The Good, the Bad, and the Sequel

As publishers and gamers become less willing to embrace entirely original properties, sequels have become an inevitable fact of life in the videogame business. But do they deserve our scorn or our praise? To find out, we asked three of our contributors to discuss the issue over email.

imageYahtzee Croshaw
Well, why don’t I kick this one off by saying that sequels often represent a lot of what I hate about the games industry today. Too often the decision to make one is rooted entirely in business than any consideration of whether or not the story demands it. There has never been a case of a sequel being better than the original if the original had an entirely self-contained story and no sequel hook, unless (in the case of games) there’s a significant technology upgrade between titles that allows for stronger gameplay. And that’s just gameplay, not story.

Sequels are a symptom of a larger problem within the games industry, which is that the fans latch onto franchises rather than developers. It’s a result of an increasingly corporate culture that designs more and more games by committee and has less and less emphasis on exposing or crediting individual creators. Most people tend to go “Oh, another Gears of War, I will check it out because I liked previous Gears of War.” Rather than “Oh, a game by Cliffy B. I will check it out because I enjoyed Cliffy B’s previous works.” It shackles creators to single properties rather than giving them opportunities to explore their other big ideas. And this doesn’t seem to happen as much in the film industry. Everyone knew that Inception was by Christopher Nolan, and everyone went to see it because The Dark Knight was good.

I’ll admit upfront to being kind of an “easy lay” for the whole sequel/franchise concept – I’m exactly the sort of organization-fixated nerd that LOVES my fiction in movies, games, TV, etc to have some kind of running continuity so that I have THAT much more of a reason to obsess over it.

But that’s more on the movie/TV side. Sequels in gaming are kind of a different beast altogether, aren’t they? Because it’s not ‘just’ story-continuity that’s the selling point, but also “setting” and overall design-scheme. In fact, when I look at gaming it’s all pretty arbitrary whether something is a “sequel” or a “spiritual successor” – Bioshock pretty-much IS System Shock 3, even though it’s not called that officially.

What’s frustrating is, I see sequels – even “in name only” – in gaming as a GREAT way, maybe even the BEST way, for a developer to get new, fresh, even experimental ideas out into the marketplace… but often it leads to the opposite result. In theory, the fact that putting the title of a previous game that sold well plus a number 2 on your game will probably garauntee you a certain solid baseline of sales should be LIBERATING for a developer: “Sure, we can afford to try out this risky new gameplay idea – it’s Blankety-Blank Whatever TWO! We’re gonna sell a billion units on the name alone!” But instead, you tend to see the opposite happening. I feel like that “ideal” approach used to be more common back in the early console era – i.e. the first Castlevania being a basic platformer and the second one is an open-world side-scrolling action-RPG. When was the last time someone looked at a garaunteed-seller sequel as the place to take a risk? Wind Waker? And even then the overhaul, however massive, was purely visual.

On the other hand, the “forced” cranking-out of a lot of sequels can – under the right circumstances – have the effect of refining a formula. Why do people still hold Mega Man in such esteem, aside from the fact that Capcom has been continually making sequels to it since the early-80s and by now are really, REALLY effing good at it? You look at something like Mario Galaxy and wonder, “how did they make something this big, with this much variety, so damn tightly-constructed?” Well, the answer is that those guys have been making ‘Mario’ sequels one after the other nonstop since 1984 – Galaxy basically had a 25 year development cycle.

I can agree up to a point with Yahtzee re: “franchises” getting too much focus – or, rather, developers not getting enough… though I wonder how you go about “fixing” that problem. I hear people in and around the games business often talk of wishing there were more “name-brand” developers or “superstar” developers; but I’m not sure that’s THAT much better – game-development being such a heavily collaborative process, is following one “name” (like Peter Molynuex, for example) from game to game so different from following Master Chief or Sonic?

imageJim Sterling
I’ll say one thing for videogame sequels, they have a better track record than movies. This is, of course, because a game can still be great despite having a weak story. Yahtzee seems almost to underplay that fact, but I think it’s very important. These are, after all, videogames, and while I consider gaming to have potential as a superior narrative medium, one cannot deny that a good game is a good game — if it’s fun, it’s aaaaaaalright. In this regard, technological and graphical enhancements can lead to games becoming superior with further iterations. I’d argue this even holds true for story as well — as franchises grow and make more money, studios can afford actual writers, as opposed to cobbling together a shitty story themselves. Let’s face facts — Resident Evil 4 is far better written than the original Resident Evil. It’s still camp, for sure, and it’s very silly, but it is at least coherent, which is a big step up for the series.

I have to disagree with the notion that there have been no superior sequels to self-contained stories. The original Silent Hill, despite typifying the “psychological” brand of survival horror, wasn’t all that great, and its dialog was on par with the original Resident Evil (“What’s going on with that radio?”). It was a pretty self-contained story, too. Silent Hill 2, however, is my favorite game of all time. Superbly written, gorgeously depressing, just a beautiful game all around. Of course, it existed in a narrative bubble itself, which helps, but the direct sequel, Silent Hill 3, was also better than the first. An engaging lead character, an atmosphere that was more disturbing than anything else seen in the series, and a really unique story propelled by an intriguing villain. Far more enjoyable, as far as I’m concerned.

I agree that we can go too far though, and some stories are best left alone. BioShock 2 was a great game to play, but it was a story that didn’t need to be told, and the retroactive exposition was incredibly unbelievable (I can’t buy Sophia Lamb as an important Rapture resident when no reference to her is found in the original). However, BioShock Infinite is exactly the kind of thing I wish more games would do — in which the name of a series is continued for obvious business reasons, but the story is entirely different. This was a formula that Final Fantasy became quite famous for, and it’s something I wanted from BioShock the moment talk of a sequel started. I want a sequel that carries the name brand and some running themes, but has a self-contained narrative that doesn’t screw with the original.

