Sequels: Originality and Entitlement.

The news that StarCraft II is to to be released as the first in a trilogy has caused some controversy. The variety and tone of comments on the matter has swayed from the conciliatory to the openly hostile, to the abusive. I have quoted an example of two such comments, culled from popular game industry news sites:

“Tip to Blizzard: Sell this to Korea only, America does not want your stupid, expensive, and uninventive sequel. Also – get some balls and come up with a new concept. Diablo + Warcraft + Starcraft are getting stale.”

“This is Blizzard fucking over people to make more money. I played SC for the multiplayer, but Single Player was still great. Now because some guy in some fucking suit over at Activison-Blizzard thought “how can we fucking milk this shit more?” we have to pay for 3 incomplete games. You thought EA is fucked up? this sets a new standard.”

With such comments as this often standard and not the exception is it any wonder gaming and gamers are considered juvnile?

StarCraft II is being released as three separate products with three different single-player campaigns included in each product; the release dates and pricing details have yet to be announced. The original StarCraft featured a single-player mode with three campaigns, one for each race, “out of the box”. Are potential consumers somehow entitled to a sequel that follows that trend and again includes three playable campaigns on initial release?

Haven't I seen this somewhere before?

This is not the first time StarCraft II and Blizzard have provoked controversy. Ashley Cheng posted on his blog that he was disappointed that Blizzard were taking a conservative approach to the design of their sequels. I have no problem with this comment, and I agree with Steve Gaynor who described it as a “sad-ass day” when Ahsley felt compelled to apologise for holding an opinion. He was stating an opinion and in fact one I agree with, however I do question if whether the conservative nature of Blizzard’s design philosophy is inherently a bad thing.

The underlying issue seems to be how important innovation and originality are to a sequel or franchise title. Is there something inherently wrong with providing games that fans of the original will enjoy? It is all but impossible to create a sequel that is aesthetically or mechanically identical to the original, incremental changes occur all the time and together with new technology this means any sequel is automatically going to feel at least a little different to the original. Genre conventions (Whether you believe they should be kept to or not) change over time, is there anything wrong with a new game including those changes while keeping the core mechanics relatively unchanged?

Another question is who should the developers be making their sequel for? If hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of people purchased your previous title how do you decide how far to change or innovate for the sequel? The answer to this question is made even more complicated when you start to look at the general reception of some titles that have sought to innovate. Warhammer 40K: Dawn Of War II is taking a different approach to its mechanics compared to the original Dawn Of War. There is a greater focus on individual squads and tactics over base building and resource management. This has caused consternation in some quarters as it no longer feels like the original title. So how much innovation is too much?

Is this a case of Goldilocks and the three sequels? This one is too different, this one is not different enough but this one is just right?

Too little change gives up Diablo III, too much gives us Deus Ex: Invisible War.  But even in the case of the former the art style has provoked comment and controversy, because it has changed “too much” from that of Diablo II.

Oh look. Rainbows!

I can’t help but feel that sometimes “lack of originality” is the battle cry of those who feel their own pet projects are not getting the attention they deserve. Are games there to provide entertainment for consumers, or to gratify the artistic desire of their creators? Is it possible for them to be both?

Who are developers ultimately answerable too? Themselves, their publishers (And their shareholders) or their fans? Are their fans entitled to a sequel with the same art direction as the original, or the same style of single-player campaign? Or should they seek to innovate, and if so how much and in which areas?

There are far more questions than answers, yet reading comments to news posts regarding upcoming sequels it seems like everybody knows exactly what the right way to create a sequel is, and unsurprisingly only a few of them agree with each other.

Are consumers entitled to anything beyond products that function correctly? If you don’t like something you are not required to purchase it, no one is forcing that upon you. Is there a fear that with the release of a particular style of sequel what you might have enjoyed about the original will be ignore? It can often be difficult to get two people to agree on the strengths of an individual game let alone what they feel should be included in any sequel.

Is there a value in change for the sake of change? If it’s not broken why fix it? If you are providing entertainment for millions of people is there a reason to change what you are doing? Is the games industry a consumer driven industry or a product driven one? Which should it be?

Personally I know from experience that both StarCraft II and Diablo III will likely be high quality releases that will be consistently supported by Blizzard in the months and years following release. Beyond that I am happy to let them provide what they want to provide, if it’s a similar experience to what I’ve had before I see no problem with that if I still want that experience I will enjoy it, if I don’t I won’t purchase it. There are enough other titles released each year that I know I will find something to entertain and engage me somewhere.

4 thoughts on “Sequels: Originality and Entitlement.

  1. Both of these franchises will find their way on my computer–no doubt.

    I think that perhaps we don’t know enough yet about D3 to make an informed judgment on how different it will be. There are so many minor changes that I doubt it will be much like D2 overall, though it will look and feel the same. If we use different tools to create the same feel, are we then being conservative in innovation?

    As for Starcraft 2, it excites me. Three full storylines? Blizzard may not be the best storyteller out there, but their stories do entertain and provide food for thought. The monetary issue is the real concern, but even then, I shrug and would have expected expansion packs anyway. To me, this seems rather innovative in terms of knowing that multiplayer is Starcraft’s bread and butter, yet making sure to provide the single player (which is so often overlooked, I feel) with tons of options as well.

    Perhaps one of the issues is that games are still constantly evolving (as you noted) and that we shouldn’t really expect much fidelity when it comes to this still evolving medium. Of course, the consumer is the one who decides how well these will do, and despite the vitriolic statements found on sites like Kotaku, I doubt that most gamers will even realize that their franchise has changed before they buy it. If most people are just being quiet, are we really getting a snapshot of consumer desire? Sales will tell.

  2. I think the problem is the fact that up until this announcement Blizzard was portraying the game as Starcraft 2 with a fresh coat of paint, some new units, and the same sharp RTS game that the original was.

    I applaud the idea of using a new, non-linear method for delivering missions in the campaign mode. But I have to raise an eyebrow when someone tells me they’re doing it with an RTS game. The average mission is going to take 30+ minutes to beat. Games like Final Fantasy Tactics A2 demonstrate the limits of people’s willingness to grind when the combat takes longer than 2 minutes. I played the experimental Orc campaign from ‘Frozen Throne’ and unless something drastic has changed…I just can’t imagine sustaining the game for 3 separate products. I appreciate the idea of hybridizing Diablo’s formula and melding it with an RTS…but then again, I also thought Warcraft III was inferior to Starcraft.

    I don’t know why I’m fussing though…unless Metzen has turned totally to the bottle then he can still tell a damn good sci-fi story and I’m sure the gameplay will be silky smooth. I’ll be buying it one way or another.

  3. Wonderful post, I was actually pondering the idea of this topic as well. Personally, I will love playing these Blizzard games once they are released, but I do fear we will get into a Nintendo-esk over saturation of the franchise. I am referring to the Zelda effect where we essentially get the same game over and over again to the eventual point of fan backlash. A better example is Mario Kart.

    But Blizzard is not known for drastic gameplay innovation, at least in my humble opinion. They are a company that innovates on the advancements that have come before and combining these aspects to make a complete package developed to perfection. WoW is a wonderful example of Blizzard taking the perks of an MMO and tweaking aspects of it to keep the player to returning and enjoying the, for all intents and purposed, repetitive gameplay.

    Many people have pointed out the staleness of Diablo II and how it is just a looting game. This will no doubt be the response for Diablo III. However, I was contend that Starcraft II is a much different beast because of its status in Korea and the desire to maintain that user base. If Blizzard changes to much it can totally alienate the competitive community in the country and if nothing changes it will no doubt remain a game of the month and not the phenomenon the original Starcraft was.

    And though I am a little irritated that I may have to purchase Starcraft II three times, or once with two expansion packs, the excitement that this can become another gateway game for non-PC gamers (especially for the RTS genre) brings a grin to my face.

  4. I’m struck by the overwhelming sense of ownership gamers feel they have over these franchises. I sort of get it; and I sort of don’t. It’s one thing to care about something and want it to continue in the ways you feel are valid or important. But the hysterical reactions of many gamers to Blizzard’s announcements, screenshots, presentations – heck, anything and everything Blizzard says, shows, or does – I guess I just find it all a bit mystifying…and ever so slightly frightening.

    Terrific post. Thanks for shedding some thoughtful light.

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