Blog: World of Two
A look at the ‘sophomore sequel’.
A ‘nouveau gamer’ friend of mine asked me recently why so many of the compelling game titles scheduled for release this year are sequels. He confirmed this by pointing out that LittleBigPlanet 2 is already out now, which will followed by Dead Space 2, Dragons Age 2, Infamous 2, Portal 2 and countless more. My business oriented response suggested that sequels are good value for money for both developers and publishers, for a significant part of the content and marketing foundation has already been laid. That is not to say that making a good sequel doesn’t come with challenges, but that by merely flashing a title on a screen, say…something like God of War II – the game instantly has a large number of sales guaranteed without even showcasing a millisecond of gameplay or narrative.
But the first sequel, or the sophomore sequel as some would call it, is the game that will really distinguish a strong series from one destined for obscurity. In the music industry, for example, the sophomore album is considered by many as the most important. This is because when a band releases their first album, it usually consists of a collection of songs they’ve been playing, developing and perfecting since they got together, perhaps even years before that. When the songs that secured them a record deal are recorded, released and done with, they are forced to come up with new material for a second album within 2 or 3 years to fulfill their contract. This becomes a real test and, statistically speaking, a test many bands fail.
For games, the situation is different but not drastically so. For example, had Uncharted 2 been a flop, we may now find ourselves not awaiting Drake’s Deception, instead lamenting Drake’s demise. But generally speaking, for successful games, a sequel offers a chance to tweak a winning formula and perhaps throw in a few online and/or offline modes of play without really ‘rocking the boat’ so to speak. We saw this recently with games like Uncharted 2 and Assassins Creed 2 and the results were unanimously lauded. This approach doesn’t work for all games however, as examples like Crackdown 2 and Force Unleashed 2 clearly demonstrate.
Yet I believe at the root of my friends inquiry lies a more burning question and one that really concerns me: Why are studios just rehashing and rereleasing iterations of the same games? It’s not only a question of new IPs (though that is undoubtedly part of it) but also, what happened to the ‘experimental’ sequel?
A little over two decades ago, the ‘experimental’ sequel as I like to call it was quite common, even among many flagship IPs. NES gamers are bound to remember the first sequels to classic games like Super Mario Bros, The Legend of Zelda, Castlevania and Double Dragon…to name but a few. Those sequels, by today’s standards, drifted quite far from the original games and often provided experiences that were categorically different. Castlevania 2: Simon’s Quest was essentially an action RPG, not dissimilar from Symphony of the Night but arguably a completely different genre from the first Castlevania. Super Mario 2 was exceptional in the fact that it was a redesign of an earlier game that had nothing to do with Mario. This was because the original Super Mario 2 released in Japan was deemed essentially a more difficult version of original game and, in turn, not released in the Western market until much later (as part of the Mario All-Star collection). While it is hard to imagine regionally distinct sequels in today’s market, this example is indicative of another common ‘sequel’ tactic – The bankable name, but I’ll leave that topic for another time.
Just to be clear, I am by no means suggesting that all sequels today are duplicates of their respective original games but that, with the rising costs of development, the risks are quite substantial and banking on a winning formula can mean the difference between success and extinction. More importantly I don’t believe many gamers mind the over-abundance of sequels, in fact purchasing trends suggest that they perhaps even prefer it. Games sequels have proven far more likely to excel than film sequels and so while the 4th installment of a film is likely to be rubbish, the 4th outing of a successful game series may very well be an instant classic. Still, none of the above can justify complacency, so as far developers are really challenging themselves to bring us engaging and memorable experiences they can keep on bringing back Drake, Isaac, Link, Mario, Cole, Shepard, Master Chief or even, dare I say it, Duke Nukem.