Why do we keep buying video game sequels?

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Keith Burgun's picture


A friend asked this question on Facebook and I thought I'd share my answer here:

Because in our current culture and industry, it's incredibly difficult for gamers to think critically about games and incredibly difficult for publishers to take risks. Here are some but not all of the reasons:

  • We lack a theoretical "video games journalism" industry - reliable sources such as newspapers, magazines that feature expert opinions on games. Instead we have what essentially amount to commercial "catalogs".  What we think of as reviews and critics really are just an advertisement arm of the industry
  • The cannibalistic nature of video game technology means that it's incredibly difficult for many gamers to be readily aware of the history of video games. Without knowing the past, it is very difficult to judge the present. Great example - Fallout 3. If I had never played Fallout 1, or hadn't played it since 1997, I might be excited by Fallout 3
  • Audiences "demand" an outrageous amount of production value (publishers, at least, believe this... whether or not it's actually true is another question). This requires a huge amount of investment by the publisher, which usually makes the publisher very invasive over the game's design. I often joke that games today are designed by publishers, for publishers. Publishers like sequels because of name recognition All in all, the video games industry and the culture surrounding video games is in a very juvenile, unhealthy, and unsustainable state.

The industry has been bloated for a long time - hopefully now we're starting to see it shrink back down to a place that more accurately reflects the amount of people who like video games. If you were investing money into a game as the game industry was shrinking, that would have a profound effect on your willingness to take risks. An armada of sequels is just one symptom of this shrinking industry.  What do you guys think?

Comments

Bill Loguidice
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Don't agree

You seem to be on this "industry is shrinking back down" kick of late. I don't see where you're getting that from. I feel the opposite actually, that there will be no industry contraction, correction or anything else of a negative connotation. Every industry has peaks and valleys and we're in a mild valley at this point from a very high peak. It's only the natural business cycle and one mostly because the three major consoles are so mature with nothing new to spur on a record sales pace again. Frankly, for a console cycle that's well into its fifth year, all three are still selling extremely well worldwide, and then we have the 3DS on the horizon early next year, along with another iteration of the iPad, etc. So, no, nothing to worry about here.

As for the sequels thing, I don't think it's any more prevalent than it's been in the past 15 years. That's what sells, so that's how the industry trends. If anything though, with the increased number of platforms - particularly in the mobile space - and low cost delivery methods (Steam, PSN, Xbox Live, Wiiware, etc.), it's actually a BETTER time for small or indie developers than it's been in 15 years or longer, so we're seeing CONTINUED innovation and risk taking, not less. It's important to keep in mind that videogames are bigger than ever, so we're seeing more of everything, including the dreaded licensed crap and sequels. That's OK, though, because the industry is big enough and stable enough to accommodate that kind of stuff along with all the good stuff.

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Keith Burgun
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Here's where

I watch a lot of Scott Steinberg's videos, here's a couple very good ones:

http://www.facebook.com/video/?id=561436560#!/video/video.php?v=429070161560
http://www.facebook.com/video/video.php?v=431116221560

The one thing I do agree with you on is that among INDIES, we are seeing more innovation and their opportunities are growing. However this article was about SEQUELS. Indies do not put out a lot of sequels. This article was focused on the mainstream industry.

msimplay
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Well personally its a two way

Well personally its a two way thing as a consumer I buy sequels after having a good experience with a previous game in the same series.
However for developers they make sequels because it's a safe bet making a recognised brand.

Relating to the industry shrinking back down I was just discussing this with a friend the other day how so many games are costing millions to make with all sorts of teams involved one for voice acting one for graphics an orchestra etc.
It goes to show the gaming industry won't be able to sustain it because with this new phase in gaming a lot of big brands have gone down.
I mean Mortal Kombat was one of the biggest names in the 90's but now Midway has been swallowed up by Warner Bros.
It could even spell the end of the consoles as we know it I mean majority of people don't care about graphics it's enough for them to be acceptable and play well.
This is proven by sales of the Iphone games which a lot of are free or cost a couple of pounds which obviously means development cost were low.
I personally believe that the gaming industry has got it really wrong.

Things will change because it's impossible to sustain the gaming industry as it is now I mean a game costs millions to make and sells at 40 quid and if it fails it gets cleared out I don't know how a small developers can afford to fail to be honest.

I know for a fact the success of the Iphone and mobile devices in general means that the silent majority do not care as much about the stuff the so called gaming industry does and Nintendo has proven it by their sales figures time and time again.
While personally I love the wii and I feel its still going strong with a fantastic line up for Christmas all of a sudden with Microsoft Kinnect and Sony Move
The gaming industry are spelling doom for Nintendo ah they chat so much blah.

