How to Make a Good Sequel

Sequels have become quite commonplace in today's gaming market. Walk into a game store, and everywhere will be the number "2", with "3", "4" and "13" also making occasional appearances. Thinking up a new intellectual property (IP) is hard work, but it's easy to just slap a number and perhaps a snazzy subtitle on the end of your game's name, tweak the graphics and add a new feature or two, right? Actually, no.
Have a look at GameRankings. You will notice that the majority of sequels attain a lower average score than their predecessors. Reviewers generally think they are making these reasons perfectly clear: "A lack of innovation in the franchise". But that's not always the case. We tend to judge a sequel by much higher standards than we do a new IP, because if it looks and feels like the previous game in the franchise, in our eyes, it may as well be the previous game in the franchise. So what, exactly, causes the sometimes-fatal disease known as "Sequelitis"? Let's use some examples and have a look. I'll be using GameRankings, as it includes a large number of reviews. And just because standards do change over time, and we reviewers can be slightly random at times, I will only be including games where the discrepancy is more than 4%.

But first, a brief word about the whole "did not evolve" thing. I think it's really just a line reviewers use when they want to reduce a sequel's score, but aren't quite sure why. TakeAssassin's Creed as an example.

Assassin's Creed II (PS3): 90.47%
Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood (PS3): 91.50%

This doesn't count as breaking the 4% rule, because review scores favour old games, and yetBrotherhood attained a higher score than its (fantastic) predecessor. Brotherhood has evolved less than the large majority of games panned for being "too similar" to their predecessors. Actually, Brotherhood got this comment as well, but it doesn't seem to have affected reviews very much. Anyway, without further ado, the five lessons:

Lesson 1 - Don't Take Six Years to Make Your Sequel
Gran Turismo 4: 89.61%
Gran Turismo 5: 84.69%

When you take six years to make a game, it had better be the pinnacle of game design. Every time you delay a game, your customers grow impatient and begin to think "This had BETTER be good". Yes, GT5 was an enjoyable racing game when it arrived, but it wasn't the brilliant, awe-inspiring game that we were expecting. This doesn't only apply to sequels, but people's expectations for the GT franchise are already extremely high, and six years of development just added to that. As such, this isn't as much of an issue for sequels to mediocre games.

Lesson 2 - Don't Re-Use the Same Engine Over and Over Again
Fallout 3 (X360): 92.79%
Fallout: New Vegas (X360): 83.64%

The Gamebryo engine has been in use for four years now, and New Vegas is exactly why it needs to be retired. When you try to cram a new game into an old engine, it is going to be a mess. New Vegas is considered one of the buggiest (good) games of this generation. Fortunately, Bethesda has already learnt its mistake, and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is using a brand new engine. Oh, and while we're on this point, don't let another developer use your engine. Ever.

Lesson 3 - Try Not to Lose Your Lead Designer
BioShock (X360): 94.95%
BioShock 2 (X360): 87.89%

AND a more extreme example:

Devil May Cry: 92.60%
Devil May Cry 2: 73.61%

Don't get me wrong; I enjoyed BioShock 2 very much. It was entertaining and pretty brutal, in a good way. But without the artistic genius of Ken Levine, well, it felt like it was missing something. A heart. A reason why we should care about any of the characters, or the story. I have no idea how he does it, but he does it pretty darn well. I've heard it argued that this is one of those "did not evolve" games, but I don't quite agree with that. A range of new plasmids and tonics, new weapons, a new setting, and the whole Big Daddy gameplay on top of that. Pretty much the same was true for DMC2. Mikami had little input in the development of DMC2, and it ended up being decidedly average. This one only really works if the original was a good game, which is not a prerequisite for making a good sequel (as we'll see later)

Lesson 4: Don't Get Rid of What People Loved in the Original
Star Wars: The Force Unleashed (X360): 73.88%
Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II (X360): 64.19%

The Force Unleashed wasn't exactly the pinnacle of game design when it launched, but it had one thing going for it: story. Really, everything else sucked, except for, arguably, Force Push and Force Throw. Nobody is denying that TFU II is a much more polished game and that it's better designed to boot. I'm also sure that nobody would deny Revenge of the Sith has better special effects than Empire Strikes Back. And yet, the latter is a better film, and TFU is a better game. Story is more important to a film than a game, but Star Wars is Star Wars, and if the story isn't good, you can't enjoy the rest of it. It was the saving grace of the original and the killing blow to the sequel. Just look at the "good ending". Come ON.

