By Blake Snow
For better or worse, this year has been dubbed by many in the gaming community as "the year of the sequel.” Indeed, a sampling of most-anticipated game lists quickly confirm the trend; up to 90% of said lists (and no fewer than 70%) are comprised of sequels.
In other words, only 10-30% of the games you play this year will be entirely new. Of course, popular games don’t account for all releases. And last year’s most-wanted lists were mostly numbered by sequels as well. Nevertheless, is this a problem?
Not according to Electronic Arts, one of the largest producer of games. “Fans don’t actually complain about sequels – editors do,” says Tammy Schachter, vice president of public relations for EA. “Besides, they do the same for Hollywood movies,” she defends. But, there's more. A lot more. Read on for more about the sequelitis in the industry.
It’s true. Some of the most anticipated movies this year are sequels to Pirates of the Caribbean, Transformers, Cars, and Harry Potter to name a few. People obviously like returning to familiar themes. But movie, TV, and even music sequels are no where near the number, frequency or intensity of annualized video game sequels.
Consider some of this year’s biggest names in games: Resistance 3, Gears of War 3, Zelda 18 Skyward Sword, Mortal Kombat 9, Pokemon 23 (“Black/white" version), Mass Effect 3, Elder Scrolls 5, Battlefield 3, Uncharted 3, Metal Gear 9, Deus Ex 3, Call of Duty 8: Modern Warfare 3, Saint's Row 3, SOCOM 4, Diablo 3, Forza 4, Final Fantasy 14 and Madden 20. And that’s excluding nearly 50 “Such-and-Such 2” games planned as well.
This isn’t to say the above games are bad. I’m sure and know from experience that some of them are wonderful. But it’s a bit obscene to see so many at such high numbers, especially when you consider the upcoming list of highly publicized all-new games being overshadowed: The Last Guardian, Homefront, Rage, LA Noire. That’s about it.
For Nintendo’s part, they say it doesn’t matter if a game name is familiar or not, so long as the experience is unique. “When it comes to popular franchises like Pokémon or The Legend of Zelda, that means continually evolving those experiences to give longtime fans and newcomers alike fresh surprises,” a company spokesman offers.
Schachter takes solace in likening games to other forms of perpetual entertainment, like watching the sixth season of Lost or rooting for football year after year. “Like returning to the new season of Battlestar Galactica, fans want to return to the story and adventures of their favorite games year after year,” says the EA executive.
Scott Steinberg, whose covered games as an insider for the better part of two decades, says that’s besides the point. “It's not that people don't want to revisit their favorite universes and characters as much as possible. It's that they don't want to tarnish their memories, or replay the same near identical adventures 14 times in one year.”
For example, it’s telling that one of the hottest series in the last five years was abruptly canceled last month, having been exposed to a previously unheard of number of sequels. In just five years, Guitar Hero was published 11 times, spun-off three times, and portibalized a half dozen more.
Looking back, rhythm games in general were a fad. But so were fighting games, which still enjoy niche acceptance today, two decades after they were popularized by Street Fighter II. One can only wonder what kind of future Guitar Hero, and rhythm games in general, might have enjoyed had Activision and others showed restraint in the number of sequels and spin-offs.
What’s more, might there have been fewer studio closures, consolidations, canceled games, and thousands of layoffs had publishers embraced more original ideas instead of updating old ones?
“We can't really blame the economy anymore, like we've been doing the past 4-6 years,” argues Jack Loftus, an outspoken gamer and contributing editor at Gizmodo. “We might as well dub this ‘The year we've accepted the fact that what we do no longer grows the industry.’”
Why so many sequels then? “Unlike film, there's typically no huge secondary market for video games, such as DVD or cable TV sales,” writes tech columnist Dan Ackerman. “So big initial sales are key, which leads to an abundance of caution and an over reliance on sequels.”
Is there a better way? Steinberg says yes. “Publishers could use a fixed number of annual or biannual releases of popular series to generate ongoing revenue, then siphon profits away to bet on a few original releases in between,” he surmises. “That way you offset risk, give players more of what they want, and give yourself flexibility to experiment with new types of games and gameplay experiences without betting the farm on them.”
Loftus says that won’t happen until designers are more diversified. “Enthusiasts probably shouldn't be determining the direction of the industry, but they are,” he believes. “Then they become designers, and then we get more sequels and FPS games with guns, and none of them really require any kind of cognitive thought because they have this weird fascination with games that don't involve a lot of interaction or independent thought.”
Whatever side of the argument you’re on, it’s safe to say we all agree there could be more balance when it comes to the frequency and intensity of game sequels. As the fictional Anton Ego once said, “the new needs friends.” Right now in games, they don’t have many.
About the author: Blake Snow is a freelance journalist and editorial consultant covering male-interest topics—yeah, baby! He lives alongside the Wasatch Mountains with his family. High praise and hate mail can be sent from his website.