Game 2: Return of the Game

When there’s something I really enjoy, be it a book or a movie or a game — things I particularly liked — and I hear that there’s going to be a sequel, my immediate reaction is largely one of disappointment.

Sure, I’m intrigued, but suspicious … and with good reason. Nowhere does the immediate bitter taste of disappointment come so strongly than with games.

Probably first and foremost is what some moviegoers call The Lucas Effect (not to be mistaken for The Lucas Critique, which is about macroeconomics, but actually eerily relevant here).

You’ll find varying definitions of the Lucas Effect, but the one I’m thinking of particularly is most cogently summed up by someone who’d just seen Star Wars: Episode I. “George Lucas really has no idea what was good about the first three films, does he?” she asked her companion.

And that’s what it seems like with so many games, be they direct sequels or ‘spiritual’ sequels.

So often, you wonder why it is that everything you liked in the first game has simply been abandoned, leaving only the parts that you didn’t. The new game delivers more. More of everything that irritated you about the first one. But the graphics are better (if you’re lucky. This is not always the case).

Really, any sequel tries to accomplish three things– No, wait. A sequel, pretty much tries to accomplish one thing: Profit. It does that by attempting to deliver three things.

The first thing is novelty. That’s newness, shininess, better graphics, new game-systems, new environments, new or more story, and so on. Any or all of these things constitutes the novelty angle. Without a hunger for novelty, we would just go back and play our old games again and again. Okay, so some of us do that, but rarely to exclusion.

The second thing is not-novelty. More of the same. More of what someone thinks you liked in the first one. In films this often involves character moments, catch-phrases and short scenes, which are paraphrased into the sequel in one form or another, reminding us that this is more of that.

The problem is that the game developers, the game publishers, and you all have very different ideas about why you (in aggregate) liked the last game so much.

The third thing is appeal to a larger audience. That is, tweaking the game and mechanics so that a larger number of gamers will pick it up. In the PC games industry that’s sometimes called “accessibility” or “streamlining” or “dumbing it down”. Some of the items from the novelty section don’t necessarily hurt here either.

Attracting new players is important. Every sequel sheds sales, all other things being equal. If I made a second part to this article, fewer than 100% of you would click through to the second part. Ditto for a third part, and so on. It could represent the greatest revelation in human culture (but of course it isn’t), but would still shed readers every click-through along the way. That’s just how things are.

At every decision point along the process of making a game sequel, there’s an opportunity to cut what you (the player) liked most about a given game, or to transform the mechanic in such a way that it goes from being something you can’t put down to something you can’t pick up again.

That said, some sequels really work out well. I’ll point to System Shock 2 as an example of a sequel that improved in most respects on the original. Or Thief 2: The Metal Age.

Thief 3: Deadly Shadows was boosted by storytelling and level design, and largely let down by the actual engine that it ran on, which sadly afflicted it, to some degree, from end-to-end. I’ll be talking more about all of these games down the track, and what went right and wrong with them from a gamer’s perspective.

Thief 4 was just announced this week by Eidos Montreal, and suddenly the familiar pang of premonitory disappointment has leapt out of a dark alley to accost me. Most of those reasons are already above. There are some specifics, however, that I’ll talk about another time.

When you look back across gaming, statistically, sequels are more likely to be disappointments than successes from a game-players perspective, and it’s uncertain as to whether anything can ever really be done to correct that.

But we still keep buying them. What else can we really do?