Tobold's Blog
Saturday, November 15, 2014
The beginning of the end for sequels?

If you follow PC games news you probably heard about the bad reception that the latest Assassin's Creed sequel got. And I am beginning to feel as if that is part of a trend. The latest The Sims sequel, the latest Civilization sequel, the latest Borderlands sequel, the latest Call of Duty sequel, they all didn't get very high review scores. And the list this year goes on and on. Very few sequels this year were really greeted with a lot of enthusiasm. And even the best got remarks like being just more of the same of a still popular formula. Even some new games like Shadow of Mordor got some nasty remarks about being sequel-like and not really original.

In May of this year Steam was found to have already released more games in the first 5 months of 2014 than in the whole of 2013. Steam used to be more similar to a physical games store, with mostly triple-A games most prominently displayed on the limited shelf space. But this year the long tail has really come forward, and on some days the Steam sales charts are dominated by a $10 indie game, or a $20 JRPG which is a port of a 6-year old console game.

Sequels in games are what brands are in clothing. Given the risk of buying something of bad quality, people like buying stuff that carries a familiar name, because that way they think they know what they will be getting. Of course that only works as long as the sequel actually delivers the same quality as the earlier games of the same brand. And at some point playing always the same formulaic type of gameplay gets boring and people want something completely different. Between YouTube Let's Play videos and Steam curator lists recommending some much cheaper games, buying the latest $60 sequel isn't the only option with a pseudo-guarantee of quality any more.

Botching a sequel of a triple-A game can have serious financial consequences. There will always be sequels that earn millions, but it appears as if many series hit a point where the name on the box doesn't help sales all that much any more. Players are spoiled for choice, and there is only so much money and so much time for games around. Rushing a game out in time for the holiday sales and skipping quality control is not something you can still get away with. A brand name is a form of capital that shouldn't be wasted. Game companies better rethink their strategies for sequels before they do irreparable harm to their brand names and their finances.

Honestly, based on the reviews, the issue isn't that these sequels are formulaic, it's that the sequels are terrible rush-jobs with less features and worse gameplay than the prior title. There is no end of praise for AC: Black Flag, for example, and that is a sequel. I'd say Borderland 2 was rather successful as well.

Then you have the DLC issue with sequels like Beyond Earth - vanilla BE might beat vanilla Civ5, but everyone has been playing Civ5 Complete, not vanilla. It's a sad world we live in where everyone already acknowledges that BE will get better once they "patch in" the updates (read: you buy DLC). If the new game is less fun/complex than the prior one, why are we buying it again?
I imagine that as a maturing, increasingly mainstream leisure activity, gaming will fall into much the same pattern as every previous new entry to the field of "things to do when you you have nothing you HAVE to do". Look at the long-established trends in, say, reading: a century, century and a half, later iterations of Sherlock Holmes, Dracula, Jeeves and Wooster, Dorian Grey, Emma, Heathcliff... In movies you can fill in the names from the same list and add all the sequels and series and reboots. Comic books consist almost entirely of repeated, re-used, re-visited and re-discovered characters, plotlines and concepts.

Gaming will be no different. It already is no different. Everyone on all sides of the equation is pushing and pulling in the same direction: publishers want the brand recognition of the familiar name, players want more of what they liked the last time and developers want to take their crack at the classics they admire.

As for the consequences of commercial failure when some of these iterations fail to perform at the box office, so to speak, well all that does is open the field for another reboot in a few years' time. The big properties in global popular culture (and a lot of the smaller ones too) have been around for decades going on centuries. Gaming is not going to buck that trend.
I hope Ubisoft does better with Far Cry 4. Surprisingly, I really enjoyed Far Cry 3, had been a while since I've had so much fun with an FPS game.

And of course, a new Dragon Age is on the horizon. That game also looks like it's a proper sequel (unlike Dragon Age 2).
I think there may be two distinct entities here, which we could call "sequels" and "iterations".

An adventure has a sequel (new characters, new stories, probably some new technology if it's only extra skills or better graphics). The value here is in the new storyline.

A game like Civ has iterations. They can't really add to the storyline, so they have to tweak the rules and improve the graphics. It's harder to do it right. Ultimately you're taking away more good stuff than you're adding.
We have my ongoing issue where I think review scores mean a lot less than you seem to do. A timely example is WoD: for a two year wait, it is not a lot of features. Certainly it does not get a lot of critical praise at enthusiast sites, (as I write metacritic is 3.8) but it continues to dominate in profits.

IIRC, the expectation is a movie sequel will do about 70% of the original and be worse. (I tend to see Godfather II as being used as an example of great sequel.) But a relatively sure 70% of a big number seems like better risk/reward than getting creative with Ishtar or Wildstar.

