The One Commandment for Game Sequels

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about franchises. Having recently played Mass Effect 2, and then Assassin’s Creed II, and now Uncharted 2, I have a lot of questions about what sequels are and what they should be.

When I played the original Mass Effect, I fell head-over-heels in love. I made three complete play-throughs in rapid succession, I devoured both novels available at the time (Revelation and Ascension), and when called upon to name my favorite three video games, Mass Effect made the cut.

Then I played Mass Effect 2, and now I barely care about the series. I mean, I’ll probably play Mass Effect 3. I guess. Certainly not for full launch-day price. You can bet I won’t pre-order, even if they don’t pull any of my pet peeve shenanigans.

What happened here that turned my devoted fandom to near indifference?

A lot of things. I didn’t write a full review of Mass Effect 2 because nearly everything I wanted to say had already been said very well. (Some of it here, here, here, here and the other two parts, and finally, in video form, here.) But the main point I want to focus on is this one:

“It’s just a shame that during BioWare’s sprint to fix the complaints of the original game, the company forgot some of the things that made it notable in the first place."
—Radek Koncewicz, Mass Effect 2: a few steps forward, and a few steps back.

What can you do when your game is novel and experimental and comes out as brilliant but flawed? (See also Mirror’s Edge, Indigo Prophecy, Assassin’s Creed, Scribblenauts, etc. etc.) The way I see it, there are two basic goal sets: expand on the brilliance, and/or fix the flaws. If you only have the resources to take one of these approaches, which should you take?

Merely being a fan of a game proves that to you, the strengths outweigh the weaknesses. Mass Effect’s world and story left me more than willing to put up with the atrocious inventory management. The good is enough to make the bad almost not matter. Many fans probably don’t care much if the flaws get fixed. (Leave them in long enough and they’ll become part of the charm - witness Resident Evil, at least before RE4.) They’d rather see the brilliance expanded, and get more of what drew them to the franchise in the first place - especially since it drew them in strongly enough to counteract the flaws.

But suppose the sequel comes out, same flaws but doubly brilliant, and the fans like it twice as much as they did the first one. Chances are, they aren’t going to buy twice as many copies. From the developer’s perspective, there isn’t much financial incentive in making the people who already like you like you more. The gain is much greater if you can instead make more people like you just enough to buy your game - and that means fixing the flaws, to appeal to a wider audience.

I can’t be too upset with BioWare for choosing that strategy. But while Mass Effect 2 unquestionably cleaned up a lot of problems with the original, at the same time it trampled over many of its virtues, resulting in what (at least to a fan) feels like a much more average game. That does upset me.

The One Commandment for Game Sequels: Thou shalt not ruin what made thy predecessor great.

In college, I dubbed it “Chrono Cross Syndrome.” What made Chrono Trigger one of the best RPGs of its era? A simple but fun battle system, tight plotting, and a lovable cast of characters. What did the sequel have? Overly complex and blatantly unfair battles, a sprawlingly incomprehensible plot, and an unmanageably large cast of undeveloped characters. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that there was never a third game.

(Incidentally, I have long held that seven is the magic number for RPG party members. It worked in Chrono Trigger, in Final Fantasy X, in Mass Effect. You can fudge by a couple in either direction, but seven is the sweet spot. It’s enough room for a variety in character personality and play style, but not so much that some must end up redundant or useless; it’s enough characters for interactions and relationships to stay interesting, but not so many that none of them have a chance to develop. Is this related to the apparent fact that the number of things humans can remember at once is seven, plus or minus two? Probably!)

Assassin’s Creed II was smart enough to avoid this trap. It cleaned up the original’s obvious repetitiveness, interface problems, and tedious combat, without sacrificing the fun of the running-climbing-stabbing-hiding gameplay. Flaws in the parkour went untouched, but when the worst thing you can say about a sequel is that it only improved almost everything, that’s a pretty good sign. But what the game mostly did was add stuff.

“Stuff is a key concept in game design. Pong plus Stuff makes Arkanoid. Risk plus Stuff makes Cosmic Encounter. Rock-Scissors-Paper plus Stuff makes Magic: the Gathering."
—Andrew Plotkin, Capture-the-Flag With Stuff

This is another question faced by sequel developers - do you add stuff, or do you refine what you already have? (The Ratchet & Clank franchise has struggled with this, among other challenges.) Many of Assassin’s Creed II’s additions lend a wonderful variety to its missions, but others are frankly unnecessary. There’s money now, but it’s trivially easy to get more than you will ever need, and there’s weapon and armor upgrades, but they hardly matter (why would you use a sword, hammer, or dagger now that you can block with the hidden blade?), and there are a variety of things you can do to upgrade the villa, but most of that is simply in service of getting you the money you won’t need. These additions are at least inoffensive, however.

Where Assassin’s Creed II falls down is where it forgets what it isn’t. Specifically, it is not Prince Of Persia, and it is not a puzzle game, and its half-hearted expansions into these areas are maddening. The platforming puzzles in the Assassin Tombs have no recovery mechanic - no Dagger of Time, no Elika - and when you fall you often undo several minutes of careful climbing and jumping. The rotation and code wheel puzzles from the glyphs are pointless and uninteresting with no stabbing at all and are exactly the sort of thing GameFAQs was invented for.

This is why stuff is dangerous in sequels. New depth or types of gameplay can draw in more players, but if it’s handled clumsily then it just forms roadblocks - especially since the people who come back to a franchise do so because they want to play more like that franchise - not that franchise pretending to be something else.

(I have to say, though, that I am extremely relieved that Assassin’s Creed II was not written by Hideo Kojima. Given the setup, it could easily have been player-trolling on the level of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty all over again, and that was definitely not what I had signed up for.)

Refining what the game already has, on the other hand, is something that should be happening at least a little with every iteration of a franchise. After all, no creative work is ever truly complete - you just reach a point where you stop working on it. And while this can mean that later installments essentially obsolete earlier ones, that outcome is far preferable to stagnation. And in fact, it’s pretty common for second games to add stuff and third games to refine it. And if Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood’s game director is to be believed, it’s happening there, too.

But given that, there’s something quite curious about Brotherhood: its marketing.

Forcing multiplayer into games, particularly new installments in successful franchises, is nothing new. What’s unusual, though, is taking a successful, decently established (two console games, three portable games, a phone game and a Facebook game) thoroughly single-player franchise and advertising the next installment so heavily on its multiplayer that most people who don’t specifically hunt out the information probably don’t even realize it has an extensive single-player campaign too.

As long as that single player campaign is as much fun as Assassin’s Creed II, The One Commandment won’t be violated and I’ll be happy. But there’s still an interesting phenomenon here, from a similar source - an attempt at audience expansion that deemphasizes what matters to the existing fans.

(Though I also have to mention that the series has sort of painted itself into a corner in terms of what it can do with the assassin ancestors. Altair looked and sounded exactly like Desmond, though it was unclear whether this was because he was genuinely identical or because this is how the Animus causes people to experience things. Then, when both Ezio and Subject 16 were also identical to Desmond, it became clear that the latter explanation was correct. So what will they do if Desmond is compelled to relive the life of a female ancestor? Or even just one who isn’t white? It makes me deeply skeptical of rumors of a playable female assassin in Assassin’s Creed III.)

I just started Uncharted 2 yesterday, so I don’t know yet what grand statement it makes about sequels. I’m probably going to come back with thoughts about the game after I play it more. But for now, I’ll tell you that if it were not such a well regarded game, and not by Naughty Dog, I would have already sent it back to GameFly.