State of Play: Attack of the Sequels

This column is not the first installment in an epic trilogy. I promise.

May 21, 2010

Peter Jackson has a lot to answer for.

Ever since he put The Lord of the Rings into production specifically as a trilogy of movies, everybody in the entertainment industry has started planning for the trilogy before they've actually earned it. Gaming in particular latched onto this, because adding new maps and levels to existing engines and graphics is a no-brainer when you've spent $30 million or more on a single product. Whatever your medium, franchises are the Holy Grail. They are the money train, life blood, straight flush jackpots that make a publisher solvent and gives them a certain stability. New projects are groomed as potential franchises before the first game ever hits shelves. Financial outlooks and reports to investors are planned around news of impending sequels to successful games.

Gamers get very excited about sequels. Publishers know this. Nearly every major game announced at E3 2009 had a (literal or figurative) number in its title. If we buy it, they'll make more.

So, who else is sick of all these games that seem to be building towards another game that won't be out for another two or three years? Or ever?

What brings this to mind is Assassin's Creed II, which I recently finished after a brief hiatus to play twenty shorter games. Now, if ever there was a title that morally required a sequel, it's Assassin's Creed... a technical masterpiece held back by a metric ton of self-sabotage. I honestly felt Creed was doing its banal best to discourage me from playing it. My favorite part: making you traverse huge, mostly-empty maps, then punishing you for trying to traverse them quickly. I genuinely hate that I finished that game. I wanted it to die before I could.

We're back!

Imagine my surprise when I found out Assassin's Creed II cleaned up nearly all the first game's messes. Improving on the original is the exact job description of a good sequel, and by that criteria, Creed II succeeds. Unfortunately, there are other criteria. I'll stay vague to avoid spoilers, but Creed II essentially puts you on a decade-long quest to discover something that has absolutely no relevance to the game you're playing or the people in it. Instead, the big reward is information you'll take with you into the next game. Yep: Assassin's Creed II is one long setup for Assassin's Creed III, with little by way of payoff for itself. Lead character Ezio is left clueless, abandoned by the story and wondering what the point of it all was. Me too.

Well, the point is now we're all expected to go buy Assassin's Creed III. At least it's clear we'll get a Part Three, and a Part 2.5, for that matter. Can't say the same for others. Too Human's billing as the first installment in an EPIC TRILOGY was hubris aplenty even before the game's "And now the real story begins!"-style ending. Luckily, lukewarm sales torpedoed the follow-through before anyone else had to suffer. And sorry to break this to you, but the revenge will never happen for Ryo Hazuki, though every other column I write snags a Shenmue shout-out. Probably from creator Yu Suzuki himself, under some funky alias. Wish as you might, that trilogy is permanently stuck in second gear. I'm also not holding my breath for the next chapter in the planned Beyond Good & Evil trilogy, even though Ubisoft actually started development on it two years ago. Not a peep since. It's even vanished from their financial reports. If it doesn't get a mention at this year's E3, I'm calling time of death.

The real problem is most developers learned the wrong lessons from Jackson and his Hobbits. Much like Tolkien himself, Jackson didn't make three movies; he made one movie broken into three acts, written in classic three-act structure, each with its own beginning, middle, and end. Economically, publishers can't risk that big a production, but structurally speaking, franchises like Infamous and Mass Effect nail it perfectly. Yes, they leave the door open for what comes next, but not before authoritatively slamming the door shut on what's come before. They're self-contained, with options.

Catch up on the Mass Effect story in 5 minutes. Don't worry - no Mass Effect 2 spoilers are included!

Then there's the fact Jackson left everything up on the screen. Watching the LOTR films year to year, it always felt like there was no way they could possibly top what we'd just seen. Until they did. By comparison, a lot of games that arrive on the scene boldly announcing their franchise intentions feel like they're deliberately holding something back for next time. A feature, a mechanic, a plot point. That unfinished vibe stands out a mile. While I'm all for planning ahead, that's not how great games are made.

Personally, I just don't see a lot of games that have enough story to support a trilogy. Gears of War definitely hasn't added much to itself so far. My personal preference is for "Incident Two" sequels that leave the previous events behind and carry over gameplay and themes to a new story, or anthologies like Grand Theft Auto and Castlevania. They wrap things up and leave next time wide open. All the sequels I'm looking forward to - SOCOM 4, Dead Rising 2, Halo: Reach, Super Mario Galaxy 2, Fallout: New Vegas - fall into these categories.

But pre-ordained trilogies aren't the worst brand of sequelitis out there. Oh no, friend, they are not. Not even close.

