Karthik Balasubramanian, Author at Gameopedia

Risk vs Reward: The Souls-Like’s Twist on Multiplayer

Communication, cooperation and competition are integral parts of the multiplayer experience in most games, but souls-likes have some of the most unusual twists on these three aspects of multiplayer.

In our previous blogs we discussed the design of souls-likes and the evolution and rise to prominence of these games. We believe they are highly popular because of the endless innovations and variations that their developers offer: always sticking to a few rules, but following them in unique ways. 

The distinctive multiplayer aspects of these games were first introduced in Demons’ Souls, the first game in the Souls series by From Software. Since then, every developer (including From Software itself) has persisted in changing up the multiplayer formula with one fixed rule: multiplayer, or even online play, always entails risk or reward. 

Live or Die? Collaboration by Communication in Souls-Likes

In Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, I was looking for ways to even the odds against my first boss. I found something that was labelled a ‘Remnant’. After activating it, a ghostly version of Sekiro, the protagonist, appeared near me, reached the far end of the gate the boss guarded, landed softly behind him, and vanished. I felt then that Sekiro’s stealth system could possibly help me with my first boss encounter. 

Sekiro’s Remnant mechanic can yield useful hints about how to progress in-game (Courtesy Activision)
Sekiro’s Remnant mechanic can yield useful hints about how to progress in-game (Courtesy Activision)

I did as the Remnant hinted and made my boss fight 100% easier. I snuck up behind the boss and dealt a deathblow, then sparred with him to inflict the second mortal wound (confusing as this sounds, certain enemies and bosses in Sekiro can withstand multiple deathblows; this one required two). I won my first fight in one of the toughest souls-likes with relative ease thanks to a feature that is available only when you are playing online. In Souls games, other players can leave actual messages, and you can also see how they died by activating certain Bloodstains on the ground. Sekiro is somewhat different, in that you can create a Remnant where you record 30 seconds of your playthrough and append a message to it. This becomes a record of death only if you die, and quite a few Remnants show how some ways lead to death. 

Nioh’s Bloody Graves mark spots where other players died and spawn AI enemies when activated (Courtesy Koei Tecmo)
Nioh’s Bloody Graves mark spots where other players died and spawn AI enemies when activated (Courtesy Koei Tecmo)

Remnants, Bloodstains and messages do not always help. Some just troll you, and you may encounter this in your very first playthrough of Elden Ring, when a glowing message right next to a precipice suggests you jump. You will die if you jump. The joke isn’t over yet. You can enter the tutorial cave later on by jumping down another precipice, and there is an NPC nearby, urging you to take the leap. This time, you don’t die, but get a crash course on how to play the game. 

For games that don’t hold your hand at all, collaborative features such as these can be a godsend (or hellsent).

In fact, the Nioh duology (which does something unique with just about every feature of a Souls game), creates a very simple risk vs reward scenario with its Bloody Graves mechanic. These do not record the last few seconds of another player before they died, but tell you how they died, and will spawn a hostile AI revenant when activated. The Bloody Grave even tells you the rarity of the loot you will find if you defeat this revenant, and its level (based on the player who died on that spot). Even lower-level revenants are tough to battle but yield good loot, so you know what you are getting into. Revenants may also drop the highly useful Ochoko cup, which can be offered at a checkpoint to summon human aid. 

In Nioh 2, this cup can also be offered up at special Benevolent Graves left behind by human players. When activated, these graves will spawn an AI companion based on the human player who left the grave, and this ally will aid you in battle until they die.

In the Nioh games, you can call for human or AI help using various in-game mechanics (Courtesy Koei Tecmo)
In the Nioh games, you can call for human or AI help using various in-game mechanics (Courtesy Koei Tecmo)

An area chock-full of Bloody Graves is certain to be very, very hard, and since you know how each one of these players died, you can build up a mental map of the various hazards in an environment. Invoking a Benevolent Spirit from a Benevolent Grave not only helps you in battle, but by paying attention, you can even see how to tackle enemies, mini-bosses and bosses the right way. Of course, the Nioh games make up for all this by being incredibly difficult

And the Souls games (from Demons’ Souls on to Dark Souls I, II and III, and even Sekiro) can be the most deceptive. Acting on any message, or even a bloodstain, is basically a coin-flip. Is this message sending me to my death, or saving me from it? Is this Sekiro Remnant showing me what to do, or what not to do? You can choose to ignore these elements altogether, but then again, consider how I got past Sekiro’s first boss. These messages can hold a lot of allure, especially for new players.

You (All) Died: Co-Op Gameplay in a Souls-Like

Playing a souls-like game in co-op is the closest such titles come to a relatively ‘easy mode’, though co-operative play does come with its own challenges. Over the years, developers have come up with various excellent co-op experiences that build a sense of solidarity between players, but not all co-op experiences are equal. Some games offer seamless co-op, others don’t. Some games are needlessly obscure about how to set up co-op. The list below contains a description of various co-op modes, and one recommendation that many souls-like developers could adopt to improve the co-op experience. 

What are the Must-Haves for Co-Op in Souls-Likes?

  • Seamless Co-Op: Some souls-likes deliver fluid and well-synchronised co-op where you and your friends can live and die together, level up together, and beat the game together. Nioh 2 allows for three players to play all game missions together where beating bosses and levels in co-op transfers over to your single-player playthrough. Gunfire Games’ Remnant: From the Ashes and its sequel Remnant II are actually meant to be played in co-op mode, but the procedurally generated world prevents progress from carrying over to your single-player campaign. However, any level-ups, skills or items gained in co-op mode stay with you in single-player mode – you just have to finish the mission on your own again. 
Remnant: From the Ashes and its sequel allow you to play in seamless co-op
Remnant: From the Ashes and its sequel allow you to play in seamless co-op
  • Summons: Seamless co-op, however, is not a staple of souls games. You can’t just join another player and beat a Dark Souls game together – in fact, the main boss of a level must be alive for co-op gameplay in Demons’ Souls and the Dark Souls games. You can summon a companion at the very first checkpoint of a level and complete the mission together, but your ally will be sent back once the boss is defeated. Your ally will also have to clear the level in single-player mode unless he has already done so. There are various other hoops to jump through, as we detail in the next point. 
  • Difficulty Balancing: The ultimate rush in a souls-like is the sense of accomplishment you get when you finally defeat a boss. Co-op modes must be carefully balanced so they don’t blunt this feeling. Nioh 2 is one of the hardest games ever made, and co-op mode maintains this challenge while allowing players to feel a sense of solidarity in defeat or victory. In games such as Elden Ring or the Dark Souls games, human companions summoned into your world have fewer resources and bosses are significantly stronger. Summoned players must be close to your own level as higher-levelled summons will turn the boss fight into a milk run. Engaging in co-op makes you open to invasions by a hostile human player, adding a further element of risk.
  • Making Co-Op Accessible: People love Souls games for their mystique and lack of hand-holding. This approach to game design, however, can carry over to UX design, especially for multiplayer, to such an extent that an article flat out states that setting up co-op in Elden Ring can sometimes be as tough as a boss fight. There are several online guides and wiki pages dedicated to explaining the various steps you must take to summon a friend into your world – and this problem has been met with criticism. Games like Nioh 2 address this issue by offering seamless co-op, which does not fit with From Software’s multiplayer design. Lords of the Fallen removes the tedium involved in setting up multiplayer without straying from the Souls games’ co-op formula. 
Lords of the Fallen simplifies the process of setting up co-op while staying true to the Souls games’ multiplayer modes
Lords of the Fallen simplifies the process of setting up co-op while staying true to the Souls games’ multiplayer modes

Invading Your Space: PVP in Souls-Likes

Like many other aspects of souls-likes, PvP entails risk and reward
Like many other aspects of souls-likes, PvP entails risk and reward

Invasions. That is the name for the default player-versus-player (PVP) mode in the Souls games – and the name tells you a lot about just what you are in for in PVP zones. If you are playing the game online without any restrictions like a multiplayer password, entering certain areas in-game opens you up to invasion by another online player. If the host dies to the invader, they lose all their souls and are sent back to the most recent checkpoint, and must go back to where they were defeated to retrieve their souls. The invading winner gets a percentage of the souls possessed by the winner. If the invader dies, they lose all their souls and must retrieve them after being revived at their checkpoint. 

Duelling with another player who invades your world can be both infuriating and rewarding
Duelling with another player who invades your world can be both infuriating and rewarding

PVP invasions are a highly divisive gameplay mechanic even among fans of souls-likes. Some believe it strikes a fair balance vis-a-vis the benefits of co-op, and that the invader is as much at risk as the defender. Even those who find the mechanic in itself as balanced might find its frequency too much to handle – turning it into a repetitive annoyance. Another criticism is that the invader’s attack patterns cannot be memorised – a core aspect by which a souls-like remains punishing but fair. There are some who even relish playing the role of a troll-like invader, and others who write of griefers who made them rage-quit a Souls game. One particularly fiendish troll kept invading a Kotaku columnist’s Demons’ Souls playthrough, never bothering to kill him, but always weakening him, first by ruining his armour and then using a spell that delevels the player one hit at a time

Of course, you can choose to play offline, but then you lose all aspects of the multiplayer experience. Consider how online play can guide your playthrough before you choose to go offline – encounter zones filled with the signs of many player deaths can provide a stark warning of the dangers ahead. There are some ways to avoid or cope better with invasions in the Dark Souls series, but each of them inevitably comes with some trade-offs. 

The Hollow Arenas in Dark Souls III, an arena-based PVP system, allows for a less chaotic experience while duelling human opponents. The Hollow Arenas are unlockable world-spaces in the game, and are usually accessed after finishing the single-player campaign. Winning in the Arena does not yield much as reward: you get a badge of victory. Invaded players will actually be alerted to your PVP experience if you sport a higher level badge, so, in a sense, the badge is less of a reward and more of a warning for lesser players

The Hollow Arenas of Dark Souls III offer a less chaotic, more controlled PVP experience (Courtesy Bandai Namco)
The Hollow Arenas of Dark Souls III offer a less chaotic, more controlled PVP experience (Courtesy Bandai Namco)

Elden Ring makes invasions optional so long as you are not in co-op mode. Again, there is a special ring you can equip to call for more aid when invaded while in co-op mode, but that will help only if someone responds to your summons. The game also features three arena-based PVP locations known as Colosseums

Elden Ring’s Colosseums offer multiple PVP modes, supporting up to six players together
Elden Ring’s Colosseums offer multiple PVP modes, supporting up to six players together

Each Colosseum can support up to six players at once, with three combat modes. Two players can engage in a duel to the death with no chance of respawning, two even teams can fight against each other with the chance to respawn, and all players can engage in a battle royale of sorts. 

Elden Ring’s Colosseum lets two players fight to the death, along with other PvP modes
Elden Ring’s Colosseum lets two players fight to the death, along with other PvP modes

Neither of the Nioh games feature invasions, but the first game in the series offers arena-based PVP where players can engage in 1v1 or 2v2 combat. But the near-absurd degree of customisation possible in Nioh means that these battles can become thoroughly unbalanced, with expert marksmen going up against near invincible opponents and picking them off with ease. Nioh 2 simply dispenses with PVP altogether, choosing to feature the robust co-op mode detailed above. 

Nioh has an arena-based PVP system that can get chaotic because of the sheer build variety in the game
Nioh has an arena-based PVP system that can get chaotic because of the sheer build variety in the game

If every aspect of multiplayer in souls-likes entails a risk vs reward calculation, the very decision to play offline or online requires a thorough understanding of the trade-offs involved in both modes when you are playing a Souls game. Playing online means invasions, but also guidance. Playing offline spares you from invasions, but removes all the various messages and tips that other players have left, and in games such as these, where the player must figure out many things for themselves, such guidance can be invaluable. But griefers can frustrate you so much that you quit the game, which is arguably the worst way to end things with a souls-like – doing the hard yards but still not coming away with a sense of achievement. 


Hidetaka Miyazaki, the mastermind behind the Souls games by From Software, wants to continue improving the multiplayer aspects of these games, taking cues from titles like Escape from Tarkov. Considering the fact that souls-like developers are hellbent on innovation, we can expect more twists in the multiplayer formula of such games. 

Elden Ring might be the most successful souls-like, but its multiplayer has invited criticism, especially because the formula hasn’t really been updated to facilitate the exploration of the open world in co-op mode. The mechanic of returning a partner to their own world after defeating a boss makes sense in the linear levels of the earlier games, but exploring an open world together is quite different, as Jade King of The Gamer points out. Seamless co-op in Elden Ring would result in shared discoveries, going down unknown paths together and surviving in a huge world with a friend who has got your back. All of this led to the development of the seamless co-op mod for Elden Ring, and From Software could come up with its own solution as well. 

Except for the arena-based PVP available in some games, multiplayer elements are organic – even integral – parts of your playthrough. The asymmetry in PVP invasions only adds to the brutal challenge of these games, making them tougher, but more rewarding – fighting and winning against a higher-levelled gamer will yield both high-quality items and any in-game currency that powers level-ups. 

There is a common thread running through all these multiplayer elements apart from the risk vs reward calculation: they are meant, at least in part, to make the world easier to understand and navigate. This carries over into real life as well: there are subreddits, Discord servers, and Youtube channels all devoted to helping people get by in the harsh world of these games. In that sense, you are never really alone when you are playing a souls-like, and you shouldn’t be – these games are hard enough as it is. 

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Perfecting Souls-Like Games: The Rise of a Winning Formula

In November 2021, the Golden Joystick Awards asked gamers to vote for the Ultimate Game of All Time as part of its celebration of 50 years of gaming. Dark Souls I bagged this coveted title, beating Minecraft, Doom and other legendary games. The Golden Joystick Awards is the longest-running video game award ceremony, and the fact that Dark Souls won this award via an audience poll underscores the meteoric rise to prominence of the souls-like. In a previous blog, we made no bones about the difficulty of these games. Nevertheless, it was not critics or tastemakers who voted for Dark Souls, but gamers themselves. 

Gamers voted for Dark Souls as the Ultimate Game of All Time (Courtesy Bandai Namco)

Why are souls-likes so popular? We will try to answer this by tracking the evolution of the souls-like formula and its coming of age in 2023. We will argue that the souls-like is an audience favourite because it’s a hotbed of innovation, it offers punishing but ultimately rewarding gameplay, and developers are now taking it in directions that few studios would risk, imbuing the souls-like with its own identity.

Must-Play Souls-Likes: Evolution and Experimentation

In most souls-likes, you are never more than seconds away from death, you need skill to survive, and stamina in combat. We will take a look at how From Software established and iterated on the core gameplay of Souls titles, and how studios like Team Ninja introduced novel variations on this formula: no two souls-like are alike.

Demons’ Souls

Demons’ Souls became a sleeper hit after imported copies met with favourable reception in the West

The first Souls game might well have been the last. Shuhei Yoshida, the then President of Sony Worldwide Studios, played a buggy final demo with framerate issues containing none of the game’s promised multiplayer elements. Sony decided not to publish the game worldwide. But soon, Atlus USA published the game in the US and Bandai Namco released it in Europe after reviews of imported copies made it clear that the game was 2009’s sleeper hit. At a time when mainstream games were criticised for holding the gamer’s hand and making things too easy, Demons’ Souls broke the mould and introduced the core gameplay concepts of the Souls games, with punishing combat, dark themes, an indirect narrative, death penalties, and more. As Demons’ Souls was released before the term ‘souls-like’ was coined, it was called an RPG and drew praise for its build variety and challenging combat

The Dark Souls Franchise

If Demons’ Souls was almost nipped in the bud, Dark Souls I was against nigh-impossible odds. 2011 saw the release of Skyrim, Portal 2, Batman: Arkham City and other hugely successful games. Yet, Dark Souls drew critical praise and fans who guided each other to make the experience less punishing. Dark Souls improved upon the Souls formula: healing supplies are replenished when you respawn at a checkpoint, combat is more fluid, and the environmental storytelling is more nuanced. 

Dark Souls II (2014) was not very popular on release because of performance and design issues. But it is now recognised for pioneering many of the elements that Elden Ring would feature: it is a quasi-open world allowing room for exploration, it offers more variety in builds, and has stances with unique movesets. If nothing else, Dark Souls II was a failed experiment that laid the groundwork for the best-selling souls-like to date. 

Dark Souls III (2016) broke sales records on launch, becoming publisher Bandai Namco’s fastest-selling game until Elden Ring was published. A lot of hype surrounded the game before release; the term souls-like was now known, if not common, and most importantly, Bloodborne (2015) was a smash hit, giving From Software a chance to bounce back from Dark Souls II. And Dark Souls III didn’t disappoint. The game expands on many souls-like concepts: the parry system is more refined and magic builds are stronger with the Ashen Estus Flask, which can either regenerate health or magic. The new Weapon Arts system also arms the player with a variety of movesets. The world of the souls-like was now brimming with possibilities. 


Few games are as unique as Bloodborne, a souls-like that plays like a horror fantasy inspired by the author H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos. Bloodborne encourages fast-paced, aggressive combat by depriving the player of any shield or defensive weapon and giving them guns that can deal damage and repel attacks. If an enemy attack deprives you of health, you can counterattack within a narrow time frame to regain lost health points. This ‘Rally’ mechanic, along with Bloodborne’s gunplay, is a significant departure from the deliberate, methodical combat of other souls-likes. 

Moreover, Bloodborne has a twist on the horror elements as well. A faculty called Insight keeps increasing as you progress through the game. This allows you to see the world as it really is – filled with Lovecraftian monstrosities. According to Lovecraft’s mythos, people who truly see the world’s cosmic horror go mad. Bloodborne’s developers translate this fictive conceit into a brilliant gameplay mechanic.  

Bloodborne’s literary themes are expertly translated into gameplay features

The Nioh Duology

The Nioh games are true souls-likes: they don’t copy the Souls formula, but experiment with it. As a gamer notes, unlike the Souls games, Nioh’s gameplay is much smoother, fluid and multifaceted, with various mechanics that offer plenty of approaches to combat, improving your odds of defeating the games’ incredibly difficult bosses. 

Firstly, there is the all-important Ki pulse, which lets you rapidly regenerate your stamina, or Ki, in the middle of battle, allowing you to stay in the fight. Each weapon comes with three stances and their own specific movesets, and each stance offers unique advantages in battle. Every single weapon has a detailed skill tree: once mastered, these skills can be devastating in battle. The Nioh games’ narrative is drawn from Japanese folklore. In Nioh (2017) you battle Yokai – malevolent supernatural creatures – with the aid of guardian spirits that make you invincible for a short time in battle and can greatly damage enemies. In Nioh 2 (2020), you can become a benevolent Yokai, yourself, armed with powerful movesets.

