Last week, our esteemed panel took at look at videogame sequels. This week, with more than a little irony, we bring you the sequel to that piece.
This kind of gets to the root of the problem, though, doesn’t it? What exactly constitutes a sequel – as opposed to just something that’s part of a franchise – in gaming, and is that lack of clarity what’s causing some of the problem?
Look at the Call of Duty franchise. Hardcore CoD devotees and people who follow gaming news are aware that there’s the Modern Warfare games, the pre-MW WWII games and the stuff that gets made in-between MW games now and that the style/quality/development doesn’t follow a straight progression… but does the broader audience? Why is the new Mario Kart called Mario Kart 7 when it’s neither the 7th game nor a direct continuation of the previous installment?
It’s as though the problem is less about sequels and more about how the sequel designation gets used as an excuse to continue releasing the same basic game. I can understand the impetus for that to a certain degree – if I could get away with Activision’s business model, you bet I’d do it. But it’s possible that its taking away from the good things game sequels could otherwise do by association – at some point even the thickest consumer is going to get wise to this, and it’s not going to be Call of Duty: It’s The Russians Again that suffers for it.
As to pricing, I’d say we’re LONG overdue for the whole pricing structure to get looked at. The fact that we even HAVE a uniform price-structure is laughable – this is the last form of retail where that still flies. I’m convinced that this, more than anything else, is what’s making life hard for the 3DS – portable gaming jumped into digital distribution before consoles, and the effect is that people are MUCH less willing to drop $40 on a maybe. It’s also hurting the perception of otherwise good games that don’t deserve it. Off the top of my head, I’d call Epic Yarn and Donkey Kong Country Returns both pretty damn close to perfect in terms of what they are… yet I still recall feeling resentful at shelling out $50 for what are essentially SNES games, which isn’t really fair to them.
What’s messed up is, publishers HAVE to know that selling the right product at an individual unit loss can lead to turning a profit overall, particularly if you’re realistic about your initial pressing. You KNOW that people have suggested this at board meetings for this or that game, but we never see it happen. Would it surprise ANYONE if it turned out that various publishing side bosses had a gentlemen’s agreement going to make sure that this never happened, lest the whole house of cards topple over? With all the crap that goes down in this industry, would we even bat an eye at price fixing?
Oh, of course publishers know. Did you know that John Riccitiello once said that the $60 pricing model was something that had to change within the next five years? He said that in 2007. Here we are, in 2011, and EA has its own service in Origin where it can set any price it wants … and it’s charging $60 for digital copies of games it could sell far cheaper, and probably should if it wants to compete with Steam. EA’s own CEO said, four years ago, that prices needed to lower, and when the company had a chance to lower those prices, it didn’t. In fact, since PC games are usually ten bucks cheaper, it actually brought prices up. That is some amazing compartmentalization right there.
This has happened twice, recently. Bethesda’s Todd Howard said the average videogame price ought to be around $19 and Twisted Metal director David Jaffe said $60 was a “shit ton” of money to ask from a gamer. But are they reducing their own prices? Nope! According to them, their games are worth the $60. This is the issue right there — developers and publishers who clearly know that the $60 average MSRP is too high, but are too proud to take the first step because they deserve to charge that much. No way anything’s going to change with that kind of double think going on.
I think pricing is a great topic, it just isn’t our current one. So allow me to steer this wayward party boat back to port.
I guess my other problem with sequel culture is that it taints even original games. With the expectation that sequels could be on the cards, ensuring that everyone still has a job after the project’s finished, there’s a rather upsetting eagerness to not end games properly. Both Crysis and Crysis 2 end on disappointing cliffhangers to name but two. God of War 2 seems to decide at the very last minute to end on a cliffhanger and then God of War 3 realised too late that it didn’t have enough plot to carry a whole game and just faffed around for six hours. The ending to any experience is the most important part of it, because it’s the thing you take away and will remember the clearest. Even if you’re not into game stories that much, tell me you’ve never been disappointed by reaching the end of a campaign and being told that you’re not going to get any payoff just yet because they want to do a sequel (or, god help us, DLC). It’s worth remembering that Star Wars: A New Hope, despite being left open for sequels, managed to have a self-contained story with a beginning, middle and end.
This is why I have tremendous respect for Sucker Punch for what they did with Infamous. Infamous had its own story but left a very clear sequel hook, and then Infamous 2 was exactly the sequel promised, which ended the story definitively with no further hints of continuation. Mind you, I wouldn’t put it past Sony to hold out for a third one anyway. And then we’ll end up with a Bioshock scenario where the unnecessary sequel even manages to taint the original retroactively by messily trying to turn a full-stop into a comma with a big fat permanent marker that isn’t even the right colour.
