The computer games industry is awash in sequels. This is nothing new. We all know that while some sequels represent a great buy, others are just a waste of our time. Yet it can be hard to sort the wheat from the chaff. Many once great franchises have fallen victim to the syndrome of the bad sequel. Conversely, others have won back disaffected fans, and attracted new ones, by bringing out a great sequel to a flawed original.
So what makes a good sequel, anyway?
The best sequels preserve the best aspects of the original game, while improving on any flaws the original. In addition, a sequel takes the gameplay to a whole new level, all within a theme recognizable to players of the original.
Diablo 2 is an example of a good sequel. While preserving the spirit and atmosphere of the original, it succeeded in advancing the playing experience, while keeping within the bounds set by the original game. Dungeon areas were expanded and diversified further, character types were increased in both number and depth, as were items.
This is not easy. In some ways, making a sequel can be harder than making an original game of the same genre, as the original will have set boundaries for the developers. A sequel that is markedly different from the original may well be treated worse than it would have been, had it been released as a stand-alone game. However, with the computer games industry one of high costs, and therefore high risks, the safe option is always to go for a sequel, rather than try to create a new franchise from scratch.
For me the main example of a franchise going “bad” through sequels has to be Ultima. The fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh installments were all great games, which expanded the themes, depth, and presentation of the previous games, and also provided a creative shot in the arm to the soulless dungeon hacks that represented CRPGs of the time. The eighth and ninth games were very disappointing to Ultima veterans. The thing is, neither of those games was bad as such- they were just bad Ultima games. Players who picked up Ultima 8 or 9 without having played any of the previous games would doubtless have enjoyed them, as all the disappointment came from the fact that these games were so much less in depth and scope than their predecessors had been.
For an example of a bad sequel, look no further than Civilization 3. This game failed to make any significant advances over its predecessor. Some of the better modifications (such as nation borders) came from a previous game, Alpha Centauri. At the end of the day, Civilization 3 represented little more than new graphics for the same old game, which was a shame. The half-baked ideas that came through (like the resources) showed what could have been done, had the developers done more to stretch both themselves and the Civilization series.
In some ways, the more original the first game, the harder it becomes to make a sequel. The “wow” factor that pulled people into the first game can easily become “Been there done that” if simply represented in the second game. Also, because of the boundaries automatically created by the sequel developers can feel trapped into doing the game in a certain way, to meet the expectations of the fans of the original game. This is not to say that it?s too hard to do, rather, when developers take the easy way out with a sequel, it often comes through as a disappointing game.
It should also be noted that sequels are made for different reasons. In the best cases, the developers want to take their original creation one step further, expand the world, finish the story, take advantage of the latest technology, or some combination of the above. Then there are the ?once more to the trough? sequels, where it is publishers, rather than developers, who see the need for a sequel. Creatively, the developers may feel the first game did it all, and this sentiment has come through in a number of lacklustre sequels that have done little more than re-present the original game in a shiny new box. Note that developers are quite capable of showing the same mentality as publishers in this area, so blame cannot be placed entirely on the publishers for bad sequels.
Sequels by themselves are neither good nor bad for the industry. As with any other type of game, the best ones are fantastic, and the worst are awful. Most lie somewhere in between. While there is the theoretical problem of computer games becoming nothing but sequels, I don?t see that happening at this stage. While there are plenty of sequels around, these are matched on the shelves by stand alone games, making for a healthy mix of the new and the familiar.
I?m sure your experiences will differ from mine, so I?m interested in hearing your thoughts on computer game sequels. What sequel did you really like? What sequel did you really hate? Do you think that sequels are good or bad for the industry, or do they not make much difference by themselves? Let me know.
Disclaimer: The Ninth Circle was written by Lorelorn (David Kay) and hosted by Diii.net. The views expressed in these columns are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Diii.net.