of ships and crew them with pirates that live on your island, who are a bit like Sims, with wants and needs and certain skills that can be developed.

Tropico 2 Pirate Cove
Tropico 2: Pirate Cove

Over time, your secret pirate outpost grows in size and reputation, as does your fleet. You'll recruit more pirates to your town and train them in special schools to improve their skills.

Hacker Games

  • Uplink
  • Hacker Evolution

Hacker games are unique in that they are often presented as if inside a (fictional) operating system with a primarily functional user-interface. Thus, the "hacking" elements appear in a more authentic fashion.

Uplink
Uplink

This lack of "flashiness" is a vital element. The data is presented matter-of-factly, like it would be in an actual OS. This might even include boring and mundane tasks:

In Uplink you are required to set a login name and an actual password See how this serves the atmosphere
In Uplink, you are required to set a login name and an actual password. See how this serves the atmosphere?

One action in Uplink, for example, is to search for a file with a certain name while the connection timer runs down. This alone can add tension.

Parachuting Games

  • AaAaAA!!! - A Reckless Disregard for Gravity

Games about falling should be more prevalent, since they are generally easier to make than games of many other genres. AaAaAA!!! is the pioneer, styling itself as a base-jumping game.

AaAaAA - A Reckless Disregard for Gravity
AaAaAA!!! - A Reckless Disregard for Gravity

You fall down an improbable landscape and gain points by moving close to buildings, through targets and narrow spots, activating your parachute as late as possible, and touching down on the landing zone.

AaAaAA - A Reckless Disregard for Gravity
AaAaAA!!! - A Reckless Disregard for Gravity

Another element is finding the optimal route through the world presented. Many elements factor into that, like the placement of buildings and breakable glass plates, which give different bonuses depending on their color. With all these factors, levels can be created that offer interesting paths downwards.

Heist Games

  • Monaco
  • Payday
  • The Amazing Miss Take

These are similar to stealth games, but unlike Splinter Cell and Metal Gear Solid, these rely not on action-fueled battle (or avoiding it), but performing quiet and planned heists.

Monaco
Monaco

These are often set in a '70s Heist movie setting, with the levels being museums and art galleries. Gameplay is centered around avoiding security cameras and guards, and swiping the desired loot.

Monaco
Monaco

Even Payday, which is a shooter, offers tons of non-violent ways to complete missions, which often are more tense and interesting than just having to shoot enemies.

Focus the gameplay on avoiding guards and staying in the shadows. Alarm systems and lasers offer puzzles to work around. Loot strewn around the level, with various risks attached to it, offer meaningful decisions: do you risk the reward, or do you play it safe?

Payday 2 is wonderfully designed in that it actively fosters greed. You only get a payout if at least one person makes it out alive, but every person left behind carries also a penalty. If somebody is downed, your first instinct would be to save them, but that would risk the entire enterprise, and thus the reward.

Weapon Simulator Shooters

  • Receiver

Shooting in mainstream games has been streamlined to such a degree that players instinctively hammer the "reload" button all the time, regardless of whether it destroys the immersion in the scene.

Receiver
Receiver

Receiver is the prime example of a game that does the opposite. Instead of pressing R to reload, every action of operating a gun has a single button assigned. In order to reload a weapon you have to:

  • Activate the safety
  • Remove the current magazine
  • Chamber rounds into a new or the same magazine
  • Insert the magazine
  • Load the first bullet
  • Deactivate the safety
Receiver
Receiver

See the text in the right-hand side of these screenshots? Each action has an unique key assigned. Learning the keys is difficult. Operating a firearm is a puzzle, and mastering the many elements, especially while under pressure, is incredibly gratifying.

All this makes the game much more intense, without having to rely too much on surroundings or enemies.

Lemmings-like

  • Eets
  • Flockers
  • Your Doodles are Bugged!

Ever since its release in 1991, the original Lemmings has been a classic of video game history. Surprisingly, apart from the "official" sequels bearing the Lemmings name, games using its rules are few and far between, with Team 17's Flockers being the rare modern one.

Flockers
Flockers

The rules are centered around herding a group of (mostly mindless) beings through an environment filled with dangers. At the right moment, you have to intervene to adjust the "flow" of beings, by assigning roles to them or removing obstacles.

Flockers
Flockers

There are a lot of possibilities to create puzzles and obstacles. Another element is the necessary sacrifice of your herd of mindless animals. How many of them can become a stairwell to help others across? When you have to blow one up, can you try to keep it isolated from the rest to minimize losses? These are meaningful decisions presented by the gameplay.

Time Travel Games

  • Braid
  • Achron
  • The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom

In all fairness, modeling time-travel in games is fairly complicated, which might explain the lack of examples.

Braid
Braid

The unique nature of time travel allows many ways to include the theme. Braid allows you to rewind of the entire level and undo all of your actions, and adds elements that resist this reversal of time to create unique puzzles. In Achron you can see the battle in four dimensions, and view the past and the future. Interactions outside of the present require more resources, though.

Braid
Braid

Even simple gags are possible, like in Magicka, where you jump into the past and see your own selves moving about, like you yourself did a few levels ago.

Parkour Games

  • Mirror's Edge
  • inMomentum

These are distinct from the endless runners, like Canabalt or Jungle Run, which have a character that runs all the time, and gameplay that is about quick reflexes and avoiding obstacles. The rare first-person runner is about navigating a 3D-environment and choosing the most efficient route through it, all while maintaining high momentum.

inMomentum
inMomentum

A variety of jumps and slides are useful, to let the player move around in a cool fashion.

inMomentum
inMomentum

However, the important thing to get right in these games is the sense of speed. Notice the slight blurring at the edges of the screenshot above. This is a great way to create a movement effect: while running faster and faster, everything around the edges becomes more fuzzy, pulling your view towards the center.

Another way of accomplishing this is by fading in an "effect tunnel" around the player. This can be a tube with moving lines drawn on it, or particles around the player. The effect is similar to the blurring mentioned above.

Nikko RC Racer
Nikko RC Racer
Nikko RC Racer, a game I worked on as part of a team at Paladin Studios, does this, as you can see in this screenshot in the upper right quadrant. It is rather subtle, and creates a decent speed effect

Conclusion

There are a lot of unique genres that beg to be developed further. Within them hide unique mechanics and settings that could make new games more interesting. All these genres mentioned are woefully under-represented in today's gaming-space, despite having the potential to be fun and engaging. A skilled developer could easily pick up one of these and create a title that would not have to fight against other titles in an already saturated field. 

Looking for more ideas? See also: 8 Classic Game Genres Ready to Explore Again.

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