Tis the season — for video game sequels. Not unlike Hollywood’s holiday film boom, the video game industry slates October through December to be launch time for the latest entries in some of gaming’s most storied franchises. This year is no different with industry titans like Call of Duty, Battlefield, Pokémon and Final Fantasy all offering gamers their latest adventure.
If you have aspirations to become a video game designer, you’re most likely going to have to work on developing a sequel at some point, especially since video game sequels are a growing part of today’s gaming marketplace. The tricky thing about video game design for sequels is that gamers are a capricious crowd — they may be willing to sign up again with their favorite heroes, but they’re still expecting new experiences and fresh content to captivate their interest. With so many franchises vying for consumer dollars, it’s important for a sequel to feel different enough to help it stand out against the crowd and among its predecessors. Someday, if you’re ever a video game design studio head, a creative lead on a video game sequel or someone who influences the decision to make a sequel, here are some key ways to make a franchise’s later entries as appealing as its first.
Don’t Make Video Game Sequels Too Frequently
Think of video games in a franchise as fine bottles of wine — they should be given time to age and breathe before the next bottle is consumed. If you’re tasked with the development of a series as a whole, consider the benefits of time between installments. It not only builds anticipation for the next adventure, but it gives video game designers time to, well, design. Release titles too quickly, and gamers will get bored and label them “more of the same,” and video game production companies will run the risk of releasing a less-than-satisfying title that could have benefited from a second look or an extra bit of polish. Look at what happened with the “Assassin’s Creed” franchise within the past few years. Rushing to release two major franchise titles within the same year — “Unity” and “Rogue” — left “Unity” with a notorious number of bugs and glitches in 2014. These glitches were slandered by the gaming press and public. But video game designers at Ubisoft listened and learned. By taking their time, they scored a win the next year with “Syndicate,” developing a title that won back the crowd.
Find the Fine Balance of Change
Developing a sequel requires more than adding the number “2” to the box art and calling it a day. Video game designers on “NBA 2K17,” for example, rolled out a brand new story mode, and showed off a flashier presentation in the game’s visuals and sounds that drew applause. Think back to some of the sequels you enjoyed playing as a consumer. What are some of the elements that they brought to the table, and how can you incorporate some of those things into your own work?
A change of scenery can also help. Following an extremely successful run of “Modern Warfare”, “Black Ops”, “Advanced Warfare” and “Ghosts” titles, “Call of Duty” took its act to the stars with “Infinite Warfare” this year, providing gamers with new factions of soldiers and a brand new, sci-fi driven storyline to battle within. Besides, decades of gamers agree that outer space makes for a fun gaming environment, so that was probably a wise move on Activision’s part.
Sometimes, a new play mechanic or new character helps keep the franchise fresh. It’s a lesson “Dishonored” is taking to heart, despite only being on its second entry this year. Veteran protagonist Corvo is joined in “Dishonored 2” by Emily Kaldwin — with her own set of abilities to give players two distinct play styles to switch back and forth between.
If you do find yourself developing a sequel in your career, be mindful of every change that you make. Too many additional characters, and none of them will have enough focus to have any impact with gamers. Too much tweaking, and you run the risk of alienating the fan base you’ve built. There is something to be said about familiarity — you don’t have to completely reinvent the wheel every time a new title is planned for your franchise. “Pokémon” has gained enormous popularity in the role-playing game space, which in many ways can be chalked up to its familiar, yet highly accessible format. You catch a team of six monsters and go out and win turn-based fights. Even with new mechanics released with each title, that format hasn’t steered “Pokémon” wrong so far. Gamers were all set to go again this year with the series’ latest installments —“Pokémon Sun” and “Pokémon Moon.” Working on video game design for a series comes down to the challenge of changing just enough with each entry.
Make Each Title Its Own Story in Video Game Sequels
It’s important to consider each game in a franchise as its own stand-alone title. There are some key questions you need to ask yourself if you work on video game design at any point in your career. Are you telling a complete story? Are you leaving gamers with a sense of accomplishment? These questions should be addressed with each title you design and produce — not left for a future entry in the story. For example, the Star Wars franchise has decades’ worth of engrossing stories that have captivated audiences, but the success of “Force Unleashed” can be owed to the fact that the team let it stand on its own merits, and not
just because it was a Star Wars title. Even though the Star Wars saga is rather ubiquitous in our culture, you don’t have to know a bit of it to play and enjoy “Force Unleashed.” There’s still that sense of nostalgia and wonder for long-time fans as they get to explore an unknown tale of Darth Vader’s apprentice, but the story of helping said apprentice find his own identity can appeal to a wider audience than just Star Wars fans. Plus, the lightsabers always help.
It may seem far in the future now, but as you ramp up your creative career, these are some of the things you will want to consider when developing your first sequel. The desire to re-visit the games you’ve enjoyed creating is only natural. As long as you don’t go back to the well too often, and you offer something a bit different each time that can stand on its own, it goes a long way to making sure a franchise continues on.
Rosie Wrede contributed to this article. She has a decade of game design experience, with expertise in level design, mapping and scripting. She worked on level design for Electronic Arts and Sledgehammer Games on franchises like “Call of Duty” and “Dead Space.” An alum of University of Silicon Valley, she’s returned to be part of the Game Design faculty, teaching Game Design and Intro to Game Production.