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.

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.