Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Crushing Fans’ Dreams: Why Some Sequels Work While Others Run Aground

Have you ever wished that your favorite game could go on forever? Have you ever wished for a sequel? Limitless sequels? Prequels?! Everyone wants more. Whether you’re waiting in line at the Starbucks and wondering if you should go for the grande or the venti, or you’re a die-hard Super Mario RPG fan who’s still waiting for a “legit” sequel to be produced, you want more. More of the same characters that you’ve come to know and love. More of the world that you’ve explored every inch of until you know it like the back of your hand. More of those stellar, or not-so-stellar, graphics that pulled  you into the game and allowed you to forget about the A.P. European History test that was waiting for you the day after tomorrow that you hadn’t started studying for yet. You get hooked on a game, and then you never want it to end. It’s the same as a book, movie, or TV show. Just like Lord of the Rings fans couldn’t sit still between movies one, two, and three, Kingdom Hearts fans can’t sit still as they wait for the latest information on the newest game in the series. It’s a world of adventure and familiar faces, and a place you can belong—but only as long as the story continues. If this is all true, however, why do some sequels succeed, while others… go up in smoke?

There have been any number of hugely successful sequels and franchises in gaming history. The most basic, and easily most famous example, is the Mario series. In fact, many early Nintendo games became long-running franchises that kept fans happy for years to come. Other genres have their own famous franchises, from the Medal of Honor and Call of Duty franchises in first-person shooters, to Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and the Kingdom Hearts games as previously mentioned for RPGs. The fact of  the matter is that a successful franchise will pull in a hell of a lot more players and fans than a simple one-shot game. Even if successful, a sequel-less game will be forgotten as more and more time passes and popular franchises keep popping out more games. Okage: Shadow King, released in 2001 by Zener Works, was an innovative, fresh RPG that had a decent following and earned the praise of a number of different gaming entities, but now it’s nearly unheard of, a tiny speck in a sea of early 2000 games. Jet Force Gemini was a gem of a first-person shooter on the N64. Developed by Rare and released in 1999, it received a number of praises and was even on IGN’s list of Top 25 N64 games, but as no sequel was ever produced for it, it now remains nothing more than a memory in many of its fans’ minds.

Compare games like these with their franchise brothers and sisters—games, sometimes even very similar games, that keep on living through the years through new instalments to the series. These instalments could be direct sequels, or simply games that take place in the same world, games with similar types of story lines developed by the same publisher, games based on the same concepts as their predecessors. No matter what type of connection games in a franchise may have, the fact that they are related in some way, shape, or form, makes them more appealing to many fans. Fans of the SNES  game Chrono Trigger from way back in 1995 rushed out to buy its sequel Chrono Cross when it was released, despite the fact that its characters, storyline, and basic premise were entirely different from its predecessor. Fans of the original Arc the Lad series games were quick to snatch up the PS2 sequel, Twilight of the Spirits, when it hit the shelves, despite it being so far removed from the original game,  it barely warranted the franchise title. Franchises and sequels will always carry that initial “oomph” that  stand-alone games can’t achieve—fans that will buy the game whether it’s related to the original, or even good, or not. Stand-alone games have to work harder, and unless they’ve been marketed heavily, will take considerably longer to get good sales, as it will take more word of mouth than a big-name franchise game. This could be why so many sequels and franchise-based games are developed today. There are still a number of diamonds in the rough that pop up every now and then and make it big, but even those are few and far between (and many of them will eventually start their own franchises as companies try to bank in on the popularity). It seems as though companies care less about making a truly good game when they have a franchise name behind it that will bring in good sales no matter what, while the innovative, off-the-beaten track stand-alone games that have the heart and souls of their developers locked away inside gain nothing more than a small, devoted following. Of course, that’s not to say that all franchise games are lazy messes, just that they sometimes rely too much on tried-and-true (and now old and cliché) methods, story lines, and characters that now proliferate the gaming shelves. Try comparing some of those old 90s game characters with the ones popping up in games today. It’s amazing how back then every single character wasn’t a young adult and didn’t look like they were straight out of an idol group or otaku’s body pillow collection.

