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Weekly Musings #24 - On Making Sequels
Author: Michael Ahlf 
Date: December 6th 2004

Sequels are one of the banes of gamers, and yet they entice marketing agents and gamers alike. Look at the list of all-time best-selling titles, and you'll find more than your fair share of them. Street Fighter II, the Super Mario Bros. series, Halo2... on the one hand, gamers always complain about sequels being "not as good as the original", and on the other hand, they keep buying them. Well, at least for some titles, they do.

Like every other art form, the Sequel has its own quirks and tricks to work properly. Game writers have to contend with a host of difficulties that makers of "original" titles don't. They also gain a lot of opportunities to make a stellar title.

Advantages

Let's start with advantages, because it's a shorter list.

When making a sequel, first of all, the designers are given a head-start on character and world creation. They have a past storyline to work with, even if only as a world background. In fact, the players will expect to see lots of references to the original game - locations, characters, name-dropping. Depending on the time spent between titles, the designers can even possibly re-use level maps. Of course, the developers can choose to go off in another direction, or purposefully ignore and/or disjoint the storylines; Square/Enix are brilliant with this, as they successfully disjointed the entire Final Fantasy series and side games like Chrono Trigger / Chrono Cross, giving them only the most basic of similarities.

Alternatively, the designers can embrace the old storyline. In that case, we get games like Shadow Hearts: Covenant, or the Legacy of Kain series; games that are woven in with the past storylines, and that make gamers feel like they know something extra having played the previous titles. In Halo2, the developers chose to push the action ahead a couple of years and start up a whole new story arc, making the events of the last game the focal point - Master Chief, for instance, elevated to the name of "Demon" among the Covenant for his role in blowing up the first Halo.

The designers are also handed a gameplay template. Sometimes, they leave it completely alone, making a game that's more like a simple level pack. Sometimes they tweak it, leaving some portions in and changing others - again, the Final Fantasy series is a great example. Sometimes it's more mixed, like Halo2; extensions are added, but the basic engine remains the same. And sometimes, as with Street Fighter II, the best thing to do is rip out the gameplay experience and start over from scratch. The trick is making the call; is the original engine good enough to keep, or are changes warranted? The designers of Deus Ex: Invisible War, by trying to simplify the experience for console gamers, destroyed the engine that PC players of Deus Ex had come to love and replay time and again.

Disadvantages

Designers are also handed a whole host of disadvantages to making sequels: in many ways, I think that this is why Pixar have (with only one exception) not done any sequels, preferring to focus on new projects for each movie.

The first disadvantage is fan expectations. When fans pick up a sequel title, they are expecting more of the same. You can tweak and tweak, but the gamers have to be able to recognize the game that's been put in front of them. Without the recognition, the title fails - the gamers may walk away disgusted without seeing the game for what it is. Note that this doesn't apply when the first title was a relative flop - you're attracting new fans, not satisfying existing ones. The evolution of fighting games in their various iterations, especially the Capcom line, showcases this best - gamers will argue about whether a character was overpowered in one iteration and rightly reduced, or "nerfed" into uselessness. Powerful characters in one edition may indeed be made worthless by changes in the engine, as happened to Blackheart in the Marvel vs Capcom series. When this happens, fans complain and complain, and unless the core game is very, very strong they may very well start playing other titles.

The second disadvantage is the constraints of time. If the original title sits out too long, and isn't quite big enough to be a fondly-remembered classic, then the sequel will almost undoubtedly be rushed. Halo2 hit the market incredibly fast, by comparison to normal design times; yes, Bungie had a head start, but the time crunch still showed in the relatively short single-player campaign. Sports games get away with it by using (mostly) the same engine over and over, and just updating their rosters; likewise with fighting titles, where the vast majority of sprites and levels can be re-used, and even music, and the point totals and attributes of new moves or changes to existing moves made fairly quickly. By contrast, games which require entirely new level design, heavily updated graphics, and new character models each time are difficult to push out the door quickly - witness the time frame between Quake2 and Quake3. While the Unreal Tournament designers pump out a mediocre FPS arena every year or so, id Software take their time - but id Software are a special case, as they're beloved by the gaming community. A third-party gaming studio has to have sequels, or at least an expansion pack (as Dreamcatcher Interactive did with Painkiller) available fairly quickly to keep players interested in their series.