I once jokingly suggested that all sequels should be banned. Perhaps that should be tried for a bit. It wouldn’t solve every problem and It’d mean sacrificing the actually good sequels, but it’d definitely be an interesting few years.
Oh, absolutely – if I could, I’d make it a rule that you are NOT allowed to end on a “to be continued” without A.) Already knowing where its going and B.) Having a satisfactory initial payoff storywise.
I think a big problem with this is that serious gaming – whatever the fuck that is at this point – has sort of internalized the idea that because gameplay comes first even TALKING about story-quality is verboten. If a game has a bad story, you’re dealing with a HUGE segment of gamers who don’t care and another HUGE segment that would rather it didn’t have a story at all – and thinks the very act of discussing it somehow taints the purity of the medium – versus a relatively small segment that likes narrative and wants it to be better.
It’s funny — we hate on sequels a lot, and people complain about cliffhangers, as if they’re a major problem that is holding videogames back, and then I consider the fact that I don’t think I’ve read a single book in the past two years that has had a conclusive ending. They’ve all been part of a series, some of which run the risk of outliving their writers. I’m sure a fair few of them are better planned than videogames (they’d need to be, since story is all they have) but still, I think there’s an automatic aversion people have to cliffhangers, like they are inherently a bad thing, which I disagree with. I’m pretty tolerant of them, and if it’s a good cliffhanger, I’m all for it.
Sometimes a cliffhanger can be a satisfying payoff in its own right. Again, I bring in books, specifically the Song of Ice and Fire series. Some of those books end with cliffhangers so thoroughly intense that they are worthy endings in and of themselves. I don’t think games have pulled those off quite yet, but I am sure they could. Infamous, as much as I felt the overall plot was lame, does come close. I wouldn’t go so far as to ban all sequels, but a law that says you can’t have one if you didn’t write an impressive and satisfying sequel hook in the last game would definitely cause a few people to sit up straight and pay attention.
Again, I maintain that the problem is not so much sequels as it is the way sequel designation is used to market what are really glorified expansion packs.
We used to joke about Capcoms 50 million SFII revamps, but at least they didn’t try to sell “Champion Edition” or “Turbo” as Street Fighter 3. Today, they could absolutely get away with that – Activision got away with it with Madden fans full price for a yearly roster update. Is it any wonder people groan at any “Part 2” title that doesn’t come with the Valve/Miyamoto/whoever blessing at this point?
I think we differ on Silent Hill 3, as I found it narratively quite interesting as well as superior gameplay wise. As a more direct sequel to the first game, I think it beat its predecessor on both counts. I will add, however, that it’s very nice to see someone else with respect for Silent Hill 4. Incredibly flawed, but I adore it for the creepy little game that it turned out to be. As to your point about becoming shackled to a property, I fear that may be where compromise is a necessary evil. I think some developers recognize that the best way to push bold new ideas is to dress their wolves up in wool and sneak them out to the public under a familiar name. It’s not ideal, I know, but when has ideal ever been within easy reach?
At the very least, we still have the PC to save us when we want new IP that doesn’t compromise. I highly recommend that you give E.Y.E: Divine Cybermancy a go. It’s becoming quite popular on Steam right now, and it’s an absolutely perfect example of a new IP that just wouldn’t appear anywhere else. While sequels are still craved on PC, it’s still a wonderful atmosphere where new ideas can flourish. They don’t all work, but bless that medium for the quirky wonders it can produce. Unfortunately, when it comes to the retail space, publishers just can’t be quite so bold.
To continue the price discussion, I fully appreciate that there’s an obstacle there, concerning the inferiority misconception. Unfortunately, that’s not a mentality that will change while people do nothing about it. Again, I feel titles like Call of Duty is dominating while the games of Suda 51 and his eccentric ilk disappear without a trace. You simply cannot put a game like Shadows of the Damned on a store shelf for $60 and expect it to fly off the shelf. I’d love a world where it did fly off shelves, but that’s not reality. You say it’s risking its potential profit if it releases as a lower price. I’d say the risks are far greater when a publisher expects people to pay the same amount of money for Shadows of the Damned as they would for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Which one of those titles will gamers wait to see in the bargain bin? It won’t be the one with random dragon spawns.