There’s a fun little game I like to play when I’m down by my local GameStop. Whenever I skim through fresh titles, I hypothesize about the motivations behind their development. That one was made because it has a loyal fanbase that supported its release. That one was a gamble to see if the market is ready for some more creative titles. That one was made so that they could earn a lot of money. Same thing with that one. That one too. And that one. And that one too.
Then one day I couldn’t help but notice that a very orderly employee had aligned three different Call of Duty titles (The Modern Warfare games and Black Ops) by order of release date. Though at first glance it might seem like nothing out of the ordinary, it sparked a thought: How do these multiplayer-oriented games of the same franchise all manage to stay relevant at the same time? When it comes to games centered on multiplayer, creating a sequel only really seems necessary when a franchise needs to be brought into a new generation of gaming. Otherwise all you really have to do is release patches and extra content every now and then. With these titles however, it’s the same generation, the same online community, the same franchise, the very same game.
One could come up with several reasons as to why this is the way it is. Could it be consoles causing limitations that require a new way of thinking? Is it because a lack of strong modding communities significantly decreases long-term interest? Are games just not as good now as they were before?
Actually, it’s made like this on purpose.
But before we go on further, let me just give you a little contrast. Turn back the clock to the years of arcade gaming. Multiplayer then meant you and your friend kicking each others’ asses at Street Fighter. If someone questioned your skills, you showed them who is boss with a shoryouken. If you wanted to feel like you were getting better, you had to practice, and you had to practice a lot.
Things are different now. Multiplayer games aren’t as personal. You’re playing several faceless people that you’ve never met, and you’re playing them over the internet. Defending your honor often means pulling out better weapons, perks, and streaks than your opponent, but it can also mean finding a good camping spot. And if you want to feel better, you just have to get a little more experience so you can level up and get that sweet new weapon skin.
It’s the leveling-up part that seals the deal. An experience focusing on individual achievement can still be a long-lasting and enjoyable one, even if it is impersonal. But the fact that you gain experience, that you can level up a set amount of levels, creates a drastic change. Suddenly the multiplayer has a goal, a goal that you can reach if you just play long enough, a goal that, once obtained, divorces the game from a lot of emotional investment. If the experience becomes about leveling up, then once that stops being possible and there’s nothing else to do other than just play the game, playing has lost its purpose.
To further illustrate my point, imagine the difference between a real skater and someone who’s playing the story mode of Tony Hawk’s Underground. They both want to reach the top, and they both want to get better, but when the story is done for the gamer, he puts the controller aside to look for a new game so he can relive the experience of climbing to the top. The joy of skating has become undermined by the motivation to finish a journey, even though skating should be what it’s all about.
So eventually your beloved multiplayer game has lost much of its excitement. That’s where what I like to call the reset button enters the picture. An offer comes along to start anew. As long as you buy this freshly-released game, you can get to relive the excitement you felt when you first played the previous one. And not just you, but everyone else will be able to reset their game, so you won’t feel like you’re alone in experiencing this. It’s a new adventure for everyone!
Except it isn’t. It just feels like it is. To its bones, it’s the exact same thing you played before. Sure, they might have added some new perks, maybe the graphics are a little cleaner, perhaps they’ve even changed the setting to something different. But that’s not what you’re looking at when you are watching the gameplay trailers, is it? No, you’re watching as that insanely addictive +100 pops up after an enemy player has been shot down by whoever it is that’s in control. You gleefully observe as a skillfully thrown grenade earns the player a killstreak. You foam at the mouth as a carpet-bombing is called in on a group of poor sods bunkered up in a building. It’s not exciting because it’s new, it’s exciting because it’s familiar.
Another case of the reset button would be with rhythm games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band. When a new game in one of these franchises is bought, much of the excitement lies in getting to explore the setlist. Maybe you’ll find some old favorites, or some new music you’ve never heard before. You play and play and play until you’ve gotten the most out of it all. Now you are left with two choices: Either gradually build upon your library by buying familiar songs via the online store, or buy another game in the franchise.
There are three major factors that play into why you’d rather buy a new game. The first and most obvious one is the almost explosive feeling of getting a completely new setlist, which brings an immediate addition of several hours of gameplay and subsequently reintroduces the opportunity to explore unknown content. The second factor is related to what part the games play in your social life. As you and your friends play through more of the games library of songs, the pressure to get more tunes increases. It’s easy to decide that the quickest and most efficient way to do this is to simply buy another installment of the series.
The third and final factor is, like with Call of Duty, the journey that the game takes you through. However, this is not a journey with the simple goal of getting five stars on every song in the game. No, this is your legendary journey to the top, as your brilliant playing takes you from your parents’ garage to the Rock’n’Roll hall of fame. While at first you are confined to taking the subway to your upcoming gigs, soon enough you have your own private plane and you’re touring the world. Congratulations, you have become a rock god.
Then suddenly it’s over. You’ve gotten as far as you can. There are no hoards of groupies that worship the ground you walk on. There are no huge parties where you are the center of attention. You’ve finished the game, and that was all it had to offer.
Of course, I’d be a madman if I suddenly started demanding that all games provide us with sex and drugs lest they be branded as unworthy of our money. The entire notion of it is silly, really. Besides, as anybody will tell you, the journey is always the best part of an adventure. The thing with the rhythm games is that the journey is next to impossible to relive without buying a new game. The only way to restart it is to delete your saves so the game forgets you ever reached the top, and even then you’ve already played most of these songs to death. So the only solution is to completely reset the entire experience by buying a new game.
By this point you might or might not be asking yourself: “Am I stupid for essentially buying the same game over and over again?” Of course you’re not. If you buy the same game over and over, then the only logical explanation would be that you buy it because you love it. Now how is it stupid to buy something you enjoy? The reset button is not a way to discourage people from buying similar games, but simply to provide an explanation as to how you can find enjoyment from having the very same experience as before. Just because games like these are made for no other reason than to make money, it doesn’t mean that you can’t find them enjoyable. Sure, it does get quite expensive, but there are always methods to circumvent that. In the end, these are sequels we are talking about and as sequels they fulfill their jobs. What more can one really ask for?
Maybe some sex and drugs?
Ben Carlander has been a rock God three times now and is still waiting for people to worship him.