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Sequels are important. They almost always gain more pre-orders and become bigger hits than their prequels. As much as we might hate it, this is a business, and money must be made. It can be depressing that new IP doesn’t get given a chance, yes, but it can also be exploited. A recent example is Prey 2. If you’ve seen it, you’ll note that it could very well have been called something completely different and nobody would have noticed. A new protagonist, a new setting, new gameplay, new everything, but it’s called Prey 2 because people buy games that have a “2” in the title. There are token references to the first, and Tommy is returning as a support character, but the difference between the two games is like night and day. I love it, though. I love that they saw a way to tell an all-new story with an all-new game, and did it in a way that would guarantee at least a few more sales. Now we get an amazing, open-world bounty hunter experience, but one tied to a big enough name for people to give a shit. It’s rather savvy, and perhaps something more studios should examine.

Of course, I totally agree that “franchising” is a problem. Activision’s notoriously stated goal is the publishing of brands that can be “exploited” for a decade, and it’s true that many brand new properties struggle to get a spotlight when faced with sequels, threequels, and morequels. The issue here, I feel, is price. The $60 fixed MSRP is just stupid in an industry that’s trending toward cheaper and cheaper entertainment. While Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto can sell for sixty bucks easily, it is absurd to expect the same of something like Enslaved or Darksiders — perfectly fine games, but names not trusted enough to earn a $60 investment from mainstream consumers. If the industry really wants to promote some creativity and promote new brands, we need to abandon this idea of the $60 price point. To fight sequelitis, we need tiered pricing in the retail space. Deadly Premonition would have fallen flat on its face had it debuted at anything more than $20, but its budget status helped to make it a cult hit. Namco Bandai wisely reduced Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom to $40, and while it didn’t sell great, imagine how worse it would’ve been at $60. It doesn’t matter what you think the game is worth — value is determined by the willingness of the customer to pay, and some of these games just don’t have the value, regardless of how excellent it might actually be. I think those Kenner Aliens toys from the nineties are more awesome and worthwhile than boring old furniture from the 1500s, but I know which has more value in an auction.

Newer, unproven IP should sell for $20 and $40. $60 should be reserved for the guaranteed hits. Perhaps if we embraced tiered pricing, gamers would be more willing to take a financial gamble, and sequels wouldn’t be so heavily relied upon. When you’re spending sixty bucks and you’re an average American, you can’t really afford to take risks. So many people wait to buy new games “once they’re in the bargain bin,” which usually means they’re used. It’s so bloody obvious to me that if the game launched at a bargain price, those gamers would be more happy to take the plunge. Yeah, some of them will just wait until they hit the new, even cheaper bargain bins, but I’m willing to bet those people will be reduced in number. It’s all about finding a price that consumers are willing to play ball with and it seems clear to me that $60 is not that price — that’s not the kind of money people want to spend without knowing for a fact that they’ll have a good time.

imageYahtzee Croshaw
I should probably have clarified, when I said ‘sequels’ I meant ones involving the same characters, not entirely new imaginings like Silent Hill 2, which obviously I concede to be absolutely superlative. And I did very deliberately add ‘-unless there’s been a significant technology upgrade that improves gameplay enough to compensate for a story with significantly less impact’. Silent Hill 3 has better gameplay and atmosphere than Silent Hill 1 thanks to being on the PS2, but the story suffers greatly from attempting to continue with all the ridiculous cult business, when Silent Hill is always at its best when it concerns itself with the psychology of individuals. Silent Hill 4 has some huge problems in gameplay but it’s one of my favourites, story-wise. Originally it wasn’t even going to be a Silent Hill game and its hastily-added connections to the town are tenuous at best. It’s another example of the Bioshock Infinite concept, conveniently using the franchise for business reasons. Which I agree is a positive attitude, but it’s still being shackled to a property, however loosely. It still inhibits innovation to some degree where none would be preferable.

Bob’s point concerning franchises that continually upgrade themselves like Mario and Castlevania is valid, but only applies to gameplay. And yes, Jim, I know, games are games, gameplay is important, Mario Galaxy is good. It’s good, but it’s not great. As always the greatest games to me are the ones that can not only stimulate with gameplay but also engage with story, and the more the two elements can be merged, the better. A game with just a really great story is equivalent to a film. A game with just really great gameplay is equivalent to a roller coaster. But the game that manages both, intertwined, becomes something else entirely, it brings to light gaming’s uniqueness and cultural potential and stands as a paragon for all to follow. And I’m not asking every game to be that. I’m just asking for a developing environment in which such things can happen. But that’s a position I’ve beaten on over and over again.

Jim’s idea for new IP to have a reduced price is an appealing one, but I imagine several problems with it coming to light over time. It’s fairly solidly fixed in the minds of consumers that cheaper = inferior. If someone takes a risk on a new property that turns into the next Bioshock, would they want to later re-release it at the higher price? If so, that’s kind of the opposite of how it’s supposed to work. And if not, it creates the slightly iffy scenario wherein Super Awesome Groundbreaking Historically Significant I’ve Just Come In My Pants Adventures occupies a lowlier spot than Burly Marines Part 96. If it’s true that established sequels automatically sell more, then the proposal that new IP risk even more of its potential profit is a slightly dodgy one.

Be sure to come back next week for the rest of the discussion.

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