Monday, August 8, 2011

Sequel Syndrome

This past weekend I finally got around to finishing up Dragon Age: Awakenings, the expansion to Dragon Age: Origins.  It only took a little prodding from a friend (just a little!) and my continuing status as an MMO nomad.  It's amazing how much time you have for single player games when you don't have a persistent world eating up all your free time.

As I finished the expansion I couldn't help noting that, despite its many flaws, I still enjoyed Awakenings more than Dragon Age 2, the sequel.  Thinking about it some more, I had to admit that this is a fairly persistent trend for me, made disheartening by the fact that so many developers are making so many sequels.  Following are some games where I've noticed this 'sequel syndrome', where I really liked the original but felt the sequel was a letdown.

Mass Effect -- I loved the first Mass Effect.  It's easily one of my favorite Xbox 360 games of all time, and one of the few long RPGs that I seriously considered multiple playthroughs of, and did nearly get through the whole thing twice (fairly unusual for me).  I eagerly awaited the sequel and . . . didn't really like it that much.  It's not that it was a bad game, it's just that to me a sequel should be like the first game, only with more, better stuff, while ME2 seemed like the first game with stuff stripped out.

Starcraft -- I played the original Starcraft to pieces.  It was my first exposure to multiplayer RTS gaming, and my college buddy and I played it a LOT.  I've been eagerly awaiting the sequel since the moment I finished the third campaign, and for years it seemed like Blizzard had abandoned Starcraft and I'd never get my wish.  Finally Starcraft 2 was released in 2010 and . . . it was Starcraft with only one campaign and updated graphics.  It was a good, solid game, but even after 10 years it didn't seem to improve on much from the original.  What took so long?  Where are the zerg and protoss campaigns?  Couldn't they have at least added a fourth side?

Command & Conquer - C&C was my first RTS, and it was amazing.  The AI was pretty weak, but finding ways to exploit the AI was half the fun.  It was memorable and exciting and was one of the most recognized names and gaming for years.  None of the sequels have ever come close.  I'm not really sure why.  They seem like they should be good games on paper, but the magic just isn't there.  I've never finished a C&C after the first one, even though I've played them all except the most recent one.  I gave up on the franchise after C&C 3 (which wasn't a bad game, it just didn't do it for me).

Everquest - Everquest was my first true MMO.  I don't doubt that my fond memories are tainted by a great deal of nostalgia, but the fact that the game is still going strong twelve years after release says a lot.  Don't get me wrong, I hated EQ as much as I loved it, maybe even more.  That was one of it's strengths though, it's ability to evoke an emotional response from the player one way or the other.  I was excited for EQ2 as a result, and jumped on EQ2 instead of WoW in late 2004.  However, EQ2 was flat.  Dull.  Uninspiring.  It didn't make me love it or hate it, it was just there.  My stay in EQ2 lasted only a fraction as long as my stay in EQ.

Morrowind -- I quite enjoyed Elder Scrolls: Morrowind.  It was interesting and fun to explore the world and all the options available to my characters while following a clearly defined path of progression through the game.  I know I'll be in a minority here, but I couldn't stand Oblivion.  It was vapid and aimless, lacking any real sense of purpose to get me hooked into the game.  I've restarted Oblivion at least half a dozen times over the years, and never managed to stick with it much past the emergence into the open world.

Dawn of War -- Dawn of War is my favorite modern RTS.  I like the Warhammer 40k setting (as my half-painted Space Marine army languishing in storage can sort of attest) and really enjoyed this RTS with reinforceable squads, big vehicles, and hero units.  I bought every expansion, and loved the wide variety of armies you could choose from.  When Dawn of War 2 was announced, I had high hopes for another fun RTS romp.  Instead . . . I'm still not sure what Dawn of War 2 is.  I feel like the game largely consists of selecting your handful of units and carefully moving them across the map to a boss fight.  Then do it again.  And again.  And again.  The path you take is often confined and linear, and there didn't seem to be much decision making to be had.  There were also far fewer armies to choose from, even if they did add Tyranids.

It's not all bad though, there have been sequels I loved more than the originals.  Diablo and Diablo 2 are prime examples, where Diablo 2 really did take everything that was good in Diablo, expand upon it, and make it even better.  Diablo 2 is an example of a sequel done right.  I sure hope Diablo 3 is a Diablo 2 style sequel, not a Starcraft 2 style sequel.  System Shock 2 was better than System Shock, Master of Orion 2 was better than Master of Orion, and each of the Warcraft sequels (2 and 3) were better than the games that came before them.

