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Make It Again, Man

We all hate sequels right? Sequels suck. Why can't those idiots who make games come up with new ideas? All we get from companies like EA are the same game again and again. That's a bad thing right?

Or is it?

It all comes down to that age old nightmare – game design. As I've said before, design is hard – it’s certainly the hardest thing about making good games. As an indie developer, I get to do all the jobs, and the design bit is the one I find hardest of all, although ironically it's the bit I get praised for in reviews. I'd like to put forward the theory that the difficulty of design is a reason we should love sequels. Let me explain...

I worked for three years on Lionhead’s The Movies and I ended up being known as the AI coder even though I actually worked on lots of different parts of the game. Because I was involved more or less from the start of the project I saw the game design evolve over time, which it did rather dramatically.

If you haven't seen The Movies, let me describe it briefly. The Movies is a management game where you run a movie studio, with a 3D view of your studio lot. You pick the actors, sets, costumes, and (and this was the cool bit), you actually got to see the finished movie that you made, with the option to add subtitles, sound effects and so on.

Commercially, The Movies did alright, but not breathtakingly. I left Lionhead just as it was released so I don't know the exact figures, but I know there won't be a sequel. There was an expansion, but the first add-on pack for a game is always in development before it ships – that's just the logistics of things. The game got some good reviews, but it didn't set the world on fire.

Now if you’re an investor, a publisher or a money man then your immediate thoughts are these:
  • The game did not provide as good a return on investment as expected.
  • The game did not sell enough.
  • The last thing we would do is another game like this.
Which makes absolute sense. Why throw good money after bad? Would you fund The Movies 2?

The problem is that you should fund second game because such a huge amount was learned from the 'not quite a success' of first game. For The Movies we learnt that the studio management side isn't anywhere near as fun as making a movie. We learnt that the editing part of the game should have had way more time spent on it. We learnt that we absolutely should have had pixel shader effects in the game to allow us to add cool transitions and other effects to the finished movies.

If you gave me the original budget and the existing code and team for The Movies then I could make a much better sequel right now. In fact, so could anyone who worked on that team who learned from those mistakes. In fact, we could make it faster and cheaper, as well as better.

There are obvious design flaws we would have learned from, technical problems that we don't need to fix twice and there’s masses of opinions from gamers about what worked and what didn't. Plus, there are thousands of player-made movies we could look at to see what people did and didn't use. Some of the tools would admittedly need remaking, but many would not. Making a sequel would be vastly easier in every possible way.

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Cliff Harris

The problem is that the industry doesn't work like that. If at first you don't succeed, disband the whole team! That’s our industry’s mantra. Games that do get sequels are new IPs that managed to get it all right the first time round. That’s kind of ironic too, because a team that comes up with a new IP and does it right on the first attempt should be doing another new IP, not just doing the same thing again.

Games that die a horrid death and lose piles of money obviously don't get sequels, and nor should they, but it's the games that are 'near misses' that are being treated wrong.

Because I decide what games I make, I can avoid making the same mistake. Kudos and Democracy are my two most popular indie creations and they sold well, but not earth-shatteringly so. Both these games had flaws, and I could see immediately what they were. Democracy was a great idea that looked amateurish (fixed in version 2.0). Kudos was a great idea with dubious character art and which felt really depressing (will be fixed in 2.0).

Now you might object to the idea that we should be resigned to making sequels to fix the sins of the predecessor. Shouldn't we stop ripping off gamers and just not release half-finished games? Well firstly, we don't (generally) do that. We think the game is great, but no QA department equates to 100,000 paying customers offering their (brutally) frank opinions. Secondly, every business does this, in every industry.

I'm typing this wearing some l33t Bose QuietComfort 2 headphones and I am pitying the poor schmucks who were conned into buying the QuietComfort 1 model because of all the things that weren’t fixed until the second set. Except – hang on, there’s now a QuietComfort 3? Damn.

Cars, TVs, iPods, they all have an iterative system of improvement. My iPod Mini made me feel very superior, until the Nano came along. Windows was unusable until version three (insert anti-Microsoft joke here). I bet Microsoft is glad it stuck with the project even after the first two versions underperformed. The same goes for Xbox 360 vs Xbox, PS2 vs PS1 and so on.
Note that I'm not saying all sequels are better, I'm saying that version two is often better than version one. By the time you get to version four, you’re probably starting to bore people.

What makes me think about all this right now? It's the upcoming release of the new Will Wright game Spore. I think Spore will be an awesome game, I'm very keen to play it and will buy it on the first day. But I know it’ll be flawed. They are innovating, and innovation always gets a few small things wrong at first. They have to release it at some point, and the team will know what they should have done differently. So, Spore 2 is what I’m really excited about and on the off chance that Spore doesn't sell as expected, I hope EA is far-sighted enough to realise it will be worth trying that again.