The Sequel Stigma - How Conformity Is Breaking The Industry

WUB WUBBA WUB WUBBB. WUBBA WUBBA WAAA.

Wobble bass. It's infiltrated practically every other video game trailer over the last 6 or so months, with Battlefield 3 and Goldeneye Reloaded just two of the most recent examples. Why is this the case? And more importantly, how does this one case serve as a microcosm for how the game industry at large works, and how is this mentality slowly killing our favorite hobby?

First things first, let's take a look at the game development process. At your typical studio, development begins with a spark, an idea from one of the development staff. The staff build on the idea, fleshing it out with new characters, worlds, powers, or story elements. Then they begin shipping it around to publishers. Typically, the build of the game that the team shows to the publishers is conceptually at least marginally different from the game that ends up coming out at the end of the dev cycle. The publisher, afraid that the developer's ideas might not gel with the massive audience necessary for a title to make back its budget, will closely scrutinize the product over the course of its development, recommending changes where they feel necessary. Of course, with the publisher's hands on the purse strings, these "recommendations" take on a somewhat sinister tone. Because games typically need to sell millions of copies in order to make significant profit, and because original games are by their very nature an uncertain proposition, both developers and publishers tend to gravitate towards sequelizing existing properties instead of creating new ones.

Modern Warfare changed it all. It wouldn't have had the opportunity if Activision hadn't insisted on so many sequels

The video game industry shies away from creativity and uses sequels as a crutch. Big surprise, right? It seems like every gaming site on the internet is flush with fans complaining about Activision's repeated flogging of the Call of Duty franchise, amongst many other beloved franchises. These complaints, however, are missing the real point. A sequel, from the developer's perspective, is a chance to iterate and improve on an existing formula, a chance to surprise players who have been trained to expect a certain experience with something completely out of left field. Think about it. Activision's warfare franchise is infamous for hewing close to the blueprint, but it's this very same franchise that is credited with changing first person shooters as we know them with the original Modern Warfare. Bioshock Infinite, another sequel in an established and successful franchise, is betting it all by changing the setting, characters, story, and themes established by its predecessors drastically. It's a strategy that has already benefitted Irrational and 2K massively, with Infinite currently at the head of the race for Game of the Year 2012. Hell, even Black Box and EA's storied Need For Speed franchise has shaken itself up on a regular basis in the name of keeping things interesting, with this year's The Run looking like a fantastic take on the series' hectic racing pedigree.

No, sequels aren't the kryptonite of this industry as many make them out to be. In fact, I believe that sequelizing a franchise is a good thing, provided there are improvements that can be made to the original. Take a look at the Metacritic scores for the Assassin's Creed franchise, for example. The first game flew by with an 81, but after Ubisoft made many critical improvements to the formula, the second game's scores raised to an average of 90. The second sequel, Brotherhood, fared similarly, with an average of 89.

The problem comes when a developer is pressured, either by its publisher or by the successes of other franchises, to change their games in a way that makes them too similar to existing products on the market. Take a look at the shooter genre today. Modern Warfare changed how it was done four years ago, and the ripples of that game are still drowning the genre today. By trying to "beat" Call of Duty, EA's Battlefield series has been suffering an identity crisis for the last few years. Both Bad Company 2 and Battlefield 3 feature heavily scripted, and largely awful, campaigns designed to drum up the same kind of fervor that Call of Duty has been inspiring for the last few years. Only problem is, Battlefield isn't Call of Duty, and by trying to be, the games have lost some of their identity. Flash back to June 2008. The first Bad Company game had already been in development for years, and EA and DICE were feeling little in the way of pressure from Activision's monolith. They released Bad Company that month, and the resulting single player campaign was easily the best in the history of Battlefield. Open, full of humor and life, and taking place largely in a sandbox environment, Bad Company embodied everything that was fantastic about the Battlefield franchise, minus the intense multiplayer competition, plus an entertaining story complete with AI Russians to shoot. By trying to chase the White Whale of Call of Duty's success, EA and DICE lost the identity of their game's campaign, and lost its quality in the process.

Quantum Theory crashed and burned in a desperate attempt at mirroring Gears of War's success

The Battlefield games are still high quality products despite the lackluster nature of the recent entry's campaigns, but even worse is when a game completely crashes and burns under the weight of its conformity. Take Quantum Theory, for example. This game was developed by Japanese developer Tecmo specifically for the purpose of challenging the success of the Gears of War franchise. Unique elements, such as the living tower in which the game took place or the female partner who used blades instead of guns, were downplayed to the point that they barely mattered, while elements that echoed Gears of War were emphasized heavily. The only problem was that those elements were awful, and without any original properties to buoy it, Quantum Theory quickly crashed and was forgotten.

