Balancing the Old and the New in Video Game Sequels
I started playing Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones for GBA yesterday, and while on the Fire Emblem Wiki I glanced over the summary of the game’s reception, which went something like this:
“This game isn’t different enough from the previous FE game for GBA, but it’s still good overall because the first one was good.”
This got me thinking about the weird task game developers have when making sequels. Because audiences for sequels largely want them to be different, yet the same, right? So, you know, that’s all you have to do, game developers – make it different but the same. Playing through The Sacred Stones, I can see exactly what they mean – I basically needed no refresher whatsoever after having played the previous game, Fire Emblem, last December – the combat system is pretty similar. There’s a World Map that gives you a little freedom to choose some non-linear side missions, and when units change class you now have two class options to choose between, but that’s about it for the changes as far as I can tell, including graphics, sound, weapons, etc. But you know what? I’m totally fine with that. I liked Fire Emblem, and it’s been awhile, so I’m happy to have a similar experience with a different set of tactical map challenges.
Similarly, I would cut a stranger, or possibly a minor acquaintance, if it would persuade Nintendo to release a map pack for Mario Kart Wii. I love the game, I’m not dying to see any new gameplay mechanics, but it would be really nice to have some new maps (this is one of the rare situations in which I would buy a game day-of-release instead of waiting for the price to come down on the used market). Obviously that’s not going to happen, for reasons I will never understand, but the point is that I’m not asking for something new here. More of the same, please. I am a fan of it.
Yet at other times, I find myself on the other side of this debate, complaining that a game experience has gotten stale because of lack of innovation. Modern Warfare 3 springs to mind. Modern Warfare was a striking departure from the WWII and other historical or futuristic shooters I’d played before it, and MW2 managed to recapture the magic by transplanting the experience to the home front and through its haunting airport level, even though the gameplay was not remarkably different from its predecessor (other than its fun Special Ops mode). But MW3 didn’t surprise me with its setting, its story, or its gameplay (single- or multiplayer – Survival mode was kind of old hat by the time this game included it), and so while I had fun with it, I put it down a lot quicker than the other two. For me, the momentum of the series has shifted from MW developer Infinity Ward to Call of Duty: Black Ops developer Treyarch, whose tweaks to the formula in terms of gameplay, tone, and (in Black Ops II) player-affected branching storylines were more compelling to me than MW3 (we’ll have to see how well Infinity Ward get back in the mix with the upcoming Call of Duty: Ghosts).
The Final Fantasy series offers an example of both the satisfaction of more of the same and the need to eventually innovate. Final Fantasy VII blew my mind when it came out in ’97, and I was more than happy to play the largely similar FFVIII (dumb summoning mechanics aside), but by FFIX, I was starting to get a little bored, so I was happy when FFX, the first in the series to come out on the PS2, changed things up in very interesting and effective ways. FFXII was a good mix of old and new (XI I don’t count here because it was an MMORPG, a vastly different beast than the other, single-player, numbered games), but the PS3/360-generation XIIIs have stumbled badly, in my opinion, by taking away one of the core elements – the navigable world map – without replacing it (as FFX did successfully) with anything else worth your time other than, I suppose, pretty graphics, which are almost never enough on their own.
This post doesn’t end with a recipe on how to mix the old and the new in sequels – if it were that simple someone before me would have figured it out by now. Rather, I think it’s worth considering which games we like despite their being more of the same, which games in a series do something really new, and which are a balanced hybrid of the two. What game series do you think have been the most innovative? The most successful at not messing with a formula that works? The best at balancing old and new? The most inconsistent from game to game?