The thing I notice about my list though, is that the sequels that were good are all old.  They're games in the decade plus old category.  Has the industry lost the ability to make good sequels, or am I just stuck in the past, a product of my 90s gaming roots, unable to see modern sequels as improvements rather than devolutions of interesting games?  Fallout is a good indicator here.  I loved the original Fallout, and didn't think Fallout 3 was really that great (again, not a bad game, just not great).  Yet Fallout 3 had enjoyed success beyond the original Fallout's creators' dreams.  Clearly Bethesda knew what they were doing when they created Fallout 3.  So maybe it's me.


  1. Just an FYI, you liked Morrowind, which was the THIRD game (second sequel) in the Elder Scrolls series (after Arena and Daggerfall). As a person who played Daggerfall to death even leading up to Morrowind's release (and DF was so incredibly dated graphics wise, it was almost painful. Kinda like playing Anarchy Online today), I liked the freestyle gameplay (in MMO terms, the series after Arena was largely 'sandbox' based). If I wanted to kill Vivec instead of talk to him, I could. :) But then, I rarely follow the main quest in Elder Scrolls games.

    I loved ME2, mainly because it did what I believe a sequel should: add onto and refine the original game's features. The cover system and the combat system revamp were more than enough to accomplish that. Add on loyalty missions to add depth to followers/crew and it was awesome. I'm hoping ME3 takes it even further.

    I still play MOO2 from time to time and agree that that was an awesome sequel. Fallout 3 as well (though I think that was because of the difference in eras). Fallout 1 & 2 were made at a totally different time, with regard to computer and development capability. F3 was way too big to work on the computers F1 & 2 were designed to run on (it would've taken like a dozen "discs" :P). That can impact the quality of a sequel in a massive way. If Duke Nukem Forever had come out when it was originally planned to, it wouldn't have been nearly as deep or "good" as it turned out to be (for better or worse).

    But if you're looking for sequels to be of a level of quality of something like Ultima or Wizardry (or even The Bard's Tale), you might be on the path to disappointment. Nowadays, the cost to make a high quality sequel is so high, very few studios can afford to do it. So you have the "Maddenization" of franchises (i.e. add a couple "duh" features and voila!).

    Great post!

  2. I knew someone was going to point out the Morrowind thing. I know there were more Elder scrolls before Morrowind, but I didn't really play them, and technically Oblivion is the sequel to Morrowind, not Daggerfall, so I'm still ok ;)

    The "Maddenization" of franchises . . . yes, sadly I think that describes it pretty well.

  3. Remember MOO3? It flopped. I think big studios have forgotten how to do sequels right. Bigger isn't better unless you're also innovating the game-play in ways that work.

    MOO2 added some really cool stuff, Antarens, farming, and a bunch of new technology. MOO3 added way too much. That sequel felt like playing a spreadsheet application.

    Starcraft 2 had a similar problem. While the mission game-play isn't any different (this is what you would expect from a studio that hit the perfect formula the first go), the SpaceQuest-like rewards system they tacked onto the campaign felt completely half-baked. Half the game-play in StarCraft 2 consisted of mission briefings.

    I also have gripes with sequels that speed game-play up too excessively. Diablo is a perfect example. The speed of your character was a crucial part of the original. Without exception the monsters did not move any faster than your character. This meant three things. First, you had plenty of time to make good tactical decisions. Second, those tactical decisions required some thought (chasing down goat-men archers and succubi was loads of fun to me once I got the hang of it). Third, the risk of overextending yourself, made greater by your character's limited movement, added a layer of suspense to a famously suspenseful game.

    There was no significant tactical trade-off to running in Diablo 2. The fact that many monsters could also run reduced the importance of tactical decisions regarding speed and distance drastically. The fact that you could easily outrun slow monsters took away a great deal of risk, removing that layer of suspense.

    I'm going to rant a bit while I'm on the Diablo franchise. I hated the skill trees of the sequel. I hated going down a weak branch and finding out later that my choices gimped my character for the end game. The power of your skills in the original were limited only by the amount of time you were willing to spend looking for spell-books and magic bonuses.

    The removal of friendly fire was also a mistake in my opinion. Playing with friends in the original Diablo required a sense of awareness and solid teamwork that elevated the game.

    Taken together, updated graphics aside, I think the original Diablo is still the best of the franchise and I suspect Diablo 3 isn't going to do much to change that.

    *end Diablo rant*