This conformity is no longer confined to game design. As mentioned above, the marketing of many games are similar as well. When dubstep exploded on the scene, Uncharted 3 ran a trailer for its multiplayer suite featuring a song from the controversial genre. Uncharted 3 is popular, as is dubstep. Now every other trailer on the site is backed by a repetitive dance soundtrack. That's the mentality that has become so poisonous to this industry. We, as an industry, need to recognize that the popular path is not always the one that will bear the greatest fruits. If every game studio went with what was popular instead of forging out on their own to create unique and beautiful visions, there would be no Modern Warfare, no Bioshock, no Grand Theft Auto or Assassin's Creed or Mario or Gears of War. In fact, these daring franchises actually tend to be the most popular upon their release, with each of the franchises named above flowering into highly profitable franchises and inspiring a slew of imitators. The sooner game companies realize that daring decisions can lead to the greatest successes, the sooner this industry as a whole can begin to surprise all of us again.

18 Comments
19 Comments
Posted by spilledmilkfactory

WUB WUBBA WUB WUBBB. WUBBA WUBBA WAAA.

Wobble bass. It's infiltrated practically every other video game trailer over the last 6 or so months, with Battlefield 3 and Goldeneye Reloaded just two of the most recent examples. Why is this the case? And more importantly, how does this one case serve as a microcosm for how the game industry at large works, and how is this mentality slowly killing our favorite hobby?

First things first, let's take a look at the game development process. At your typical studio, development begins with a spark, an idea from one of the development staff. The staff build on the idea, fleshing it out with new characters, worlds, powers, or story elements. Then they begin shipping it around to publishers. Typically, the build of the game that the team shows to the publishers is conceptually at least marginally different from the game that ends up coming out at the end of the dev cycle. The publisher, afraid that the developer's ideas might not gel with the massive audience necessary for a title to make back its budget, will closely scrutinize the product over the course of its development, recommending changes where they feel necessary. Of course, with the publisher's hands on the purse strings, these "recommendations" take on a somewhat sinister tone. Because games typically need to sell millions of copies in order to make significant profit, and because original games are by their very nature an uncertain proposition, both developers and publishers tend to gravitate towards sequelizing existing properties instead of creating new ones.

Modern Warfare changed it all. It wouldn't have had the opportunity if Activision hadn't insisted on so many sequels

The video game industry shies away from creativity and uses sequels as a crutch. Big surprise, right? It seems like every gaming site on the internet is flush with fans complaining about Activision's repeated flogging of the Call of Duty franchise, amongst many other beloved franchises. These complaints, however, are missing the real point. A sequel, from the developer's perspective, is a chance to iterate and improve on an existing formula, a chance to surprise players who have been trained to expect a certain experience with something completely out of left field. Think about it. Activision's warfare franchise is infamous for hewing close to the blueprint, but it's this very same franchise that is credited with changing first person shooters as we know them with the original Modern Warfare. Bioshock Infinite, another sequel in an established and successful franchise, is betting it all by changing the setting, characters, story, and themes established by its predecessors drastically. It's a strategy that has already benefitted Irrational and 2K massively, with Infinite currently at the head of the race for Game of the Year 2012. Hell, even Black Box and EA's storied Need For Speed franchise has shaken itself up on a regular basis in the name of keeping things interesting, with this year's The Run looking like a fantastic take on the series' hectic racing pedigree.

No, sequels aren't the kryptonite of this industry as many make them out to be. In fact, I believe that sequelizing a franchise is a good thing, provided there are improvements that can be made to the original. Take a look at the Metacritic scores for the Assassin's Creed franchise, for example. The first game flew by with an 81, but after Ubisoft made many critical improvements to the formula, the second game's scores raised to an average of 90. The second sequel, Brotherhood, fared similarly, with an average of 89.

The problem comes when a developer is pressured, either by its publisher or by the successes of other franchises, to change their games in a way that makes them too similar to existing products on the market. Take a look at the shooter genre today. Modern Warfare changed how it was done four years ago, and the ripples of that game are still drowning the genre today. By trying to "beat" Call of Duty, EA's Battlefield series has been suffering an identity crisis for the last few years. Both Bad Company 2 and Battlefield 3 feature heavily scripted, and largely awful, campaigns designed to drum up the same kind of fervor that Call of Duty has been inspiring for the last few years. Only problem is, Battlefield isn't Call of Duty, and by trying to be, the games have lost some of their identity. Flash back to June 2008. The first Bad Company game had already been in development for years, and EA and DICE were feeling little in the way of pressure from Activision's monolith. They released Bad Company that month, and the resulting single player campaign was easily the best in the history of Battlefield. Open, full of humor and life, and taking place largely in a sandbox environment, Bad Company embodied everything that was fantastic about the Battlefield franchise, minus the intense multiplayer competition, plus an entertaining story complete with AI Russians to shoot. By trying to chase the White Whale of Call of Duty's success, EA and DICE lost the identity of their game's campaign, and lost its quality in the process.