Matt Barton
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The reasons we have so many

The reasons we have so many sequels in games as well as movies has to do with branding. The real money, or at least a large part of it, isn't from ticket or game purchases but rather from licensing the "intellectual property" to different people to make different merchandise. In the case of movies, that includes games, t-shirts, posters, CDs, etc. The licensing gets quite complex in some cases--think of a movie soundtrack, for instance, which is usually just a compilation of songs licensed by the movie studio, which then turns around and licenses the movie IP to help sell the CD.

In any case, if you have an existing "property" (I find the language commonly used in these situations very problematic, but will use it for convenience here), you can be part of an already established infrastructure. What that amounts to is leveraging the advertising, publicity, reputation, image, and so on of the larger structure. Take for instance a game based on Spider-Man. Even before you play or even see the game, you are already connecting it as a node in a huge, sprawling network that ultimately goes back to comic books but which has spread into countless nodes of culture.

Of course, economically this makes sense. Why would Marvel want to produce Spider-Man as a one-off, only making one comic and then forgetting him? It makes a lot more sense to leverage his popularity, producing not just hundreds of comics but spin-offs, cameos in other comics, cartoons, movies, merchandise of all sorts, etc. Once you get a solid brand behind you, you can afford to slack off. For instance, let's say that the next twelve issues of Amazing Spider-Man (the flagship Spider-Man and Marvel comic) were really, really terrible. A year's worth of shite. Back in the late 60s or 70s that might have spelled doom for the character and perhaps for Marvel. But now? Who would even notice? A few hundred or maybe even a few thousand comic fans might drop their subscriptions, but that'd barely make a dent in Marvel's profits.

Rightly or wrongly, most people are drawn to licensed videogames because they were impressed or captivated by the licensed content. If you really love Spider-Man, you might think an officially licensed Spider-Man game will be good because the movies or comics were good. Why wouldn't the game be good? Furthermore, of it's the third or fourth sequel, you might think that it's even better, since they've obviously been successful and this latest version promises to be better and badder than all the others. But more importantly, that fourth game is lying in a huge sprawling web created by the previous ones (think of all the magazine reviews, website coverage, etc.)

Finally, if you build an audience for a series, you can feel more assured of a steady audience and much less risk. Think of Dragon Wars vs. Bard's Tale. If Dragon Wars had been Bard's Tale IV, like its designers intended it to be, it would have sold like gangbusters and we might still be seeing Bard's Tale games today. Instead, they had to re-invent the wheel, and no one was interested (at that time) in a "generic" fantasy CRPG.

I think I've hit there on the essence of this whole licensing thing. Most people think of non-licensed games as "generic" in the sense of store-brand Mac & Cheese. Taste is less important than perceived notions of quality, style, personality, etc. Consider how unpopular and unsuccessful (perhaps that's a good thing in some ways) Armchair Arcade is compared to sites with licensed content. "Powered by IGN" makes all the difference. To the outside world, we're just a "generic" site about games with very little real content to offer. If we had, we'd show that by licensing and being licensed.

If I were making a game for commercial purposes, I would do everything I could to get it connected to an existing license, even a minor one. Then I would try to license the best game engine I could afford. What genre? The most popular one, of course, thereby benefiting from the huge established audience for first-person or third-person shooters. Then I would try to license a popular song or two, and so on and so forth. Each connection I make to a prominent license would benefit me, since I can leverage it. Why make a "generic" PC game when I can buy a license to have it on XLA or Wii's network? Even people here tend to think that console games are better simply because they're licensed to a particular brand.

Not many people can afford to go their own way, because it's too hard to get any attention. Look at Fallout 1 and 2. The first one almost went without notice, and the second one fared little better. They never got the sales they "deserved." Meanwhile, the shitty ass "Descent to Undermountain" got all their marketing budget because it was based on a "real" license (AD&D). Now Fallout 3 was just another first-person shooter trying to leverage the "awesome IP" of an old computer game, which was itself based mostly on word of mouth and retrospectives. I suspect that if they'd just created their own game based on a generic sort of post-apocalyptic world, it would have met with less success (and people would likely have blasted it like they do Borderlands for not having a 'story.' Where did Fallout 3 get the bulk of its story? But I digress.). Enough people were curious enough about the Fallout legacy to give it serious attention, the company could leverage all the existing content to flesh out their game, and it's considered chic or nerdy to be up on these venerable old titles. Witness how all the game blogs fire up whenever some old retro arcade game is brought out of the mothballs for some new "remake."

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Rob Daviau
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Well I admit....