The Nioh games innovate on almost every aspect of`the souls-like

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice

Sekiro eschews many core aspects of Souls games. In Sekiro, the most powerful move you make is the perfect parry or ‘deflect’, a timed block that you can follow up with a crippling attack. There is no stamina mechanic, but a posture bar that fills up if you block repeatedly. Once full, your posture breaks, you slump to the ground, defenceless, and are open to mortal attacks. If you successfully deflect attacks, or time your blocks, the enemy’s posture breaks and opens them up to a deathblow

Sekiro is a masterpiece that reduces the souls-like to its core concepts

The game does away with RPG mechanics and only offers a few upgrade paths. Sekiro, the player character, is fitted with a prosthetic after his arm is chopped off early in-game, and it can be equipped with weapons like a shuriken launcher or a short-range flamethrower. They may work with regular enemies, but you must master the art of deflecting again and again and finally dealing the coup de grace to defeat bosses.

The game does have a forgiving stealth system, though, where you can kill enemies and severely weaken bosses with a timed backstab. You can flee to a nearby checkpoint even when very close to death. Even the death penalty is not severe. Sekiro is less punishing than most souls-likes purely because every boss is a nightmare. 

Sekiro is a masterpiece and won the Game of the Year Award for 2019. Every design choice is meant to let you be the perfect Ninja, who can kill anything with his katana. Sekiro adds a whole new level (literally) to the world by placing loot and even NPCs in high places that can be reached only with a grappling hook. And it’s a true souls-like: it just throws out anything that does not directly involve death and difficulty. 

Elden Ring

Is the best-selling Souls game and the Game of the Year for 2022 the best Souls game? Arguably, yes. Penned in part by George R.R. Martin, Elden Ring is as difficult as any souls-like, and combines this with a complex RPG system in a wide-open world. Like in any Souls game, difficulty and deception play an equal role in this title. 

Elden Ring’s open world is both gorgeous and treacherous

Roam without caution and you will stumble upon a mob or a nigh-unstoppable mini boss. Try to bypass this area, and you may encounter another foe who kills you with one blow. Unlike the linear Souls games, however, you are never necessarily stuck somewhere, you can always find a relatively safer path

It’s also consistent with linear souls-like design. You explore large spaces, but your path to the Erdtree, which plays a critical role in the main quest, is blocked by incredibly difficult bosses. Explore to grind, gear up, level up and git gud enough to go after these demigods. And these boss fights are as hard as they come, but to paraphrase a reviewer, you go from ‘no way I can do this’ to ‘I can’t believe I did that’.  

In Elden Ring, your path to the Erdtree is blocked by immensely difficult bosses

Elden Ring is both accessible and punishing. Rather than just grinding in the same area in a linear game, you explore and can come upon gorgeous vistas. There are plenty of checkpoints, and you can fast travel between them. Many regular enemies can be dispatched with a backstab using stealth. In a previous blog, we noted that only 25% of Steam gamers had beat the first boss, but the game is still a favourite among players. This is perhaps because even if you keep dying, the open world never bores you. 

2023: The Year when the Souls-Like Found its Identity

If there is a tipping point for the souls-like, it’s the year 2023. Even before the year started, there were articles about hotly anticipated souls-likes. Matt Purslow, UK News and Features Editor for IGN, believes that the souls-like has ‘grown up’, suggesting that the year’s souls-likes are taking the genre in entirely new directions and emerging from the shadow of From Software, the progenitor of these games.

2023 is a year simply overwhelmed with souls-likes: Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty, released in early March; Star Wars: Jedi Survivor, released late April; Lies of P, released mid-September, followed up quickly by Lords of the Fallen in October. 

With the possible exception of Jedi Survivor, each one of these games is hard enough that you might not finish it. We will discuss Star Wars: Jedi Survivor, Lies of P and Lords of the Fallen below. Each one of them not only count as adept variations on From Software’s formula, but also indicate that the souls-like is maturing rapidly. 

Star Wars: Jedi Survivor

Star Wars: Jedi Survivor makes you earn the title of Jedi Knight with its souls-like combat (Courtesy Electronic Arts)

Strictly speaking, we do not consider the Jedi series true souls-likes, but we classify them as titles with combat inspired by such games. However, gamers and game sites treat them as ‘entry-level’ Souls games. This unfairly puts them in the shadow of From Software’s titles. The Jedi games are set in the beautiful, space opera world of Star Wars and have a compelling narrative, a refreshing change from the oppressive, brooding atmosphere and indirect storytelling of most souls-likes. In our taxonomy, these aren’t just ‘Souls games for noobs’, but unique games in their own right. 

As Matt Purslow puts it, Jedi Survivor isn’t aping the Souls games, but aiming for ‘saberrealisticcombat’ – adroitly simulating the experience of wielding a lightsaber in close-quarters melee duels. At the same time, souls-like combat mechanics (like penalties on death, etc) make Jedi Survivor’s lightsaber duels both difficult and fun, or rewarding. You must earn the title of Jedi Knight, instead of indulging in the fantasy of being one. 

Lies of P

Lies of P’s literary ambitions sets it apart from most souls-likes (Courtesy Neowiz Games)

Lies of P draws inspiration from the Pinocchio fairytale, and that in itself lends it a literary sheen that other souls-likes, except Bloodborne, lack. The fact that this game is also set in the belle epoque period of European history speaks volumes about its sophistication. The belle epoque roughly corresponds to the three decades before World War I and was characterised by prosperity, cultural sophistication and relative peace. But inequality was endemic and the artistic elites felt cynical and pessimistic about the world. This combination of ‘prosperity and negativity’ allowed developers to craft a souls-like atmosphere from a real historical setting, whereas such games generally invent their own dark-and-stormy mythos. Even the ending of Lies of P suggests a sequel based on another beloved (and dark) classic of children’s literature. 

In terms of gameplay, Lies of P is an unabashed love letter to Bloodborne, encouraging fast, aggressive combat (like in Bloodborne, you can recover lost health if you counterattack after a blow). Playing as Pinocchio, you can customise the protagonist based on your preferred playstyle. A standout feature is the option to break weapons into two halves and then joining two mismatched halves to create a powerful armament. 

Lords of The Fallen

Lords of the Fallen’s dual world is a remarkable twist on souls-like environment design (Courtesy CI Games)

Any developer inspired by Souls games has to convince gamers that the game is difficult and punishing, but also fair and rewarding. Hexworks, the developer of Lords of the Fallen takes a unique approach to this design principle: parallel worlds that the player can alternate between to traverse the environment, solve puzzle obstacles and even get a second shot at life after dying. When you die in the living world, Axiom, you aren’t sent back to the last checkpoint, but rise back up in the exact same spot in Umbral, the parallel realm of the dead. If you die in Umbral, however, you are returned to your last checkpoint. 

Umbral is hard to escape from and becomes increasingly inhospitable as you spend more time in it. The dual worlds system always poses a risk-reward problem to the player. They can use the Umbral Lamp to discover that an area blocked off in Axiom is easily accessible in Umbral, but can run into nasty enemies in the world of the dead. Players can even enter the Umbral world with the Lamp to search for rare loot, running the gauntlet of the realm’s enemies and deeply disturbing apparitions. Souls games are set in gloomy worlds; this game is set in one dark world connected to another terrifying underworld.  

Lords of the Fallen’s two worlds are both inhospitable and deeply interconnected

Conclusion: Why the Souls-Like is Popular

From Demons’ Souls to Lords of the Fallen (and numerous indie gems in between), the souls-like game is a hotbed of innovation – and this is arguably the reason for their continued popularity. Like nature, the gaming industry is red in tooth and claw, and each studio must evolve to survive and thrive. The developers of souls-likes have taken this mantra to heart, always experimenting with a handful of core design principles, using them as a scaffolding to create entirely unique and punishing, but rewarding, games. 

Open worlds have become larger and larger, but not necessarily better. In fact, Elden Ring arguably features the best open world, with elegant sightline design and even an immersive take on the infamous Ubisoft Tower. Its minimal design elements and UI let the player truly inhabit the Lands Between. 

Perhaps this type of game draws successful and innovative studios precisely because they do not have to follow ‘souls-like commandments’ set in stone. There have been so many successful experiments on the souls-like that each one has its own identity: they might all follow a few rules, but the player will have no idea how they honour these rules. Even our own checklist is a descriptive rather than a prescriptive rule-set – if more developers decide to remove the infuriating slog back to where you died to recover lost resources, we would remove this death penalty from our rule-set.

Souls-likes are heavily single-player focussed, but paradoxically, they also have the most inventive multiplayer systems. Team Ninja, From Software, Gunfire Games and others have introduced key elements that transform the game when you play it online. We will delve into these gameplay elements in our subsequent blog. 

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Difficulty, Deception and Death: The Design of a Souls-Like

Within a year of its launch in February 2022, Elden Ring, From Software’s first open-world souls-like, had sold more than 20 million units, making it one of the ‘most popular games in recent memory’. 

Elden Ring’s sales figures – and the sheer speed at which the game hit the 20-million milestone – surpasses every other souls-like by a huge margin – the entire Dark Souls series (comprising Dark Souls I, II and III) hit 27 million units sold in 2020, over the course of ten years.

Elden Ring is set to dwarf the sales figures for the entire Dark Souls Trilogy

As of the time of this writing, Elden Ring has an average player count exceeding 25000 for the last 30 days according to Steam Charts, and in the months since it was released, the Steam player count has never dipped below 20000, placing it in the top 5% of Steam games in terms of active players.

Elden Ring is so difficult that even after a year of release, very few players have finished the game

Perhaps the game is easier than other souls-likes? No. As of June 2023, only 8% of owners on Steam had beaten the game. 25% of them hadn’t even beaten the first boss: Elden Ring is a gorgeous world that many owners have not even begun to explore. 

To wit, you have a best-selling, incredibly difficult but frequently played game, which makes no sense. Why would so many throw themselves at Margit, the first boss, only to be thwarted for the umpteenth time? Why would so many buy the game well after its overwhelming difficulty is made obvious in any playthrough?

In this blog series, we will discuss how the souls-like – a radical reinvention of the role-playing and fighting games – creates a challenging but ultimately fair interactive experience, rewarding your victories and forcing you to learn from your failures. In a subsequent blog, we will discuss some major souls-likes, and how these games took the genre in new, unexplored directions. And in our final blog of the series, we will delve into how these games – known for focussing on single-player – innovate even with online play, adding a variety of features that can both help and hinder the gamer. 

But before we answer any questions about the souls-like, we need to identify what it is

What is a Souls-Like? What are its Key Traits?

At its most basic, a souls-like features very difficult boss fights, inhospitable environments, unforgiving combat, preset checkpoints and various other elements meant to make the game hard but fair. A souls-like incorporates gameplay elements of developer From Software’s titles, like the Dark Souls trilogy, Demons’ Souls, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice and others – many of which were directed by Hidetaka Miyazaki. The souls-like is not a genre unto itself, but reinvents the fighting and RPG genres. This is why we study the shared traits of these games, rather than treating them as a subgenre.

What are the Key Features of a Souls-Like?

  • Fixed Difficulty: The player can’t change the difficulty level of these games. The entire user base has a level playing field. 
  • Unforgiving Combat: Just a few missteps will lead to player death. Combat moves such as attacks, blocks and dodges cost stamina (or a similar resource) and leave you vulnerable if completely depleted. Regular enemies are as strong as the player, if not more.
  • Pattern Memorisation: The player must memorise enemy attack patterns and placement, and also the location of hazards or traps in order to succeed.
  • Hostile Level Design: Navigating the environment is a challenge, with tough enemies packed in tricky locations. 
  • Preset Checkpoints: The player has to reach and activate checkpoints manually to use them, and will respawn there on death. The checkpoint is also a place to level up your skills. Activating a checkpoint respawns all enemies in the area except for bosses. 
  • Loose, Indirect Narrative: The games do not feature explicit cutscenes or plotlines. There may be a quest log, but no quest markers to guide the player to their objective. The narrative unfolds as the player explores the world, and uncovers its lore by talking to NPCs and slaying bosses. 
  • Penalty on Death: Players may lose unused items, XP and resources (called Souls in the Souls games and Runes in Elden Ring) on death, but they may be able to return to where they died to reclaim lost resources


We class all souls-likes as ‘masocore’. As defined by game designer Anna Anthropy, a masocore game subverts the player’s expectations, and the genre conventions that they think they know. Souls-likes deliver a masochistic and hardcore experience that ultimately rewards the player with an immense sense of achievement after beating a challenge that appears to be insurmountable. 

True souls-likes batter and beguile you into thinking that failure is inevitable, when it isn’t. Death is central to learning from mistakes, and eventually defeating super-powered enemies. Both difficulty and deception play an equal role in a souls-like’s design as it constantly subverts the assumptions you make about the game.

Mastering combat, sussing out the game’s various illusory challenges and tricks, and eventually winning by paying attention can leave you immensely satisfied. This is probably why these games have a fervent fan base

Souls-likes often explore dark fantasy themes. To paraphrase blogger Josh Bycer, in a souls-like, the world is ruined, the good guys are dead, there is nothing to save, and you are just trying to make things a little better (you will fail, however). You are not Geralt the White Wolf, the Dragonborn or John Shepard. 

Bloodborne is a Lovecraftian horror fantasy. The Nioh games are filled with Yokai, monsters drawn from Japanese folklore. Demons’ Souls is set in a world overrun by soul-devouring creatures. The most prominent souls-likes are set in a carefully crafted and oppressive atmosphere that leaves no doubt that you are entering a world of pain. In that regard, there is no deceit. 

Bloodborne’s Lovecraftian horror themes are integral to its gameplay (Courtesy Sony Interactive Entertainment)

How Does a Souls-Like Differ from Other RPGs?

No matter how much you level up in a souls-like, victory hinges on the skill with which you use your stats, and the care with which you choose your stats and build. 

In normal RPGs, use determines progression, and it is the player character who levels up. You can upgrade an item by using it, wield this item to gain more experience points and reinvest these points into making the item even better. You can become a tank with sufficiently upgraded armour, and a one-hit killer with an overpowered weapon. 

This may not work in a souls-like, though it is possible to craft a build that gives you an overwhelming advantage. If you don’t perfect your build, your buffed up armour will probably absorb a few more blows from bosses before you die, and regular enemies can kill you if you cheese them with a powerful weapon – they will dodge, time their block and follow it up with a vicious and mortal counterblow. Levelling up in a souls-like requires you to carefully manage XP, and even after levelling up successfully, you need to grow skilled at whatever attack move or ability you gain. Not only do you have to grind to unlock a perk or skill, you have to grind again to master it. Skill determines progression and, in a sense, you are the one who levels up. 

In other RPGs, not all skills are meant to improve your ability to fight. In Starfield, there are entire skill trees with no relation to combat, allowing you to role-play as a planetary explorer, a space-faring merchant or an entrepreneur managing a business empire. 

In a souls-like, you aren’t going to be any of these things. You fight enemies, mini-bosses and bosses while navigating hostile levels and every skill in every skill tree is meant to give you a tactical edge in battle, and that’s it. This is why you should put extra care into every level up, every skill, every buff – they aren’t there to let you live out some RPG fantasy, but to help you ‘git gud’. 

This raises a question: are you truly role-playing as anyone if the entire levelling system is based on combat? It is possible that future souls-likes might introduce other role-playing mechanics, just as Elden Ring transplanted the souls-like into an open world. However, no matter how developers flesh out RPG mechanics in future souls-likes, player skill, rather than the player character’s level, will determine the progression along any skill tree. 

How to Survive in a Souls-Like, or How to ‘Git Gud’

The phrase ‘git gud (get good)’ will forever be linked to the souls-likes: becoming skilled is the key to surviving and winning in these games. You must also cultivate patience and perseverance to cope with the various challenges these games hurl at you. 

How Do You ‘Git Gud’ at Playing a Souls-Like? 
  • Be a Survivalist: Souls-likes do not feature typical survival mechanics like the need for food, clothing and shelter. But you have to garner resources needed to level up, unlock skills, and purchase key in-game items, all of which play a critical role in killing bosses and thus progressing to new areas. Dying to lesser enemies and losing resources can thus be infuriating. Learn enemy weaknesses, patterns and placements so you can clear an area again and again and level up to improve your odds against the boss. When weakened, flee from a fight if you can – whether it’s with a boss or an enemy mob – and return healthy. Lure away enemies from their groups if possible: divide and conquer. 
The stealth system in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice confers a strong tactical advantage (Courtesy Activision)
  • Learn How to Deal Damage: One of the first surprises a souls-like throws at you is that your attack buttons don’t really do much. Enemies dodge, block, and counterattack expertly. Even if they don’t, repeated attacks will drain your stamina, leaving you totally exposed. However, these games offer move sets that can inflict significant damage, only if they are executed within a narrow time window. In the Souls games and Bloodborne it’s the parry and riposte, in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, you can follow up ‘perfect deflectswith a deathblow. In Nioh, a timed button press triggers a ‘Ki’ pulse that rapidly regenerates your ‘Ki’, or stamina, letting you deal more blows to enemies. 
  • Perfect the Defensive Moves: Dodge rolls to get out of, or under, the boss’ range. Ducking to evade high attacks. Leaping to avoid sweep attacks. Timing the block right, or at least blocking instead of spamming attacks and exposing yourself. Getting far, far away from unblockable attacks. No matter what build you choose, and no matter what high-damage move the game has, defence is critical to surviving in a souls-like.  
  • Study the Game, the World and the RPG System:  In other RPGs, any build can be effective, but souls-likes may not offer such flexibility. This is why the Nioh games allow you to respecialise or ‘respec’ your skill points because tactics that work in early missions may not work in harder levels. The set of starting builds offered in souls-like can be considered a deviously hidden difficulty slider: the worst builds almost guarantee failure, and the best offer a fighting chance. In the Dark Souls trilogy and Demons’ Souls, the magic build can actually be overpowered. Souls-like world-spaces can offer helpful hints (some of these are left by other players and are visible only when playing online). Read guides and watch playthroughs if you get stuck at a certain stage – this is particularly useful in such games as they offer little to no guidance.
In Demons’ Souls, the magic build can be exploited to create an overpowered character (Courtesy Sony Interactive Entertainment)

None of these survival tactics guarantee success. In each of these games, you must execute a perfect combination of defence and offence unique to each boss to defeat it and you will keep dying in perfecting this combination. Victory is always stolen from the jaws of defeat. 