Quantum Theory crashed and burned in a desperate attempt at mirroring Gears of War's success

The Battlefield games are still high quality products despite the lackluster nature of the recent entry's campaigns, but even worse is when a game completely crashes and burns under the weight of its conformity. Take Quantum Theory, for example. This game was developed by Japanese developer Tecmo specifically for the purpose of challenging the success of the Gears of War franchise. Unique elements, such as the living tower in which the game took place or the female partner who used blades instead of guns, were downplayed to the point that they barely mattered, while elements that echoed Gears of War were emphasized heavily. The only problem was that those elements were awful, and without any original properties to buoy it, Quantum Theory quickly crashed and was forgotten.

This conformity is no longer confined to game design. As mentioned above, the marketing of many games are similar as well. When dubstep exploded on the scene, Uncharted 3 ran a trailer for its multiplayer suite featuring a song from the controversial genre. Uncharted 3 is popular, as is dubstep. Now every other trailer on the site is backed by a repetitive dance soundtrack. That's the mentality that has become so poisonous to this industry. We, as an industry, need to recognize that the popular path is not always the one that will bear the greatest fruits. If every game studio went with what was popular instead of forging out on their own to create unique and beautiful visions, there would be no Modern Warfare, no Bioshock, no Grand Theft Auto or Assassin's Creed or Mario or Gears of War. In fact, these daring franchises actually tend to be the most popular upon their release, with each of the franchises named above flowering into highly profitable franchises and inspiring a slew of imitators. The sooner game companies realize that daring decisions can lead to the greatest successes, the sooner this industry as a whole can begin to surprise all of us again.

Posted by buckybit

Sorry, as well written as this blog post is, I really don't get what you are trying to say? What is your point, besides doing this as a writing exercise? I don't share your angle at all. It is moaning about the wrong things to the wrong people, IMHO. The conformity of this 'industry' is that people want to make a living. They all are working for money, if they are professionals. A conformity hard to deny? There is plenty of innovation all around us - if you like to see it. But, I get it, for the purpose of this (again - writing exercise?) argument of yours, you had to make a case. Big games are targeting big audiences. Indeed. If game sequels and 'stupid' games are sold by millions, it means, there is an audience. If publishers invest 100-200 million in development and another 100 million in advertisement and marketing, there better be and audience. Innovation and original ideas, putting off the target market, would be a stupid business decision. And this IS a business first. Many young people fail to see that. But innovation is happening. Some more visible, other things rather subtle - not everything visible to the consumer. And then there is the Indie- and Facebook-, Webbrowser and Phone-app market. How do you distinguish yourself in those areas? By conformity??

Edited by BawlZINmotion

While I wouldn't call the campaigns from Bad Company 2 and Battlefield 3 awful (bland is the word I would use), or Bioshock Inifite being that much of a series shake up, I do agree with the rest of what you had to say. I think the industry needs to "break" in order to flush out the companies, money and consumers that really shouldn't be there. The casual demographic of anything will always be the largest and most volitile. They show up, suck a majority of resources towards them (pushing out a lot of core structure), then disappear just as fast as they came leaving a void that can only be filled by severe industry contraction. There are three types of game oriented consumers. The casual kind that will throw down when they have extra lying around. The middle ground consumer to whom gaming is part of their social construct. Most people don't like upheaval, and changing the recipe for a social activity is disasterous. Then you have the core group, the type of consumer whos facination demands innovation. The casual swarm has moved on, and the next generation of young people probably won't have the same connection to video games as the current one does. At this point we'll be left with the core (plus a few stragglers), a substantially smaller indsutry and who knows what else.

I'm not sure how clear that is. I'm in altered states.

--ADDED AFTER INITIAL POST--

In other words, the casual consumer has largely left and we are seeing a substantial focus on retaining the second largest demographic. And that means a lot of sequels and conformity. Those people like the beast they know.

Posted by Video_Game_King

Yea, that more or less sounds like something I'd say (more or less).

Posted by themangalist

Don't forget games sell an experience. As much as I'd agree with you, there are some games that doesn't really matter if it reiterated or not. Call of Duty has been the same because it sold a heavily scripted campaign that are set in different places and times every sequel, telling different stories each time through the familiar gameplay mechanics. Assassin's Creed and Uncharted are doing exactly the same. Technically, it's the same as Bioshock changing from an underworld dystopia to a dystopia in the skies. It basically depends on the overall balance between gameplay and the stories. Sequels usually get away with being more of the same by having stories outweighing the gameplay. It's the experience the players are after, not really how it is played.

