The Sequel Cycle: It’s Time for a New Way of Making Video Game Sequels


It wasn’t too long ago that I was sitting in my living room feeling rather apathetic about what to play next. Normally, I’d be playing Injustice: Gods Among Us or multiplayer Mass Effect 3. But, I’ve had my fill of both for some time. I wanted something different. As I scoured through my game collection I noticed something: Command and Conquer: Red Alert 3, Grand Theft Auto IV, Crysis 2, Tekken 6, Call of Duty Black Ops II, Fable III, Battlefield 3, Marvel vs. Capcom 3, Dirt 3, Mass Effect 3, Far Cry 3, Halo 4, Dead Space 3, Forza Motorsport 4, Soul Calibur V, Assassin’s Creed III, and the fourth installment in the Gears of Wars franchise sitting ever so comfortably next to the ninth installment in the Mortal Kombat series. You begin to see a pattern here. I have plenty of other games to play, of course, especially if you include those housed on the hard drives of my Xbox 360 and PS3, respectively. But, out of the over 100 games I own, 65 percent of them are either direct sequels or games that draw from earlier related material, like the Need for Speed games I own, or Rayman Origins.

Sequels. Yes, dear readers, sequels. Everywhere I look, there they are, staring me in the face. They are plastered on the biggest billboards and televisions across the world, they occupy the most visible floor space in any video game retail store. You can always count on the person behind the counter asking you if you’d like to preorder the latest and greatest installment of “Killzone Ops: Assassin’s Cry 49”… you know, the one that hasn’t even been previewed yet. Gamers are utterly inundated with sequels.

There's one released every year, but shows no signs of slowing down.

There’s one released every year, but shows no signs of slowing down.

I don’t care for the sequels of today. Too often they rely on the same tricks, and anything that the development team does include that is new often comes off as feeling uncreative. Let me be clear: I myself have struggled with how to approach my feelings toward sequels. Not all of them are bad. In fact, some of them are absolutely excellent and necessary, and that means it would be unfair of me to write a piece about how terrible sequels are as a whole. They can’t be blanketed like that. But, I treat good sequels as the exceptions to the rule. The reasons I take issue with the sequels being developed today are observed across many different genres and franchises. When patterns emerge, it’s not just a fluke.

Now, before some hypersensitive, ethically-conscious game journalist from a “real video game website” goes and writes some response piece about how hard it is to design games these days and how unfair it is of me to judge an experience I know nothing about, allow me this rebuttal: I do not design games, and I do not pretend to know anything about designing games. It is, however, my job as a game journalist to judge the efforts of those that do. My job it to be critical and to generate discussion. And don’t worry, development studios aren’t going to be the only entities to catch my ire in this article.

I remember the talking points leading up to the release of Assassin’s Creed III, I remember them well. When you take away all the fancy marketing language used to describe the game, it actually sounds like this: “You guys! So, uh… you have tomahawks now instead swords and stuff. And… uh… oh!, you can climb trees now too! And you can kill bunnies. Killing bunnies doesn’t actually serve a purpose in the long run, but it will give you something to do between the same chase sequences you’ve played in every Assassin’s Creed game leading up to this one. So… yeah! Uh… go be excited and stuff!” Leading up to the game’s release, I found myself alone in my thoughts regarding how much Assassin’s Creed III looked like a game(s) I had played before. There is so little about Assassin’s Creed III that justifies a sequel. The combat remains largely unchanged. Some would argue that the changes made to parrying in the game are enough. I call shenanigans. The added ability to climb trees is nothing but a dressed up version of the free-running parkour mechanic that’s been a part of the series since the beginning. Don’t even get me started on the pointless hunting and maintenance of the Homestead, things that had absolutely no design justification whatsoever. They were merely extra things for the player to do. The only thing about Assassin’s Creed III that was exciting and new was the naval warfare.

*sigh* There's going to be another Assassins Creed?