That being said, there are some sequels that just don’t work. There are also some franchises that seem to be flopping as their fans drown in nostalgia and refuse to accept anything new. Which brings me to my next discussion—why some sequels hit rock bottom. There is always the worry when making a sequel to a beloved game that the new game will not live up to the hype of the old. Games which are near and dear to their fans’ hearts are hard to replace, and even harder to extend in a way that fans will see fit. The creators of a game series might have a much different plan in store for the franchise or characters than its fans are hoping for (see: the aforementioned Chrono Cross), or the new game will be too different, too dark, not dark enough, too cartoony, or too realistic (see: every new Zelda game). The truth of the matter is that game fans are horrifically annoying and self-righteous.

They’re impossible to please and will never be satisfied. Which is why sometimes game developers simply have to break off from what fans want and make the game as they see fit. If you release a brand new game in a franchise, but all your fans can ask about is whether or not you’re going to remake that one “really awesome super great game” from 16 years ago (I’m looking at you, Final Fantasy 7), it’s clear that you’re never going to please them with anything new you could ever put out. They’re too stuck in nostalgia and can’t move past their childhood fantasy worlds.

Of course, there are also the sequels that make people scratch their heads and wonder why they were even made (or at least why they were released as part of the franchise). Star Fox Adventures of the Star Fox series wasn’t even going to be a Star Fox game at first, developed as a stand-alone game called Dinosaur Planet. At some point in the development process, it was manhandled and transformed into a Star Fox game despite it having nothing to do with the franchise and introducing new characters that most of the fandom would end up hating in the end. It’s no surprise that it’s one of the least favorite games in the franchise. A sequel that will always exist as a sort of cruel joke for me is the PS2 sequel to the Squaresoft action-adventure RPG Brave Fencer Musashi. Entitled Samurai Legend Musashi and released seven years after the first game, it had little (if anything) to do with the first game and replaced the colorful, diverse cast of characters with a harem of teenage girls. Needless to say, I’d felt cheated out of an actual sequel (and I would rather pretend it didn’t exist). Developers need to be careful when they handle sequels and franchise installations. While it’s true that it’s better to take risks and incorporate new, innovative designs, eliminating what made the original game what it was will alienate fans. Yes, many fans will disagree with your choices no matter what, as some of them cannot be pleased, but if the essential elements of a game don’t transmit to its sequel, then you’re going to anger all of your fans, rather than just the extremely persnickety ones. For instance, as I mentioned before, taking the “Star” out of Star Fox with Star Fox Adventures was a bad decision. It would be like putting Link in a fighter jet and calling it the Legend of Zelda: The Barrel Roll of Time. There needs to be some sort of happy medium—enough of the original flavor of the game that it deserves to be in the franchise, but enough originality to give its fans a new adventure and keep them from getting bored. There also needs to be research—find out what made the original game tick. What is it about the original game that fans loved so much? Was it the characters? The world? The playing style? Whatever it was, the new game should retain it. If the draw of the first game was its lovable cast of characters, a sequel following those same characters will no doubt draw more positive reactions. If it was more the world or gameplay, however, a game with new characters set in the same world, or following the same semantics will find the acceptance of fans. Of course, there are also many other factors to consider as well, but it’s always best to start from the basic building blocks and work your way up.

Sequels and franchises walk a thin line between success and failure, but then again, so does any game. While a sequel will gather more attention, and no doubt sell better than an unknown stand-alone game, it will face harsher criticism if it doesn’t live up to fans’ expectations, perhaps ruining chances for further games in the series (or games from that company in worst case scenarios). With stand-alone games, there is more freedom to introduce entirely new playing styles and themes, but that doesn’t mean that sequels should just keep recycling the same concepts again and again either. There is a balance to be found between old and new that will make for a strong sequel and keep the fans happy
at the same time. Unfortunately, this is not a perfect world, and finding that perfect balance can be a
difficult task, which is why so many sequels end up disappointing dedicated fan bases. Whether we like it or not, however, sequels and franchises will keep going strong as more and more games get released, so it looks like we’ll have to keep living with them as the years go by, but perhaps developers will pick up a few pointers here and there that will help them form the more perfect sequel and rock the gaming world on its axis.