Posted by Jimbo

I had low expectations for the Battlefield 3 campaign, and so far it's managing to fall short of them. I don't have a problem with this 'rollercoaster' style of FPS campaign per se, but it's extremely difficult to do well and I don't think anybody even comes close to (old) Infinity Ward at it.

Posted by Spoonman671
@spilledmilkfactory said:

...and how is this mentality slowly killing our favorite hobby?

Had to stop reading right there.
Posted by spartanlolz92

im all for new titles but you have to remember stuff like battlefield where they do improve and add new things and where the formula for the game is so good that all you need is a few new maps and alot of people will be satisfied then why not make a sequel? i mean they can come up with new game modes but it can essentialy become like mario where it can never really get stale

Edited by hbkdx12

It's all a matter of which comes first, the chicken or the egg.
 
Consumer responsibility plays a huge role in all of this. If COD can release a game every single year and every single year sell more units than it did the previous year, then why wouldn't companies try to emulate them on some level to try to attain the same level of success (not saying they should mind you) 
 
If gamers vote with their wallets and constantly vote that they're willing to buy COD/FPS's then you can't really blame devs and pubs for not wanting to take the risk of stepping too far outside the box of what has proven to be profitable. 
 
Personally speaking, i can't wait till this whole COD/FPS bubble to bust but i guarantee you that it'll have to be the consumers that give up first and decide to move onto something else. The devs and pubs aren't gonna take that step and at the end of the day you can't blame them because business is business and this is what is highly profitable

Posted by kingzetta

Sequels are the best thing to ever happen to games, blow it it out your ass.

Posted by buckybit

@kingzetta said:

Sequels are the best thing to ever happen to games, blow it it out your ass.

Now, I'm starting to think: Super Metroid, Street Fighter 2, Quake 2, Baldur's Gate 2, System Shock 2, Diablo 2, Half Life 2 ...

Edited by kingzetta
@buckybit said:

@kingzetta said:

Sequels are the best thing to ever happen to games, blow it it out your ass.

Now, I'm starting to think: Super Metroid, Street Fighter 2, Quake 2, Baldur's Gate 2, System Shock 2, Diablo 2, Half Life 2 ...

GTA 3, Assassin's creed 2, Castlevaina symphony of the night, Dark Souls, Zelda ocarina of time, Persona 4, Morrwind, every nintendo game made in the last 18 years. 

Hey all those were sequels, and they were all amazing. What kind of horrible fuck would want a world where these games don't exist?
Posted by kingzetta
@spilledmilkfactory: I own Quantum Theory, it's pretty awful. I think that's why it failed not for any other reason.
Edited by deathstriker666

If conformity was breaking the industry today, then it would've collapsed 30 years ago. I don't think you realize how stubborn and deep-rooted game-design and structure has been for the past decades.

How much experience with game development have you had? Have you done any modding work? And no I don't mean using some in-game editor, I mean using actual tools. Have you used any 3D modelling software or have you tried to learn a scripting language? My guess is no, mainly because your perspective seems come from a simple consumer who is dissatisfied with the state of games today.

Posted by kingzetta
@deathstriker666 said:

If conformity was breaking the industry today, then it would've collapsed 30 years ago. I don't think you realize how stubborn and deep-rooted game-design and structure has been for the past decades.

How much experience with game development have you had? Have you done any modding work? And no I don't mean using some in-game editor, I mean using actual tools. Have you used any 3D modelling software or have you tried to learn a scripting language? My guess is no, mainly because your perspective seems come from a simple consumer who is dissatisfied with the state of games today.

Yeah it's really hard to make something actually completely brand new. You have to be a crazy creative to make something that's never existed before.
Posted by ArbitraryWater

No, imitators trying to crib from what is hot right now has ALWAYS been a thing in the video game industry, from the ultra-shady business practice of Nolan Bushnell convincing his neighbor to start a rival game company (in actuality a wholly owned subsidiary of Atari) that released slightly different versions of Atari arcade games, to every single 3D platformer of the N64/PS1 era trying to be like Mario 64 with varying degrees of success. This is how the industry has always worked and will always work. Eventually the market will tire of modern military First Person Shooters and then something game changing will be released and the cycle will start over again. The problem with commentary like this is that it only views video games through the lens of the big-budget mass audience titles from the last few years.

Online
Posted by spilledmilkfactory
@kingzetta

Sequels are the best thing to ever happen to games, blow it it out your ass.

I agreed in the post. They carry an unfair stigma with them
Posted by spilledmilkfactory
@kingzetta not saying you have to make something no one has ever seen, but don't let economics break your creative vision, rather
Posted by kingzetta

@spilledmilkfactory said:

@kingzetta

Sequels are the best thing to ever happen to games, blow it it out your ass.

I agreed in the post. They carry an unfair stigma with them

So your changing your stance then?