I certainly can be a sucker for a sequel. Yes we've all heard the reasons why there are so many sequels and I myself have gone on demanding originality and the end of sequels and yet I would be lying if I denied not contributing to the problem. I mean when it comes to Silent hill or Resident Evil it does not take much to convince me I need the next installment. Then again as has been touched on it also has to do with having enjoyed the original so much, a trust has been earned that compels me to look forward to the latest offering, even if one sequel fails to live up to expectations often I am more willing to give them the benefit of a doubt when the next sequel comes out all because I loved the original concept so much. For better or worse I will keep giving them a chance even though I know I am not helping anyone by doing so.

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davyK
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It's a case of sticking with

It's a case of sticking with what you know - but you have to be realistic in your expectations. Buy a sequel and expect minor tweaks at most - and even they might disappoint. Keep buying them but don't complain like posters in a recent Edge forum thread lamenting the fact that they have been playing the same game for 15 years after sticking with one or two series of FPS games.

Bill Loguidice
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Exactly, Davy, and it's a

Exactly, Davy, and it's a mostly self sustaining system. If people keep buying sequels in greater numbers than most original properties, it only makes good business sense to keep producing sequels.

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Matt Barton
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Availability
Bill Loguidice wrote:

Exactly, Davy, and it's a mostly self sustaining system. If people keep buying sequels in greater numbers than most original properties, it only makes good business sense to keep producing sequels.

Of course, if almost every new game is a sequel, then everybody will buy them because that's all that's available. If sequels were rare compared to originals, of course more people would buy originals.

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Bill Loguidice
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The reasons for sequels
Matt Barton wrote:
Bill Loguidice wrote:

Exactly, Davy, and it's a mostly self sustaining system. If people keep buying sequels in greater numbers than most original properties, it only makes good business sense to keep producing sequels.

Of course, if almost every new game is a sequel, then everybody will buy them because that's all that's available. If sequels were rare compared to originals, of course more people would buy originals.

That might be too simplistic a view. People might buy LESS if everything was unfamiliar. Familiarity - and I think this is a truism for all forms of media consumption - breeds success. People feel comfortable buying what they know, which explains the success of licensed videogames that without the license wouldn't stand a chance because they suck.

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Bret (not verified)
Maybe you guys are missing the point.

When I read Keith's post and they comments he received, something kind of irked me. But, I couldn't put my finger on it until Bill said this: "People feel comfortable buying what they know, which explains the success of licensed videogames that without the license wouldn't stand a chance because they suck."

To me this is exactly why Keith didn't need to mention branding in the first place. We know that sequels imply branding. But sequels don't always guarantee quality. And, I think the Fallout series is the perfect example of where it would be nice to have a video games journalism industry that could better inform us of games that suck. Fallout 3 might be good compared to games in recent memory, but don't compare (in my mind) to the original two Fallout games. And for that matter, they don't compare with the best that RPG's have to offer in general. We all could have been much better informed about that game.

Roger Ebert was the guy I always went to for movie reviews. He has a vast knowledge of film, and has more experience than anyone I know concerning movie reviews. This is the kind of guy I would look for to review games. (Unfortunately most of us know what Roger Ebert thinks of video games.) And really I think one of the closest things to a Roger Ebert of our video games industry is right here with Matt Barton and Bill Loguidice. You guys have a vast knowledge of video games. If only our more popular reviewers were as educated about video games as you guys are, instead of these kids at IGN giving Fallout an 9.4. Why? When we see an IGN review I always wonder what the hell they are comparing the game to. It would be much more interesting to me what Matt Barton thinks of a game like Fallout 3.

Isn't that why Keith's post about sequels is even on here? We feel like the Armchair Arcade guys might be able to educate the masses more than IGN could. I took his post as sort of a subtle compliment to Armchair Arcade for being so awesome.

Now, I'm not sure what to think of the idea of the video game industry shrinking. But, I know that because of the lack of knowledge from our current video game reviewers - that most people do not know what they are really getting for their money when they buy another Madden for 60 bucks. They don't really know what they're getting when they buy Fallout 3. They don't know what they're missing out on when they buy Fallout 3 and have never played Fallout 2. Without proper reviews and educated journalists, the nature of technology will swallow up old games. The best games end up needing to be bought on specific websites or torrented (almost all of the games on Matt Chat are like that). It's hard, even when informed, to be able to go back and buy Fallout 2 (unless you know about gog.com).

At this point I'm just sort of reiterating what Keith is saying. I think he's spot on with his bullet points. It's easy to understand publishers and their focus on what sells. If branding alone is making enough money to keep publishers focused, then they'll keep doing that. But, I think people can be convinced not to buy a sucky sequel. For the most part, just for example, that's what I think happened with Silent Hill: Homecoming, but Silent Hill games are newer and the kids at IGN have played all the Silent Hill games. I think people can be educated, and that publishers can be convinced to put their money into something that would suit our refined palettes.

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