*sigh* There’s going to be another Assassins Creed?

Now, there are examples of some excellent sequels. Far Cry 3 was about as different from its predecessors as you could possibly get. In this particular instance, the hunting actually mattered. The introduction of a mechanic that allowed the player to mix various concoctions and inject them for buffs was something heretofore unseen in the franchise, and the ease with which one could traverse the island and how that was tied into the exploration of various outposts and radio towers offered players a chance to experience a sequel that was Far Cry in name only.

Poor design decisions like the ones in Assassin’s Creed III aren’t the problem, they are merely symptomatic of a larger, systemic issue. The way we make games today doesn’t allow for many good sequels like Far Cry 3 to make it to store shelves or digital distribution platforms. There is a noted tension between the creative processes required to make a game and the business of making a video game. In the industry’s infancy, the scale was tipped in favour of the creative processes. But, as time went on and more and more businessmen and businesswomen realized that the video game industry wasn’t just a passing fad, there was an effort to develop a business model for the industry. And so, too, as time has continued, we’ve seen various strategies used by publishers to market games to consumers. Sequels transcended the creative processes and became a part of the larger business strategies of publishers with this generation of home consoles.

Now it’s about money. The Almighty Dollar reigns supreme. Franchises like Dirt, God of War, Assassin’s Creed, and Call of Duty were original IPs developed to test the market. If they didn’t sell well, they wouldn’t have made it past their second iteration. A long time ago Activision openly admitted that it wasn’t interested in making any games that they couldn’t turn into yearly installments. This generation, Ubisoft has practically lived off of the likes of the Assassin’s Creed, Just Dance, and Tom Clancy franchises. It makes me sad that the industry as it is currently would label games like Enslaved: Odyssey to the West and Darksiders as “risks.” I’m not going to ask publishers to cease doing business, I’m not going to ask them to stop collecting market data. That’s not what this is about. This is about having a little more respect for the creative processes at work when developing a video game. Don’t allow your market data to dictate design decisions. Give your developers the time they need to finish their product. Let them take new risks in sequels. Let them try a new mechanic.

However, the winds of change are blowing in the sails. In March, the Game Developers Conference (GDC) happened in San Francisco, and the number of people who would introduce themselves as such-and-such a person, formerly of Electronic Arts, formerly of Activision, formerly of Capcom and so on, was astounding. When you asked them what they are doing now, they were likely to say something like this, “Well, I’m making a game myself, with about five other people. It’s a small—I guess you could say—“indie” title. There’s a Kickstarter up. You should check it out.” More and more people are making games this way, and the past year has done nothing but prove that there is a market for them.

Indie games, Steam and Kickstarter.

Indie games, Steam and Kickstarter.

Steam and the advent of digital distribution platforms have revolutionized how games are made and who they are made for. Minecraft, Braid, Awesomenauts, Fez, Journey, FTL: Faster Than Light, are all games that have found success from within what EA and Activision would call the mass market. I don’t blame game developers for seeking opportunities that allow them to create—just pure, unadulterated creation—and not form and develop a sequel in a test-tube, making sure to include the game mechanics that market data shows players responded positively to in the last game. I wouldn’t want to develop games in that environment either.

By all accounts, consumers are growing weary of the sequel-cycle as well. God of War: Ascension and Gears of War: Judgment both sold poorly given their fan-bases, respectively. I hope I’m not alone in thirsting for something new. I like to think that I’m not alone in hoping that publishers will stop dictating to the market—we, the consumers— what a successful sequel looks like, and starting letting the market decide for itself. The next generation will bring new IPs that will see inevitable sequels. Hopefully, by then, I’ll be playing a slightly different Assassin’s Creed.

Let's Hear From You!

We want to know what readers think of sequels as they are today. Do they do enough to be fresh, new experiences? Are you okay seeing the same titles with different numbers at the end, or are you ready for something new? Let us know in the comment section below.

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