But when people are analyzing movie seasons and trends, someone usually makes the point that the best thing to improve movie sales is better movies.
The problem in all of this, is that as consumers, even gamers fall victim to the shoe-horn methodology of what's considered relevant in the gaming space. We've talked about this countless times here on this very blog, and it's suprizing that most of the commentors here fail to realize(or at the least fail to mention) that this very mechanism hinders creativity and/or risk taking due to the very reason that Tobold mentions - which is the state of the industry where the Publishers are in control, and gamers blindly follow their lead.

Seriously, do gamers play the latest iteration of Mario because of the storyline, or is there some component of the gameplay that simply makes the game "fun" to play? Do gamers play the latest iteration of the CoD series becasue it's fun, or do they play it because "everyone and their brother/sister are playing it"?

Sequelitis has plagued the gaming industry since its inception, and I can think of very few titles that have managed to maintain the magic "fun factor" in terms of continued relevance. Several years ago Microsoft bought the rights to the Tex Murphy series and sat on it, effectively killing the series. However, and I'm not sure of the ownership details at this point, but someone decided to do a reboot of the series and it was recently released on Steam and GoG to much fanfare and decent sales figures.

All I can say at this point is that the gaming industry is exhibiting the same kind of behavior that led to the great video game crash of the 80's, where sequelitis, saturation and platform choices had a combined negative effect on the overall industry.
Chris, while sequelitis is bad, I would consider that many games series had their best incarnation in the second or third game. Yes, the latest Assassin's Creed isn't very good, but neither was the first one. People usually like sequels number 2 and 4 the most. The third Far Cry was better than the previous two. And so on.
I suspect that there's more to this than meets the eye, such as corporate meddling in development staff and priorities, and/or commitments to release dates that aren't practical.

This sort of thing goes on all the time in normal software development shops, where a sales guy sells something and then comes back to the dev staff and tells them "We need to do this by XXX." It's just that this sort of behavior is now catching up to game studios who have to show a "what have you done for me lately" profit level to shareholders.

The crunch that is harming sequels is the competing need to get a new game out a quickly as possible to appease the higher ups while also trying to outdo your previous product. Games like Civ and Sims were primarily criticized because they were essentially thrown into a market to compete with themselves. If someone has been playing Sims 3 for a few years now and has sunk $100+ into expansions that allow a lot of different gameplay, then Sims 4 comes along and erases much of that, why should they bother spending their money on the new variant?

On the other hand, games like CoD and AC:Unity try to iterate on their previous version by adding new gameplay to existing mechanics (such as the exosuit or Unity's new parkour and co-op) but in the latter case it sounds like they flat out ran out of time and didn't get to do the QA they should have. Meanwhile the former seems to be doing fine; it's metascore is generally higher than last year's iteration (Ghosts).

Though I do think you are on to something, many of the "yearly" games seem to go through peaks and valleys, with each off year ending up significantly better than the previous. AC3 is generally considered bad, but Black Flag is considered great, while Unity seems to have dropped the ball. The same could be said of Battlefield and Call of Duty.
It should be impossible to lose money on a game sequel because you have a guaranteed audience of folk who enjoyed the previous episode. All you have to do is produce more of the same and you will still get sales without having to spend big on marketing. In my opinions sequels should be treated like cash cows with studios spending just enough revenue on each sequel to produce an acceptable product and then milking the revenues for as long as the demand for the series lasts.

The reason companies lose their shirt on sequels is because they seem to believe their own hype and try to make each sequel ten times bigger, ten times bolder and ten times more expensive than the previous episode. Instead of sequels being cash cows they are money sinks. What is worse they become risky ventures with lots of untried concepts and when something inevitably goes wrong all that money is lost.

This is business strategy 101 ala Boston consulting group. You milk your cash cows (established franchises) and you invest in rising stars (new franchises).
As Azuriel said, the issue isn't sequelitis, it's rush jobs producing annual titles that are a step back. AC:U is a lesh polished sequel with fewer interesting features than ACIV. COD:AW adds some gimmicks to the mix but can't escape that it looks genuinely old and uninteresting now. It's gimmicks also have the unfortunate effect of making the multiplayer more fun, but at the expense of making next year's CoD doomed to failure without coming up with even more amazing gimmickry....and meanwhile, the single player elements are growing so formula and stale that no amount of impressive CGI can make it work the effort anymore.

Rockstar is an example of "doing it right" with sequels, as GTAV shows. There may be others doing it right, too (Naughty Dog, probably). Bioware seems to have done this with Dragon Age: Inquisition....I'll know for sure after midnight tonight.

Then there are the one's who kinda understand there's a problem but can't compromise to do it right. EA/Dice is trying to slow down on the Battlefield franchise....but they already did so much damage with BF 4 that I strongly suspect the next iteration will fail unless it can demonstrate serious innovation and change.

@mpb you are describing the Call of Duty franchise approach precisely and as they themselves have outlined it. They don't innovate (much), they cater to the existing base. OTOH I think they are after 12+ titles in the series reaching an interesting saturation point. I suppose if people like me have finally reached the point of no return and now abandon them, as long as some new young player jumps on board they should be fine.
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