Despite this, every Steam user has at least one souls-like game in their library, according to SteamSpy. Steam had a user base of 132 million active users as of 2021, and the total number of owned copies of games tagged as souls-like currently exceeds 170 million. 

It is safe to presume that the developers of souls-likes are getting things right more often than not, but these games could use a few upgrades without compromising on the design or artistic integrity of a souls-like experience. We delve into these below.

How Can Developers Improve the Souls-Like Formula?

Making souls-like games easier would just rob these games of their identity. However, developers can innovate on certain key features, compelling gamers to play such games despite their difficulty: 

  • Variety in Builds, Weapons and Bosses: Nobody wants to slog through reskinned bosses and enemies.  The best way to keep these games fresh is to provide a great deal of variety. Nioh’s movesets are not only fluid, but replicate real katana techniques: here’s a video of swordsmen replicating these moves, and explaining how lethal they can be. 


Nioh’s balletic weapon movesets are inspired by real Japanese katana swordplay
  • Intricate Level Design: As Josh Bycer points out, good souls-likes combine expert level design with immersive environments. You need to place obstacles, traps and other nasty things (the level) organically in a well-crafted world-space (the environment). With its grappling hook mechanic, Sekiro adds a vertical dimension that lets you soak in each gorgeous but treacherous worldspace. 
  • Rewarding Gameplay: These games should give freely if they wish to remain unforgiving. Good souls-likes reward exploration: you can find ‘Kodamas’ by exploring Nioh’s levels, and these beings confer various ‘blessings’ that can make your playthrough easier. In Elden Ring, exploring the Legacy Dungeons (without the aid of your steed Torrent) can result in epic rewards and boss fights.
The player’s horse, Torrent, cannot accompany them in the Legacy Dungeons of Elden Ring (Courtesy Katlego Motaung, ArtStation)
  • Less Punishing Deaths: This is another quality-of-life feature that can make these games more accessible. Sekiro is by far the most forgiving: You can resurrect in mid-battle after dying and flee to a nearby checkpoint (boss encounters zones do not lock you in) without any penalty. Even if you die, there is a 30% chance that you will lose nothing because of the Unseen Aid mechanic. 


Developers need not compromise on the difficulty or even the souls-like rule-set that we have defined above when they introduce quality-of-life upgrades or innovations. Sekiro might not punish you repeatedly for dying, but you possess only one decisive move in battle: the perfect parry. Nioh’s movesets are fluid and even flashy, but they must be executed within a very narrow time window and can be mastered only with a lot of grinding. 

In fact, throughout this blog, we have discussed how each prominent souls-like balances offence, defence and difficulty, how it stands out with variations on the core design principles of such games, and how even death, the worst outcome, is usually a learning path for the gamer. So long as designers get the basics right, they can innovate endlessly – and this is why we have so many high-quality souls-likes, and so many devoted fans of these games. We will take a closer look into these games in the next blog in our series.

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How our Genre Taxonomy Powers Game Design and Discovery

The gaming industry is not only more lucrative than the movie and music markets combined, it is also expanding at a dizzying pace. The industry is projected to grow at a rate of nearly 10% per year in the next four years to reach a market value of more than $360 bn. By 2027, there will be 3 billion gamers worldwide, constituting nearly half the global population. Xbox estimates that over 800000 games are currently available across various platforms, and this number will only grow as the market grows.

But game development is such a risky business that a company has actually come up with an AI de-risking tool that parses a developer’s game concept to see if it’s already been done, and then estimates the idea’s chances of success. The industry is big, but the risks are even bigger. As the number of games increases, e-retailers and subscription platforms will also be hard-pressed to provide tailored recommendations to guide thousands of users to the few standout games they want.

In this blog, we will discuss how our genre taxonomy can power game design, and how our genre labels can organise a game e-retailer’s storefront into a coherent game library perfectly suited for discovery and conversions. 

Empowering Developers

In a previous blog, we discussed how our game taxonomy resolves the confusion that results when there is no standard by which genre labels are defined and assigned to various games. This ‘genre muddle’ can handicap game makers, thwarting any attempt at informed game design because they lack a clear blueprint for the type of game they are making. Our robust taxonomy, however, can drive game design choices, allowing developers to allocate costly resources in the right way and even empowering them to reach and surpass their design goals. 

This is because our core genre labels allow us to class a variety of seemingly disparate games accurately. This is why we need not rely on marketing to determine that Immortals of Aveum (2023) is a first-person magic shooter; the shooter genre label already accounts for aiming magic projectiles. Even a platformer doesn’t need to be 2D: Sony’s Spider-man games have elements of the platformer – Spider-Man can swing past entire city blocks and land on various ‘platforms’ such as roof-tops and even window panes simply by web slinging. This approach to genre enables a game developer to envision shooters without guns, platformers without jumping, and simulations of impossible worlds where faster-than-light travel is a mundane reality. In essence, our genre definitions, by their very nature, inspire innovations. 

The first person ‘magic shooter’ Immortals of Aveum features a reticle for precise aiming of magic projectiles

In subsequent sections, we will discuss how our genre taxonomy can expand a designer’s vision if they pay attention to key game concepts assigned to games – such data points can become a well of inspiration, potentially transforming the developer’s original idea, especially when they mix and match features from various games to create an entirely new interactive experience. 

We will also discuss the challenges of making a game like the souls-like, as the term is a descriptor rather than a well-defined genre in its own right. As such, it requires a particularly strong taxonomy so that the developer can nail down exactly what a souls-like must have, allowing them to create novel variations on a popular template. 

Broadening the Creative Vision

In our taxonomy, Portal (2007) is tagged with a data point named ‘environmental manipulation’, referring to the mechanic where you use a gun to shoot portals that instantly teleport the player or in-game objects to other areas of the puzzle enclosure. There are other, similar types of manipulation, however: in Control (2019), the player character can manipulate in-game objects with telekinesis. This is tagged as ‘physics manipulation’. The developer can create their own unique spin on game world manipulation by studying such games. 

Control’s physics manipulation and weird weapons seamlessly cohere with the game’s vibe and setting

Moreover, in Portal, the mechanic and the narrative are not really linked: the portal gun is a mere utility, and Portal’s narrative is structured purely around the AI GLaDOS’s comical malice toward the player character. 

However, Control ties its gameplay to its theme, setting and tone. The weird powers and items you can use seem to form an integral part of the eerie Federal Bureau of Control, which is tasked with containing and studying phenomena that violate the laws of reality. This close link between gameplay, tone and setting is reflected in our taxonomy. The developer can choose to make a game where the core mechanic and other elements are separate, or a game where the gameplay and other elements come together, and have a good chance of succeeding no matter what decision they take, because both Portal and Control are exhaustively analysed in the taxonomy. 

One data point – environmental manipulation – can potentially transform a developer’s vision, making them seek other sources of inspiration to revise or even change their design goals.

Nailing the Souls-Like

When dealing with Portal or Control, the developer is working in a genre with a clear definition, allowing them to take calculated risks. However, the souls-like, or the rogue-like, are not core genres. The ‘souls-like’ was coined after the fact, when studios began to emulate the Dark Souls formula. How, then, can developers use our taxonomy to make such games? They can start with our exhaustive description of the souls-like. 

What is a souls-like? A souls-like should contain all of these features: 

  • The player cannot change the difficulty level of the game. 
  • In combat, a few missteps lead to death. Moves like attacks and dodges cost stamina or some other resource, and leave the player vulnerable when this  resource is depleted. The player will lose skill points and items on death, but may be able to reclaim lost resources by returning to where they died. 
  • Players must memorise the enemy’s attack patterns and placements to stand a chance of winning. 
  • The hazardous environment is difficult to traverse, and the player must also fight tough enemies placed in tricky areas
  • The player respawns at set locations which they have to reach and activate, and this automatically respawns all enemies except for defeated bosses.
  • There is no direct narrative, it unfolds as the player explores the world.

The above is a precis of the full description in our taxonomy. Despite the difficulty of these games, Elden Ring sold 12 million copies within two weeks, and is still one of the most played games on Steam by concurrent players, proving that a masochistic gaming experience could actually be lucrative

Our taxonomy contains more than a hundred games that fulfil the criteria mentioned above. A developer looking to emulate and innovate can study how each game delivered its own spin on the souls-like without compromising on its defining aspects. 

For instance, Remnant: From the Ashes (2019) and its sequel are shooter souls-likes. The developer Gunfire Games seems to define the ‘shooter’ much like we do: you can’t fire a ranged weapon unless you are aiming, by pressing the gamepad left trigger or the right mouse button. If you don’t, you will swing your melee weapon instead. This makes for fast gunplay, and quick slashes simply by releasing the aim button. 

In the Nioh games, your moves consume Ki, a magical substance, instead of stamina. In battle, you can perform a special move called the Ki pulse. This rapidly regenerates your Ki or stamina, but only if you time a button press perfectly, when blue lights coalesce around you after you perform an attack or other move. This encourages the player to remain in the melee, instead of dodging or running away. 

The Nioh games have a stamina regen mechanic that allows players to fight rather than flee

The Star Wars: Jedi games feature a difficulty slider, and are hence tagged with the data point souls-like combat, indicating that they are not true souls-likes but take inspiration from the combat in such games. These games give the player the thrill of being a Jedi knight, but make them earn that title with challenging combat. Unlike many souls-likes, which tend to have a dark fantasy theme, these games are set in the beautiful and vibrant Star Wars universe, and can encourage the developer to create a souls-like without its characteristic themes or vibes.

The Star Wars: Jedi series offer souls-like combat without the oppressive dark fantasy vibes of the Souls games

The rulesets for souls-likes, metroidvanias and roguelikes show what all such games have in common. The full taxonomies of such games show how each souls-like or roguelike is unique. And tags like souls-like combat offer more sources of inspiration. A developer can imagine what a souls-like could be, while the taxonomy grounds them in the reality of what a souls-like should be. 

Reinventing Game Discovery

Whether a store is selling games or a subscription to its game library, game discovery is vital. As genre influences buying decisions across media, meaningful genre-based recommendations can guide users to the games they will enjoy. 

According to the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), shooters have consistently ranked among the top five genres for the past three years, meaning a user is quite likely to search for shooters. Our taxonomy allows the user to both narrow and broaden their search to find the game best suited to their preferences.

If the user wants to narrow their focus, they can be presented with games belonging to shooter subtypes, such as the puzzle shooter Portal or the Borderlands looter shooters. They will also find the stop-n-pop Call of Duty titles and the run-n-gun Halo games.

The Borderlands games are classic looter shooters

If the user wants to broaden their search, a toggle can populate the discovery queue with games that are predominantly shooters, but combine other genres as well (based on our four-value system), like Halo Infinite

The taxonomy also deals properly with terms like action and action-adventure, which are applied indiscriminately as the industry lacks precise definitions for such terms. We have discussed how we deal with the action-adventure moniker in our blog on video game genres, we will provide a brief recap here.Action is a well-defined core genre in our taxonomy: these titles require quick reflexes and good hand-eye coordination, and test your proficiency at using an input device to achieve in-game objectives. As such, shooters, fighting games and even platformers count as action games because they test your manual dexterity. The adventure genre is also clearly defined: it features exploration and/or a strong narrative that gives the player a sense of participating in an adventure. So an action-adventure combines the skill-based mechanics of an action game with the narrative or exploration elements of an adventure game, both in good measure. But each action-adventure is distinguished by its core skill-based mechanic or gameplay loop, such as shooting or fighting, and the action-adventure label is appended to this core genre. No game is just an action-adventure – but it can be an action-adventure shooter, an action-adventure fighting game and so on. 

If the gamer uses action-adventure as a filter, the storefront can choose not to display a single game directly under this term, and show action-adventure shooters, action-adventure fighting games and so on, under separate queues or carousels. 

The user will not find the Call of Duty games under action-adventure shooters – while these games have basic story modes, they are primarily multiplayer player-vs-player games. However, he will see these games under action shooters. He will not find the Street Fighter games under action-adventure fighting, but will see games like Ghost of Tsushima (2020) or Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice (2019), as they have strong narratives. 

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is not just a great souls-like. It’s also a great story.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is not just a great souls-like. It’s also a great story.

If the storefront or platform feels that action-adventure is so well-known that the user should get at least a few results directly linked to the term, it can create a single discovery queue with a few top-selling action-adventure shooters, fighting games and so on. A prompt under each game can then take the user to other action-adventures that belong to the same core genre. In effect, the user can search with loosely defined terms, but still get relevant and precise results. 

Ultimately, our taxonomy gives a game platform or subscription service a way to help the user find what they really want, rather than bombarding them with pages full of results under catch-all terms. The need for such an organised game library will only grow as more games are published and more people turn to gaming.


Some games create memorable endings by inverting their core gameplay at the climax. In Assassin’s Creed 2 (2009), Ezio literally casts off all his weapons to engage in a fistfight with the Pope: no stealth, no parkour, no hidden blade – just a punching match at the end of a revenge saga. 

In Shadow of the Colossus (2005), the youth Wander finally turns into a shadowy Colossus himself, only to be defeated when the sword he used to kill 16 Colossi is hurled into an abyss. The former is exhilarating; the latter feels tragic: your actions have rebounded on Wander and sealed his fate.

Shadow of the Colossus is an all-time classic with a compelling end-game twist

It is unlikely that the developers would have taken such risks with the end-game without mastering their gameplay loop: the climax stands out because the gameplay until then had been so well-defined. Genre determines gameplay, and gameplay determines genre. Our genres can allow developers to nail down the core aspects of their game and create striking variations, inversions and more – in this blog, we have provided only a few use cases where our taxonomy can inform and inspire game design.

For game sellers or subscription platforms, being savvy about genres will only help them foster game discovery. Instead of wallowing in the genre muddle, they can use our taxonomy to great effect, populating their discovery queues with results that match search intent and give the user a plethora of games suitable to them. 

Like any classifier, genre is only useful if accurate. For over a decade, we have defined and refined our genre taxonomy with utmost rigour, and this is why we can help gamers find games they love, boost e-retailers’ conversions, and empower developers to achieve and surpass their design goals. 

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The Ultimate Guide To Video Game Genres

The video game market is bigger than the movie and music industries combined, and this has led to a plethora of games across multiple platforms such as mobile, PC, console and even the cloud. But for many gamers, finding the right game for their tastes remains a challenge, and researchers have found that this is largely because games lack a robust genre taxonomy

Gaming More lucrative than movies

Veteran designer Ernest Adams argues that a game’s genre cannot be determined by its theme, setting or even its intended audience (like children, for instance), but on what you do in-game, or its core gameplay mechanic. We couldn’t agree more. 

In our taxonomy, video game genres encapsulate the core gameplay concepts of a game. Genres are assigned mainly on gameplay and not story, theme, setting, or tone – these concepts are used to refine, rather than define, genre labels.

Rigorous game genres are the need of the hour. Genre is the second-most important decision driver in buying books, and the principal deciding factor in watching movies. Genre also influences what games we choose to play. Yet, game genres are loosely defined and problematic on many levels. Authors and filmmakers can work within well-established genre conventions but game developers, sellers and buyers can’t. 

Our first task then, is to identify why current genres fail, and then provide rigorous definitions of game genres. We will then explain how our genre labels address the various problems that plague current genre taxonomies. In a subsequent blog, we will show how our genres, coupled with our broader taxonomy, can enable game retailers and subscription platforms to provide better recommendations, and help developers make informed and creative design choices. 

Game Genres Matter for Developers, Sellers and Gamers

As of 2023, there are more than 50000 games on Steam, and almost 700000 mobile games available across the App Store and the Google Play store. 

How, then, does a gamer choose a game to play? A survey of more than 1,200 gamers revealed that 74% relied on genre information when selecting new games to buy. Video game genres are hence the focal point of analyses meant to yield actionable insights into games. However, few of these reports adopt a rigorous methodology for studying game genres, undermining the insights they derive.

For years, the Entertainment Software Association has covered the most popular genres among key demographics like gender and age, without providing genre definitions. Even scientific studies try to derive insights about gaming based on genres without nailing down what game genres are. One study maps personality traits to genre preferences, another examines how genres correlate with ‘problem video game playing’, or gaming addiction. The former does not provide any genre definitions, and the latter provides loose descriptions, rather than definitions, of genres. 

In our next section, we will delve into why such imprecise genre labels – used by gaming websites, researchers and analysts – do not serve their purpose, which is to help developers, publishers, sellers and gamers make informed choices.

How Video Game Genres Fail

In a research paper focussed on game discovery, Rachel Clarke and Jin Lee identify several reasons why game genres fail, despite the importance of genres across media in driving buying decisions.  

A good, but poorly marketed game is likely to sell eight times fewer copies than a good and well-marketed game. As genre drives buying decisions, it is essential to a game’s marketing, and bad genre labels can impact a game’s chances of success. 

According to Clarke and Lee: these are the main reasons why game genres fail:

  • Some catch-all genres like action are assigned to too many games
  • Some multifaceted games such as Minecraft are assigned to too many genres
  • Labels like ‘souls-like’ and ‘metroidvania’ become equated with the very genres they reinvent. 

Clarke and Lee point out that a popular gaming site classes Super Mario Bros (1985) and Grand Theft Auto as action games, though GTA and Mario are quite unlike each other. Other catch-all terms like action-adventure, RPG and ‘indie’ are applied too broadly, and the researchers quote a gamer who finds the label meaningless because more than half the games in digital storefronts are called action-adventures. 

Then there are games like Minecraft (2011), which offer a great deal of gameplay options. Such games lose their identity by being tagged with too many genres: as Clarke and Lee ask, what is Minecraft when it has over 10 genres assigned to it? 

A game like Minecraft with many possibilities loses meaning when assigned to too many genres

The souls-like and the MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) are remarkable twists on the fighting and strategy genres. As they rose in prominence, more and more developers emulated such games. Due to the MOBA’s popularity, the strategy genre can become equated with what can be considered as one of its sub-genres, and strategy game recommendations may end up containing only MOBA’s. 

Or consider Elden Ring (2022), the first open-world souls-like. A user expecting the exploration and discovery of Skyrim (2011) would find themselves fighting for every inch of the map. However, if the term souls-like were clearly defined, the gamer would have some idea about the hostile terrain of Elden Ring’s open world. 

