2009: The Year of the Sequel

As part of the upcoming TGR Awards, I was recently asked what I thought were the best three games of the year. I chose Assassin’s Creed 2 as third place, Uncharted 2 for second, and Modern Warfare 2 for first. Some of the more astute among you may notice a pattern in those games. Yes, while it may have been a fantastic year for gaming, lack of innovation and originality may be a greater hallmark for 2009 than the great games we have enjoyed.

The recession can’t be solely to blame for unexciting release schedules given that most console games spend at least a year in development. All the entertainment industries use the sequel as a powerful tool, but the problem for the gaming industry is that a lot of its sequels this year have underperformed.

Nonetheless, the overexploitation of beloved brands isn’t a result of simple greed. In a time where people have less disposable income than in previous years, there is massive risk in publishers releasing original IP. And as time passes, people expect more from video games: better graphics, more dynamic sound and larger interactive environments. To achieve this requires bigger development teams working longer hours to utilize as much of the current generation’s power available to them as possible. Making games is now hugely expensive, evidenced by development costs for Modern Warfare 2 rumored to having been stretched to over $200 million.

High development costs like the above means that risk has to be minimized and originality stifled, the outcome being fewer new titles and more sequels in the hope that people will purchase based on an affinity with a franchise. So instead we see the truly exciting, original titles being released on platforms where the development overheads can be kept to a minimum, namely Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network and on handhelds.

Many saw Flower as not only one of 2009’s most original video games, but one of its best too

The two strongest examples of originality in 2009 fall into this category. Flower dazzled with stripped-out gameplay and stunning visuals, truly challenging the boundaries of what we consider to be a video game. Scribblenauts attacked convention from a different direction. While flawed, it provided an entirely engaging experience that could only have worked on the Nintendo DS. The latter of these two titles is a particularly interesting example as the developer 5th Cell completely self-funded the title, something they could never have hoped to have done with a retail console game. Jeremiah Slackza, Creative Director at 5th Cell, is certainly proud of his company’s intentions:

"We want to show that sequels and especially clones of popular games like Halo or Grand Theft Auto aren’t the only avenue for success. Truly creative games that don’t rely on shock value or riding some other successful title’s coattails can be innovative and successful. If we prove the model, then others are sure to follow."

Halo 3: ODST, a critically acclaimed sequel that was expected to do well, sold poorly compared to earlier games in the series. Early numbers were promising with 2 million copies sold in the first two weeks, but current figures suggest total sales of between 3 and 3.5 million copies. The rhythm genre was also hit hard by the highly publicized The Beatles: Rock Band taking three months to hit total sales of one million copies despite being universally lauded.

The one shining exception to the rule has been Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 which has already sold more than 10 million copies in three weeks and is the reason why much of the winter release schedule has scurried to the warmer climes of Spring 2010. The original Modern Warfare took 18 months to go past the 13 million mark. Infinity Ward created an amazing and immersive multiplayer environment in the original and sales built up over a long time from word of mouth. This, along with a mass of hype and publicity, created a perfect storm of anticipation.

Modern Warfare 2’s sales performance may have been expected, but still staggers.

Nonetheless, well-loved franchises are quickly becoming subject to sequel fatigue with new titles becoming an annual event rather than something keenly anticipated every few years. In a recession, when it is common knowledge that a series gets annually updated, it becomes much easier to just skip the latest iterations. The evidence is all around with year on year decline in the sales of annually-updated series. Take the latest Tony Hawk game, Ride, which has sold less than 200,000 copies in the US to date, making it far and away the worst performing iteration n the franchise so far.

In an industry where publishers are looking so closely at track history, new developers find it difficult to get a firm foothold. Uncharted very nearly put Naughty Dog out of business due to the monumental costs involved. Thankfully, sales picked up allowing bills to be paid and development of Among Thieves, Uncharted’s sequel and a definite contender for TGR’s Game of the Year. That Uncharted 2 has outsold its predecessor comfortably goes some way to show that establishing a new franchise is a dangerous proposition but one that, if done correctly, can prove to be profitable.

But Naughty Dog is arguably one of the lucky ones. Like Scribblenauts’ creator 5th Cell, other new developers are looking at fresh avenues of business in order to prosper. British developer Media Molecule presents an interesting model. Rather than releasing a constant barrage of new titles or attempting to release sequel after sequel, it has focused purely on establishing a community with its only intellectual property, constantly drip-feeding new content and functionality in the form of downloadable content. LittleBigPlanet is now a platform in its own right and Media Molecule founder, Mark Healey, has stated he has no plans to create any other original IP during the current generation. As for its performance, Sony says there are at least 1.3 million unique players enjoying Sackboy’s charms.

It is entirely refreshing and encouraging to hear that there is another way to do things, that money can be made without the continual need for either sequels or new titles. As a firm fan of LittleBigPlanet, it amazes me how I have never become bored with Sackboy and his floaty platforming ways due to the depth and scope of the user created content and the new tools Media Molecule constantly provides those creators.

Sackboy has the potential to become a true mascot for Sony PlayStation.

2010 is going to be interesting because it can go any one of two ways. The success of Modern Warfare 2 may make developers believe they have a charter to continue on in the same path they have been going down in 2009. The more probable scenario is that they realize Infinity Ward played the long game, and that the results of other popular franchises will prove to be a better indicator. We are already seeing signs of this Activision announcing there will be dramatically fewer Hero games next year. 2009 has seen a sea of change in the way people buy games and it has proved a hard lesson for publishers, but one I suspect they will have learned from.

But there is a light at the end of the tunnel as evidenced by the likes of Flower, Scribblenauts and LittleBigPlanet. The factors surrounding this current dearth of originality are many but none are insurmountable and a stabilizing economy can only assist matters. 2010 already hints at some promising new titles with the likes of Heavy Rain and Ninokuni leading the way in innovation and hopefully laying 2009 to rest as a blip rather than something we can expect as typical of the future. If nothing else, surely the ultimate carrot for developers and publishers is a successful new title providing the basis for a franchise that will span years – see Call of Duty for more details. 

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