Monday, December 3, 2012

Planning ahead

Lately, there's been a lot of discussion about sequels in the computer games business. Claims have been made that "New IPs don't sell", that people gravitate to what's familiar, and that, with the economy shakey, companies should retrench and stick to what they know.

I call all of that rubbish. While it's abundantly clear that sequels to well-known games can do very well (witness the Call of Duty phenomenon, with I have no idea how many sequels because it's split into so many, many different lines of cover-based shooters that I can't tell apart), it's also clear that slapping a respected name on a donkey of a game won't convince buyers it's an Arabian (the current example being Medal of Honor: Warfighter, which carries the critically-acclaimed name of the game that gave rise to Call of Duty, and is tanking) and that some of the other sacred cows of the industry are, shall we say less than prime beef at this point.

Let's look at multiplayer. A common sentiment in recent years has been that games need multiplayer modes to be successful. However, some of the most critically-acclaimed games have been strictly single-player (Half-Life 2; Bioshock; Deus Ex: Human Revolution; Dishonored; Skyrim; Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2; Mirror's Edge) and there are plenty of examples of games weakened by the addition of multiplayer (Bioshock 2; Mass Effect 3; Spec Ops: The Line). Frankly, it behooves any company pitching a game to examine whether multiplayer is appropriate, and stick to that. In the cases of Bioshock 2 and Spec Ops: The Line, the multiplayer modes were insisted on by the publisher, and the developers have in both cases stated that they would rather not have included that feature.

Now let's look at sequels versus new IP. Dishonored is the current poster child for "new can sell", and is reportedly doing better than expected; there are rumours of forthcoming sequels. That saddens me; while I haven't played Dishonored myself, I've picked up enough knowledge to get the very strong impression that while the universe it's in is interesting, it is a complete story in and of itself, and doesn't need a sequel. Admittedly, Bethesda, its publisher, is known mostly for its Elder Scrolls series which, while they are consecutively numbered, does not consist of a tightly coupled series of sequels. Each Elder Scrolls game stands on its own. The trouble with sequels is the need to go bigger and better than the previous installment; this has led to absurdities in one of the Call of Duty franchises, as setting off a nuclear weapon has become insufficiently shocking a set-piece. Not every creative endeavour needs to become a cash cow; while I'm glad of the success of the Dresden Files series of books, well into double digits by now, I can also appreciate the virtues of knowing when to stop.

Retrenching and sticking to what you know is a worrying strategy. While it may result in a reliable income stream, the average person doesn't tend to want to leap into a series in the middle, and it's a fact of life that the first installment is always the strongest seller. With a shakey economy, it seems to me that now is the time to take chances. Give that small studio with a nifty idea a chance; get lots of ideas out there, and while inevitably there will be failures, some will succeed beyond your wildest dreams. The current corporate culture is pathologically risk-averse.

Let's defy conventional wisdom.

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