Unlike conventional open worlds, Elden Ring offers a challenge around every corner

Imprecise genre labels impair game discovery, which in turn can impact sales. But they also vitiate studies based on them. 

One study uses the Five Factor Model – a standard framework for assessing personality using core human traits – to map gamers to genre preferences. According to the study, introverts tend to like ‘indie’ games. But as Clarke and Lee point out, ‘indie’ games can belong to any genre. So what type of indie games do introverts like? 

A study by psychologists found that gaming addiction was most prevalent among those who played MMORPGs, first-person shooters and action-adventure games. However, the study defines the FPS as a ‘kill-or-be-killed game from the player’s eye view’. A game like Fashion Police Squad (2022) doesn’t fit this definitionin this FPS, you fight ‘fashion crime’ by shooting badly-dressed NPCs, instantly clothing them in fashionable attire. What, then, is its addictive potential?


Fashion Police Squad is such a hilarious variation on the FPS that it counts as a parody (Courtesy No More Robots)

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If such studies had defined genres with care, then all of them would be critical to the gaming ecosystem. Game e-retailers could estimate a buyer’s personality based on purchase history and tailor recommendations, and developers could make games for specific personality types. But these studies’ findings can only be treated as estimates, and we need proper definitions to understand game genres and put them to use. 

Resolving the Genre Muddle – Game Genres Defined

In this section, we will attempt to sort out the genre muddle – the confusion that results when there is no standard to define genres. We will first define core genres and will then explain how they solve the problems endemic to current classification systems. 


In a shooter, the player must aim and shoot projectiles – whether they are bullets, arrows, or magic fireballs – at a target in order to achieve a given objective. These games typically feature ranged combat. There are tons of shooters out there – the Call of Duty franchise, the Halo franchise and more. Immortals of Aveum (2023) allows you to aim and fire spells and magic projectiles – it is called a first-person magic shooter.

The Call of Duty games are classic examples of shooters

Role-Playing Game (RPG)

In an RPG, the player advances up a power curve, getting stronger and stronger at certain skills as they unlock experience points, perks or any in-game feature meant to reward and enable progress. 

Such games offer many playstyles: you could play as a mage or archer in a fantasy RPG, and experience a strong sense of skill progression in your chosen role. Levelling up is usually tied to completing quests and missions that are part of the game’s story, but completing ‘side-quests’ can help you progress too. 

The classic video game trilogy Mass Effect offers a wide range of role-playing options


Action games require quick movements, fast reflexes, excellent hand-eye coordination and short reaction times. They test your ability to use an input device proficiently to score an in-game objective. 

Arcade classics like Breakout (1976) and Asteroids (1979) are pure examples of action games. In his 1982 book The Art of Computer Game Design, industry pioneer Chris Crawford categorises all arcade titles as ‘skill-and-action’ games. 


Asteroids is an arcade classic that tests your reflexes and manual dexterity (Courtesy Atari)


The ideal adventure game is a perfect blend of narrative and exploration: a game should have either one of these in good measure to count as an adventure. 

The visual novel series Ace Attorney are interactive narratives where you collect clues, solve the crime and then cross-examine people to exonerate your client. Gone Home (2013) combines exploration and narrative: the player must explore their empty family home and discover what happened to their kin. 

Ace Attorney is a pure adventure game, without any action or combat elements


In a fighting game, a player has to engage in real-time close-quarters melee combat with one or several enemies. Any other type of fighting, such as turn-based or ranged combat, doesn’t count. Street Fighter, Tekken and Mortal Kombat feature fast-paced, button combo-based unarmed melee contests. 

The Tekken games require you to master combos in unarmed melee combat match-ups

Massively Multiplayer Online Game (MMO)

An MMO is any game that has a massive number of players playing online together. Black Desert Online (2014) is an MMORPG that has servers located across regions, like the ASEAN or the EU, facilitating low-latency gameplay for thousands of players in various parts of the world. A game like GTA Online, which might have thousands of concurrent players playing online, does not count, as the gamers are playing in groups of 30 or less.

Black Desert Online has a committed user base across the world (Courtesy Pearl Abyss)


In a platformer, the player character has to jump, climb or use other in-game mechanics to move from one platform to another. The player may have to deal with enemies or avoid hazardous areas to land on the next platform, failing which they will die. 

Super Mario Bros is a platformer that played a big role in reviving the industry during the ’80’s. Modern indie games like Celeste (2018) and Super Meat Boy (2010) are precision platformers that require timing and carefully planned moves to cross all platforms. 

Celeste is such a difficult platformer that it offers an Assist Mode (Courtesy Maddy Makes Games)


Puzzle games require the gamer to solve problems using logic. There may be multiple solutions to a puzzle, but the player cannot stumble upon any of these by just acting randomly. To solve the puzzles, the player needs to recognize patterns, uncover clues and may also need to perform a set of moves in a certain order. Games like Portal (2007), Candy Crush (2012) and Zuma (2003) offer the gamer a good mental workout. 

Portal isn’t just a puzzle game: it’s a comic narrative too (Courtesy Valve)


Games in this genre require tactical thinking and logistical planning. The player has to garner and apportion resources, place troops in the right areas, and supply them with the resources needed to manoeuvre effectively. 

Combat-based strategy games such as Starcraft (1998) stress this genre’s tactical aspects while non-combat games emphasise the logistics of allocating resources to build cities, settlements and the like. Cities: Skylines (2015) is a non-combat game that recreates the intricacies of city building – you have to plan out areas per zoning laws, place roads properly to avoid gridlocks, and even deal with economic flux. StarCraft requires you to manage resources and position troops rapidly – it demands tactical thinking and quick reflexes. 

Building a city in City: Skylines is almost as hard as building a real world city


A simulation game recreates a scenario as realistically as possible. In a racing simulator, you need to be familiar with every aspect of your car, in a flight sim you have to know about every switch in the cockpit and even weather conditions like wind speed. 

Elite Dangerous (2014) simulates the intricacies of space travel as though it were a real-life scenario. The title focuses on the ground realities of space travel so well that a VentureBeat columnist even stated that while asleep, his brain could not distinguish the game from reality and he would wake up at night, wondering where he was. Elite Dangerous even uses sounds from space recorded by NASA. 

Elite Dangerous simulates space travel so well that it is almost a glimpse into the future

Setting the Record Straight

While we have defined several important game genres, we have left out a few as they are somewhat self-explanatory, such as digital recreations of real-life sports, racing and driving games, and digital versions of games like monopoly or poker. 

Essentially, we wanted to set the record straight about the ‘marquee’ genres in gaming, like the shooter, the RPG and so on, and tie their definitions to their core gameplay. Combining these genre definitions with other aspects of our taxonomy can resolve the genre muddle and allow games to be analysed with rigour.

Making Game Genres Actually Useful

Let us now elaborate on how our genre definitions resolve the three main problems pointed out by researchers Clarke and Lee:

  • Catch-all terms like action-adventure, action and RPG are applied to too many games: our precise definitions for the action and RPG genres ensure they cannot be applied indiscriminately. Even the action-adventure label is only assigned to games that contain both action and adventure in good measure, like Uncharted 4 (2016). We also qualify what type of action-adventure a game is, based on its core gameplay. Hence, the Halo games are action-adventure shooters and the Spider-man games are fighting action adventures.
Uncharted 4 offers a balanced combination of action and adventure, with combat and exploration
  • Some feature-rich games are assigned to too many genres: even we assign a variety of genres to games that offer multiple gameplay options. But we refine such assignations using the four-value system, which is discussed in-depth in this blog. We will explain it in brief here: ‘shooter’ is the defining genre of a game that predominantly involves shooting and ‘RPG’ would be the key genre if the title required you to level up consistently to progress in-game. ‘Puzzle’ would be a ‘notable genre’ if the game required you to solve puzzles occasionally to progress in-game. If it features melee combat that plays little to no role in progression, then fighting becomes a minor genre element. We quantify and qualify the various genres assigned, giving a clear picture of what the gamer will be doing in-game. Minecraft doesn’t have a bunch of genre labels, but a set of genres arranged under a four-value hierarchy. 
  • Terms like ‘souls-like’ can become equated with the genres they reinvent: in our taxonomy, terms like souls-like and metroidvania are not considered genre labels at all. The label ‘souls-like’ was coined after the fact to describe titles that emulated the Dark Souls games. We retain the term souls-like and call it a descriptive genre as it is a handy thumb rule for what a souls-like should feature. However, the souls-like is not a genre, and we identify each soul-like’s defining genre, its key themes and settings, and quantify these data points using the four-value system. We also create detailed descriptions for terms like souls-likes,
The Dark Souls games are radical innovations on the fighting genre

listing all their features and eliminating any ambiguity about what the term entails. Using this method, we classify Remnant: From the Ashes accurately as a souls-like shooter, and can also pinpoint how From Software transplanted the souls-like onto an open world. 

With its gunplay mechanics, Remnant: From the Ashes is a unique twist on the souls-like formula


We at Gameopedia understand that genres power game discovery, inform game design and drive conversions. They determine the success of game designers and game sellers. As such, today’s imprecise game genre labels do not serve their intended purpose. 

In our next blog, we will delve into how we can help game retailers guide users to their next favourite game, and empower designers to make informed, creative and even radical game design choices, backed by our genre taxonomy, which has evolved over the course of more than a decade.

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Video Game Taxonomy Can Transform Game Development: Here’s How

Every game is like a carefully prepared meal, where each dish, ingredient, spice and garnish are in the right proportions, and each course is served at the right time to create the perfect dining experience. 

What if a system allowed you to identify the recipe of a game? What if you could create a gameplay experience with your unique blend of ingredients? Our taxonomy system enables you to do this, and more.

Video Game Taxonomy: An Overview

Our taxonomy is a classification system that has evolved over a decade, fine-tuned by our in-house experts. It allows you to understand every aspect of a game, from fundamentals, like genre, theme and gameplay mechanics to more subjective and nuanced elements such as its moods and vibes. It was built by tearing down games and identifying various elements, big and small, to see what made each game work, what features they possessed and how they emphasised or played down elements to create a distinctive gaming experience. In essence, it tells you what features a game has, and how prevalent any feature is in the game. Simply put, the taxonomy of a game is like its recipe.

Identify & Quantify: The Foundation of our Taxonomy

Most forms of entertainment, like film, television, music and fiction are passively consumed, and have been extensively classified based on the genre, the creator of the artwork, and other relatively stable groupings, especially as these forms of entertainment have matured over the course of decades and even centuries. 

Classifying games presents a unique challenge because interactivity is fundamental to gaming. This means that what you will be doing, how important it is over the course of the game, and how often you will be doing it need to be considered if one wants to see what makes a game tick. A game classified without quantification will say little about the full make-up of the game. 

That is why the four-value system is the lynchpin of our game taxonomy. It assesses the significance, prevalence and frequency of the various features of each game, creating a full picture of what to expect in any given playthrough, and how each game offers a distinct and unique gaming experience, with its own mix of interactions and features. Below, we discuss each of the four values that can be attached to a game’s features,  in detail. 

“All or Most” (Defining Features)

Actions or activities you will perform almost all of the time, and features that essentially pervade the game. In a first-person shooter like a Halo game, you will almost always be shooting your way through enemies, from a first-person perspective. In a role-playing game, which offers multiple viable playstyles (including shooting, fighting, magic etc), the descriptive genre of ‘Role Playing’ is the defining feature, and every single possible playstyle or build becomes a ‘key’ feature, discussed below. 

“Major” (Key Features)

These refer to actions or activities that you may be performing most of the time, and features present in much of the game. They often distinguish games of the same genre from another. Halo has a great deal of vehicular combat and lets you drive and fly vehicles, whereas a Call of Duty game does not emphasise vehicular activities as much. Those who love the vehicle sequences in Halo may not find much use for a CoD title. 

“Significant” (Notable Features)

These are actions or activities you will be performing some of the time, but are nevertheless required to progress through or finish a game’s campaign, and can also refer to features that form an important, if limited, part of the game. For example, boat traversal is the only means of going from one place to another in the God of War series and the game can’t be completed without using the boat. Some levels of certain games can feature locked off areas accessible only by exploring further. 

“Minor” (Elemental Features)

Elemental features refer either to activities that the player seldom has to perform to progress, or to activities that are entirely optional. Some games have a single mandatory escort mission, and these count as elements because they form a very small part of the campaign. Cooking in Skyrim is entirely optional – you can cook food that improves your vital stats but potions do the job much better, and making potions (alchemy) is in fact an important part of the game, with its own skill tree. 

Classifying Halo Infinite with our 4-Value Quantification System

So how does the four-value system help understand a game, or more importantly, make a new game? Simply put, it’s a quantitative and qualitative analysis that is necessary and sufficient to fully describe what a game offers, how it does what it does – and cloning this game, or making a viable competitor, or a worthy successor, should start first by breaking down the game that you are using as a base. 

Like many modern games, Halo Infinite blends multiple genres

Using the four-value system to assess Halo Infinite provides vital insights about the game, especially as the system not only captures the differences between the single-player campaign and multiplayer mode, but also the mix of genres that can be associated with the game

Today’s games often offer plenty of gameplay options, so much so that it becomes hard to pin down what genre they belong to. Halo Infinite is one of many such games. Its defining genres are shooter, action and adventure, while role playing, fighting, driving, flying and even platforming are significant genre elements. Such nuanced genre information is necessary, considering that many gamers choose a new game based on its genre: the more information developers give out about genre, the more likely they are to attract their target audience. 

Halo Infinite is the first Halo game to feature a grappling hook mechanic and the hook rapidly grew popular with gamers, who found it very useful in both traversal and combat – it enabled them to move quickly, and also pull objects towards them and then hurl these objects at enemies. 

This is a major element (i.e. a key feature) of the single-player campaign, but its use is restricted in multiplayer mode (it is a notable feature); it spawns randomly and is available only to the player quick enough to grab it, whereas the hook is always available to the Master Chief in single-player. In contrast, Doom Eternal’s grappling hook is a key feature in both single-player and multiplayer, and the Slayer, the unnamed hero of the games, can use it in both modes.

Breaking down the genres associated with a game, its various gameplay features, and the prevalence of features in various modes can empower game makers with an intuitive and explicit understanding of how a game works, informing their own creative choices. 

Use Cases: How Taxonomy Can Inform Game Dev

Do you want to make a game that combines all the best elements of a certain genre? Do you want to see how some games went awry, and how some games flourish because they get the formula just right, creating an experience greater than the sum of its parts? Below are use cases of how our taxonomy can actually guide your design choices thanks to its nuance, depth, and breadth. 

Gran Turismo vs Forza Motorsport and the Best of Both

The console wars were dominated by the platform exclusive, until recently, when both Sony and Microsoft shifted their focus from exclusives to a more open platform experience. But some exclusives still remain – like Gran Turismo (PlayStation) and Forza Motorsport (Xbox, PC), both of which are racing simulators.

It makes eminent sense, then, to see how they compare – especially if a gamer’s console buying decision rests on exclusives such as these. Offering a racing sim that combines elements of GT or Forza will appeal to a wider audience without restricting them to a platform. But if one is to compare two racing sims, one first needs to know what a racing sim is, just as one needs to know what a card game is if one is to compare poker to blackjack. The taxonomy system is more than capable of identifying all the elements that make up a racing sim, or a shooter, or even a collectible card game. Below is a look into the features that constitute a racing sim. 

In terms of the four-value system, both Forza and GT are quite similar, both offer deep car customisation options, both feature real racing tracks and famous cars, both are highly replayable, giving players options to improve their records, and even collect cars. 

But it’s in their differences that they stand out starkly. Forza Motorsport has a brilliant feature relating to AI. It learns from your driving style, creates an AI package out of it, and makes it a ‘drivatar’. Since the game has plenty of players, there are scores of drivatars based on real gamers. These AI clones race against you in multiplayer. Like many first-party Microsoft games, it also has multiple accessibility options, in line with the tech giant’s commitment to inclusive design. Both these features might make Forza seem very attractive – and for disabled gamers, it might well be the only choice. 

But the case for GT is just as strong. For one thing, GT offers virtual reality racing, and the PSVR 2 has earned strongly positive reviews, with its OLED display featuring a 120 hz refresh rate, its eye-tracking tech, and controls with haptic feedback sensors. GT also offers 120 FPS gameplay on console and the PSVR 2, and Eurogamer’s gushing review of Gran Turismo 7 VR tells you all you need to know about the next-gen VR experience that the game offers with Sony’s latest headset. GT 7 also features the much-touted Sophy AI, which was trained using machine learning to compete on equal terms with human players. 

Developers might find it impossible to combine all these enticing features into one all-encompassing racing sim. But tracking such trends – like the induction of machine-learning based AI to compete against humans – within the context of a constantly evolving taxonomy system, and a constantly changing game industry, will help them make the right decisions when comparing games, and prioritise what people are truly looking for.

Redfall: A Game That Lacks Arkane’s Distinctive Vibes

So far, we have discussed explicit, tangible features that games can offer – whether it’s Halo Infinite’s grappling hook mechanic or Gran Turismo’s 120 FPS gameplay on VR. But Gameopedia’s taxonomy even focuses on intangibles as well, like the moods and vibes that a game gives off. The moods and vibes category allows us, and developers, to understand how a game makes people feel. And Arkane’s Redfall ultimately failed because it did not evoke the sort of feelings, or achieve the sort of tone, that Arkane had become associated with. 

Redfall had little in common with the titles on which Arkane had built its pedigree

Redfall’s developer is known for many well-received games, such as Dishonoured and its sequels, Prey, and Death Loop. None of these games are quite alike, except in certain key gameplay mechanics and the distinctive Arkane vibes they give off.  

Arkane games foster a sense of discovery by rewarding exploration. They make you feel ingenious when you take out an enemy or target with guile and cunning. They make players feel liberated – offering much variety in gameplay – rather than railroaded into a repetitive set of actions. And players often ruminate on their actions and the impact they have on the game world thanks to Arkane’s deft handling of narrative and atmosphere. 

So when the developer promised a true Arkane experience in Redfall’s promotional materials, expectations were not only high, but quite specific, in that gamers expected a title where gameplay, narrative and many other elements would cohere to evoke distinctive feelings. What they got was a game with repetitive missions, cookie cutter worldspaces and technical glitches packaged as a looter shooter with co-op gameplay (which was itself half-baked, with no matchmaking online at launch). 

