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Second Party Developers: Moving Onwards and Upwards Instead of Laterally

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Posted August 8, 2011 - By Guest Writer


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Second Party Developers: Moving Onwards and Upwards Instead of Laterally

Video game companies love money; there’s no denying this. In fact, this obsession with money led to the demise of many early video game companies. Remember the 3DO? Yeah neither do I. It was conceived by EA founder Trip Hawkins, but was quickly branded a failed console after an extremely short lifespan. To put it in perspective, Trip makes Facebook games now.

The 1982 E.T. video game was licensed and produced quickly under the belief that the name alone would sell four million units. Only 1.5 million were sold and these were quickly returned. In fact the number of unsold cartridges was so great that they were carted in 14 semi-trucks to a dump in New Mexico near an atomic test site and buried in the desert. Then covered in concrete. Then the video game industry as a whole collapsed. So if any of you for a second think that video games are made for anything but money, think again.

However, one trend of moneygrubbing is reaching a level of commonplace that merits concern. That is the habit of producing companies licensing popular series to developers other than the original developers. While it may guarantee a more regular release schedule for popular games, it diminishes their quality and ultimately taints their name. Perhaps the worst effect is that it oversaturates the market, which as we learned from Guitar Hero, can lead to the collapse of the series altogether.

Second Party Developers: Moving Onwards and Upwards Instead of Laterally

This trend has been going on for some time, but it hasn’t been noticeable until recently. For example, the first Duke Nukem games produced after Duke Nukem 3D weren’t direct sequels and were developed by studios other than 3D Realms. They also weren’t very good. But they functioned to keep Duke’s name relevant in the lull between 3D and Forever. As the years have gone on we’ve seen this pattern gain speed and popularity.

The first time I was decidedly unpleased was when I purchased and played Call of Duty 3. After playing (and falling in love with) Call of Duty 2, I felt that CoD 3 was a serious letdown. At first I couldn’t understand why. Had the series gone stale after just two installments? After a brief stint rereleasing an overwhelmingly subpar remake of Call of Duty 2, Activision gave Treyarch the developing rights to a new Call of Duty game, which they began working on and released just over a year after Call of Duty 2. Using CoD 2 as a template, 3 did almost everything that 2 did, and not much more. At that point, it seemed like Treyarch was committed to playing it safe; not moving upward, but just sticking to the status quo.

Second Party Developers: Moving Onwards and Upwards Instead of Laterally

Once again, in 2007, Treyarch announced another WWII game (their fourth). World at War used Infinity Ward’s engine, multiplayer setup and popularity to sell a product that received a mild shrug from critics. It was mostly criticized for causing gaming déjà vu. The few notable changes were just tidbits like the Nazi Zombies feature and attack dogs for a kill streak reward. Black Ops may be considered more innovative than its previous Treyarch installments, but once again it followed the example laid down by Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. It was as if they didn’t want to get too far away from their own tried-and-true WWII-era games. But quite frankly, I was bored halfway through Black Ops and felt that the multiplayer was uninspired. Of course, not everyone agrees with this, as their games have sold a bizonker amount of copies. 

Other titles have lucked out and faced smaller discrepancies between developers, but any gamer with a keen eye can immediately spot the differences. Splinter Cell, as a child split between the parents of Ubisoft Shanghai and Ubisoft Montreal, managed to maintain quality over two different studios. However, as the two studios tried to differentiate themselves from one another much of the original Sam Fisher was lost in a competition (seemingly) of who could be more outlandish. I mean seriously, the man was all but a hobo at one point.

As an unrepentant BioShock fanatic, I had insanely high expectations for BioShock 2. And I don’t think I’m entirely to blame. I mean, Something in the Sea was probably the most deviously brilliant marketing campaign ever devised. I was so excited about it I hardly noticed that it was being developed by 2K Marin instead of the original developer, Irrational Games. But after playing it for a few hours, I could tell it lacked the pizazz of the first game.

Second Party Developers: Moving Onwards and Upwards Instead of Laterally

But the most egregious title, the game I will never ever forgive for any reason, is Fallout: New Vegas. Maybe the worst part about the game is that I couldn’t hate it. There was not a cut-and-dry loathing of the game. I loved Fallout 3 like a puppy and even though I knew Bethesda didn’t develop New Vegas, I bought it before I read a single review. Within ten minutes I had fallen through the ground twice, ruined a save file and gotten stuck looking down the sights of my gun like a gorilla with a broken arm. And yet, I couldn’t hate New Vegas, simply because it reminded me so much of Fallout 3.

I may not have been able to hate it properly, but Fallout: New Vegas was the last straw for me. I no longer have any faith in second party developers working with successful IPs. While it’s nice and seemingly comfortable to see a familiar successful name on a box, these days it’s usually just a snake trying to slip in your house and impregnate your daughter.

The main problem is that good games are good because they innovate. They bring something new to the table, and if they’re lucky; they gain enough of a following to merit a sequel. But when these titles are handed over to second party developers, the developers are usually so nervous about potentially screwing the pooch that they just play it safe and fail to make any significant improvements. Conversely, they may try radical changes that turn the game into such an unrecognizable quagmire you spend every night trying to convince yourself to hate it.

Second Party Developers: Moving Onwards and Upwards Instead of Laterally

Either way, unfortunately, this pattern is not going to stop. Talented studios will continue to make incredible games and greedy publishers will continue to hand their IPs over to other developers to make a quick buck. All I can do is beg these second party developers to remember that they have been given another company’s baby. As such they not only owe it not only to the originator, but to gamers to move onward and upward with their art – not laterally.

Nationally unacclaimed freelance writer Jonathan Deesing has been writing about video games for dozens of weeks. His professional knowledge ranges from skiing to Peruvian history and of course, anything with buttons. If you can't get enough of his musings, check out his Twitter feed.

Second Party Developers: Moving Onwards and Upwards Instead of Laterally
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