E3 2012 / Games

The Problem with Sequels – E3 2012.

The annual E3 convention is undoubtedly the busiest and most coveted period for anybody deeply involved in the gaming industry, whether on the development side or the gamer side. The hottest products from the future are showcased, bringing forth innovative ideas and concepts that contribute towards the continued growth of this thriving industry. It’s an exciting time for the gaming populace and one that garners a tremendous amount of commentary and criticism; you get one thing wrong at E3 and the armies of the internet will descend to memorialise that moment forever, never to be forgotten and always to be ridiculed.

Only, that’s the way things are supposed to work out at E3. Just because things are supposed to happen a certain way doesn’t mean that they will. The E3 convention is supposed to be a showcase for the latest, greatest and most innovative games and ideas on the market, or for games that will be arriving later down the line. The products displayed are meant to be games that will wow the collective audience and leave them gasping for breath as the wonder is presented in front them. All of these things are supposed to happen at E3, but rarely do they occur. This year’s outing has demonstrated just that. 

Let’s take a look at what the main focuses of each of the three main conferences were. For Nintendo, you had a large focus on the Wii U. For Sony, it’s hard to pinpoint a distinct focal point but on the whole, it was probably the games. For Microsoft, it was all about the sequels, and from therein lies the issue with this entire convention and of previous E3 outings before this year and for the years before those. 

Every once in a while, a game will arrive before us and it will astound us, wow us and leave us wishing it never to end. The sales will rocket the game up the charts, the critical response will be largely positive, which may in turn contribute to further sales, and the game becomes something of a classic in the making. But what happens after that? People want more; they want to see the characters and the story they’ve grown to love continue and feed their newly-acquired thirst for the game’s ‘universe’. That game will arrive in the form of a sequel, bringing with it a continuation of the story and development for the characters, as well as improvements and new features to differentiate the title from previous entries in the franchise it belongs to. But still people want more, and who are the developers to refuse to feed their ravenous fans by granting them exactly what they want. 

Gradually, as more and more sequels begin to arrive, the innovation and the unfamiliarity that once brought the franchise into the limelight begins to be diluted. The end result is a franchise that continues to have entries in it despite the story coming to a natural end, for no other reason than to satisfy the hungry fans, get the money and leave the office with a profit made. What we’re left with is no innovation, no creativity and, what’s commonly known as, a ‘cash-cow’, ready and waiting to be milked on a regular basis to the tune of billions of dollars in sales.

E3 2012 made this unfortunate trend of gaming even more apparent and it’s because of this that Watch Dogs, unveiled during Ubisoft’s conference, managed to steal the thunder of every other title that made an appearance during the event. And do you know what? Watch Dogs is not a sequel, nor does it belong to a franchise, and that surely contributed towards the rapturous response it has gotten since its announcement, from both the audience at the event and from those watching over the internet, and there are many reasons why developers and publishers alike should take inspiration from this.

The Watch Dogs trailer was magnificent. There are inevitably going to be people who disagree with this and that’s fine. However, the vast majority would agree that the gameplay that catapulted Watch Dogs to the top of the event’s success-list looked fantastic, unique but most of all, innovative. Innovation is a word that gets thrown around often when the E3 period arrives and few titles shown actually demonstrate a shred of it. Watch Dogs was different.

The game looks to be an amalgam of elements of other, popular titles combined into one. You have the open-world environment of Grand Theft Auto, the technology and danger it poses of Deus Ex, the fluidity of the character’s movements that feels akin to Assassin’s Creed and vice versa. The player not only uses regular guns to engage in combat with other players; he uses the technological environment around him to work to his advantage, such as disrupting traffic lights to bring a pursing enemy to an explosive halt, or jamming the cell-phones of those around him in order to slip by into an area unnoticed and silent. 

Whilst Watch Dogs impressed with its vision of what it intends to be and the beauty of the game’s visuals, there is one thing that impressed most of all. One thing that wasn’t part of the trailer but was still apparent during an E3 of numbered sequels and tired franchises being repeated: its unfamiliarity. When a game franchise reaches its fourth, fifth etc sequel, the players begin to have an understanding of what the next entry will feature. For example, look at Call of Duty and its yearly releases; the players know what’s going to be served to them next regardless of what the developers try to tell them. With Watch Dogs, that distinct smell of the unknown and not knowing what to expect works in its favour. We’ve been shown a long gameplay segment and we have a firm idea of what the game will feature but you can see the game is open-world and therefore the possibilities are wide and as open as the game itself.

From what I have said earlier about the problem with sequels, you may get the impression that I vehemently disapprove of all sequels. That is untrue. It is quite possible for the second, or even third, entry in a franchise to impress as much as the original did, or even more so. For example, look at the huge Mario franchise and the leaps it has taken in breaking new ground, even though it’s decades old. Another example would be the increase in quality from Just Cause to Just Cause 2; the first game was repetitive, stale and a major disappointment, yet the second was such an enormous increase in quality that one can forget the original ever existed if they chose to. A sequel has the unique perspective of being able to look at the mistakes of the past and improve on them for the future. However, when a franchise reaches its sixth entry and beyond, the innovation (there’s that word again) that brought the series into the spotlight initially is not what it once was, like pouring so much water into a barrel of fine wine that when you’re done, it tastes just like the same water it’s been diluted with. 