Show me the guy who buys the new Madden Football every single year. I'm curious to meet the fellow who owns Guitar Heroes II, III, World Tour, On Tour, V, Rocks the 80's, Metallica, Aerosmith, Smash Hits, Van Halen, Band Hero and DJ Hero. Something tells me he's not a hero. Neither are the people who decided to flood the market with more and more and more of the same, same, same. Honestly, did nobody raise their hand and suggest maybe it was time to stop before they diluted their brand to junk bond status?

Let's not kid ourselves. Video games are in the business of making money, and there's nothing wrong with that. When they hit on a successful formula, repetition is practically a moral obligation. And as I said, gamers want sequels to the games they enjoy. Hell, we demand them. Yesterday.

But lest we forget, games are also in the business of entertaining, and few things are less entertaining than endless repetition. Pushing buttons on you controller is fun. Pushing buttons working at Kinko's, less so. Mechanically churning out product has a tendency to degrade quality, particularly where artificial deadlines come into play. Lara Croft went from icon to albatross after just four games in four years because the team at Core didn't have a chance to recharge. They even tried to kill her off, and were handed a fifth Tomb Raider project for their trouble, and then a sixth. LucasArts released upwards of thirty-two Star Wars games between 1999 and 2002. You can count the good ones on your thumbs. You might not even need both hands.

This is a Guitar Hero game. Yawn.

More recently, Activision committed to issuing a new edition of their Call of Duty cash cow every year, which indicates to me they're not terribly picky about who will actually make these games. The property already bounced between star player Infinity Ward and benchwarmer Treyarch for years. Supposedly, Infinity is still in the mix despite its recent implosion - mark me down as skeptical - but Treyarch is clearly the lead now. Off year CoD games (Activision calls them "spin-offs") are currently assigned to Sledgehammer Games, run by former Visceral execs Glen Schofield and Michael Condrey. It'll be interesting to see what happens if either studio balks at the schedule, or if Activision decides to increase the number of CoD releases. Neither scenario would shock me.

Sounds like a good plan for driving the franchise into the ground, doesn't it? I'm not saying Treyarch or Sledgehammer can't deliver a top-tier game if given an Infinity Ward-scale budget, but on that inflexible schedule, year after year after year? How long before the cracks show?

There must be a reason for making a game beyond mere numbers. You can buy into the games-as-art argument or not, but there's no escaping this: you cannot make a great game without inspiration. Beyond the graphics and the mechanics, ideas and passion for those ideas are what makes a game soar. That's why Pac Man continues to endure after thirty years. That's why I'm as eager to play Playdead's creepy XBLA side scroller Limbo as I am to finally get my hands on a full retail copy of Alan Wake.

Lacking inspiration, what you end up with says nothing, does nothing, means nothing, is nothing but a hollow money-grab. As an example, Tony Hawk's name used to be worth something on a box cover. Now it's a warning label.

Actually, while I don't care for Activision's specific tactics, it's smart to spread a license around if you find multiple developers who can do it justice. LucasArts broke their losing streak by handing Star Wars to BioWare, a studio with zero Star Wars experience. The result was Knights of the Old Republic, one of the most celebrated games ever made. When LucasArts wanted a KOTOR sequel twelve months later, BioWare decided they couldn't pull off another so soon without slipping quality. Instead, they wisely passed it off to Oblivion Entertainment. KOTOR II benefitted from fresh minds, fresh imaginations, and took home a few dozen Game of the Year awards of its own.

This guy knows what I'm talkin' about.

Unfortunately, big publishers don't seem to get it's in their best interests not to dilute their own brands. If you buy a Burnout, a Forza, a Gran Turismo, you know exactly the type of racer you're digging into. Grab a random Need for Speed off the shelf and you take your chances, both in terms of racing style and game quality. Need for Speed: Shift was a great simulation racer, easily the best entry in a while, but after four or five years of non-stop, mediocre-at-best games hanging a bad reputation on the franchise, I have to question whether it would've sold better under a different name. It's not like Shift was specifically a Need for Speed game. There's no such thing, really.

Are publishers ready to learn this lesson? Probably not. Shift's total sales breezed past its main competitor, Forza 3. But they should: Shift was released cross-platform, while Forza is exclusive to the Xbox 360, where it outsold Shift by over a million units despite releasing a month later.

So here's a little more advice for the sequel-happy game makers out there. Let things breathe a bit. Let developers recharge. Let inspiration take at least as large a role as a cash register. And when you do launch a new franchise, put absolutely everything into the first game that it will comfortably bear... and then figure out where to go for the sequel. If that takes a while, so be it. I'll wait. Four years for Dead Rising 2 or Zipper Interactive's return to SOCOM is fine by me if those games turn out right.

Most importantly, acknowledge that not every game needs a Part Two, much less a Part Ten. If there's nothing new to say or do, allow a franchise to bow out gracefully before all the good memories are soured. Take the good will you've built up and move on to fresh, exciting new territory. That is, after all, how new franchises are born.

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