Video game sequels and remakes can easily lose fans. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

How do you make the perfect sequel to a successful game?

Much like that difficult second album, the sequels to video games are easy to get wrong, so what's the best formula for a successful remake or sequel?

Games work best in series, both from the point of view of a player who gets to continually enjoy a particular style of game that they like, and as a developer who gets to make money year after year off a single great idea they had. But simply churning out game after game isn’t as easy as it looks, and the history of video games is littered with examples of sequels and remakes gone wrong.

The first job of a sequel is to ensure that it retains enough of what was familiar in order to sustain the original audience. When a sequel gets this wrong there can be hell to pay because you are not just losing the original fan base, you are angering them. We’ve seen this with games like the recent Thief and Devil May Cry remakes and also Hitman: Absolution. When you take a franchise and make from it a sequel that lacks the unique selling points that its original fan base loves, it will respond with outrage, as well it should.

A game is more than just stories told through the medium of colours, shapes and button mashing: it is, well, a game. The mechanics, rules and systems of the game are unique and when you remove elements from them when making a sequel, the fans of that game, who enjoyed those systems, will likely feel that the series has lost them and might move on without them. In the same way as an animal might evolve to lose a certain feature, games can do this too over time. Resident Evil, for example, had the survival horror traits bred out of it for Resident Evil 4, becoming instead a third person action game, and the series never looked back. Over time, games can shed the quirks and oddities of their design and in doing so just become painfully bland.

Another example is Hitman: Absolution, which brought in a couple of changes to its rules. One was that it allowed the main character to conceal weapons like rifles on his person. In the old Hitman games, if you wanted to walk around armed people would react to that, now the main character could hide an assault rifle in his pocket and walk through a crowd with nobody any the wiser. It seems like a small change, but for a game about stealthy assassination it was significant. Players complained and hopefully that will lead to improvements. Without the vocal complaints of the oft-maligned fans of the series, the change might not be reversed. The more distinctive features a game has, the harder it is to sell to the mass market, but, if it loses too many of them, there’s nothing to sell.

That being said you cannot simply keep serving up a slightly rehashed version of the same game that the players already have, even if you keep all the unique elements intact. Single player games in particular can suffer badly from diminishing returns: the scary becomes familiar, the exciting becomes routine and the epic becomes ordinary. The most frustrating example of this is the STALKER series of games. This series debuted with the buggy and slightly awkward STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl, which, for all its flaws, remains an unforgettable game. The setting, the creatures, the atmosphere; it was nothing short of majestic the first time out.

The next two games in the series, Clear Sky and Call of Pripyat, refined the game with improved visuals, animations and mechanics but didn’t add very much. A flawed masterpiece rebuilt with fewer flaws sounds perfect, but in reality neither game had the same atmosphere as the original, nothing had the same impact. There’s nothing inherently wrong with polishing up a good game but there always has to be something substantial added as well.

The best developers tend to be the ones who have the courage to make a big change when they see that it needs to be made. For example, the change from GTA 2 to GTA 3 was huge, swapping the game from top-down 2D to the 3D world while keeping the tone of the games largely intact. When the jump from GTA: San Andreas to GTA 4 happened, the change was more in the tone and style of the game. Meanwhile, the Saints Row series went with a tonal shift between the first and second games, dumping any attempt at seriousness in favour of becoming a full-on parody, and it worked. Changing the formula in a series that is already doing OK for itself is a big gamble, but the payoff can be immense.

The Saints Row series also highlights what can happen when the change is too severe. The difference between Saints Row: The Third and Saints Row 4, becoming a superhero game rather than a GTA-clone, was a step too far. Taking the story to its logical over-the-top conclusion is one thing, and there wasn’t much room to move up in the world after the third game, but a developer should always remember that fans are there for the game – you mess too much with that too much and you will lose them.

The concern for players will always be that games gradually lose their character over time and there is certainly some evidence that this is the case. Even if we take something as commercially and creatively successful as the Elder Scrolls series we can see that Skyrim is a much less idiosyncratic and complex creature than Oblivion, which in turn is very streamlined compared to Morrowind. It is difficult to dislike Skyrim, but it’s pretty clear that if the developers do decide to smooth out the design of the game further, it is basically going to have nothing left. The current trajectory of the series would suggest that The Elder Scrolls 6 might just be a shiny thing that dangles on the end of a piece of elastic.

The hope is that game developers remain true to the fans of their games over the pull of the mass market, or that they at least attempt to reconcile the two. The fact is that if a game succeeds, if it then increases its budget and production values, it will have to sell more. Players always want to see the games they love improve, but the downside here is that improvements cost money, and if a game grows beyond its commercial niche the company that made it is going to fail. As it stands, it seems that fans of video games will have to make do with a system that is happy to give them more of what they like every couple of years or so, on the understanding that they are happy to have it watered down a little more each time.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

ED THOMPSON / LUZ / EYEVINE
Show Hide image

"We’ve got things in common": why one of the EDL's original members quit

An early supporter of the group, painter-decorator Darren Carroll has had death threats since he left. But why did he change his mind about the English Defence League?

