Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Why video game sequels are good

I was recently talking with Chris Taylor of Gas Powered Games and he mentioned that he was really dismayed by seeing all of the "2's, 3's and etc's" on the cover of a gaming magazine. He said that he would rather see an original game than a sequel.

Now I would be inclined to agree with him - I prefer original games. I buy original games just to show my support of a new IP - some of my favorite games are titles like Psychonauts, Mad Maestro, No One Can Stop Mr. Domino, Professor Layton and the longest title ever but I have to admit, I have more than a fair share of sequels on my shelf as well. It's because of this...

I think I now have a good perspective on sequels now that I work for a publisher. Just like in Hollywood, they are "safe bets" - proven IPs that don't need to be explained to the audience - "if you loved the first one, you'll love the second." It's easy to understand why that is appealing but it also leads to some lazy marketing - since they feel that the popularity of the first game will result in "instant sales" for the sequel.

But the blame for the bad taste left in ones mouth for sequels shouldn't be squarely laid on the marketing department. Sequels sadly seem to be an opportunity for teams to "dial in" the gameplay and design. A sequel is an opportunity to get it right. For example, after finishing the first Maximo, I went to my producer with a list of 40 things I thought were broken and needed to be fixed in the sequel (to my amazement, I was able to get 39 of those requests fullfilled!) While the first game sold better, I still think the second game (Maximo vs. Army of Zin) is a better game. And we wouldn't have had the opportunity to make that better game if we didn't make the sequel.

Besides, if there were no sequels, there would be no Grand Theft Auto 3, Call of Duty 4, Burnout Paradise, Curse of Monkey Island, Resident Evil 2 or 4, Lego Star Wars original trilogy... you get the idea.

So, rather than this turning into another boring piece of someone's opinion, here are five pieces of advice on making a video game sequel:

1. Use the "spine" of the sequel as a basis of your game play design. Take everything that was good in the first game and improve on it. Take everything that was bad and throw it away. It seems like common sense, but it's not all that common - things like lousy camera, controls and game play mechanics are "justified" by teams because they were in the first game. Just because they were in the first game, doesn't mean they were that good. Don't be afraid to cut out the bad bits. If it's better than the original, no one will complain.

2. Don't let the player down - they expect certain things in the sequel and you shouldn't disappoint - for example in Maximo vs. Army of Zin, we didn't realize that the players wanted to fight more supernatural enemies - we had them battling clockwork creatures instead. We let the fans down because we deviated away from what they liked in the first title.

3. Name it something other than "GameName 2" - Names are really important to a game. Personally, I think both the Batman (Batman Returns, Batman Begins, etc.) and the Indiana Jones (...and the) movie franchises did it right. Their titles are mysterious and keep furthering the fiction rather than reducing it to a numbered outing. Maybe I'd like the Final Fantasy series more if they named their games this way...

4. Always introduce something new. This may seem to be pandering to marketing, but make sure there are FIVE new things in your game for the back of the box, preferably new gameplay concepts to bring something fresh. Also, try to introduce at least one new hero and villain to the franchise. Remind the player that this is a new experience, not just a rehash.

5. See if you have the freedom to do something wildly different - This takes the buy in of your marketing department so it can be tricky to pull off. I've worked on franchises that were in their 5th, 8th or even 20th incarnation and sometimes a completely new direction is what it needs to shake things up. Give it a try, it worked for both the Grand Theft Auto and Castle Wolfenstein franchises!

I'm sure there's more but that's all I can think of for now. Good advice? Bad advice? I'm on crack? Let me know!


Unknown said...

I have to agree with you on this post. While it's great to have original games, it's also great to have sequels since they can take an idea that didn't quite work as intended originally and rework it.

I didn't like the Resident Evil games at ALL until Resident Evil 4 came out. They finally did what you suggested by taking what worked (the story premise, the basic gameplay, etc) and threw out what didn't work (HORRIBLE camera, boring and unnecessary retrudging, bad perspective on the game world, resources too limited, not enough of a shooter, etc). What came out of all this reworking was a brilliant game that hasn't been matched since in my opinion.

bwana said...

I'm going off-topic a little, but I also get tired "original IP" not being applied to a sequel of a game which was not licensed from a book, movie, or comic. GTA III, to me, is original game IP because its source is an original game. EA's "Batman Begins" game is based on a movie (and Splinter Cell) and is clearly not original IP.

Anyway, I agree with you about sequels not being a bad thing. Not only are they a chance to refine existing gameplay, but to improve and add things which might not have made the initial schedule. On top of that, the effort usually benefits from having an established pipeline and tools, so walking away before even attempting a sequel is just financial hubris.

I'm happy to see you keep posting, and engaging your audience. Go, Scott! And thanks for the continued efforts; they're a highlight of my blogroll.

Mike D. Smith said...

Great advice for sequels. Thanks for the tips!