Coming back to this year’s E3 event and we can see the above point being illustrated. For example, Microsoft have brought the Halo franchise back despite the story coming to an end with Halo 3. The game looks decent but it also looks more of the same, which isn’t healthy for a franchise that’s now as old as Halo is. On Sony’s side, they’ve brought God of War back, also after that series came to a natural end with the third entry. It’s as though developers are gathering around a table, pondering which game to make next and no new ideas are being conjured so they simply head back into familiar, safe, territory. What we get is repeatedly ‘samey samey’ games that feel more like the old rather than new.

There are, of course, some exceptions to that rule. For example, the aforementioned Mario franchise, which features the same characters and universe yet every so often, it completely moves to different ground whilst still retaining the same platforming concept it’s always had. Look at Super Mario Galaxy – a game that took Mario to places he’d never been before, exploring new ideas and concepts that he’d previously been unable to and in return, becoming the absolute favourite of many people’s gaming collections. Mario Galaxy 2 was eventually released and although it was still fantastic and became just as big a success as its predecessor, you could easily argue that the innovation that was so visible with the first title wasn’t there as much with the second. After all, you’d already sent Mario through space and explored dozens of different planets. Doing it once again didn’t feel as unique as it previously did.  

Whilst franchises like Mario can spawn new ideas when it chooses to, one of the most typical examples of the other side of the spectrum has to be Call of Duty. Since 2007, we’ve been subjected to yearly releases, all of which bringing forth very little that you couldn’t get from the previous. The jump in innovation from Modern Warfare 2 to Modern Warfare 3 is so small that you’d really need to go looking for it to find it, and you’d still have a hard time at that. Creating new weapons and new multiplayer maps is not innovation – it’s recycling what worked for you before in order to make a profit. The creativity has dissipated and all you’re left with is a collective effort to milk the franchise for all it’s worth in order to make a tidy profit and continue the conveyor belt for the next year. Treyarch have claimed they’re attempting to break new ground with Black Ops 2 but how many of us actually expect anything different beyond a change of setting?

Call of Duty is the finest example of how not to develop a franchise. From a business perspective, of course it makes sense, but from the view of a player who’s seeing the industry become rapidly saturated with endless Call of Duty titles, not to mention copies spawning elsewhere that try to imitate its success, it’s incredibly frustrating. Eventually what you’re left with is an industry that’s stagnant and moving nowhere because it’s relying too much on the successes of the past, damaging the creativity and willingness to innovate of the future. 

Microsoft’s E3 conference this year was a true demonstration of that. The vast majority of the event was populated with sequels: Halo 4, Gears of War: Judgment (the fourth in the series), Forza Horizon (title number five), Black ops 2 and vice versa. The actual new IP’s they had to show (Ascend, Matter and LocoCycle) were briefly mentioned, given trailers that showed absolutely nothing, and then they progressed onto another sequel. The aforementioned titles are also Xbox Live Arcade games which, whilst offering the potential to be something great, are restricted by size-constraints and limits on what they can include. Microsoft’s reluctance to show off too much of them, whether through choice or inability to do so, shows just how much of a sequel-driven conference they had. 

Coming back to Watch Dogs and you can begin to see why the game received the response it did. When you’re creating something new and from scratch, you’re doing so without the added task of having to give your players something that feels familiar to them; you can create characters, concepts and ideas from scratch without having to stifle your creativity in order to continue the story. Blending elements from both Grand Theft Auto and Deux Ex is a choice that I’m fairly certain will be spectacular. The story seems interesting enough from what was presented on-stage and I don’t think I have been as excited about an upcoming game release since BioShock in 2007, and that benefited from the same unknown territories that Watch Dogs is experiencing now. 

It’s not as though a sequel cannot break new ground either. A franchise that’s spawned numerous titles can still innovate itself and bring something new to the table, as well as keeping that sense of familiarity that the already-existing fan-base can appreciate. What the whole point of this article has truly been about is the way in which the developers aren’t making the most of what they’ve got. I’ve mentioned on here before that Call of Duty has a massive player-base already there and if the developers chose to create the next CoD from the foundations up, rather than utilise the tired technology of their previous games, they would be in the unique position of already having dedicated fans to try their new creation. Just because Call of Duty is currently stagnant and stale doesn’t mean it cannot ever return with something unique. The developers need to find that creative motivation within and stop concentrating on how they can keep the gravy-train running. 

The lesson to be learned here is that a new IP can gather a larger, and more enthusiastic, response from the audience than a sequel can. The buzz surrounding Watch Dogs has been infinitely greater than that from a game like Dead Space 3, or Splinter Cell Blacklist. Developers seem to be stuck in a rinse/repeat cycle, afraid of veering too far into unknown territory in case their efforts don’t succeed, and E3 2012 was a clear example of that stifling fear. The reason why Watch Dogs stood out among the crowd was because E3 2012 was the year of the sequels, most of which brought about nothing new from their respective franchises or the genre on the whole, and a new IP that glittered with as much strength and possibility as Watch Dogs took those fears and trampled them into the ground. The audience loved it, we loved it and everybody else should take note for the future. The gaming industry has heights that are almost unlimited in scale and yet developers are not taking advantage of that.

Ditch your Call of Duty’s and be creative, be imaginative and you never know, you could just pull off something spectacular rather than standing still for years on end.

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