In one of my very first posts, I spent some time dealing with the question of videogame genres. Mainly, I said they were useless tools for the purpose of proffering a theory of design. And they are.
But, in a more formal way, what is a genre?
Well, a genre is really a framework. It lays the foundation, providing a number of basic rules for game mechanics.
Board games, in the traditional gaming sense, are a genre. The concept of them is that each player has one or more pieces that represent an entity's location in the game world (the board). And, via some mechanism, players move pieces around or add more or whatever. The framework in this case is player ownership of pieces and that locations on the board have some meaning.
Go and Chess are both board games, yet they are worlds apart. Even their game mechanics are very distinct, yet they both use the same underlying foundation of pieces on a board where the position of these pieces have some meaning.
Contrast Chess and Go with, say, Magic: The Gathering. These have virtually nothing in common besides the fact that they're all games. The genre of M:tG is predicated on cards that create rules, having a hand with cards that are inactive until "played", drawing more cards from a deck, and having cards in a discard pile of some form. This is the trading card game's genre.
So, genre's provide a framework for build game mechanics. Some game mechanics don't work, and others do. What makes a functioning genre is a set of strong mechanics that can be used for multiple disparate kinds of games. Being able to have game experiences as distinct as Go is from Chess.
Super Mario Bros. and Sonic the Hedgehog are both platformers. And yet they are as different from one another as Chess is to Go. Yes, they both involve getting past an obstacle course populated by difficult terrain and simple AI creatures that serve as dangerous obstacles. But they both go about it in entirely different ways.
That being said, above all, there are basically only 2 true genres, which I will call metagenres. These are Mechanics Heavy and Implementation Heavy.
For neither metagenre is the "light" portion of game design unimportant. However, the emphasis, the linchpin upon which the game will or will not work is the one that is "heavy".
The "classic" example of a Mechanics Heavy game is, well, NeverWinter Nights. It is literally built out of game mechanics from something that isn't a videogame: the 3rd edition of the Dungeons&Dragons table-top RPG.
NWN is Mechanics Heavy. It relies upon its game mechanics to create fun. If the D20 system were not interesting, if it did not create interesting choices for the player, then the game itself would not work no matter what else BioWare did to it.
Using a videogame classified as an RPG as a counter-example, we have, well, any Final Fantasy game. This game is very focused on Implementation. How much experience the player gets at a particular time. Which monsters the player faces, assuming the player has X abilities at that time. What matters in a FF game, what determines how good its gameplay is, depends greatly on exactly how the battles are put together. Which monsters are encountered when.
These issues matter in NWN, but not to nearly as great an extent. Likewise, the combat system of a FF game matters, but never to the degree that it does in NWN, if for no other reason than the fact that the system permeates every aspect of the game. Options open up for you if you have certain skills, or items or whatever.
It's funny. For reasons I haven't quite figured out, PC games tend to be Mechanics Heavy, while console games tend to be Implementation Heavy.
Just think about the great PC games. For the most part, they're Mechanics Heavy. The Sims, StarCraft, StarControl 2, Rome: Total War, pretty much every PC RPG, Civilization. Indeed, PCs have entire genres that are Mechanics Heavy: RTSs, Civ-style games, RPGs, etc.
Noticably absent from this list: FPS games. While mechanics do matter, particularly for their multiplayer aspects, the quality of the single player experience is derived from the implementation more than the mechanics. Why are they focused on PCs then? Controls. That's it. With dual-analog becoming more acceptable, you're seeing these games take the leap onto consoles.
Which is where they belong. Right alongside action/adventures, platformers, 3rd-person shooters, and the other host of console gaming genres of note.
How did this happen?
Well, part of it is somewhat historical. Consoles have been limited in what mechanics they could provide. First by the basic hardware resources (CPU power and memory), and later by what could be expressed by their controls. This forced console developers to focus their energies where they could: implementations. Mechanics had to be fairly simple, so it was the implementation, level design and so forth, that had to take to the fore.
By contrast, PCs have memory and performance available to them. What they had preventing them from exploring implementation was not hardware.
Another part of it is cultural. The PC gaming market has been ruled by, well, geeks. People who absolutely love minutiae and obsess over it. They are intrigued by interesting mechanics, and they do not like being told by some implementation (level design or whatever) that they cannot try something. Broad mechanics with fairly light implementations cater to these people. Not to mention, the first PC games were made by geeks for geeks.
By contrast, console gaming has lived a different life. Since the demise of Atari, console gaming has been focused largely in Asia, Japan in particular. There is a cultural emphasis on what would be considered focused experiences without the minutiae of clever game mechanics. You can see it with their non-gaming entertainment like anime and manga (particularly in the willingness to break with established canon if it serves the story), and the culture spills over into their gameplay. The mechanics are seen as a means to an end; a way to create the possibility of compelling gameplay.
So, there it is: the fundamental difference in PC games and Console games. One favors game mechanics, while the other favors game implementation.