Redfall did not make you ponder – the world was too simplistic. It did not make you feel liberated – there wasn’t much choice in terms of gameplay or exploration. It certainly didn’t make you feel ingenious, because the missions didn’t need you to employ cunning or tactical thinking, like in Dishonoured or Death Loop.

In fact, Redfall’s developers have stated that the game’s development suffered due to the studio’s unclear direction and high turnover – Arkane had less than 100 employees working on Redfall, many of whom abandoned the project. Parent company ZeniMax pushed the studio into making a live-service title, and few were clear on just how the promised Arkane experience could translate into a GaaS game. 

Detailed taxonomy on live-service games and data on moods and vibes could have helped the developer make the game its paymasters wanted and get the tone just right. However, Arkane lacked such data. Redfall failed as a co-op looter-shooter, and also failed at being recognizably Arkane: gamers did not feel the way they expected to feel when they played it. With our taxonomy, however, developers can experiment with new genres even as they maintain the distinctive tone they are known for. 


Making a video game is such a risky venture that a company has made an AI-based tool to de-risk game development. Ludo’s market analysis tool can give studios a sense of how their game concept might perform in the market by comparing it against a vast database of games, and determining if a given idea has already been thought of before. 

Imagine if this sort of de-risking tool was used with a taxonomy that covers every little aspect, every single detail of a game. With the use of taxonomy, developers can iterate on a certain game idea’s features to create either a decent clone, a worthy successor, or even an entirely new take on what the market offers. 

The wider adoption of game taxonomy can inform game development, helping studios prioritise their tasks and prevent problems like buggy releases and day-one patches. Taxonomy can also help sell games when used by e-retailers – the more details there are on the store page, the sooner it will attract the fans of its genre.

But all this can be achieved only if the taxonomy is sufficiently versatile – usable by retailers, developers and publishers – and comprehensive, so that each developer has the best chance to make the game they want to make for the target audience they want. This, in essence, is the promise of Gameopedia’s taxonomy.

Gameopedia’s taxonomy has many applications. To read more, visit our taxonomy page. Contact us if you wish to use our taxonomy for game design.

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How AI can Revolutionise the Game Industry

When Lee Sedol, the world champion Go player, defeated the AI AlphaGo in their fourth match, the people of South Korea rejoiced

Go, an ancient strategy board game, is integral to South Korean culture and Sedol is one of the greatest players in the country’s history, but he had already lost the five-game series against AlphaGo, having resigned from the first three matches. The South Koreans didn’t care – he was the human champion who had scored a win against an AI that had seemed omnipotent at the ‘most complex game devised by man.’

Lee Sedol, one of the greatest Go players in South Korean history (Courtesy AP)
Lee Sedol, one of the greatest Go players in South Korean history (Courtesy AP)

Sedol lost the fifth game too and three years later in 2019, he retired from the professional circuit, stating that even if he was number one, there was an ‘entity that could not be defeated.’ He now trains other AI Go programs.

AI in the Game Industry: An Overview

Today’s deep-learning neural networks, which mimic human learning patterns, can be trained on vast data sets to achieve superhuman proficiency at any given task – AlphaGo learned to play Go, and then mastered it. Generative AIs use such neural networks to create new content in response to a textual or visual prompt, or even certain contextual cues. 

In this blog we will explore various types of AI tol sets that are applicable to game development. Each game contains thousands of models, textures and other assets, and AI can be harnessed to generate these at scale, and at a fraction of the cost and time that is currently spent developing them. We will also discuss companies that are working on, or offering, AI solutions for key parts of the game asset pipeline. 

We will also delve into the use of AI in game testing and playtesting for bugs – AI can potentially automate quality assurance. Games have grown bigger and bigger, and quality assurance has become increasingly challenging. AI can help spare developers the thankless, time-consuming task of playtesting and bug-fixing. 

AI is thus both a literal and figurative game changer for developers, and in the following sections we deal with the main contexts in which AI is being used to help streamline how games are made – from the creation of game assets to the testing of games in the development phase. 

The Generative Revolution in Game Development

According to venture firm Andreessen Horowitz, even small game studios can now finally achieve quality without punitive costs and time, because they can harness generative AI tools to create game content with unprecedented ease. 

Generative AI thus holds great promise for gaming because the AAA game industry has a steep barrier to entry – consider the budget, the man-hours, and the crunch behind games like Red Dead Redemption 2 (RDR 2, 2018) and other large-scale games. In fact, RDR 2’s estimated budget of $540 mn comfortably exceeds the most expensive Hollywood filmPirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides ($379 mn). 

To compete with the likes of Rockstar, developers need to find cost-effective tools for the game development pipeline, and even giants like Rockstar or Ubisoft can benefit from such solutions – in fact, Ubisoft is working on both an AI-powered animation system, and an AI bug-fixing tool. Quite a few studios are hence already trying to enhance their workflows with AI, as we will discuss below.

2D Assets and Concept Art

AI-powered programs such as MidJourney, Stable Diffusion and Dall-E 2 can generate high-quality image assets, such as concept art and 2D game content from text prompts and they have already found a place in game asset production – a developer has used these AI generators in tandem, with a professional artist, to create concept art within days rather than weeks. 

These aren’t enterprise tools – they are available to enthusiasts as well, and Youtube has videos on how to generate concept art or any type of 2D image using such AI generators for free.

Character Concept Created by MidJourney in Response to a Text Prompt
Character Concept Created by MidJourney in Response to a Text Prompt

Ludo, in turn, is a company which offers an image generation solution geared for studios. Ludo is an AI-powered game ideation and creation platform that is intended to streamline the creative process of game development, and one of the ways it helps game developers is by using Stable Diffusion to generate images during the ideation phase, and even create high-quality 2D artwork and assets further down the pipeline. 

Concept Art Generated by Ludo’s Image Generator (Courtesy Ludo)
Concept Art Generated by Ludo’s Image Generator (Courtesy Ludo)

In fact, the content created by Ludo’s image generator can be fine-tuned to the studio’s needs. Developers can use keywords to generate game images, icons and even more detailed assets like character concepts, in-game items and more. The image generator can also transform one image to another, essentially creating variations of the input, or rendering it with different art styles. Developers can also condition Ludo to use specific colours, styles and themes to get results that are consistent with their art design.

As is perhaps evident, AI-powered 2D art generation is quite mature already, and can be deployed not just by studios but even by hobbyists who want to use these tools to generate images, or even use such images as references for their original artwork.

3D Artwork and Models

AI-generated 3D artwork is yet to be wholly integrated into the asset creation pipeline, but Nvidia is to some extent leading the charge on this aspect of game development with its Omniverse. In fact, the very purpose of the Omniverse, per Nvidia, is to help individuals and teams develop seamless, AI-enhanced 3D workflows.

Developers using the Omniverse can deploy Lumirithmic to generate high-fidelity, movie-grade 3D head models from facial scans. Lumirithmic is a scalable solution that can be used in just about any digital content creation pipeline.

Facial Scans Turned into High-Quality 3D Models (Courtesy Lumirithmic)
Facial Scans Turned into High-Quality 3D Models (Courtesy Lumirithmic)

Elevate3D uses 360-degree videos of products to make highly-accurate 3D models, which can then be used in product presentations, demos and even animations. In this video, the user captures a 360-degree video of a hair-care product on a turntable using their cellphone, and feeds it to Elevate3D – and that’s all it takes to create a full 3D model that can be modified and rendered inside a 3D application. Elevate 3D could be perfect for the creation of in-game props and items, especially for realistic games set in the present – a game like Grand Theft Auto V (2013) has countless items and props, and Elevate3D could allow the studio to devote more time to hero assets, which the player will focus on and interact with, rather than working on mundane props that flesh out the game world. 

Perhaps the most tantalising Omniverse solution is Get3D, an AI tool that can generate detailed models with textures using just 2D images, text prompts and random number seeds. The tool can also generate variations for its models, apply multiple textures to a model on the fly, and can even interpolate between two generated models – for example, morph a fox into a dog and then into an elephant and so on. 

Get3D can Dynamically Morph 3D objects from One Form to Another (Courtesy nVidia Labs)
Get3D can Dynamically Morph 3D objects from One Form to Another (Courtesy nVidia Labs)

One can only imagine what the industry could achieve with something like Get3D – the morphing feature can prove incredibly powerful in asset creation – imagine a game world where every creature is generated at runtime from a single 3D base. Currently, game models are carefully constructed and textured by hand, and then optimised for use in-game. If Get3D matures into a scalable solution, developers could spend their time on experimenting with every imaginable 3D creature concept and merely feed it into Get3D to get an entire ecosystem of creatures into the game. 

Level Design and World Building

Level design and world building have become increasingly relevant – and challenging – as game worlds have grown larger and more complex. One of the more promising companies in this space is Promethean AI. The company aims to address the challenge of creating large and detailed game worlds at scale. 

It was founded by Andrew Maximov, a former lead artist who collaborated with hundreds of other colleagues while working on the game worlds of the Uncharted series – a process he characterises as ‘overwhelming’ at times. 

Promethean AI is intended to make world-building a less onerous task, and seems absurdly easy to use. A human artist tells it to build a bedroom, and it does. They then ask it to add a desk, and it does, and so on – the AI keeps plugging pre-created assets into the 3D space as needed and as specified. This patent-pending machine-learning solution spares artists the drudgery of adding and removing 3D assets into the environment, and allows them to concentrate on the virtual world as a whole. 

A Room Generated Purely via Audio Prompts to an AI (Courtesy Promethean AI)
A Room Generated Purely via Audio Prompts to an AI (Courtesy Promethean AI)

Promethean AI’s output can be fine-tuned to the artist’s style, and can generate much of the game world, allowing the artist to polish and tweak its output to a high-quality game environment. This process is scalable, allowing developers to make larger and larger games. Promethean AI is also integrated into the Unreal Engine, allowing even enthusiasts to experiment with its capabilities. 

Promethean AI can replace and improve upon procedural generation – a core component of games like No Man’s Sky (2016). Procedural techniques enabled indie developer Hello Games to create a vast space exploration game with limited resources. However, No Man’s Sky did not quite live up to the hype at launch – lacking key features promised by the developer – and incurred severe backlash from gamers. If Hello Games had had a tool like Promethean AI at their disposal when they were building a universe with 256 galaxies to explore, they may well have been ready at launch with all the features they had promised.

No Man’s Sky, a Game that Uses Procedural Content Generation (Courtesy Hello Games)
No Man’s Sky, a Game that Uses Procedural Content Generation (Courtesy Hello Games)

Dynamic In-Game Music

Numerous companies are at work making AI music generators that can change tracks on the fly, in real-time – which is perfect for games as in-game music is meant to change based on the context and even transition seamlessly from one track to another, serving as audible cues that tell the gamer what to expect in a given setting.  

Activision Blizzard has a solid head start in this department. In 2022, the company patented a new AI-driven music generation system, which goes beyond just randomising music or generating musical cues procedurally. 

The AI creates music specific to each player using machine learning trained on contextual data such as the player’s actions, their in-game behaviour patterns, their skill level and the in-game situation. Most games do use specific musical cues for different contexts (combat music vs exploration music in a game like The Witcher 3), but Blizzard’s AI can create new music (or at least variations on a theme) for any in-game context based on the data on which it is trained. The AI can even modulate the music tracks’ beat, tempo, volume, and length based on the player’s actions. 

Realistic AI-Based Animations

Several companies in the game industry are working hard on streamlining the process of creating seamless animations – many games suffer from stiff transitions, awkward rag-dolls and other immersion-breaking glitches because animation for video games is complex, and constrained by hardware limitations as well. 

Move.ai is an application that allows for motion capture (mocap) in any setting using any camera, including phone cams, and uses deep learning to digitise the motion capture into an animation. It is also integrated with the Omniverse – developers in nVidia’s ecosystem are spared at least some of the complexity in animating game characters. 

Perhaps Electronic Arts’ in-house tool HyperMotion constitutes the most robust use of machine learning for animation creation. EA essentially made 22 professionals play football in mocap suits and fed 8.7 million frames of motion capture into a machine learning algorithm that then learned to create animations in real time, thereby making every interaction on the field realistic. The ML-Flow algorithm’s animations allow players to strike and control the ball with complete ease and precision. 

EA’s researchers are also working on a deep-learning solution for fluid movements and transitions for particularly challenging animations, such as martial arts manoeuvres. As is evident, a martial arts game or even a Mortal Kombat game will absolutely break if its animations are crude, and thus requires animators to carefully edit, mix, blend and layer motion sources to produce seamless animations. The deep learning framework is meant to automate this manual layering using neural networks.

Neural Layering for Creating Seamless, Complex Animations (Courtesy EA)
Neural Layering for Creating Seamless, Complex Animations (Courtesy EA)

Ubisoft is also trying to solve the problem of creating seamless animations at scale. The company’s Learned Motion Matching System uses AI to improve animations created by using motion capture as a base. Motion matching is behind some of the best animation systems achieved in games, and it essentially allows mocap to be utilised in creating realistic game animations. Mocap can be highly detailed and realistic, but is raw, unstructured data – a digital recreation of movement, like a person walking in a circle, cannot simply be plugged into a game’s animation system without manual editing.

Raw, Unstructured Mocap Animation (Courtesy Ubisoft)
Raw, Unstructured Mocap Animation (Courtesy Ubisoft)

Motion matching is the process by which such data is translated into other movements – like making the character walk back and forth, instead of in circles. This is done by hand-picking motion data and adding various subtle tweaks manually to interpolate mocap data with other animations. 

Mocap Translated into Animations Usable in-Game (Courtesy Ubisoft)
Mocap Translated into Animations Usable in-Game (Courtesy Ubisoft)

Motion matching systems, however, can hog system memory, and also scale poorly. Ubisoft’s Learned Motion Matching uses machine learning not only to automate motion matching, but also allow it to scale without straining memory resources.

AI in Playtesting and Quality Assurance

Generative AI is an alluring prospect for developers, especially considering the reduction in cost and time in making quality game assets. But AI can also assist in yet another time consuming, costly aspect of game development: quality assurance (QA). As games grow bigger and bigger, QA has become increasingly challenging

Studios have two options for bug testing or playtesting – using bots or human play testers (or both in tandem). Humans are far better at identifying problems, but are also prone to exhaustion or distraction, because they need to play the same levels over and over again, repeatedly checking for exploits, unexpected behaviours, random instability and more, in a draining process designed to weed out every possible bug in the game. Bots, however, will never get exhausted or distracted, no matter how many times they play a level, and are even scalable, but can’t match a human’s capacity to identify bugs.

The QA testers for Fallout 76 (2018) were essentially put through the grinder because of the game’s troubled development cycle and bad launch. AI can spare humans the thankless task of bug testing, playtesting, and patching buggy code. 

Fallout 76’s QA Testers Endured Severe Crunch During Development and After Launch (Courtesy Bethesda)
Fallout 76’s QA Testers Endured Severe Crunch During Development and After Launch (Courtesy Bethesda)

AI That Learns to Playtest

EA’s researchers have achieved promising results with AI playtesting by using a technique called reinforcement learning (RL), in which the AI is trained with positive reinforcement – rewarded for desired behaviour and punished for undesired outcomes.

RL agents master games by modelling their actions on the rewards and punishments they receive. Losing territory in Go is a punishment, while gaining ground is the way to victory. In video games, levelling up or killing a boss is a reward, but dying is a punishment. As the RL agent continues to play the game, it rapidly learns to avoid punishment and seek rewards. It soon achieves superhuman proficiency at the game and can start identifying bugs and other in-game problems. However, an AI trained to master a particular game has a very narrow range – it can achieve superhuman results at Go or Dota, but not much else, and cannot playtest another game unless it goes through the exact same process of reinforcement learning all over again. 

Researchers at EA essentially used reinforcement learning to make AIs better at playtesting rather than playing, by pitting two sub-AIs against each other. One AI creates levels or environments, and the other tries to ‘solve’ these challenges. The solver is rewarded for successfully completing a task, challenge or level. The AI making the environments is rewarded for creating a challenging level that still remains playable.  

The AI’s range is widened – it is trained to generate more and complex levels, and also trained to become more versatile at testing such levels. Essentially, this technique allows a developer to test the game even during the development stage, by letting EA’s AI duo create and test maps based on game assets and code. 

EA’s research is still in a nascent stage, and it may be a few years before it is implemented. But a sufficiently advanced AI for playtesting can allow human QA testers to focus on issues that cannot be easily identified by AI. Fallout 76’s QA testers may have been spared a lot of toil if they had had such AI tools at their disposal.

Ubisoft’s Bug-Preventive AI

Ubisoft has taken a different but equally novel approach to bug fixing – squashing them before they are even coded. Ubisost fed its Commit Assistant AI with ten years’ worth of code from its software library, training the AI to identify where bugs were historically introduced, how and when they were fixed, and then predict the time when a coder is likely to write buggy code, essentially creating a ‘super-AI’ for its programmers. 

Ubisoft claims that bug-fixing during the development phase can swallow up to 70% of costs. The Commit Assistant has not been integrated into the coding pipeline but is being shared with select teams, as there are concerns that programmers may baulk at an AI that is telling them they are doing their job wrong. Ubisoft wants the AI to speed up the coding process – it wants its coders to treat the AI as a useful tool rather than a hindrance, and intends to be completely transparent about how the AI was trained. 

A limitation that can plague any AI-based bug fixing is the problem of bug reporting. AI’s can be trained on data sets to master games, and even become proficient at identifying bugs. But how would an AI report bugs, considering that one of the crucial aspects of bug fixing is having recourse to a well-written bug report

Open AI’s ChatGPT can converse with humans, answer their questions and is also proficient at fixing code. But it’s even better at bug-fixing when it is engaged in natural language dialogue with the human coder – Ubisoft’s Commit Assistant could well be trained like ChatGPT to communicate with coders to build trust, and playtesting AI’s may need natural language dialogue capabilities to tell humans about game bugs, or even fix them while conversing with programmers, as ChatGPT does. 

What AI Implies for the Game Industry’s Future

We have discussed various AI tools that can assist studios in the game development pipeline. In a sense, many of these solutions are meant to reduce manual work and allow developers to focus on the things that really count. 

However, AI can also be used in novel ways that have nothing to do with the asset pipeline or game development, and can also empower very small teams to create ambitious games, democratising the game industry. But this revolution can end before it begins as legal issues loom over AI generators – and we will deal with these issues in brief, before discussing how AI can change the game industry’s landscape.