Darren Carroll is a slight man with bright blue eyes and an urgent need for redemption. A painter-decorator in his fifties, he has lived in Luton his whole life. He was one of the original members of the English Defence League (EDL), the far-right street movement founded by Carroll’s nephew Tommy Robinson.

Recently, things haven’t been easy. Four months before our meeting at a café near Luton Airport Parkway Station, Carroll had a minor stroke that affected his speech and vision. It was the delayed fallout from an attack in a pub across the road, his local. A stranger, who seemed to know a lot about him, started a conversation. “He showed me his arm. It was tattooed. There was a little bit of white skin left on the whole sleeve,” says Carroll. “He said, ‘Look at that.’ I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘White is right.’ I said, ‘Nah, mate, I know exactly where you’re coming from. There’s nothing wrong with being white but there’s nothing right with it.’”

The man pretended to leave the pub, then walked back in and hit Carroll hard on the back of the head with his forearm. Afterwards, Carroll suffered persistent headaches. It caused a blood clot that set off the stroke. When we met, he had mostly recovered but was still unable to work.

It was not the first attack. Carroll has also had his front door kicked in. He and his children have received death threats. “This is since speaking up,” he says. “Not leaving – that’s different.”

Carroll looks uncomfortable when we discuss the early days of the EDL. “It was an organic thing,” he says. “Lots of people were involved at the very beginning for different reasons. Personally, I was not happy with the way the town was being run on a political level. Looking back, I was disenfranchised from mainstream politics.”

Luton has the dubious distinction of being a centre of both far-right and Islamist extremism. The EDL began here in 2009, in response to a demonstration organised by Anjem Choudary’s now banned extremist group al-Muhajiroun, which in turn was a reaction against an army regiment marching in Luton.

A counterprotest led to arrests and the EDL was born, with sometimes violent neo-fascist street protests spreading across the country. Robinson insisted from the outset that the EDL was not racist, but only “against the rise of radical Islam”. Carroll says it was local difficulties, rather than national issues such as immigration, that unsettled and motivated him – and he didn’t articulate the core problem as racism against white people, not even to himself. The EDL has never had a formal membership, but the think tank Demos estimated that there were between 25,000 and 35,000 active members in 2011, a loose coalition of football hooligans and far-right activists. Today, the numbers are much reduced.

Carroll’s family was closely involved and it was a while before he realised that the EDL was an extremist, racist group. He describes being at a demo in Birmingham soon after the first protest. “I looked at the other lads there and I didn’t like them. They didn’t smell right for me, as far as integrity goes. I thought, ‘I don’t want this.’” Carroll’s parents are Irish and he considers himself the child of immigrants.

It took several months for him to extricate himself from the group and stop attending demonstrations. “It’s a relationship breaker, so you’ve got to accept that things are broken for ever.” On building sites, he was known as the EDL guy. Work dried up.

Amid attempts to coerce him back into the movement, and concerned about damaging his family relationships, Carroll stayed silent for another year and a half, only starting to speak up a few years after he left the EDL. This triggered a new wave of threats. He reeled off a list of incidents: slashed tyres, smashed windows. “Last week, I got one on Facebook [saying] that I’m a ginger Muslim and I’m gonna get shot. That was someone I know privately, which I don’t take as a threat. Their particular problem seems to be that I’m on record saying I’d have a cup of tea in a mosque and sit down and talk to people.”

Carroll did so after seeing a Facebook post by a local activist, Dawood Masood. Masood had shared a video of an imam in Leicester speaking about terrorist violence, with a message saying that any EDL members were welcome to get in touch. Carroll met him and others from the Muslim community and they discussed ways to make Luton better. He told them that he wasn’t interested in religion, but invited them to what he considers his church: Luton Town FC.

“I had the idea it’s about setting precedents, because you never know who or what that affects,” he says. “I just thought, if I’m seen going to the football with them, it’s going to break a big piece of ice.”

As the EDL evolved largely from a football subculture, this was a bold step. They went to the match. “He’s Luton born and bred and he certainly don’t need his hand held. But I made him as comfortable as possible. Luton scored and he’s jumping up and down, loving it. At that point, I thought: ‘This is really Luton harmony. He’s cheering for the same thing and I’m cheering for the same thing. We’re both happy together at this moment in time. We’ve got things in common.’”

They have been to many matches since, Masood bringing his kids, Carroll his grandkids. Carroll has had a few threatening calls but remains undeterred. “The working-class Muslim lads are working-class Muslim lads. They’ve got all the same problems and social issues as us white, working-class people. It’s not just me or us. It’s everyone.” 

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage