Sequels: Expectations.

What is the purpose of a sequel? From a corporate perspective it’s a means of establishing a brand, a franchise, and increasing revenue through recognition. As a  fictional work it’s to expand the universe, grow the narrative and revisit familiar characters. What is the purpose from a game perspective? Chess might have evolved over centuries but it was a gradual process, and it’s unlikely to change to any substantial degree in the near future. We are not expecting Chess 2.0 any time soon. The rules of most competitive games change subtly over time but the core vocabulary of the game changes little, even if the offside rules change slightly Soccer is still recognisably the same game it was twenty years ago, at least in terms of its fundamental rules.

That’s going to leave a mark.

StarCraft as a competitive multi-player title has seen unprecedented success, especially in South Korea, players have developed and honed tactics over years of play. What will happen when the sequel is released? Is StarCraft II designed to replace StarCraft or to compliment it? Blizzard seem keen for StarCraft II to appeal to the those involved in competitive play. This is obviously a good audience to target as they have a built in enthusiasm for the game, but after spending years playing with the original game can they really be expected to invest more time into learning the changes in the sequel? Will their skills transfer? How much can StarCraft II change from its predecessor before the investment required to learn its intricacies becomes too much?

Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War, and Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War II though superficially similar games appear to be taking very different approaches to their game mechanics. The former is focused on base building, territorial control and combat between a number of combined arms units. The sequel looks to be focusing on smaller scale combat, taking a more tactical role playing approach, a squad combat title more than a real time strategy game. Relic have the opportunity to appeal to two different audiences with these titles, providing two complimentary experiences. These different audiences will only develop if Relic and THQ choose to support both titles in the years after the release of the sequel. How likely is this?

It is said that art is never finished it is merely abandoned, game development is rife with stories of cut features and unbalanced mechanics. These are obvious targets to focus on first when working on a sequel, but with the game now in the hands of players the fact that those specific features are missing, or that those mechanics are unbalanced has become part of what makes the game what it is. Changes to these features might move the game closer to the developers original intent but possibly away from what made it resonate with consumers.

So what is the purpose of a sequel to a successful game from a ludic perspective? To improve on and refine the mechanics, or to attempt to provide a similar aesthetic experience through different mechanics? Is the purpose of a sequel to replace the original? To compliment it? Or is it to provide a counter to the original, an antithesis with a third title potentially providing a synthesis of ideas from the first two titles?

The answers to these questions seems as manifold as the titles which inspire them.

Restricted Interactivity.

A core property of games as is that of interactivity, digital games especially so. Computers are interactive, therefore computer games are interactive, but does interactivity operate on a binary scale? Is something either interactive or not? If it’s not a binary scale does a game require a certain degree of interactivity?

One title that has been criticised for not being enough of a game, (not interactive enough?) is Dreamfall: The Longest Journey. The sequel to the critically acclaimed point-and-click adventure game The Longest Journey, Dreamfall has been criticised for including too few elements of actual interactivity. In essence the game involves an extensive use of non-interactive cut-scenes, linked by periods of environmental exploration and brief tactically unsophisticated combat. By a number of metrics there is very little “game” in Dreamfall and what does exist is not particularly well implemented. However I contend that none of that matters, Dreamfall is a form of electronic entertainment that provides an experience that could not be implemented in another medium and remain as engaging or affecting. The worlds of Stark and Arcadia and the people that inhabit them, could be described in a novel or represented in a film but neither form could make them feel like an actual place in the way that they can in a digital game.

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Cinematic… But not a film.

Dreamfall it is too interactive to be a film, therefore gaming has as much right to claim it as anything else.

All games afford a some degree of interactivity, it make no sense to put a threshold on the degree of interactivity a game is required to offer. The level of interactivity provided by a game like Grand Theft Auto III is something unique to the field of games and something that should be encouraged. But the specific style of highly scripted experience provided by Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is just as vital to the evolution of games; they are simply at different ends of a wide spectrum of interactivity. Though potentially less interactive than Grand Theft Auto III, Modern Warfare is still too interactive to be a film. It must be a game because it can’t be anything else.

Similar arguments occur when it comes to the role of story and narrative within a game, such as during the GDC panel on “The Future Of Story In Game Design”. As interesting as such discussions can be, I believe that they are fundamentally counter-productive. I personally see a role for narrative in games, and am interested in the potential new techniques for storytelling made available by games. However I would never claim that all titles must aspire to developing a narrative, any more than I would demand that all films should be in black and white, or that all literature should be written in iambic pentameter.