The Legal Wrangle over Generative AI

Multiple lawsuits have been filed against AI-powered image generators. One of the plaintiffs is none other than Getty Images, a behemoth that owns one of the world’s largest repositories of images, vector graphics, videos and other media, and predominantly provides stock photos for corporations and the news media. 

Getty’s suit contends that Stability AI, the creator of Stable Diffusion, copied over 12 million images from its stock library without ‘permission or compensation’, as part of an effort to ‘build a competing business’. As we have said before, generative AI tools are trained on vast datasets. But if such data is copyrighted and trademarked, then they arguably need to be paid for – whether the image is supposed to fill out a newspaper column or a corporate brochure, or an AI’s training dataset. 

This lawsuit, and another filed by three artists, threaten the continued existence of Stable Diffusion or MidJourney unless the courts rule that providing an AI with copyrighted images solely for training purposes constitutes fair use, especially as AI generators arguably transform the data they are fed with to create original content. 

One can argue that such lawsuits have already done enough damage. Litigation takes years and game studios, filmmakers and other media houses that could use such AI tools will be wary of integrating them into the pipeline until the legal tangle is resolved. However, AIs such as Ubisoft’s Commit Assistant and EA’s HyperMotion are arguably immune from litigation, as training data is also generated in-house – legal issues over copyright can be circumvented by sourcing data using the right means.

AI-Powered Innovation in Gaming

As early as 2018, Activision used machine learning to make players improve their gaming skills. Activision’s tool was integrated into Alexa, and helped train gamers to get better at playing Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 (2018). The tool is no longer available, but it was still an interesting experiment in using machine learning and a human-like interlocutor, such as Alexa, to guide gamers through a play session.

Activision Created a Short-Lived AI Coach to Guide Players through Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 (Courtesy Activision)
Activision Created a Short-Lived AI Coach to Guide Players through Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 (Courtesy Activision)

While Activision’s experiment was short-lived, Ludo’s solution for de-risking the gaming industry may well become integral to the game maker’s toolkit. As we have mentioned above, Ludo helps developers ideate and develop 2D assets with its image generator. It also has a market analysis tool that can help studios get a good sense of how their game might perform. 

The developer can feed the AI-based tool with a proposed game concept, and Ludo will scour its vast database to determine if the idea has been thought of before. This is critical for mobile game developers, who work in a field where games struggle to rise to the top. Ludo can also identify trending genres and top charts, to help developers model their game on ideas and titles that are performing well. Since its launch in 2021, Ludo has more than 8000 developers using it. 


In recent years, academic papers about generative AI have been published at an exponential rate and many companies are now working on AI-based solutions not only for gaming, but for other industries too. This spike in research and development has been called a ‘Cambrian explosion’, likening the emergence of generative AI toolsets to the proliferation of animal species during the Cambrian Period 539 million years ago. The game industry stands to benefit immensely from this surge in practical AI solutions.

However, using AI to enhance game development is not without its challenges – generative AI is a nascent field and legal issues loom over it already. Even Ubisoft is treading lightly with its bug-preventive AI so that programmers can gradually accept the tool as a benefit rather than a hindrance. 

Despite these challenges, AI has the potential to democratise the gaming industry and act as a force multiplier for small developer teams, empowering them to make ambitious games by using AI to streamline the game development process, circumvent budget constraints, and even innovate with AI tools to create truly unique gaming experiences. 

Gameopedia can provide tailored solutions to meet your particular data needs. Contact us to receive useful information and derive actionable insights regarding generative AI techniques, and their impact on the game industry in general and game development in particular.

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Game AI: Breathing Life into Digital Denizens

The outlaw Arthur Morgan has waylaid a rich-looking man, who is sprawled on the grass. Morgan fires a warning shot in the air to assert his dominance. A moment later, a bird flops to the ground, felled by his bullet. 

A gamer inadvertently fired this one-in-a-million shot in Red Dead Redemption 2 (RDR 2), and his clip of the scene went viral, with fans wondering if the bird’s death at the hands of RDR 2’s protagonist was a scripted event. It is unlikely to have been scripted, but is rather the result of the interplay between complex AI systems in RDR 2 (2018). 

When attacked, the AI-driven NPC responds realistically, trying to fend off the player. In response, the player fires a warning shot. As a result, another AI-driven NPC – a hapless bird – meets an untimely demise while flying directly overhead. The bird’s flight path has not been scripted so that it gets shot down by the player, it is merely following its own routine because RDR 2 endows both human and animal NPCs with complex behaviours and schedules, and the bird’s death is just one of the outcomes when such complex AI systems intersect. 

In this blog we will explore key aspects of game AI, and the development of seemingly intelligent behaviours in NPCs in various games and franchises. Game AI has evolved from the simple computer operated opponents in Pong and early arcade games to increasingly complex NPC agents in games such as RDR 2, the Halo franchise and Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls games. Developers have contributed significantly to defining, and redefining game AI, and games such as RDR 2 have pushed game AI to the limits, creating NPCs so convincing that they seem to have a life of their own.

What is Game AI?

Artificial intelligence in games – or game AI – is used to generate apparently intelligent and responsive behaviours mostly in non-player characters (NPCs, including human, humanoid and animal agents), allowing them to behave naturally in various game contexts, with human or humanoid characters even performing human-like actions. 

AI has been integral to gaming from the arcade age – AI opponents became prominent during this period with the introduction of difficulty scaling, discernible enemy movement patterns and the triggering of in-game events based on the player’s input. 

Game AI is distinct from the sort of AI we have become familiar with today, which is powered by machine learning and uses artificial neural networks. A key reason why in-game AI has remained distinct from today’s AI constructs is that game AI needs to be predictable to some degree. A deep learning AI can rapidly become unpredictable as it learns and evolves, whereas game AI should be controlled by algorithms that give the player a clear sense of how to interact with NPCs to achieve their in-game goals.  

According to Tanya Short, game designer and co-founder of KitFox Games, game AI is to some extent “smoke and mirrors” – complex enough to make players think they are interacting with a responsive intelligence that is nevertheless controlled and predictable so that gameplay doesn’t go awry. 

Within this relatively narrow scope, however, in-game AI can be quite complex, and game developers expertly fake the illusion of intelligence with various clever tricks – some developers have even experimented with giving more freedom to game AI, leading to interesting and unforeseen results

What Types of AI are Used in Gaming?

Arcade games were the first to use stored patterns to direct enemy movements and advances in microprocessor technology allowed for more randomness and variability, as seen in the iconic Space Invaders (1978) game. Stored patterns for this game randomised alien movements, so that each new game had the potential to be different. In Pac-Man (1980), the ghosts’ distinct movement patterns made players think they had unique traits, and made them feel they were up against four distinct entities. 

Space Invaders Used Stored Patterns to Randomise Enemy Movements (Courtesy Taito)
Space Invaders Used Stored Patterns to Randomise Enemy Movements (Courtesy Taito)

Over the years, certain key game AI techniques, such as pathfinding, finite state machines and behaviour trees have been crucial in making games more playable and NPC’s more responsive and intelligent. We delve into these below. 


A relatively simple problem for humans – getting from point A to B – can be quite challenging for AI-driven agents

The answer to this problem is the pathfinding algorithm, which directs NPCs through the shortest and most efficient path between two parts of the game world. The game map itself is turned into a machine-readable scene graph with waypoints, the best route is calculated, and NPCs are set along this path. 

Such an algorithm is particularly important and prevalent in real-time strategy (RTS) games, where player-controlled units need pathfinding to follow commands, and enemy-controlled units need the algorithm to respond to the player.

Early pathfinding algorithms used in games such as StarCraft (1998) ran into a problem – each single unit lined up and took the same path, slowing down the movement of the entire cohort. Many games then used various methods to solve this problem – Age of Empires (1997) simply turned the cohorts into an actual formation to navigate the best route, and StarCraft II (2010) used ‘flocking’ movement, or ‘swarming’, an algorithm devised by AI pioneer Craig Reynolds in 1986. Flocking simulates the movement of real-life groups such as flocks of birds, human crowds moving through a city, military units and even schools of fish in water bodies. 

StarCraft II Used the Flocking Algorithm to Refine Pathfinding During Gameplay (Courtesy Blizzard)
StarCraft II Used the Flocking Algorithm to Refine Pathfinding During Gameplay (Courtesy Blizzard)

Finite State Machines

Finite state machines (FSM) are algorithms that determine how NPCs react to various player actions and environmental contexts. At its simplest a finite state machine defines various ‘states’ for the NPC AI to inhabit, based on in-game events. NPCs can transition from one state to another based on the context and act accordingly. If the NPC is designed to be hostile to the player character, seeing the player may lead it to run toward them and attack them. Defeating this NPC may impel it to run away, to go into a submissive mode, or simply enter the death state (i.e., die).

In fact, FSMs can ‘tell’ an NPC to ‘hunt’ players based on cues like audible or visible disturbances to the environment – this is a staple of stealth games, and the Metal Gear Solid franchise has used the hunting mechanic to create tense situations between the player and the NPC. Finite-state machines can also tell NPCs how to survive – under attack, they can take cover to improve health levels, reload ammunition or search for more weapons, and generally take action to evade death at the player’s hands. 

The Metal Gear Solid Franchise Uses ‘Hunting’ Behaviours to Lend Realism to Stealth Gameplay (Courtesy Konami)
The Metal Gear Solid Franchise Uses ‘Hunting’ Behaviours to Lend Realism to Stealth Gameplay (Courtesy Konami)

Behaviour Trees

Unlike finite state machines, a behaviour tree controls the flow of decisions made by an AI agent rather than the states it inhabits. The tree comprises nodes arranged in a hierarchy. At the far ends of this hierarchy are ‘leaves’ that constitute commands that NPCs follow. Other nodes form the tree’s branches, which the AI selects and traverses based on the game context to give NPCs the best sequence of commands in any particular situation. 

Behaviour trees can be extremely complex, with nodes attached to entire sub-trees that perform specific functions, and such nested trees enable the developer to create whole collections of actions that can be daisy-chained together to simulate very believable AI behaviour. As such, they are more powerful than finite state machines, which can become unmanageably complex as the number of possible states grows.

Finite State Machines Can Grow Increasingly Tangled as the Number of States Grows (Courtesy Unreal Engine)
Finite State Machines Can Grow Increasingly Tangled as the Number of States Grows (Courtesy Unreal Engine)

Behaviour trees are also easier to fine-tune and can often be altered using visual editors. You can even create behaviour trees in the Unreal Engine using a visual editor.

Notably used in the Halo franchise, behaviour trees have been part of developers’ AI toolkit for a while, and were used effectively in Alien: Isolation (2014). We will discuss their implementation both in Halo 2 and Alien: Isolation below.

How does Game AI Make NPCs Act Intelligently?

Various developers largely make use of the same fundamental concepts and techniques in creating game AI, but now employ them at much larger scales thanks to greater processing power. According to Julian Togelius, a New York University computer science professor, game AI is far more complex than the models discussed above, but are essentially variations on such core principles. In this section, we discuss some games that used AI inventively to create immersive encounters with responsive, intelligent NPCs. 

Tactical Communications in F.E.A.R

First Encounter Assault Recon, or F.E.A.R (2006) created the illusion of tactical AI combatants using mainly finite state machines, with a twist – developers gave enemies combat dialogue that broadcast their strategy, which changed based on the game context. These ‘communications’ made players think they were up against situationally-aware enemies working together to defeat them. 

F.E.A.R Verbalised its AI to Make it Seem Like Enemies were Working as a Team (Courtesy Vivendi Games)
F.E.A.R Verbalised its AI to Make it Seem Like Enemies were Working as a Team (Courtesy Vivendi Games)

The dialogue merely ‘verbalised’ the algorithms that directed NPC behaviour, but it added realism to enemy encounters – in real-life combat, soldiers do call out to their comrades to coordinate tactics, and in F.E.A.R, NPC soldiers would tell others to flank the player when possible, and even call for backup if the player was slaughtering them with ease. No real communication was taking place, but the NPC dialogue during combat gave the impression that the enemies were acting in concert. 

F.E.A.R helped pioneer ‘lightweight AI’ and added nuance by giving voice to the AI’s ‘inner thoughts’. Snippets of combat dialogue beguiled players into thinking they were working against organised, tactical squads.

Halo 2: Aliens that Behave Sensibly

A key feature of the Halo franchise is the enemy – alien NPCs who have formed an alliance to defeat humankind. These visually unique NPCs give cues to the player about how to take them down. Grunts are small and awkward, and may flee from the player, but elites and larger NPCs may take on even the Master Chief in direct combat. 

Halo’s Masterful Use of Behaviour Trees Made Each Alien Enemy Behave Uniquely in Context (Courtesy Bungie)
Halo’s Masterful Use of Behaviour Trees Made Each Alien Enemy Behave Uniquely in Context (Courtesy Bungie)

Rather than using finite state machines, Bungie used behaviour trees in Halo 2 to direct the actions of enemy aliens, because of the range of tactics made possible by sufficiently detailed behaviour trees. 

At a very abstract level, Bungie’s behaviour trees have various conditional nodes that determine NPC actions. But a lot happens at any point in the game and the ‘conditions’ for many nodes may be satisfied, leading to game-breaking ‘dithering’, when an NPC rapidly alternates between various actions that are all deemed relevant. To prevent this, Bungie used ‘smart systems’ that enabled game AI to think in context. 

Based on contextual cues (like the NPC type, its proximity to the Master Chief, whether it is on foot or in a vehicle), a system blocks off whole sections of the behaviour tree, restricting the NPC to a relatively small but relevant range of actions. Some of these remaining actions are prioritised over others, fostering sensible behaviour.

Stimulus behaviours’ then shift these priorities based on in-game triggers. If the Master Chief gets on a vehicle, then an enemy will seek a vehicle of its own, attempting to level the playing field for itself. Grunts will flee in the middle of combat if their captain is killed by the player – nodes that tell them to attack or take cover are simply overridden. 

This can lead to repeated and predictable behaviour – the player might see the grunts fleeing and choose to target their captain the next time. But that strategy won’t work either: after a high-priority action such as fleeing is executed, a delay is injected to this behaviour to stop the NPC from repeating it immediately – the next time you take out the captain, the grunts may choose to stand their ground. 

Bungie’s expert use of behaviour trees has led developers to adapt this game AI technique and it has since been used in several games, such as Bioshock Infinite (2013), Far Cry 4 (2014), Far Cry Primal (2016) and Alien: Isolation (2014).

Bethesda’s Radiant and Murderous NPCs

Halo’s enemy NPCs were essentially reacting to the player, but what if a developer wants to give the impression that NPCs are living lives of their own? Such an AI system would be especially useful in an open-world game, where a lot of NPCs may never engage in direct combat with the player, and exist to flesh out the world. 

 In Bethesda’s The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (2002), NPCs would pretty much ‘roam on rails’, lacking even the semblance of a routine. For The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (2006), Bethesda attempted to create complex NPCs with daily habits using Radiant AI, which had to be dumbed down considerably due to its unexpected in-game results.

In Oblivion, Radiant AI prescribes various daily tasks for the NPC, such as sleeping, eating and doing an in-game job. These tasks comprise the NPC’s daily routine, and the AI allows the NPC to decide how to perform its tasks.

Oblivion’s NPCs Murdered Each Other to Complete their Tasks Before their AI was Fine-Tuned (Courtesy Bethesda)
Oblivion’s NPCs Murdered Each Other to Complete their Tasks Before their AI was Fine-Tuned (Courtesy Bethesda)

Most games do feature NPCs with schedules, the key difference was the ‘free choice’ given to NPCs to do what they had to do in Oblivion. Playtesting revealed a rather big problem with this AI system – NPCs prone to murder. 

As part of a certain quest, the player character needs to meet a dealer of Skooma – a highly-narcotic in-game potion. But the player would find this Skooma dealer dead because other NPCs designed to be ‘addicted’ to Skooma would simply kill the dealer to get to the drug, breaking the quest. In another case, a gardener could not find a rake, and so murdered another NPC, took his tools and went about raking leaves. When a hungry town guard left his post to hunt for food, other guards went along and the town’s malcontents started thieving indiscriminately as the law was nowhere in sight. 

Many of these criminals had low ‘responsibility’, an in-game NPC attribute that determines how likely they are to behave in unlawful ways. An NPC with higher responsibility would buy food, but one with low responsibility might steal it – both are trying to fulfil the eating task, but are just going about it in radically different ways.  

Of course, high-responsibility NPCs like guards won’t let crimes go unpunished, and an NPC who has stolen a loaf of bread can get killed. In the game, the player incurs a bounty if they commit a crime, and can pay instead of getting into a lethal encounter. This alternative was not granted to NPCs, so minor theft escalated to murder.

Designer Emil Pagliarulo had to take steps to tone down Radiant AI, so that NPCs wouldn’t slaughter each other to complete their daily tasks, and describes Oblivion’s original Radiant AI as a sentient version of the holodeck (the holodeck is a life simulator from the Star Trek franchise). 

But even in the finished version of the game, one can exploit Radiant AI in interesting ways. Oblivion’s game world features poisoned apples. If the player places these apples in a public place, an NPC will likely eat them and die. This has no connection to any quest – it is just a simple player action with disastrous consequences for an NPC. 

Even in Skyrim (2011), Bethesda’s fifth instalment in the Elder Scrolls franchise, the fine-tuned version of Radiant AI makes for lethal stand-offs between NPCs. In this video, NPCs fight to the death to claim certain valuable items dropped by the player, and in fact, they might do the same even if the items aren’t particularly valuable. This behaviour is driven by Bethesda’s Radiant Story system, which creates random quests based on certain parameters (like the quest giver, the guild they belong to, and other contexts) and also makes NPCs react dynamically to player actions.

Skyrim’s Radiant Story System Creates Dynamic Events Based on the Player’s Actions (Courtesy Bethesda)
Skyrim’s Radiant Story System Creates Dynamic Events Based on the Player’s Actions (Courtesy Bethesda)

NPCs will ask the player character if they can keep any item the player has dropped (or fight other NPCs to claim it). A guard may berate the player if he drops weapons, pointing out that someone could get hurt, and even fine the player if they disregard the guard’s warning. Completing a quest for an NPC makes them friendly towards you, and you can take their items instead of robbing them. In fact, friendly NPCs will also attend your wedding if you get married.

Meeting and Making Your Nemesis in the Mordor Games

The Nemesis System used in Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor (2014) and Shadow of War (2017) is perhaps the one AI system that practically ensures that every player will encounter different villains in every playthrough. 

