This Hollywood Reporter article talks about the growing prevalence of sequels.
Dean Takahashi, who covers the games industry for the San Jose Mercury News, said, "Gamers tend to gravitate to whatever they know. If you try to sell them something else, you're asking them to spend $50 and invest dozens of hours of play on something they know nothing about. That's a real hard sell. And that's the main reason publishers do sequels; to insure that their games will stand out."
To counter Takahashi's claim, I firmly believe that gamers are always on the look out for something new, original and innovative. And the reason why sequels are generally successful is because the first game(s) in the series were original and innovative, and so gamers keep looking to these game brands to deliver greatness again. Generally, though, sequels deliver more of the same, which isn't necessarily bad, but sequels are a poor place to look for further innovation and uniqueness.
The key to what I'm saying is that most gamers want to experience something new. And the rare game that gives them something new will usually succeed wildly, like Everquest (well-executed 3D persistent world), Max Payne (slow motion gameplay), The Sims (social fulfillment), GTA3 ("possibility space" gameplay), Call of Duty (the real feeling of squad-based war), Half-Life (seamless story enhanced by scripted memorable moments) and Roller Coaster Tycoon (simple and fun construction).
The real issue is that publishers, for the most part, do not know how to make successful new games with any degree of confidence. And so they over-rely on sequels and licenses. And as an industry we look more and more creatively bankrupt. But, let's not get side-tracked on another topic.
"Another strong motivator is the gaming enthusiast magazines' tendency to save their covers for sequels, minimizing the exposure originals receive on newsstands," said Paul Hyman, author of this article.
We encountered this with the first Duke Nukem 3D, even though all of the editors told us they thought the game was great when we previewed it to them. The game eventually did get a ton of covers because the shareware version came out in Jan. 1996 and caused such a huge stir that magazines were practically forced to give the game covers for when the full version came out May that year.
However, with Max Payne, an entirely original game with no license attached to it, we were able to get dozens of covers worldwide by using several methods of buzz-building, which I'll save for another blog. True Crimes also got many covers, so it IS in fact possible for original games to get their due in the press.
Doug Lowenstein, president of the Entertainment Software Assn., offers his thoughts: "There's no question that sequels are a very important part of the market," he said. "But just because it says 'Game 2' on the box doesn't mean what's inside is the same game as 'Game 1' but with a different script. A movie sequel usually tries to preserve the same basic elements that made the movie successful the first time. But, in a game sequel, because of AI changes, technical developments, and such, you can create a dramatically different game experience from the last time around."
Games are no better or worse than movies in this respect. Any sequel can be somewhat original within the context of its established gameworld if given the proper attention during design. But, again, the originality that caused the original game in a series to go from nothing to stardom is usually a one-time shot. Doesn't mean sequels cannot be great experiences, just means that it's hard to stray from the successful elements that warrant making a sequel in the first place.
At 3D Realms, we think of our story-driven approach as not creating sequels, but instead episodes. Each episode, like those of a TV series, shows a new chapter in the life of the key character(s). This was the approach taken with the follow-up to Max Payne. It's also the approach we're taking with each new Duke Nukem game. Sure, the tech is always being improved, but only so that we can tell a better story and give the player a better experience. But, in the grand scheme, we do not see Duke Nukem Forever as a sequel -- it's merely the next chapter in Duke Nukem's ongoing adventures. Semantics, sure. But that's our internal mindset.
In this way we do not look at sequels as rehashes, but as continuations. We hope that the stories we're building into our games are enthralling enough on their own to make the game seem like a fairly original experience, even if the gameplay is still similar (but we try to improve in this area, too).
My bottom-line is that I do not have a problem with sequels, as long as they continue to push forward in terms of gameplay, technology, and story. It's hard for sequels to make the revolutionary jump they likely made with their original appearance, but it shouldn't be too hard to make an evolutionary improvement with each new chapter in the series.
The real issue is the industry's fear of making new, original games, and thus relying too much on sequels, including games that didn't deserve to see a sequel, and we can all name a few of those! I haven't studied this at all, but without looking at the box-office charts I'm betting that the average top 10 movie list has far fewer sequels in it than the game industry has. So, somehow in their grand system, the movie industry is demonstrating more willingness to be creative and original than the game industry.
Let's hope it's not always this way.