New, Better, More and other lies about game sequels

“Compete in quality, not size.” The words of a wannabe? A lunatic? Or Mike Capps, president of Epic Games? Capps was talking about developing sequels as part of his talk in Leipzig. While he seems to be on the right track, his process didn’t always match his goal of quality.  What exactly is better when it comes to making game sequels?

New, Better, More
When developing GEARS OF WAR 2, Capps developed with the mantra: “New, Better, More.”  For him, that means more guns and better guns.  Ironically, this approach contradicts his goal of competing on a quality level.  We’ve often said that less is more when it comes to dialog, and its just the same with design.  The key with any creative endeavor is to approach everything with an editing eye.  Quantity has never equaled quality.  Writers Cabal reader Nick commented that “better” depends on the game; the same amount or fewer hours of gameplay could actually improve the quality of a game.

Design Cabal
When developing the sequel, Capps assembled a “design cabal.”  We commend him on the term as well as the approach.  The team focused on the vision for the game (it’s not just about the fun!), then brainstormed ideas.  Following the focus on quality, they recognized, for instance, that there was actually no story in their story for the original GEARS OF WAR, so they decided to add more plot.  If GoW2 has a great story, I will be thrilled, but we’re always wary of someone who’s looking to add “plot” instead of story.  We recently were approached to develop concepts for a game sequel.  The reason?  They wanted to get writers in the process earlier to avoid issues they had with the original.  Whenever gathering together a design cabal, consider a writers cabal as well, to tell the story using all the tools games offer.

Move to Switzerland
In the end, Capps likened developing games to an arms race, and suggested ultimately that to create the best sequels, you should move to proverbial Switzerland.  The best advice is to ignore everyone else and try to do your own thing.  You may just end up with the new, better, and “more” after all.  Just make sure you know what “better” means for your game.

Which game sequels do you think have actually improved on the original?  Or do you think they’re a lost cause?

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Filed under Game Design, Game Industry, Writing

7 responses to “New, Better, More and other lies about game sequels

  1. One thing about Japanese games is that the Japanese never seem to feel that sequels should be similar to the previous games. Instead, each game has its own particular vision. Just look at how different the Final Fantasy games are.

    Recently I’ve been enjoying Mana-Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis, and also Persona 3. The interesting thing about both of these games is that they sort of preserved the mechanics of the previous games in their respective series, but they also each added a sort of “student life and school time management system”.

    In Persona 3, you play a modern high school student who has to deal with monsters and supernatural stuff in his off time; you have to be careful not to tire yourself out in the dungeons, or your studies will suffer! And you want your studies to go well so that you can befriend other students, which ultimately allows you to create powerful enhancements to your dungeon-running character. So it’s a sort of feedback cycle where you have to pay attention to both halves. The really neat thing here is that some people will play the game to see the end of the dungeon-running supernatural story, whereas some will enjoy the student life portion (which does, in fact, have some pretty good writing!). So you don’t really have to say that either half is more important than the other, since different people will get different enjoyment from both of them.

    In Mana-Khemia you play a student learning alchemy and monster fighting at a fantasy boarding school. This is the latest in the “Atelier” series, relatively standard JRPGs with a focus on item creation and alchemical recipes. (They also usually have some good writing, quite often funny!) Here, though, the dungeon-running is part of the main plot, because your alchemy teachers will tell you “For homework, go to this area and defeat this monster”. So it’s more tightly integrated than Persona 3, and the focus really is on the student life portion. They did a good job evoking the atmosphere of being a student, with various exams, festivals, hanging out with friends…And like I said, it’s a new direction for the series.

    One more interesting note; Atlus recently released a new version of Persona 3 called Persona 3 FES (short for “festival”). It’s the same game, but with more content. Like an expansion pack instead of a sequel. So, if you want to do expansion packs, that’s a valid development path. Perhaps we should try more clearly making the distinction between expansions and sequels.

  2. John-

    You win the prize for fastest comment ever! Those games sound interesting — maybe I’ll check them out. As for expansions versus sequels — what’s your take on expansions in MMOs (like Burning Crusade for WoW) versus creating a whole new “sequel” like EQ2?


  3. (Well, I have this blog on my RSS reader, so I get notified pretty quickly. 😉 )

    Those games are both PS2 games. Mana-Khemia is a sort of bright and colorful (some might say cutesy) fantasy world. Persona 3 has a very distinctive, eerie, quirky, modern occult sort of atmosphere; it’s unlike anything I can recall seeing (except the previous Persona games!). You can find them both on sale now, I believe…well, you can find Persona 3 FES, and that seems to include Persona 3 (so saith Amazon).

    Anyway, on to the topic at hand…

    To my mind, an expansion gives you more; more content, maybe more features…A sequel gives you a new experience. Of course, the line is blurry; with enough new content and graphical updates, you could see the later version of an MMO as a sequel to itself. But I guess the point is in that case you’d still be able to have the core group of players doing their same core things that they always did. (Even though they might be tempted to use the new features, they would still be able to do the old stuff.)

    I guess my point there is that I don’t really see why an MMO should be different from other types of games when deciding what to call an expansion and what to call a sequel.

    Now, if you’re a game company, how do you decide whether to do an expansion or a sequel? I don’t really know; That’s something your developers and marketers have to hash out.

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