Lesson 5: Don't "Evolve" Too Much
Command &Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars (PC): 85.45%
Command &Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight (PC): 63.97%

This is perhaps one of the worst sequels ever. When you have a long-running, well-loved and well-received RTS series centred around base building, the last thing you want to do is "evolve" and get rid of it completely. If you change from your predecessor too much, you lose any connection with it, and fans of the old game will not be fans of the new. And with this, I think we can hammer the final nail into the coffin of the "games must evolve" theory.

But enough negativity and broken dreams. Let's take a look at some genuinely improved sequels, and see if the five criteria apply.

Prime Example 1
Uncharted: Drake's Fortune: 89.70%
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves: 96.41%, Several Game of the Year awards.

This will be the least improved sequel on this list, because Drake's Fortune was actually a great game in its own right. But Naughty Dog stepped up to the plate and delivered an incredible experience.
1) This took only two years to make; nowhere near six.
2) Two years, and they still improved the engine. It was also developed in-house, so Naughty Dog knew how to use it.
3) Amy Hennig was the Director of Drake's Fortune, and though her job was split up forAmong Thieves, she remained Creative Director.
4) Beautiful environments? Improved. Brilliant characters, dialogue and story? Improved. Actually, this calls for a new lesson.
5) It still felt like the original Drake's Fortune at heart, just a much more polished version.

Lesson 6 - Improve Everything.

This might sound like a given, but very few games actually do it. You might think "it's okay, we'll leave this as it is", which will mean that, at best, it will be as good as before, or even worse, "We'll improve this by making this other thing worse", which is exactly how we ended up with Force Unleashed II. If you leave something unimproved, it will come back to bite you.

Prime Example 2
Assassin's Creed (PS3): 78.82%
Assassin's Creed II (PS3): 90.47%

There was far more room for improvement here, because Assassin's Creed wasn't particularly good. The criteria:

1) Again, two years.
2) Fine, the same engine here, but look at how beautiful Assassin's Creed was to begin with. These rules aren't necessarily set in stone. And again, two years, and an in-house development engine.
3) I said that this wasn't a requirements for sequels to average games, but they still kept Patrice Desilets. The ideas behind AC1 were good; just not the execution.
4) What did people love in the original? Viewpoints? Better than ever. Assassinations? Far more frequent, and without the absurd monologues and menial side-missions that accompanied them. Platforming? Still there in huge quantities.
5) Even though it did improve everything, anyone playing ACII could tell that it was a sequel toAC, and no fans of AC would be alienated.
6) Combat was improved. Story and characterisation were massively improved, as was sound. Even the already-solid platforming was improved.

Prime Example 3
Killzone: 73.92%
Killzone 2: 90.07%

As with Assassin's Creed II, there was plenty of room for improvement, and Guerilla did a fantastic job.

1) Four and a half years, but it was a new platform, and the game did actually live up to expectations, and exceed many, because its predecessor was so mediocre.
2) It would probably be a cause for concern if Guerilla used the same engine on two platforms, so it's good that they didn't.
3) Nobody actually seems to know who directed Killzone, but Mathijs de Jonge did a fantastic job outdoing them.
4) This didn't actually happen, but Killzone 2 was never really marketed to the Killzoneaudience.
5) Pretty much the same as 4)
6) Everything certainly was improved, from the graphics, to the sound, to the gunplay.

Killzone 2, then, is a special case. You can, in extreme circumstances, just pretend that the original never existed, and go from there. This is an option when you expect the sequel to be FAR better, and when the original wasn't very popular to begin with, so there is no risk of alienation. Your game had also better be pretty awesome, so even the fans of the original will see some new charm here.

So, there we have the six criteria that seem to fit most games. Again:

1) Don't spend too much time on development.
2) Change your engine every so often, and if you can, use one that you've developed yourself.
3) Try to keep the team the same, especially if the original was good.
4) Don't get rid of the parts of the original that people loved.
5) Don't try to evolve too much and forget what made the original great.
6) Improve everything, because one bad aspect can bring the whole game crashing down.
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