Shadow of Mordor Creates Unique Enemies in Each Playthrough with its Nemesis System (Courtesy Warner Bros)
Shadow of Mordor Creates Unique Enemies in Each Playthrough with its Nemesis System (Courtesy Warner Bros)

The developer Monolith Productions essentially created a dynamic ‘villain generator’ in which the player’s hostile encounters with an orc would result in changes to the orc’s status in the enemy hierarchy, his attitude towards the player, his powers, and more – if you set one on fire, he will hate you forever, and will develop a phobia for fire too, and if you run away from an orc in a fight, he will taunt you the next time you confront him. In effect, the Nemesis System turns a generic enemy into a named villain with unique traits. 

The Nemesis System is largely made possible because Talion, the protagonist, cannot die, as he is in a state between life and death – lore is used to weave player death into the narrative and gameplay. This mechanic allows orcs and other enemies to remember Talion, hate him for what he has done to them, rise up the ranks by killing him and even gain a following because of their exploits – this can make them even harder to kill.

The Nemesis System is also built on the idea that the orcs in Sauron’s Army are a bunch of back-stabbing, infighting brutes, who rise to alpha dog status by challenging and killing orcs higher up the hierarchy – orcs can become named villains not only by facing off against you, but also by taking on their commanders.

One of the late game objectives is to sow discord in Sauron’s Army and dismantle it thereby, and the best way to achieve this is by recruiting low-level orcs using a special power. Such allies will spy for you, betray and supplant enemy leaders, and even join you in fights against powerful named villains. This is part of Nemesis too – orcs can rise up, but can also lose status if you beat them or if their bid for more power backfires. ‘Turning’ such a weakened orc – or recruiting him – allows you to thin your enemy’s ranks: the game discourages indiscriminate killing. 

The ability to recruit orcs, even high-level ones such as captains and warchiefs, was expanded in Shadow of War to build up a veritable army of one’s own. Even the orcs in the game have complex relationships and are less prone to butchering each other – an orc you kill may have a friend who will hunt you down to avenge his brother-in-arms

Shadow of War Uses the Nemesis System to Help The Player Build an Army (Courtesy Warner Bros)
Shadow of War Uses the Nemesis System to Help The Player Build an Army (Courtesy Warner Bros)

Warner Bros, the publisher of the Mordor games, chose to patent the Nemesis System, preventing other developers from building on Monolith’s achievements. If the patent had not been granted, developers could have used Nemesis, or developed a system based on it, to create true drama between the player and their enemy, whose personalities grow every time they face off against each other.

The Perfect Monster in Alien: Isolation

Alien: Isolation developer Creative Assembly faced an unprecedented challenge when designing the game – how could game AI be implemented to recreate the perfect killing machine, the xenomorph, from the Alien movies?

The Xenomorph AI in Alien: Isolation Strikes a Perfect Balance between Fear and Opportunity (Courtesy Sega)
The Xenomorph AI in Alien: Isolation Strikes a Perfect Balance between Fear and Opportunity (Courtesy Sega)

As Ian Holm’s character says in the first film, Alien (1979), the xenomorph is the “perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility… [It is] a survivor…unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.” 

The AI for such an entity has to be near-perfect as well – the horror game’s immersion would have been utterly broken if some bug made the xenomorph run around in circles, or behave like one of Oblivion’s Skooma-addicted NPCs. Every interaction between the player and the xenomorph had to be scary, believable and unpredictable. 

The developers adopted a design mantra called ‘psychopathic serendipity’, where the xenomorph somehow seems to be at the right place at the right time, and foils your plans even when you successfully hide from it. While you can’t kill it, it can kill you instantly.

Developers used a two-tiered AI system to foster these ‘serendipitous’ encounters: a director-AI always knows about your location and your actions, and periodically drops the alien-AI hints about where to look for you. But the alien-AI is never allowed to cheat, it can only work with the clues it’s given. You can always evade, hide or take it by surprise. This makes the game unpredictable, both for the alien and the player. 

The alien-AI has an extremely complex behaviour tree system that determines the actions it takes, and some of its nodes are unlocked only after certain conditions are met, making the xenomorph exhibit unnerving traits that suggest that it is learning from your actions. Other behaviours are unlocked as you get better at the game, enabling the xenomorph to keep you on your toes

A dynamic ‘menage gauge’ however, increases based on certain in-game contexts, estimating how tense the player is. When it reaches a certain threshold, the xenomorph will back off, giving the player some breathing space. 

The alien’s pathfinding algorithm is also tweaked to make it look like it’s hunting, searching or even backtracking, suggesting that it’s revising strategies on the fly. Such behaviour is activated either by giving the xenomorph areas of interest to explore, or making it respond to loud noises made by the player. The intentionally sub-optimal pathfinder makes the xenomorph stop at all points of interest, ramping up the tension, making the player wonder what it is up to. However, the alien will never look in certain areas of the game, as doing so would shift the game balance unfairly in its favour. Throughout the game, the alien never spawns or teleports anywhere (except for two cutscenes), but can sneak around so well that players think it’s teleporting. 

The AI in Alien: Isolation creates a macabre game of hide-and-seek with one of cinema’s most fearsome creatures, whose animal cunning keeps you guessing throughout the game. 

Peak Game AI in Read Dead Redemption 2

It is difficult to capture the full complexity of the in-game AI in Rockstar’s Read Dead Redemption 2 (RDR 2), but like Alien: Isolation, the game represents a novel layering of multiple AI systems. 

Read Dead Redemption 2 is so Complex that its AI will Surprise Players for Years to Come (Courtesy Rockstar)
Read Dead Redemption 2 is so Complex that its AI will Surprise Players for Years to Come (Courtesy Rockstar)

In this game, you can interact with every NPC in a variety of ways, and they will react and comment on what they notice about you, such as the blood stains on your shirt, how drunk you are, or your ‘Honor’ level, which gauges the good you have done, and also affects how the player character Arthur Morgan behaves. 

NPCs may ridicule your choice of clothing, and keep their distance if you are dirty. They also have their own complex schedules, not just restricted to doing their jobs. They will start looking over their shoulder if you follow them along their routine and may flee if you persist. In Grand Theft Auto V (GTA V), attacking an NPC might trigger various reactions like fleeing or even a counter-attack. An NPC in RDR 2, however, may not immediately draw their gun, but try to address the situation with dialogue, allowing for more believable interplay between the player and the NPC. 

During actual combat, NPCs will act intelligently – they will dive for cover, grip wounded areas and even try to take down Morgan with a melee weapon when possible. Enemies under fire will behave differently from calm ones who are not in the thick of combat. If you take refuge in a building, NPCs will cover all exits before a coordinated attack.

The sparse wild-west world of RDR 2 meant that each NPC had to be given a unique personality and mood states. Rockstar engaged 1,200 actors from the American Screen Actors Guild to flesh out the NPCs, each of whom had an 80-page script, and captured the actors’ demeanour and mannerisms over 2,200 days of mo-cap sessions. 

Even the wilderness teems with 200 animal species that interact with each other and the player, and are found only in their natural habitats – the vast open world features multiple ecosystems and animals react realistically to creatures higher up the food chain. Herbivores will flee at the sight of wolves, wolves themselves will flee from a grizzly bear and a vulture will swoop down on an abandoned carcass.

Rockstar also overhauled the animation system to create more accurate human and animal mannerisms in the game world, generating fluid movements without stiff transitions. The animation overhaul allows NPCs to react to the nuances of your facial expressions, your posture and mannerisms, especially as they all change due to the dynamic nature of the game world. A well-rested, well-fed Arthur Morgan looks different from one who is half-starved and muddy after an all-night trek, and NPCs will note this. 

Rockstar also completely recreated horse animations from scratch and even allowed the horse AI to decide how to move based on the player’s input. As a result, your horse is practically a supporting character in the game, and there’s a Youtube video devoted just to how Rockstar made the ‘ultimate video game horse’. 

One day, a fan exploring the game found a mounted NPC wearing the exact same clothes as the player character. In other games, with less variety in outfits, this will happen often, but RDR 2’s numerous outfits make this situation unlikely – until you realise the number of complex NPCs who share the world with the player. By sheer coincidence, an NPC had managed to choose the same clothes as the player – it is unlikely that the NPC’s choice of clothing is scripted and meant to surprise the player. 

Simply put, RDR 2’s AI is massively complex and will surprise players for years to come with its emergent gameplay.


We have seen how game AI can create complex interactions with NPCs who can act quite intelligently in context. 

In RDR 2’s case, NPCs are so complex that one can sense they have their own, complex lives, which are not just centred around the player. We may also assume that Rockstar did not use neural networks to power their game AI – the implementation of state-of-the-art AI would have surely made it to promotional materials. Every game discussed above uses traditional techniques at greater and greater scales, and it is likely that game AI might eventually reach a plateau phase. What, then, is its future?

AI powered by machine learning and neural networks may soon become a viable means for playtesting. What if an AI such as this were allowed to play a million games of RDR 2 or Skyrim to fine-tune NPC behaviours, while still maintaining the balance of predictability and randomness game AI requires? 

Most machine learning systems and neural networks work on vast datasets. Developers could perhaps take game AI to the next level by training a deep learning AI to amass and parse game AI behaviour, and improve it further still, and then create game AI – and new game AI techniques – for a subsequent game. Elder Scrolls VI, and Rockstar’s next open-world game, could perhaps benefit greatly from an AI created by AI.

Gameopedia offers extensive coverage of the AI used in all types of games. Contact us to gain actionable insights about how industry game AI techniques make games more believable and immersive. 

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Case Study: How Metadata and Understanding Gamers Can Drive Conversions

In this study, we discuss how a user survey of an online gaming store yielded actionable insights about improving game discovery for gamers across various demographics. 

Why do customers play games? What makes them hate or avoid a game? How do they select a new game to play? The response to such questions revealed that coupling game metadata with a nuanced understanding of user attitudes and preferences can foster game discovery and drive more conversions in a scalable, consistent and user-focused manner.

About the Survey: Key Findings

Our survey respondents were all customers of a budget-friendly online gaming store that makes use of our game metadata services. The survey population skews young – 70% were less than 35 years old and 26% of the population – the largest single chunk – was between 20-24 years of age. Female participants were overrepresented in the youngest age group (under 25 years of age), but underrepresented in the survey population as a whole. Many of our more nuanced insights about driving conversions are derived from how user preferences change based on demographics. Our survey responses allow, but do not require, multiple responses, helping us understand the many factors that drive user decisions. 

A majority of respondents – about 60% – seek to take their mind off things by playing games (though 26% may also want to experience something beautiful, while taking their mind off things), and many customers avoid games with aggressive monetisation. Genre is the foremost decision driver in selecting a new game to play – 56% choose a game based on its genre – and nearly 75% of the site’s users are prompted to start a new game based on favourable critics’ reviews, user ratings, and friends’ recommendations. 

In the following sections, we add nuance to this basic gamer journey by delving deeper into the survey responses. We detail how game metadata can be harnessed to refine game discovery based on definable concepts such as game genre, setting, theme, and gameplay elements. We also discuss how stores can leverage even subjective attitudes about game aesthetics and monetization when directing key demographics towards games they would enjoy. Where possible, we link to relevant content such as blogs and other pages on our website, so that our insights into user preferences can be understood in a wider context. 

Each section below is entitled with the questions we asked in our survey, and contains insights we gleaned about user preferences from our survey respondents. 

Why Do You Play Games?

While a majority of the respondents play to take their mind off things, a fourth said they want to experience a beautiful game, and 14% said they used games to unleash their creativity. 

In fact, female respondents are 18% more likely to prefer games based on their visual appeal, and are around 60% more inclined to use games as an outlet for their creativity: both aesthetics and expressing their creativity matters to them. 

Given that female respondents are even more likely to play games with appealing visuals, retailers can drive conversions among their female customers (and even attract more women gamers) by curating games that are universally praised for their beautiful visuals, and adorning such games’ store pages with attractive screenshots. Stores can also feature games with a strong creative element – such as Minecraft (2011) and other similar sandbox games – to achieve the same effect. 

Only 14% of all respondents cited graphics quality as a decision driver for buying a game, and only 13% said they seek out games with a specific art style. Our store’s customers are not necessarily looking for state-of-the-art graphics, or for a specific ‘look’, but good aesthetics, and to learn more about how videogames can be beautiful, read our blog on the hunt for photorealism.

What Makes You Hate or Avoid a Game?

Respondents cited aggressive monetization, an unfriendly player base and poor performance (bugs and technical issues) as the three main factors that make them hate or avoid a game. For this question, any one of the responses can serve as a deal breaker – customers who cite multiple factors do not mean they will put up with some, but not all, of the problematic aspects of a game. They will abandon a game if it has even one of the features that displease them, and our sentiment analysis can help gauge user attitudes about a game’s monetization strategy, its performance, user experiences with a game’s multiplayer base, and even perceptions about whether the game delivers value for money. 

Players younger than 25 – who form a significant chunk of our survey population – are 15% more likely to tolerate aggressive monetization, though cost plays a greater role in their buying decisions (around 35% vs the average of 30%). Younger players want to be convinced of the value a game offers before parting with their money, and the freemium/free-to-play, or live-service game model is ideally suited to their preferences – they can assess the free base game and decide whether premium content will be worth the price, and can also satisfy their need for social engagement through such games. 

Stores can drive conversions among younger customers by selling premium content for prominent live-service games and other games that adopt the free-to-play or freemium business model. Such a strategy can be highly lucrative, as such titles can keep gamers engaged for years.

Older respondents are 20% less likely to play with other gamers. In fact, for older store  customers, forced interaction with other players is a deal-breaker. When compared with younger players, customers aged 25-40 are 25% more likely to avoid games with forced interactions, and respondents over 40 are 50% more inclined to abandon such games.

Case Study Image

Customers over 40 are 60% more likely to play games to solve problems with careful thinking and planning. For such users, gaming is a solitary pursuit and an opportunity to flex their brains. Featuring single-player games that emphasise puzzle-solving can attract more older players, and drive more conversions among them too, and our game metadata framework can help identify games of this sort, which serve niche interests.

What Makes You Start a New Game?

More than 70% of our respondents start playing a new game based on critic reviews, user ratings and friends’ endorsements. Our metadata framework provides details about critic reviews and user ratings, and player sentiment can be gauged to see if the game is likely to be recommended to others. Stores can feature favourable reviews and user ratings and use sentiment analysis to establish a game’s bonafides.  

About 30% also start a new game if it resembles what they have played before. But what exactly does the customer mean by resemblance? Is the similarity in gameplay, visuals or something else? 

The store could make educated guesses about resemblance through the customer’s purchase history, but guesswork is not scalable. The best insights about user preferences and game discovery will emerge from a rigorous metadata framework which categorises store titles by gameplay, visuals, or any relevant video game feature.

Suppose a customer has bought several Assassin’s Creed games, all after a year of the game’s launch. The user may not buy the latest release because it’s not yet on sale and they are at the store for a bargain. 

What if the store uses metadata to suggest a parkour-style exploration game, or an open-world game with stealth mechanics? Ghost of Tsushima (2020) – like the Assassin’s Creed games – is a gorgeous open world with stealth mechanics, and could resonate with an Assassin’s Creed fan.  

But if the customer wants games that resemble Assassin’s Creed in terms of parkour traversal, then Sunset Overdrive (2014), would be a good match, and Mirror’s Edge (2016) and Dying Light (2015) would be a novel experience because of their thrilling first-person parkour mechanics.  

Only by using a metadata framework for defining features like visuals, gameplay and traversal can the store identify multiple titles ‘like’ Assassin’s Creed. Such a framework is also scalable as it covers the store’s entire catalogue rather than a single franchise. 

What Drives You to Select a New Game?

This question is vital to retailers because of its direct insight into what drives conversions. 

Cost is the third-most cited factor and customers may well be conservative in their choice of games, especially considering that they tend to stick to a certain genre.

The second-most important factor – a strong story – is cited by 30% of the respondents, but only 17% abandon games with bad or weak stories. Players may likely put up with this flaw if the game is otherwise appealing. Games whose stories have resonated with gamers can be identified using sentiment analysis and given more prominence.

Only 17% cite good performance as a factor behind buying games, but 27% of the respondents will avoid games with poor performance. Good performance is expected – publishers won’t get brownie points just for delivering a functional game – and a bug-ridden release will attract few users. Consequently, stores can feature titles that are making a ‘come-back’ from bad and buggy launches. 

Genre is the foremost decision driver, with 56% citing it as a factor in buying games. Stores could identify the most popular genres amongst its users and give popular game genres prominence, but how would it define ‘game genres’?  

Sites like Metacritic do provide genres, but many games fall into multiple genres: Skyrim’s genres are ‘Role Playing’ and ‘Western Style’, to distinguish it from Japanese Role-Playing Games (RPG). A store using borrowed genre classifications might present open-world RPGs to customers who enjoy linear RPGs (if its metadata does not distinguish between the two), resulting in few conversions. 

A comprehensive metadata framework would define genres precisely and help identify the most popular genres amongst users, after which the store could play up the most prominent games in popular genres. A sufficiently granular metadata framework can give gamers the exact type of game they want within the foremost genres as well. 

Suppose the shooter genre is one of the most popular amongst store users. One customer has purchased several less-known shooters, and is unlikely to buy the more popular titles. 

Just as the metadata framework can be used to categorise a franchise like Assassin’s Creed by game features, a descriptor like genre itself can be sliced and diced into subgenres based on combat, visuals, camera perspective and more, to find a match for the user who buys niche shooters. 

Like a detailed map, a store whose pages contain granular information about genre, setting and other descriptors can speed up the user journey, steering gamers toward the title they want, and propel conversions. Such pages can also lead more people to stay on the site, instead of abandoning it. 

Our metadata framework is wide, covering a multitude of games, and deep, covering each game with detailed descriptors and dividing games into precise sub-groups. It can hence consistently drive conversions in a scalable manner, and this is why we do what we do. To learn more about how we do it, visit our pages on video game metadata and game taxonomy


Our survey respondents depend on trusted sources to start playing a new game and prefer specific genres or settings over others. Some of the reasons they play, or avoid, a game can be considered subjective – a game cannot be defined as beautiful with rigour, nor can its monetization be objectively characterised as ‘aggressive’. Game retailers can use sentiment analysis or trawl news outlets to gauge the prevailing opinion about aesthetics and monetization, and give prominence to certain games accordingly.

