Video game sequels and remakes can easily lose fans. Photo: Getty
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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?

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

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle