Sunday, 15 July 2012

SOOG: Squirrel's Laws on Sequels

I'm a part-time Sega fan - there's a statement that will stun the world. Once in a while I wander over to SegaBits to get a glimpse of Sega-related news, only to then wish I hadn't, because as lovely as the site is, they clearly need to read up on the company they're plugging.

Not too long ago an article entitled "reasons why Sega is failing in the western markets" was posted. It's universally agreed that Sega is clueless these days, but one area of "concern" caught my eye - "too many risky, new IP's. Not enough of the old ones". Misuse of the apostrophe aside, this statement needs a response! Because inter-blog fights are fun or something.

Ice Age 4, there's a pointless sequel, but without looking it up, does anyone know who made it? Yep, it's tough one - the answer is Blue Sky Studios. A decade of these films and the message has yet to get through to the average consumer, yet if I put forward the names "Cars", "Up", "Wall-E" or "Rattatouie", chances are you'll shout "Pixar". What a difference a marketing strategy can make.

Blue Sky Studios generate revenue from the "Ice Age" name, be it direct sequels to Ice Age, or films claiming to be produced by the "creators of Ice Age". Without Mammoths the company would be masked by storm clouds, lying in relative obscurity. Should they feel to make another animated film, they'd be forced to begin their business ventures with the public from square one, solely because nobody really knows who they are.

Pixar, conversely, opt to put their name on a near-equal footing to the movie title, the words "Disney Pixar film" making the company a household name. You immediately expect good things from the recent release of Brave due to the high level of quality associated with its creators (a practise Disney as a whole have championed for years). If Toy Story was a myth, Pixar might not have to start from square one, and that, ladies and gentlemen, is the reason a franchise model is not very good in the long-run.

Or at least that's what we can deduce from the film industry, but in all fairness, this caters a for a form of entertainment that doesn't like to stretch itself beyond two or three sequels for reasons of practicality. Writers, actors, and directors like to diversify when the opportunity arises, and as entire experiences are built around their employment, a key figure dropping out often spells the end of a series. You can of course continue the story, but the results aren't often pretty and most importantly, you risk permanently damaging the brand, so efforts are usually refocused onto other ventures and life goes on.

The film industry is therefore self-regulating. Even if type casting wasn't an issue, age and illness could be, as can external contracts and a variety of similar factors. With film there is a reliance on people, and people are unreliable, but this is all for the best - it usually ensures that a franchise goes out on a high rather than sinking to new lows, and predictable waves of re-releases that are associated with success will likely keep food on the table for years to come.

Unfortunately, the video game industry has yet to reach this level of maturity. Half-baked game sequels and poorly executed ideas are rampant for one key reason - customers don't buy games for the people involved, they come for the fictional characters and settings invented by said people. A set of pixels is unlikely to age, so as long as trademarks and licenses are in-tact, development teams jumping ship or closing down does not have to affect the future of a "franchise". Theoretically there doesn't have to be an end, and this can present all sorts of problems.

Am I here to denounce all sequels today? No, but I have decided to make three unenforceable laws about the subject for kicks. Squirrel's laws on sequels - three guidelines that people can follow for maximum excellence. A fine waste of an afternoon to be sure.

Firstly, a sequel should be based on a good idea. This defines the reason for a sequel - if the creative teams are clueless on how to proceed with a successor, a successor should not be made. It is of course debatable as to what constitutes a "good" idea, but if you know the game plan is worse than your last attempt, you'd be stupid to follow it through. What a shocking realisation.

Secondly, a sequel should have an equal or greater amount of resources to work with. If you're in a situation with a vastly reduced budget and shorter time frame in which to produce a game, living up to the standards of the game's predecessor may be difficult. Simply put, it's naive to think you can cut corners and still produce triple-A material - this stuff doesn't go unnoticed by the gaming public and is a fantastic way to damage your reputation.

And thirdly, a sequel should have a similar, hopefully identical creative team at the helm. And this is the important factor - the men and women responsible for the game (from a creative standpoint, i.e. designers or directors) ideally need to be a constant throughout the lifespan of a series. The first two points are obvious - this one, less so, and is something frequently ignored by publishers. Failing to satisfy all three requirements will frequently lead to an uphill battle with the fans and disastrous consequences upon release. If you need examples, seek the many adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog, a series which in the span of twenty years has managed to defy all three rules. Several times.

Obeying these "laws" brings the video game industry more-in line with film production. A series is allowed to flourish as intended by its creators, then put to rest when its creators lose interest. It aims to make fans of those responsible for the creation, not just the creation itself, thus ageing ideas aren't dragged through the decades in order to generate revenue.

But Squirrel, why prevent bad sequels?!

Yes I suppose this is a demonstration of me displaying double standards. In a liberal society publishers should have the freedom to sell as much garbage as they want - nobody is in a position to stop them, though equally we're not obliged to go out and purchase anything. Natural selection should kill off bad games and people will adapt.

But this isn't a pleasant way of conducting business in the real world. Physical limits force retail outlets to only stock a specific amount of video games on their shelves, and traditionally space is reserved for games deemed more popular than others. The value of a game is often based on how many units are shipped to the retailer, the media hype surrounding the release and the strength of the brand - how much money the publisher has in its pockets, essentially.

