It was around the time I was looking at the 19th Assassin’s Creed adventure game that it struck me: There sure are a lot of sequels.
I don’t mean just a few. It isn’t like there are merely a handful of standout franchises worthy of a follow-up, like Sony‘s zombie apocalypse drama The Last of Us 2. Or even industry-defining standbys, like Nintendo‘s Super Mario Odyssey action game, the 32nd major title for that particular character.
Capcom, which has made more than three dozen fighting games for its Street Fighter franchise over the last three decades, almost seemed to wink at its prolific catalog with the name for its newest installment, Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite.
Of course, it’s easy to believe all those sequels are from lazy companies just trying to cash in on successful games for easy money. But the truth is that these games, which typically sell for around $60 apiece, exist for the same reason superhero movies continue to punch their way into the box office and the same reason neon is back in style: We’re buying the goods.
“It’s a bit a sign of the times,” said Joost van Dreunen, head of market watcher SuperData Research. “People want to play a game they already know is great.”
Again and again and again
Why do we keep coming back to these familiar game series? Maybe they enthralled us as kids or captured our imagination as adults. Or maybe because we just like playing them.
Whatever it is, the end result is that sequels make money. Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed action adventure games, of which the latest will act as a prequel to the series, is one of the best-selling franchises of all time. It’s even spawned toys, novels, comics, a movie and a TV show.
Still, developers know that what they’re doing may seem repetitive.
“You do get to a point as a creative storyteller where it’s hard to keep telling stories inside the same universe,” said Andrew Wilson, CEO of Electronic Arts. He pointed to TV shows like HBO’s gritty cop drama “The Wire” and mob show “The Sopranos,” both of which redefined TV but also ended after less than 90 episodes. “Superhero films: the same. Bond films: the same.”
It’s because of this that you have to take a rest before reimagining a game with fresh ideas — and being ready to take a risk and try something new.
“The odds of success are lower than with a beloved franchise,” said Strauss Zelnick, CEO of Take-Two Interactive, which makes games like the crime drama Grand Theft Auto, the fifth major of installment of which has sold more than 80 million copies since being released in 2013, making it one of the best selling games ever.
When Zelnick was named chairman at Take-Two a decade ago, the company relied primarily on Grand Theft Auto. Now it’s been able to build up more than half a dozen hit franchises, including the upcoming Red Dead Redemption old-west style game first released in 2010.
“If you only rely on sequels, then what are you?” Zelnick said.
People don’t always like new ideas
There are some new games people really like, including, an Xbox game by developer StudioMDHR that’s designed with animations reminiscent of early Hollywood cartoons.
But for as many new games that strike it big and get funding for a sequel, there are just as many failures that go into the discount dustbin.
Take No Man’s Sky, a 2016 space adventure game developed by Hello Games, which was one of the most anticipated titles in years. It promised a nearly limitless universe for people to explore. The planets, enemies and wildlife would all be generated by a math equation, meaning players could potentially replay the game for years and not encounter the same two planets. Even the music was created by a computer algorithm.
Reality was much less exciting. Players complained about the ironically tedious feel that came from visiting similar but slightly different worlds. They criticized the lack of a meaty storyline or, really, anything beyond exploration and survival. Eventually, gamers began demanding refunds and complaining to authorities that Hello Games and its partner, Sony’s PlayStation group, had overpromised and under-delivered.
Even so, No Man’s Sky’s tapped into gamers’ interest in innovative new ideas.
“Giving them a chance to have a different experience is cool, but we have to make sure it’s different enough,” said Yves Guillemot, head of Ubisoft.
Of course, every major game started as a bet in the first place. Nintendo’s adventure game The Legend of Zelda was a technical marvel when it was released three decades ago, introducing a generation of gamers to ideas like large and open game worlds they could explore and play at their own pace. But it was still a bet. So was the shooting survival game BioShock when it was released by Take-Two Interactive in 2007.
Both those games went on to change the industry, offering stories and gameplay styles that inspired countless other games. Oh, and they also spawned sequel franchises that have sold tens of millions of copies.
Some of them are so popular they’re been being rereleased with improved visuals and new internet connected leader boards and ways to play with friends.
One of the most recent remakes to hit store shelves is Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy, which repackaged and remastered the franchise’s original three games from 1996, 1997 and 1998. It came out earlier this year for $40.
“If it takes you back to those early days of playing, we did our job well,” said Dan Tanguay, the game’s director at game developer Activision’s subsidiary Vicarious Visions.
So, yeah, there are a lot of sequels. But it’s a pretty good guess that we’re going to buy the next iteration of whatever game anyway.
Right? I know I am — I’m gearing up to play that next Assassin’s Creed.
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