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On Sequels

posted May 5, 2011, 11:11 AM by Jake Spencer
There seems to be general agreement among video game enthusiasts that there are too many sequels and that this is a problem.

I find this to be a dangerous way of thinking.

I can certainly understand how we would come to such a conclusion. The Guitar Hero and Tony Hawk series have received much attention recently, and with good reason. Both were predictably run into the ground because their annual sequels outstripped demand and innovation. Anyone who was paying attention could have told you this was going to happen years ago.

Additionally, sequels take development assets - money, teams, time - away from all of the original games which could otherwise be made.

I see why people reach the logical conclusion, then, that sequels are bad.I  also believe that's a reductive, one-sided oversimplification of larger issues.

I wonder if some of the bias comes from opinions on sequels in other media. Very rarely do I enjoy a movie sequel. Most good movies reach a satisfying ending, so a sequel is unnecessary. When a movie does leave enough loose ends and open questions to justify a second story, there's a good chance - by definition - that the first movie didn't end strongly enough for me to care.

The best movie sequels are not those where I want to know more about the plot, but those with rich enough characters or worlds that I want to revisit them.

This is exactly where video games excel.

I, like all living beings, love Super Mario Bros. I can go back to it any time and still have a blast with it. It's a work of genius that stands on its own, and it would still be well-regarded today if the series had ended there.

That said, Super Mario Bros. 3 is the better game. It took the world and character mechanics of the first game and improved them, and the plot remained the same. No one cares about that last part, though, because Mario isn't about a plot; it's about the way it plays.

To the great dismay of, like, six people at Activision, no one cares about the plot in Guitar Hero or Tony Hawk. These are gamey games. Mechanics and attitude. What are the controls like? What's on the soundtrack? What are the environments and tricks in Tony Hawk? What instruments can I play in Guitar Hero?

Creating a sequel for a plot-driven game is like doing the same for a movie, but updating a mechanics-driven game should be much easier. I prefer Super Mario Galaxy 2 to the original Galaxy because it took a solid foundation and went bonkers. With the technology and controls established, the development team was free to focus on designing brilliant levels within a finished framework. They already knew what would work.

The framework in Tony Hawk and Guitar Hero, however, is too tight. You can improve the graphics, you can add new songs, but both series were so fully developed from the start that it can be hard to identify meaningful change between sequels.

The introduction of drums to Guitar Hero was impactful, but it was also a move of blatant imitation, a fact which was not lost on consumers. It is also more spin-off than sequel. Drumming occurs in addition to playing the guitar. The guitar game was not changed because players were given the option to drum.

What did change was the social dynamic in the move from Guitar Hero to Rock Band. I don't know the difference between Guitar Hero and Guitar Hero 2, but I know why Rock Band found success.

More to come...