The third disadvantage is a change in medium. Most often, this comes when a game series jumps to a new console - NES to SNES, SNES to N64, SNES to Playstation, and so on. PC games are constantly dealing with this, as the acceptable "base" requirements of a computer rise - when I started writing, a Pentium II 233 MHz with a 4-megabyte ATi graphics card was considered sufficient for games like Jedi Knight, and now the base gamer PC is at least a 1 GHz processor with 64-MB ATi or NVidia graphics card. Inevitably, this means that either the old engine has to be converted (and updated) or the designers are forced to come up with a new engine, from scratch. The gamers buying the sequel title will also expect something much more brilliant than the old game, because their hardware can now deliver better graphics, sound, and artificial intelligence. Older gamers who haven't upgraded on the PC side will feel left out that their machine can't handle the new game, and if the engine isn't familiar - or immediately gripping like the Mario64 engine - the sequel buyers may feel betrayed. In this situation, the designers aren't simply serving a fan base, they're trying to win them back, and it's no easy task if there are fond memories of the "good old days" to compete with.

The final disadvantage is storyline, or rather, a storyline that the original designers intended to be The End. It's not a certainty, but it requires the game designers to get creative. In many ways I suspect that this is why Pixar, with only one exception, haven't done any sequels to their movies: they reach the end, and the story has been told. For your basic "save the princess, you bumbling plumber" storyline this isn't a problem; the princess gets re-kidnapped, the story resumes. Nintendo does a great job with creating recyclable storylines, as anyone who's played Mario or Zelda titles will attest. First-Person Shooter storylines are likewise easy; lost a threat? They're back. Or, there's a new threat. Blew up a Halo? No problem, there's plenty more in the universe. The designers of the Legacy of Kain series worked very hard to re-integrate the original Legacy of Kain: Blood Omen into their storyline with phenomenal success.

If you're not creative, however, it's easy to get bogged down. The storyline of Capcom's Megaman series - especially Megaman X - has taken something of a dive recently, with the new high point being the Megaman Zero series for the GBA. Chrono Trigger begat the still-excellent Chrono Cross, but at the end of the day Chrono Cross was a completely different game, different engine, and not quite as good a story. Rightly so, after Chrono Cross, Square put the series to rest as it could go no further. With the exception of Final Fantasy X, every Final Fantasy's ending has been "final" (well, they've made some movies off of VII, but that's not quite sequels) - and Final Fantasy X-2's storyline was something of a stretch.

Ultimately, sequels are hard-pressed to live up to the original. There's a lot to avoid, and a lot to get right.

How to get it Right:

There are really three things designers can do to get it right. First, they can innovate, but with the warning to playtest, playtest, playtest - ALWAYS playtest. Halo2's designers altered the engine to add two-weapon wielding, which is good, but the Battle Rifle should probably be a dual-wield weapon in terms of game balance. Likewise, they removed falling damage, which completely changes the behavior of players trying to escape a battle on some maps with high passages. Then they removed the life bar in favor of faster-recharging shields, but it also makes the game harder to understand in terms of mechanics; there's no good answer on how much damage a player can take once the shields go down, and it seems sometimes to just be random. Little things, or so they seem, but major in terms of game balance and the play experience.

Second, they can pay very close attention to the storyline and world they're given. Elements can't just be thrown away because a new writer doesn't like them, but by the same token, sometimes things have to die. Knights of the Old Republic was a "closed" story, with a definitive ending, so KOTOR II is set in a different time frame and has a new set of characters to work with.

Finally, the designers need to decide who it is they're satisfying. If it's fans of the original, then addressing fan complaints - such as Halo2 introducing dual wielding - is a good thing. If it's all-new fans for a "sleeper" title sequel, then innovation is the key, and the old fans need not be satisfied; better to hope they learn to love the new title. Too many games have been ruined by mediocre changes that hurt the title more than they helped it.

Got Comments? Send 'em to Michael (at) Glideunderground.com!
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Weekly Musings #24: On Making Sequels


Added:  Monday, December 06, 2004
Reviewer:  Michael Ahlf

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