Discussions about the role of story in game design should be limited to the specifics of whether it is something a particular title should be concerned with or not. Of course there is a role for author created narratives in the vast continuum that is games but not necessarily in every title, and not to the same extent in those titles that do choose to include such narratives.

Gaming should be an inclusive form, there’s as much room for the simulated as the imaginary, for the narrative as the ludic.

The worst fate that can befall any medium, at such a relatively early stage in it’s development, is to have arbitrary restrictions imposed upon its growth.

Mainstream Potential.

I’ve often found myself in discussions regarding the apparent mainstreaming of games, the basic argument being that games will lose some of what initially made them special because they are now being designed for a wider audience. Whilst this is a point of view I can understand, it is also one that I consider a little near sighted.

Though I dislike comparisons between games and films I feel in this instances it is at once accurate and unavoidable. Consider the total market for films worldwide, that’s everything from straight to DVD movies and documentaries, through small art house pictures with limited releases, to summer blockbusters. That’s a market that must be in the area of several billion all told; a huge market. That’s the scale of market I see games having the potential to reach, I believe that for every person who owns a particular historical strategy game there are at least ten other people who would enjoy that game if they tried it, the same is true of many role playing or action adventure titles. Simply put I believe there’s a massive potential market for games that remains untapped because that market is labouring under a misconception regarding what games are.

The problem is those people are never going to try games if the perception of gaming in the public eye doesn’t change, and the only way that’s going to happen is by aiming for the mainstream, at least for the time being. As an entertainment medium the total market share of the games industry needs to increase, to the point at which it’s rivaling that of the film industry. Once that happens, once the market for games is in that several billion people ballpark then it can really begin to diversify. Everybody is different, with different tastes, different desires, there’s potentially a huge market for turn based strategy games but a lot of the people who would enjoy such games simply don’t consider gaming as a valid pastime, and they never will until it obtains mainstream acceptance.

We should not fear the mainstream but embrace it. I don’t just mean reaching the kind of people who play a game of Madden NFL or Rock Band with their friends after a night out but the type of people who watch obscure Spanish films, or read dense Russian novels.

Mainstream means a games industry with a audience so diverse that text based adventure games and super-detailed tank simulations are both viable products because although they might only have a 0.1% market share that’s 0.1% of a billion people.

Do you want to hear a story?

The role of narrative in games, and the relationship between story and gameplay, has been an important topic at this years Game Developers Conference. Once again developers seemed unable to agree on the importance of narrative in games.

The first person to speak up specifically about the role of stories in games was Ken Levine, President and Creative Director of 2K Boston (Formerly Irrational Games), and the person credited with “Story, Writing and Creative Direction” on BioShock. Though BioShock has received significant critical and commercial success and been awarded for it’s story and writing, Ken started his presentation (“Storytelling in BioShock: Empowering Players to Care about Your Stupid Story”) by informing the audience that: “… the bad news for storytellers is that nobody cares about your stupid story”. Though this was not the core of his presentation as he went on to qualify that statement, and present a number of other ideas that I plan to discuss at a later date, I do feel his initial remarks are deserving of specific consideration.

On the face of it I feel Ken has a point, I find it extremely unlikely that anybody who played BioShock choose to do so because of the story alone. I do however believe from personal experience that the quality of the story and it’s presentation are a contributing factor to some people’s enjoyment of the game. This is a situation true of many games, people might not come for the story but it is often what keeps them playing past the point at which they have mastered, or grown tired of, the gameplay.

Stories have been a vital part of human society since the birth of communication, it’s only natural for people to be interested in them. The nature of storytelling and basic dramatic structure is embedded in human culture to the extent that when recounting their day to a friend the narrator will describe the events in the structure of a story, with a beginning, a middle a conclusion and dramatic tension. When playing a game without a specific story players will invent one, and personalise it. They rarely refer to what happened by saying “my character fell”, rather they will say “I fell”.

Stories are part of being human and any artistic or entertainment endeavour that ignores them is greatly limiting it’s potential. There will always be an audience for games without explicit stories, games like Chess or Football, but the potential audience for games with stories is conceivably every human being alive.

The problem games have at the moment is that they are not seen as a storytelling medium, because of this neither the type of people who would be interested in experiencing the new techniques of storytelling made possible through games, nor those best suited to develop those new techniques are interested in games.

Nobody cares about your stupid story because games are not consider a narrative medium.