Monday, March 16, 2009

The games? They can only get better.

This article first appeared on my weekly 'Game Invader' column for The New Indian Express.

Both Hollywood and Gaming have become dependent on sequels for a large part of their revenue generation – sequels to proven hits providing cash cows for studios to milk.

But, almost inevitably, game sequels do far better than movie sequels do – both in terms of critical and commercial success. In a manner of speaking, the gaming cash-cows are way more milkable (is that a real word?) than their movie counterparts.

Typically, when game publishers and developers hit upon a winning formula such as Halo or Diablo or Metal Gear Solid, they arrive at core gameplay and storytelling mechanics that then become the bedrock for further creative and commercial growth. It's then a process of incremental improvements over the gameplay, adding new features, more eye candy, and the occasional innovation to keep die-hards happy. As long as developers follow the “If it ain't broke, don't fix it” maxim, it's very hard for them to go wrong. And millions of slavering fanboys then act like a supercharged, zero-cost marketing department – making their voices heard loud and clear over the Interwebs, screaming to all and sundry about how Resident Evil 5 is the best thing since sliced bread (or, at any rate, since Resident Evil 4). This brouhaha inevitably attracts many new users as well, growing the rather mainstream cult following that huge game franchises usually enjoy.

Interestingly, even when some of the hardcore faithful are disappointed over what a game sequel offers ( many fans criticized Halo 3 for not offering enough innovation in single-player), it usually doesn't matter much, as there are tons of newly converted fans to drown out the voices of dissent. And, to be fair, it's usually only a small minority that games like Halo 3 disappoint. I loved it.

Movie makers have a much tougher job. Essentially, game sequels need to replicate and marginally improve gameplay (based on existing code), while movie sequels have to better a good story with a completely new one set in the same world. Filmmakers don't have the option of taking a simple story, adding a couple of new scenes or characters, and then expecting their sequel to be successful. Poor saps.

Plus, movie fans and critics are generally less forgiving than their gaming brethren (with the possible exception of Star Wars fans, but that's another story). If a movie sequel doesn't offer an experience that exceeds (or at least matches), the original, they will rip it to shreds. They want change, freshness of ideas. They won't give their money to a filmmaker who gives them old wine in a new bottle, however fancy the bottle happens to be. Which is in a sense what most game sequels are, and in fact, need to be.

These essential differences are probably why we find that while film franchises tend to grow weaker with every sequel (Rocky, Spider-Man, Pirates of the Carribean), gaming franchises generally get stronger ( Grand Theft Auto, Metal Gear Solid ). Even in the cases where movie franchises have recovered with a strong sequel, such as Rocky Balboa and Revenge of the Sith, it's usually after a long break, or punctuated by some weaker instalments. Not many dream runs like GTA here.

On the flip side, the sequel-driven thinking in the gaming industry is leading, many believe to a lack of innovation in mainstream, hardcore games (though the indie / casual scene is seeing a lot). Even titles such as Mirror's Edge, which attempted some cool new ideas, didn't do very well commercially. Thankfully, they've announced a sequel, so there's still hope.

1 comment:

  1. I don't agree entirely - I think that they key difference is that the gaming audience is still in a growth phase - which is why, as you said, even if the sequels put off a chunk of the faithful, you get a whole new batch of people to mess up in turn.

    The audience hasn't really had a chance to settle in and be demanding of the creators yet, and is being driven around on the hype-bus.

    Also, the improvements needn't be marginal - they could be small, but still critical changes made to reflect the wants the audience expressed with the first game in the series - allowing the makers to polish it up to meet expectations. Small isn't necessarily marginal.

    And finally - games are seen mostly as a commercial enterprise. With the kind of investment required, the casual games are the ones which see the most innovation, and "artistic" enterprise. After all - who would pay 2,000 to play something like The Majesty of Colour?

    Sorry for the random ramble - liked the piece and wanted to respond though I think I've lost track of what I was trying to say. I blame caffeine :)