As a general rule, I prefer not to play sequels – even sequels to games I really like. The reason is that game sequels tend to be sequels in the narrative sense, but are rarely sequels in the mechanical or dynamical sense. Typically, a sequel continues the story of some rough-and-tumble anti-hero without making significant changes to the gameplay. If the gameplay changes enough, we typically call it a new game rather than a sequel. The evolution from Guitar Hero to Rock Band, for example, seems to me like what we should call a sequel. The gameplay, while riffing off of similar themes, and having a similar mood and similar aesthetics is a massive dynamical evolution – but it’s not technically a sequel.
The main reason we make sequels the way we do is because they can typically be made cheaply – increasing the profitability of a franchise over time by leveraging the usually larger investment made in the original game into subsequent releases. This is a good reason. In addition, in most cases a sequel allows us to create new contexts in which the player is able to explore the original design and thereby appreciate it more deeply. This is also a good reason.
But these justifications must be weighed against a set of risks. If ‘making a sequel more cheaply’ means reducing the expense of designing, iterating and developing systems and refocusing our expenditure on things like story and character development, we risk creating an industry that is significantly more financially rewarding for the writers who churn out the sequels than for the designers who take the creative risks that establish the meaningful core of a franchise. This potentially incentivises growth toward an industry that favours static content over dynamic systems.
Similarly, when the purpose of a sequel is to provide new contexts for exploring the system design, we again risk incentivising a specific design approach. In this case we encourage system designs that rely on authored obstacles over richly interconnected play spaces full of emergent possibility. This can ultimately lead to game designs that are shallower, and more quickly and easily exhausted.
I think these risks are mostly kept in check by the day-to-day efforts of developers. In my experience, even when mildly incentivised away from doing so, most game developers are both smart and passionate, and will nevertheless tend to try to push at the boundaries of design and work to build rich and compelling systems. But I am concerned about what happens to this delicately balanced system when economic pressures push us closer to true annualisation of sequels. Launching sequels every 18 months to two years – while aggressive – can still leave room for designers to work on richly dynamic systems, while keeping the focus of development on interactive and dynamic elements rather than on iterative improvement of static assets such as art and story. In a model driven by truly annualised sequels, I believe that the value of the good reasons for making those sequels is diminished significantly, and the risks of incentivising problematic approaches to game development are greatly magnified.
While it is clear that annualised sequels most definitely reduce the expense of development and amortise the cost of the original game optimally across its sequels, they also have the fastest audience burn-rate, and the highest risk for sudden failure. In other words, you may sell lots of copies of two or three sequels, but you will bore the audience very quickly and will have likely already spent all your money on the fourth sequel before realising the audience is tired of the game and won’t buy it at all.
Similarly, to make a 12-month schedule you need to either risk burning out your team completely while at the same time forcing them to rely on predictable and proven content-driven approaches (leading to content-driven games), or you need to run two teams in staggered development. Staggered development might give two teams a more reasonable two-year development window, but it causes creative conflicts and leads to potential dissonance, divergence and lack of consistency in the products.
In the end, there is no question that in the current economic climate we need to better capitalise on our brands – but annualising sequels is probably not the most responsible path to doing so. It might generate easy revenue, but the long-term costs to the creative well-being of our workforce and the risk it places on our pipeline and workflow development, and on the skills we nurture and develop and will then need to leverage in making future games and (hopefully) new brands and franchises, should not be underestimated.
The decisions we make today shape not only the games we release next year, but the ways we will approach making games in the decades to come.
Illustration: Martin Davies