But our survey also indicates that many gamer preferences require a robust metadata framework – genres need to be well-defined if a store sets out to play up popular genres to all players, or specific genres to some of its clientele. Gamers who like to play something resembling a previous game need to be given suggestions using descriptors that can identify similarity precisely. A nuanced metadata framework can also identify the subtle but significant differences between two largely similar games, giving the user a better idea of what to expect from their new purchase.

Ultimately, the most robust game discovery or personalisation system will emerge when we understand why customers have the preferences they do, and we at Gameopedia are working to codify what drives user preferences. It is difficult to imagine that more than half of our client store’s customers prioritise genre for the same reasons. Some may like shooters for the adrenaline rush of its fast-paced action, and others may like interactive adventure games because of their strong narratives. If gamers prefer certain genres over others for specific reasons, game retailers can suggest other games that boast similar qualities to coax users into trying new genres. 

Our survey results thus indicate the need for a game metadata framework, and a deeper understanding of a user’s preferences, not only to improve conversions, but to truly understand, and satisfy, customer needs. 

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The Retro Game: Nostalgia and Reinvention

When Nintendo released its Classic Mini NES in 2016, the gaming community went berserk. The Mini Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) sold out instantly due to ‘feverish demand’ and within days, scalpers were selling the console for up to nearly four times its retail price on eBay, at an average price of $230. In comparison, the Switch’s launch price was $299 in 2017. 

The NES Classic Mini (Courtesy Nintendo)
The NES Classic Mini (Courtesy Nintendo)

Nintendo’s retro console is a small-size replica of the NES and there isn’t any place to insert cartridges – it contains 30 games made for the original NES, most of which are at least 30 years old. Yet the console was wildly popular, and Nintendo simply could not match the demand for it. The company ceased manufacturing the NES Classic Mini by 2018, but its foray into retro consoles had shown just how popular retro gaming had become. 

The NES Mini’s unprecedented success suggests that even retro-inspired games may well find an audience among gamers, and this is indeed the case. In fact, modern retro-inspired games are popular both among older gamers looking to relive their childhood gaming experiences, and younger players eager for a taste of the classics. Such games succeed not only because of the pull of nostalgia, but also because they recreate the look and feel of older games while introducing innovative gameplay mechanics. 

In this blog, we will discuss what a retro game is and how they have inspired a slew of modern games. We will also discuss the history of how modern, retro-style games attained a degree of mainstream popularity and recognition, and delve into some of the most well regarded retro-inspired games of today. 

What is a Retro Game?

There isn’t a single widely-accepted definition of a retro game – what is considered retro, and what is considered a retro classic, is largely determined by what will evoke nostalgia among older gamers. 

Today, titles released during the 8-bit to 16-bit period (or the third and fourth generation of consoles) are fondly remembered as classics by older gamers, who played these games as children and are more likely to gravitate towards titles that bring back memories of playing such games. The average gamer is around 35-37 years old, and a significant chunk of gamers today are in their late thirties or early forties. They have more disposable income to spend on games, and are more likely to spend frequently on gaming. Such players almost certainly got their first taste of gaming from the third and fourth generation of consoles and their nostalgia for this time period impels them to seek out the games of the ’80s and ’90s. 

The games from this era are true classics, likely to remain relevant even when nostalgia ceases to be a factor. The Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) saved the industry after the video game crash of 1983 and introduced instant classics such as Super Mario Bros (1985) and The Legend of Zelda (1986), both of which would spawn long-running game franchises. The quality of these games has made retro gaming a highly enjoyable pastime – and the NES and SNES are especially popular among retro gamers. The shift from 2D to 3D, during the fifth generation, marked the end of an era that had brought gaming back to the mainstream. This may be why many indie titles, including the ones we discuss in this blog, pay homage to this time period in gaming history. 

Super Mario Bros and other Ground-Breaking Games Revived the Industry (Courtesy Nintendo)
Super Mario Bros and other Ground-Breaking Games Revived the Industry (Courtesy Nintendo)

What is a Modern Retro Game?

A modern, retro-style game devoutly recreates the 2D aesthetic of the 8-bit and 16-bit era and adopts the gameplay mechanics of the ‘classic’ generation while introducing innovations made possible by modern tools and design perspectives. Essentially, a modern retro game tries not only to recreate the appearance of a much older game, but also the experience of playing such a game, with innovations that can appeal even to younger gamers not necessarily looking to relieve their childhoods.

There are some exceptions to the 2D aesthetic, however: both Project Warlock (2018) and Ion Fury (2019) are inspired by the appearance and gameplay of early FPS games like Doom (1993) and Duke Nukem 3D (1996). Both Project Warlock and Ion Fury are nevertheless inspired by the same time period, and the gamers who played games on the SNES (Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 1990) no doubt played Doom and other FPS titles on PC as well.

Project Warlock Pays Homage to the Shooters of the ’90s (Courtesy Buckshot Software)
Project Warlock Pays Homage to the Shooters of the ’90s (Courtesy Buckshot Software)

History of Modern Retro Games

The rise to prominence of modern retro-style games can be linked to some extent with the history of indie game development – in the 2000s, indie developers carved a niche for themselves by delivering retro-style experiences, and by the 2010s, such games hewed closely to the design and aesthetic of older games, intentionally recreating the experience of playing a classic from the past. 

In the 2000s, major game studios were pushing the envelope on 3D gaming and the decade saw exponential growth in the quality of 3D graphics. Eventually, major studios transitioned to 3D game development and the 3D worlds pioneered by id and Epic Games became common. This created a market for those looking for nostalgic experiences of 2D.

According to Sam Roberts, director of the annual indie game festival Indiecade, the retro aesthetic helped indie developers create a niche for themselves because of the big developers’ ‘single-minded’ pursuit of high-res, photo-realistic graphics, which led them to abandon game genres that had been popular in the ’80s and ’90s. AAA studios were not really inclined to deliver retro gaming experiences, even though a demand for them existed, as demonstrated by the success of Cave Story (2004).

The 2D platform adventure Cave Story was the product of a single game developer, Daisuke “Pixel” Amaya, who made the game over the course of five years, mainly during his free time. The game has received widespread critical acclaim for its polished look and gameplay design, and for the sincere tribute it paid to classic franchises like Metroid, Mega Man, The Legend of Zelda, and Castlevania. Its success demonstrated the demand for retro games, and its quality and sophistication showed how indie game development had matured.

Cave Story was one of Indie Gaming’s First Successful Retro Games (Courtesy Daisuke "Pixel" Amaya)
Cave Story was one of Indie Gaming’s First Successful Retro Games (Courtesy Daisuke "Pixel" Amaya)

This was followed by other successful titles like Braid (2008), Super Meat Boy (2010) Terraria (2011) and Minecraft (2011). With the exception of Minecraft, these early indie successes were already harkening back to the 2D era, inspired in part by Cave Story. In 2008, Microsoft launched its summer of games event to promote indie games and prominently featured Super Meat Boy and Braid. Indie games had emerged from their niche and into the mainstream. 

The 2D indie games of the 2000s had unique aesthetics and did not generally mimic the look of an 8-bit or 16-bit game. But from the 2010s onwards, new techniques allowed developers to create an authentic ‘retro’ look. Shovel Knight (2014), made with a custom engine, was so similar in appearance to the games of the ’80s and ’90s that some gamers believed it could be played on the NES console. 

Super Meat Boy (Courtesy Team Meat)
Super Meat Boy (Courtesy Team Meat)

By the mid 2010s, there were a slew of indie games that took cues from Shovel Knight, and attempted to faithfully recreate the retro aesthetic of the ’80s and ’90s. Such games also retained older gameplay elements while introducing modern conveniences. Not all went as far as Shovel Knight in recreating the ‘classic’ look, but their visuals are clearly inspired by games for the NES and the SNES. 

Why are Modern Retro Games So Popular?

Modern retro-inspired games are popular because they are well-developed titles that are highly replayable and maintain an older-looking visuals and audio – the best retro games combine nostalgia and innovation to appeal to a wide variety of gamers.

In fact, a video game is far more capable of evoking nostalgic feelings than a film or a piece of music because it is highly immersive, allowing you to revisit a cherished virtual space from the past. Playing retro games (rather than watching a classic film) can be an intensely personal experience

However, just nostalgia alone cannot account for the popularity of retro games. Such games also bring back the elegant simplicity of older game design, and even while some of them are harder to play than the average game, their gameplay elements can be quickly understood, paving the way for an immersive experience quite unlike a modern AAA game, which can become overwhelming with its cutscenes, visuals, branching storylines and sprawling worlds. Those looking for a simpler experience may naturally turn to retro games.

According to The Independent, 90% of gamers will not finish modern games, partly because games now feature longer campaigns – a modern game’s campaign can take between 30-100 hours to complete. Given the complexity and length of modern video games, older gamers tend to prefer the simplicity and familiarity of a retro game that will not eat into their time. Even younger players can be attracted to such games because they are now trendy and their core gameplay loops are relatively easy to pick up.

Another compelling reason to play a retro game is that it provides an alternative to the toxic culture of competitive multiplayer gaming. As a critic observes, contemporary multiplayer focuses on ‘destroying’ opponents, but the couch co-op games of the ’80s and ’90s were about having fun together. Retro games that allow multiplayer gaming of the older kind let people relax instead of obsessing over being the best and racking up the most kills. 

At its simplest, nostalgia is a sentimental yearning for a happy past. It indubitably plays a role in the popularity of retro-inspired games, but so do many other factors. Gamers who are rediscovering old-school couch co-op are not just reliving their childhood, they are escaping the needless stress of competitive multiplayer. Gamers who are tired of sprawling open-world games with endless side quests can enjoy both the simplicity and the challenge of retro-inspired games. 

The Best Retro Games of Today

The best retro games released today blend nostalgia, innovative gameplay, simplicity and a very recognizable 8-bit or 16-bit aesthetic that goes right down to the use of ‘chiptune’ music and a rigorously limited colour palette derived from classic games. The games we discuss below are all very well-regarded for their adroit recreation of the past for gaming audiences of the present. 


Celeste (2018) is a retro platformer with unusual mechanics – it lacks a skill progression system even as the levels get tougher. You will have to restart each level, or screen, afresh if you make a single mistake, and the lack of level progression essentially impels you, rather than your player character, to become better at the game. This might give the impression that Celeste is a ‘hard’ game, meant to be ‘beaten’ – but the game uses its difficulty to tell a compelling and emotional story about a young woman who must climb a mountain while coping with her depression and anxiety. 

Celeste is a Difficult Game that Tells a Moving Story (Courtesy Maddy Makes Games)
Celeste is a Difficult Game that Tells a Moving Story (Courtesy Maddy Makes Games)

You die a lot in Celeste, but each death is a reminder that you are constantly learning how to overcome challenges. When you do complete each level, there is an exhilarating sense of accomplishment, especially as your player character does not level up – it’s you who have surpassed the challenge. Celeste’s restrained approach to mental health actually helped a player cope with suicidal thoughts – a remarkable achievement for any game. Celeste was by no means a ‘cult’ hit – by the end of 2019, it had sold over a million units. 

Sonic Mania

Unlike most retro-inspired games, which are usually made by indie studios, Sonic Mania (2017) was produced by Sega itself. Sonic Mania went back to the franchise’s roots – building and maintaining momentum were once again the focus of the game. The Sonic franchise had long been stagnant and Sonic Mania was a refreshing return to form. 

Sonic Mania Goes Back to the Franchise's Roots (Courtesy Sega)
Sonic Mania Goes Back to the Franchise's Roots (Courtesy Sega)

The game allows you to control Sonic, Tails, Might, Ray, and Knuckles, each of whom have unique skills. Sonic’s new drop-dash move enables faster movement through the air, enabling new platforming strategies. The soundtrack, with its combination of remixed classics and modern tracks suited the game’s own mix of old and new. The graphics were true to the aesthetics of the Sega Genesis, but still looked great on modern displays. Sonic was finally cool again, and all thanks to a game that got back to the basics, and within a year of launch, it had sold a million copies

The Messenger

Inspired by Ninja Gaiden (2004), The Messenger (2018) is an intense 2D side scroller that lets you play as a deadly Ninja who initially goes through various linear levels to combat a boss. But that is when the game throws a twist at you: the Ninja gains special powers that enable him to explore the past and present, presented in 8-bit and 16-bit styles.

The Messenger's 8-bit and 16-bit Art Styles are Part of its Gameplay (Devolver Digital)
The Messenger's 8-bit and 16-bit Art Styles are Part of its Gameplay (Devolver Digital)

But this is just the beginning – the past and present levels branch out into even more areas, and by then it is clear that The Messenger is not a linear game at all, but a game inspired by the Metroidvania gaming genre, which uses guided non-linearity to encourage exploration. The player must traverse various levels, solve puzzles and defeat several more enemies before he meets the real, final boss: the demon who destroyed his village. 

Enter the Gungeon

Emulating the top-down shooters of the third and fourth console generations, Enter the Gungeon (2016) is a rogue-like title with a high difficulty level filled with creative gun designs. The procedurally generated levels follow an internal logic that results in true novelty, rather than slight variations of the same thing, increasing replay value. The game was a critical and commercial success: it has sold three million units since launch.

Enter the Gungeon’s Bullet Hell Mechanic (Courtesy Devolver Digital)
Enter the Gungeon’s Bullet Hell Mechanic (Courtesy Devolver Digital)

The game is difficult enough that there are online guides for beginners who may be unfamiliar with the ‘bullet hell’ mechanic – a staple of many games from the NES and SNES era. In a bullet hell game, a large number of projectiles in detailed formations are hurled at the player, who must then avoid them even as he tries to destroy the gun firing these missiles. Enter the Gungeon uses the bullet hell mechanic to maximal effect, with a great deal of variety both in terms of enemy projectiles and the implements that the player character can use to defeat them. 

Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon

Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon (2018) is perhaps a game that hews too close to its inspirations. Heavily influenced by the Castlevania series, the game painstakingly recreates the 8-bit aesthetic and the slow-paced action of the NES classic Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse (1989). In fact, the game’s combat system was so like its inspirations that one reviewer soon grew impatient with the characters’ ‘plodding movement and attack speed’, and IGN states that the game walks a fine line between homage and theft.

Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon’s Owes Much to its Inspirations (Courtesy Inti Creates)
Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon’s Owes Much to its Inspirations (Courtesy Inti Creates)

Other reviewers were more appreciative, praising the ease with which you could switch between multiple player characters, and the gothic visuals and music that set a brooding tone for the whole game. Even IGN praised its difficulty scaling, as the game introduced new gameplay elements rather than just giving bosses more health – some enemies can knock back the player, who might then plummet down the sort of abysses very common in 2D games. The game offers multiple options for tackling its eight stages, making it highly replayable. Within two years of launch, the game had sold over half a million copies

Shovel Knight

Shovel Knight comes closest to perfectly recreating an 8-bit game and its art style counts almost as a faithful forgery, and even the widely praised chiptune soundtrack reinforces the feeling that one is playing a game made for the NES – developers actually had to clarify that the title could only run on modern consoles. 

The 2D platformer pays homage to Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (1987), copying its downward thrust attack, and other inspirations include Castlevania, Super Mario Bros and the Mega Man series. 

The game’s developers – Yacht Club Games – recreated many elements of a classic 2D side-scroller, including ‘parallax’ scrolling – the backgrounds of side-scrolling games can suggest a 3D space by shifting different layers at different speeds, mimicking how near parts of the landscape rush by you when you look out a train window, while horizon landmarks seem to remain immobile. Even the colour palette of the game is restricted to what would have been available during the NES era. Yacht Club Games took a nuanced approach to difficulty as well, introducing penalties for dying rather than returning you back to the beginning of the level – in effect, the game’s difficulty is the only aspect not faithfully copied from its inspirations.

Shovel Knight: A Game So Retro Users Thought it Required an NES (Courtesy Yacht Club Games)
Shovel Knight: A Game So Retro Users Thought it Required an NES (Courtesy Yacht Club Games)

The crowdfunded game proved so successful, both among audiences and critics, that it is now considered one of the greatest games ever made, and has sold 2.5 million copies since launch. 


The 2D RPG Undertale (2015), was also lauded as game of the year by many publications and was nominated for, and won, many awards – in a year when the Witcher 3 hit the stands. This is all the more incredible because Undertale was mostly made by a single designer, Toby Fox, who also composed the music for the game. Undertale, like Shovel Knight, is a classic of the 2010s.

Undertale shares the 8-bit aesthetic of Shovel Knight but its gameplay is entirely unique, quite unlike any games from the classic (or contemporary) era. Undertale leaves it up to the player to decide whether they want to kill or spare enemies, creating three distinct playstyles pacifist (with no kills), neutral (with some kills) and genocide (all kills). Undertale however, gently nudges you toward a neutral playthrough

Transcending both the Retro and Modern Aesthetic, Undertale is an Indie Classic (Courtesy Toby Fox)
Transcending both the Retro and Modern Aesthetic, Undertale is an Indie Classic (Courtesy Toby Fox)

Many games discussed here add nuance to game difficulty – Undertale actually lets you talk to enemies and get past them without striking a single blow. Many of the games feature widely-acclaimed music, Undertale is the most streamed video game soundtrack on Spotify as of May 2022. Your play style even determines what content you will see – an iconic battle with one of the game’s toughest enemies (accompanied by one of gaming’s most popular tunes) is unlocked only if you choose the genocide playthrough. Simply put, Undertale is indie development at its innovative best, combining old and new, and transcending both. 

Released in September, the game sold over half a million copies soon after launch, becoming one of the best-selling Steam titles of 2015. It has since made $26.7 million off Steam sales alone, and continues to remain popular, getting ported to the Switch as well, where it became one of the top-selling indie games in 2019. 


The greatest quality of the retro games we have discussed is their runaway imagination, even as they hew close to their 8-bit inspirations. Nostalgia can only go so far; in fact, it has been criticised for discouraging innovation in game design. The designers of retro-inspired games are aware of this, and succeed in striking a fine balance between nostalgia and reinvention. 

Many of the games featured here are far more innovative than some of the greatest AAA games released today, despite the millions of dollars spent by bigger studios – AAA titles invariably push the envelope in terms of graphics, but not always in terms of gameplay. Moreover, ‘risk aversion’ is the new norm for bigger industry players, and this allows smaller games, with smaller budgets, to truly spread their wings and soar to new heights. And the ones that reach truly undiscovered territory are those that go back to the roots of home console gaming. 

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