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Sequel Hooked!

A while ago I saw an online advertisement saying that Watch_Dogs 2 was going to be revealed at E3. Um… It was already revealed by that advertisement, you silly marketing people. But did you hear about the Watch_Dogs 2 announcement yourself? Judging by the public response, I bet you either didn’t know or didn’t care. There was more exciting news that day, like the fact that the sky is blue and that shotguns are dangerous. Go check out the sites reporting on this, and see the reams of comments that don’t seem excited or intrigued, but bored, or even irritated.

Though not surprised in the least. We all knew that Watch_Dogs 2 was in the works ever since the first one performed adequately enough to justify its own existence (at least financially speaking), and a lot of people have drawn the comparison between this and Ubisoft’s biggest series – Assassin’s Creed.

And that makes sense on the surface. Both were sandbox games that offered a new take on traditional gameplay and had less-than-enthralling protagonists, that started off roughly-designed and tried to aspire to a more polished format.

But look any closer, and it doesn’t quite work as an analogy. Assassin’s Creed 1 was originally a bit messy, but only because it was utilising fairly new ideas and they weren’t sure yet about what was working and what wasn’t. Stabbing Templars? That’s in for the next one. Protracted periods of dull horse riding? Maybe reduce that a tad.

Altair fighting Templars in Assassin's CreedBut if there was one thing Watch_Dogs wasn’t, it wasn’t original. Bland protagonist, dull gameplay, and on the whole it left the audience thinking that “everything we saw here, we’ve seen before done better.” Thus because there’s nothing here really worth scavenging, it’s no wonder that people seem disinterested in a sequel.

But we’re getting one anyway, for no other reason than it must be forced down our throats in the name of profit. And it isn’t the first time that such a thing has happened. The Lost Planet series meandered for three games before finally giving up altogether, not really achieving great success or love despite the effort seemingly put into it.

Because sequels are usually a decision made by the bean-counters and money men. They come with pre-established success and recognition behind them, along with game engines, assets, ideas and all sorts of useful data. Done right, a sequel can cost far less than it normally would, just by dipping back into the recycle bin. That’s not to say that all developers do this, but we all know a few that have. Ubisoft have admitted in the past that they won’t start a new series without knowing that it could have several installments to it, minimum.

All Farcry gamesIt’s also worth noting that the basic innovation that comes with making new IP is pretty risky. Constructing something new and experimental is exactly that: an experiment. And anything that turns out to be a bad move could have disastrous results for the sales, and thus the creators. So with AAA games costing more and more to make each year, being unique could be a suicidal move for the company.

So why not just do what you did last time? For all its faults, Watch_Dogs managed to earn its keep. I assume those in charge are assuming it could do it again. Hell, even Assassin’s Creed – that game that I praised earlier for being kind of unique – has been copied and pasted so often that it’s been reduced to a flat-line formula, the artistic equivalent of using Mad Libs.

“In Assassins’ Creed: Retribution, the protagonist relives the memory of an ancestor in ancient Greece, where he must stab Templars who are under the guise of sophists, discover a Piece Of Eden hidden inside the Parthenon, play mini-games relating to philosophy, I guess?, and meet famous characters from history like Plato.”

I can’t say I blame some creators for this attitude, though. When your livelihood is on the line, it’s not always the smart choice to be… Well, smart. The public is threatened by change and usually react poorly to whatever’s new, regardless of whether it’s an improvement or not. This may be why the greatest creativity keeps coming from the indie circles, where designers can do their thing in their own time, usually supported by other jobs that give them the freedom to swap out stale ideas for fresh ones.

But it’s still pretty sad to see that being the case, especially when AAA developers are the only ones who have the funds to make the biggest ideas a reality. And yet they’re not allowed to do so. We will never be sure exactly how many interesting and ambitious ideas were cooked up in late-night development sessions, only to be shot down by some grey-suited, green-hearted executive the next morning for being too innovative and intellectually challenging.

But it’s also partly our fault. We – the public – do bring this on ourselves, by demanding more of anything that was well-crafted or enjoyable, much like we’ve done with The Last Of Us. So many people want a sequel, or a spin-off, or a movie adaptation, but why? It doesn’t need one, it ended at the right moment. Any more would be excess, and would actually be to the detriment of the original. But because we’re all a bunch of greedy sods who don’t know when enough is enough, we keep demanding second helpings like Augustus Gloop and Mr. Creosote together in a five-star restaurant.

The Last of Us 2Look, I’m not saying sequels are bad as a rule. There’s a lot of good stuff out there that derives from a previous work, or even surpasses the older work. If nobody did sequels, we wouldn’t have Half-Life 2, Halo 3, Batman: Arkham City, or any number of enjoyable follow-ups to former games. But there’s also sequels that we didn’t need, that often had the stench of the opportunistic buck around them. What about Bioshock 2? What about Duke Nukem Forever? What about Resident Evil 6, Metroid: Other M, Silent Hill: Homecoming and a whole bunch of Sonic games?

I could go on. But I won’t. But I could. And I might do so later.

There’s all sorts of people that need to change their habits a little for this problem to improve. Publishers need to try and allow for a little more risk and artistry, or at least reduce the budgets so that such risk isn’t a problem. Developers need to be less attached to doing the same thing over and over, even if it worked the first time. Audiences need to stop demanding sequels to games that don’t need them, and expand their pallets to try something new, and on the whole I think the latter issue is getting better.

It might sound like a lot, but I think at some point the public will just get sick of duplications and demand something new, and the creators will have to oblige. Whether it’s sooner or later is up to us. And whether that thought fills you with hope or dread says a lot about your view of the world, and probably how much liquor you keep close to hand.

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