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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?

Shop shelves of Grand Theft Auto video game. Photo: Getty
Video game sequels and remakes can easily lose fans. Photo: Getty

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.