Call of Duty: Black Ops II will be given more attention than other releases this winter solely on the basis that it is Call of Duty, not necessarily because the game is any good. If I were to self-publish a similar shooter, chances are I'd lack the resources of Activision's marketing department, would struggle to raise awareness of the release in public and and fewer units would hence be sold, even though it may be ten times more entertaining. How nice.

Franchises don't need to be a bad thing, but mediocre releases selling off the brand name alone cannot be a fair marketing strategy. Games should ideally be judged on the skills of the development team and the quality of the product - with limited disposable income it's very easy for someone to walk in, buy the latest big budget release without even looking at the alternatives and not return for several weeks or months - the efforts of everyone else are put to waste in this scenario.

Personally, I feel those with a demand over the markets should be morally obliged to innovate and impress, not take the easy ride to the bank, much as we expect our millionaires to engage in more charity work. But hey, I'm getting off topic - I'm in no position to deal with morals.

But Squirrel, sequels make money!

And they do. But hey, so does selling arms to the Syrian government - let's endorse genocide!

It's undeniable that a franchise's popularity can increase as time goes on. Toy Story 3 is the highest grossing computer animated film of all time, but after scrutiny you'll note that the project had the same developers, the same actors, more money at their disposal and more than a decade to develop a good idea, so in reality it's not surprising tha it was successful. Conversely, the majority of Sonic the Hedgehog games sell fewer copies than previous outings, likely because the Sonic Team of the present is not the Sonic Team of the past.

In reality there isn't enough data to concretely prove or disprove the theory that sequels will always generate more money than their predecessors. Video games have not been a part of mainstream culture long enough to amass dozens of extensions, however we do know that people return to movies for the names involved, so it's just as easy to argue that in this case, Toy Story 3's success was down to the Pixar brand, or the works of Tom Hanks or Tim Allen. It may have earned its place in history without the Toy Story name - perhaps the theme even held sales back, as many kids today weren't acquainted with film's predecessors. Who knows.

Some franchises, such as the Halloween films, saw a steady decline in revenue with each passing movie. The lack of ideas and changing of staff led to divided opinions and negative feedback. So profits, like critical success, seem to very much hang on the three laws above - if a sequel can maintain or exceed the quality of its predecessor, there's a good chance of it making more money.

Wait, a good game generates more profit than a bad one? Stop the press!

But Squirrel, Halloween H20!

In every franchise, inevitably it becomes clear that the method of releasing direct sequels cannot expect to continue, and so a different approach is taken - a franchise is often re-branded and taken in a different direction by (presumably) its new owners to keep it going, in what is known as a "remake". Remakes do not cure the wound, but do sooth the pain, and for better or worse, tend to be a top choice for extending a trademark's lifetime for a while.

This method is practised for a number of reasons. Tomb Raider, for example, needed to be radically overhauled by a new team after the sixth instalment because Core Design were running out of ideas. In H20's case, the people in charge felt the need to retcon the stupid movies of the years prior to release, making a direct sequel to Halloween II as opposed to Halloween 6. Sometimes a product is remade because the original vision could not be realised in the past (take almost every Zelda game for example) - there are many reasons for remakes and again, I'm not here to denounce them all.

However, unlike a sequel which can divide opinions, a remake will almost certainly create a rift if the changes are significant. Rifts are not a good thing and tend to emerge if any of my three laws are broken - generally you want to take all your fans with you rather than risking disappointment from one or more sub-groups. It is impossible to cater for a split fanbase with one product - some will want the old, others will want the new, and chances are you can't produce both. Thus in order to avoid the chance of negative feedback and damaged sales, it's better to keep everybody together and not go down this route at all if possible.

The more remakes and sequels, the greater chance of a fractured fanbase. Sometimes it can work for the better (nobody seems keen on the 1990 Captain America flick anymore), but often the bickering can lead to a poor image of the company or a spread of misinformation. Compare George Lucas' reputation between 1977 and today - extension plans can easily backfire. Sonic Generations is another one - a game widely considered to be confused and without a defined target market due to its failed attempts at uniting fans, old and new.

Ultimately I feel that if you're having to reinvent yourself to stay on top, it's worth taking that extra step and producing something entirely different. That way, everybody wins, even if the effects aren't felt until several years down the line.

But Squirrel, Nintendo!

So how can I possibly compete with this argument - the most successful video game company of all time is built on the concept of building sequels. There are two 2D Mario platformers in development, a top-down Pokémon RPG, and no doubt a Zelda sequel in the works somewhere. The Nintendo mentality seems to work well, so I guess this means we should all copy - build a franchise and keep it active for thirty years. What a grand plan.

In reality, Nintendo's existence does not change my arguments at all. To bring in the hedgehog yet again, Sonic's original creators have resigned from Sega during the past two decades, but Mario? Mario's creators are hardwired into the Nintendo EAD's headquarters. The simple fact of the matter is, the entire creative teams behind Nintendo's most cherished properties have stuck with the company for a quarter of a century, and this makes a massive difference to a franchises' performance. Most notably, Nintendo can keep things going while the products of competitors are left behind.

Nintendo has irregular methods. Often it doesn't come up with new ideas per se, but instead produces the same idea with minor improvements, thereby justifying the need, not necessarily for a traditional sequel, but something more akin to a remake. Nintendo's idea is to stick with something which works for as long as possible, take as few risks as it can and be incredibly boring and conservative in the process.

Nintendo can get away with this not just because Shigeru Miyamoto has been the lead designer for most of his adult life, but because the company owns Mario, one of the most versatile video game characters of all time. Mario has the advantage of working in 2D and 3D platform games, racing games, RPGs, puzzle games and sports titles, so if Miyamoto gets bored of a genre he can make something entirely different with the same cast of plumbers and dinosaurs - this level of freedom is almost unheard of elsewhere.

Nintendo also has a very strong brand in their company name thanks to their hardware efforts, so its priorities are very different to most other companies in the industry. But my laws can still apply - the likes of Metroid, Donkey Kong and Star Fox have divided opinion in the past thanks to changes in developers, and there are plenty of other Nintendo brands on similar shaky ground. I personally think Nintendo needs to start investing in the future and not rely on these tired brands - few outside of the Nintendosphere will purchase a Wii U to play the same games as in previous generations, and we need Nintendo to balance out the industry at large.

But Squirrel, FIFA!

The other factor to be taken into consideration are the games which make small, incremental upgrades. Code can be shared, art styles can be learnt - it is mainly a change in creative control that will cripple a product, but if there was barely any creative control to begin with... the damage is less significant.

If your world is dictated by events elsewhere, such as most licensed sports games, theoretically you can have dozens of development teams taking the helm of a series at different points. My beef with Madden or FIFA (or hey, even Zelda) is very much a different issue - incremental upgrades, to me, aren't "good ideas" - it's questionable laziness which lacks a long-term plan. Who's going to go back and play NHL 12 after this Christmas? Consumers' money is poured down the drain by this practise every year, but with so much money invested in the concept, it's something that's difficult to put an end to.

On the other side of the fence, if your series dictated that each new entry should be radically different to the last, you can get around some of the normal restrictions. You may struggle to keep the same level of quality in each iteration, but whatever, I'm sure there are plenty of loopholes. I really don't care.

But Squirrel, wasn't this post about Sega?!

I guess, but Sega is boring. Sega largely abides by the rules I've set out - developers leave, and thus sequels aren't made... unless blue hedgehogs are involved. In reality Sega does spend an unhealthy amount of time with classic franchises, it's just that the situation is more less extreme than many of the company's Japanese rivals. That being said, this is mostly down to restructuring issues which have led to more resignations at Sega, not because of common sense. But whatever.

There was a period in the mid-2000s where the company experimented with reboots to Golden Axe, Shinobi and Altered Beast (curiously also flagged up by SegaBits) - Sega have clearly changed its tune about digging up the past fairly fairly recently, and is also the proud publisher of insulting games such as Sonic 4 - the most distasteful of all sequels. That game alone is an extremely good argument against the company touching its back catalogue at all.

Sega fails in the west not because Panzer Dragoon Saga isn't up on Xbox Live Arcade, but because of poor management choices and a set of disinterested shareholders. Put simply, Sega's partners in development produce second-rate games which cannot sell, and the conglomerate lacks the funds and motivation to get back into hardcore development themselves like days of old.

Sega have never "relied" on sequels, and in fact the business of doing so is a relatively new concept. No Sega console was founded on the idea of producing more of the same - internal teams at Sega did their best to innovate, creating brand new IPs to give their systems their own unique image. Sega is at its best when it is following this formula - it's what the fans strive for, but politics in Japan mean it can never happen. Of course, not every intellectual property will be the greatest invention of all time, but that's not a reason to stop trying.

And what of the logistical cases of digging up the past? How would you sell a Streets of Rage 4 to a modern crowd without vastly overhauling the look and feel? Do you think modern ratings boards would let children punch hookers in the face? Tons of hurdles emerge from a decision to extend a franchise, yet far fewer occur from an original invention - I wouldn't say it was a "risk-free" strategy to pair yourself with a classic franchise, it's just that you don't have to work as hard for short-term sales.

In the end, it's a tough sell to have people turn against the franchise model. Many on the internet are obsessed with a set of characters, and could think of nothing better than to see more of them (and there's nothing wrong with this). But don't talk down unique and innovative concepts just because they don't have access to a popular brand - embrace the companies which don't take their success for granted. Back the creative minds of the developers, not the money grabbing minds of those who publish.

And if the games suck, don't buy them. Force Sega to reconsider their position after games like Binary Domain -  let them see that they need to try harder, and hopefully the company will cope out on top once again. Or leave the market entirely. One of the two... probably the latter. It's not a pleasant situation.

And just to clarify once more, I'm not against sequels if they have a place in this world, I'm just skeptical of twenty years worth of them. Did we honestly need Sonic Colours? Will we need the Sonic game they'll announce by the years end? Could the time be better invested elsewhere?

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