Unreal Tournament, Blood Bowl, and Rocket League belong to three different genres (FPS, round-based tactics, and driving), but all share the same theme: Weird Sport.
Previously, we've focused more on underused gameplay genres, and what makes them tick; in this article, we'll look at six broad themes that have never become as prevalent as WWII or Modern Military, and that could suit many different gameplay genres.
Although the majority of Western-themed games are first-person shooters, the theme can support many different genres: RTS, real-time tactics, or point-and-click, for example.
The theme is defined by more than the appropriate time and locale; it's essential to use the right tropes and motifs if you want to get the "feel" right. In fact, if these rules are used well, the setting can be something other than the American frontier and still feel like a Western—see Space Westerns like Firefly and Outland, or Neo-Westerns like Last Man Standing.
Using common Western tropes as a basis for gameplay is fun way to thread the themes throughout the game. The various Call of Juarez games do this nicely by including duelling mechanics: in the first two games the player can pull two revolvers at the same time and slow down time, so they can fire both accurately. Call of Juarez: Gunslinger also allows the player to slow down time, and additionally invented a completely new duelling mechanic, where the player must focus on multiple opponents, and make sure they draw your weapon in time.
The Desperados games are similar to the real-time tactics Commandos series, which allow the player to control a group of characters that correspond to Western archetypes: the Doctor, the Gunslinger, the Femme Fatale, the Bandit. The places visited are also common "Old West" locations: saloons, Alamo-style forts, wagon trains and frontier farms.
The city builder combines many elements into a single experience—not just placing buildings and paths, but also managing an economy, trading with other cities, and controlling a military force.
There are many ways to approach a city builder. They can be set in pretty much any scenario: the Stronghold series is set in the medieval era; Anno 1602 is set in the Colonial era; Anno 2070 and Startopia are set in a sci-fi future.
Gameplay focuses on the construction and care of the "city"—which could be a settlement, village, island, or even space-station, instead of a literal city metropolis. Then, the player expands the city, with each step gaining them more resources to continue building and caring for it.
Everything outside of that gives you a chance to make a game unique. Anno 1701 introduced slight Adventure/RPG mechanics: the player is issued quests which they much complete using their player avatar (their ship), while other compete with them for rewards. In Anno 1404 these became unique items that could buff the player's islands or ships.
Stronghold and Age Of Empires offer a pretty even split between city-building and military actions, while SimCity and Cities Skylines lack these entirely.
Banished focuses on survival: how can these people work together to get all things necessary to make it though the winter?
So while the basis of the city builder remains the same, their interpretations differ wildly, allowing a lot of room for you, the designer, to add unique aspects.
Reverse Tower Defence
In a traditional tower defence game, the player must defend against an onslaught of enemies by placing defensive towers. As the enemy waves move through your base, the player's towers shoot them down—hopefully before they reach their goal!
Anomaly Warzone Earth reverses this: here, the invading aliens build stationary towers, with fixed fields of fire, while a convoy of the player's tanks moves through the streets. The player can only control the tanks indirectly, by choosing the route they will follow, but not how fast they move or which towers they attack. As such, the player must plan carefully, so they can pick the route that approaches alien towers from the side, and that allows them to gather the most resources, which are scattered around the level.
In addition to this, the player controls a solitary "hero unit" directly. With it, they can pick up and activate special powers, which include healing friendly units and deploying smoke-screens which cause enemy shots to miss. They can also call in new vehicles and upgrade them.
The tower defence theme has been explored and experimented with thoroughly over the years, but the reverse tower defence theme feels like it is in its infancy. Strip it back to its bare essentials—your waves of troops want to get past sets of stationary towers—and there's a lot of potential to work with.
Games like Team Fortress 2, with its 60s spy fiction setting, Tropico, where the player takes the role of a dictator, or even the Grand Theft Auto series, with all of its less-than-angelic protagonists come close to this theme, but none quite hit the mark. The "evil overlord" theme is about the setting, being a straight-up bad guy, and leading a crew of underlings.
Evil Genius pits the player as a Bond villain on their own evil island hideout. They can extend and improve their base, and hire their own private army of minions. Your minions and henchmen play a vital part: you can send them around the world on missions for income. Later, they are the ones that go up against the spies that attack you.
All this time, while your base needs taking care of and evil science has to be done. Like Tropico, the game does not take itself seriously and is very campy, which contrasts well against the idea of being evil.
In Overlord the player takes the role of the titular Overlord, a Sauron-type being. They command a group of imps to do their bidding—that is, terrorizing and subjugating the populace, and building up their evil fortress. Between missions, they can return to this evil lair, which grows more opulent over time.
These games generally do not allow the player to be directly evil; there is always some off-set. Everything in Evil Genius is over-the-top and funny. In Overlord, on the other hand, the player mostly fights other, more evil entities.
Games about real-life sports are immensely popular, with most franchises having yearly instalments: just by tweaking the setup a little, you can create a new game. Tweak the setup a lot, however, and you can create a "weird sport".
Rocket League is the latest game to show that having a "sport" with different rules can be a huge success. In this case: "What if you played football with cars? And what if it isn't cars, but awesome badass rocket-powered cars? Which you can puts hats on?" Suddenly you have an entirely new system with entirely new rules and implications.
Blood Bowl asks the question "What if the teams in this sport are orcs, elves, dwarves and ratmen which can fight each other?". The resulting game is a round-based tactics-game where you have to get a ball on the other side of the field, but can also send your orcs out to gang up on other players.
The Bombing Run Mode of Unreal Tournament 2004 asks you to get a ball-shaped device into the heart of the base of your opponents. Suddenly, even though the game is an FPS, shooting people becomes less important, and passing the ball along offers a lot of room for new strategies.
Here, one player is the mutant. The mutant has special and unique powers, and fights everyone else. In Evolve, for instance, one player plays as a giant monster, and four other players fight together in a team to hunt it down.
In The Hidden, a wonderful mod for Half-Life 2, the titular Hidden is a near-invisible player with a knife, who can jump very high, very far, and stick to walls. They are not completely invisible, though: a Predator-style rippling effect can be seen. Opposing the Hidden is a team of scared, fragile marines with assault rifles and shotguns.
No matter what side you are on, it is tense. Whoever plays as the Hidden must stay out of sight, try to isolate players, and attack them from behind. While doing this they are constantly afraid of being spotted or driven into a corner. Anyone playing as a soldier is also constantly afraid, turning around to double- and triple-check whether they saw something, and getting twitchy when seeing the air distort, even if it is just steam.
A simple version or mutant multiplayer can be found in Unreal Tournament 2004. In Mutant Deathmatch, the mutant gets all weapons and maximum health and armour. Anyone that manages to kill the mutant gets extra points, and then becomes the mutant. This is especially fun in a free-for-all deathmatch, as it completely switches around the balance of the game, since players stop fighting each other and combine forces temporarily to bring down the mutant.
Next time you brainstorm ideas for a new game, or enter a game jam, instead of setting a game in an over-saturated theme, try using one of the above! You could even try a combination of theme and gameplay genre that has never been done before, like RTS + Mutant Multiplayer, or Hacker Game + Evil Overlord.