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  • The Academic Word: Episode 3.14: As Original as Apple Pi

    [02.12.07]
    - Vadim Mercurio
  •  Introduction

    There was a time, not so very long ago, when each new video game presented a whole new world to explore. Each title presented a brand new lore, a completely new adventure to embark upon. We would rush home from the store, eager to dive into our newest purchase, driven to play with no knowledge of what awaited us other than what we managed to glean from trailers and previews watched longingly. Curiosity would be the single strongest force propelling us through the game. Sadly, experiences such as these are becoming a rarity.

    Welcome to the world of mass-marketing. We have more titles than ever to choose from, and at the same time, we have far fewer. Take a closer look at those titles, what do you see? Most end in a number, I'd wager. That's right: the franchise-fever is upon us, and the temperature is skyrocketing. It's an insidious trend, like a virus plaguing the industry. Let's call it ‘Sequelitis'. Want proof? Think of any well-known game, and ask yourself ‘How many sequels and prequels are there in this series?' Rarely is it a single title, and if it is, that's usually because the sequel hasn't been released yet. Developers have on occasion gone so far as to work on entire trilogies simultaneously to save costs, while releasing content periodically (a strain caught from Hollywood; they sneezed, we got sick).

    Sequelitis

    Even as I sit here writing, I'm considering all the various incarnations of certain licenses, and I realize I don't even know how many sequels some titles have anymore - I've actually lost track. There are four Quakes now, right? Two Half-Lifes, four DOAs (and a couple Extremes!), and is it five Virtua Fighters? How many Tekkens are there? Okay, that last one is kind of a trick question, since every one of them is exactly the same game. Don't even get me started about the Marios, Sonics, Zeldas, and oh-my-god-Final-Fantasies...Of course these few examples barely scratch the surface; you're probably listing off other series in your head right now (or maybe out loud, but if so people are looking at you funny: stop it).


    And who wouldn't want to see these two again?

    I can't say that I blame the developers, or the publishers. Whenever mass-marketing affects a product, changing it, the only person you can blame is the consumer. After all, when the first Sims was released, and became a huge hit, the developers at Maxis would have been fools not to make another. And when the sequel sold more than the original, the fate of the franchise was sealed. Now we get a new Sims variant every other Tuesday, don't we? And as long as we keep buyin'em, they'll keep puttin'em out. We spawned Sequelitis, and despite the nagging cough, we keep lining up for another dose. As far as publishers and developers are concerned, Sequelitis isn't a virus so much as a drug, which we are happily addicted to.

    Don't get me wrong: the video game industry isn't plagued by that same horrible strain of Sequelitis that the Film Industry suffers from, thank goodness. You know the sickness I mean; every new incarnation far worse than the one before, until you're left sweating and trembling in the fetal position, begging for it to stop, or kill you. Fortunately, the somewhat tamer strain of Sequelitis that video games have succumbed to isn't nearly as viral. More often than not, each sequel in a video game franchise is better than the last, taking the best from the past and merging it with the latest technology and user feedback, resulting in a superior product.

    Problem?

    So what's not to like? If we enjoy these series, and they're just getting better, what's the problem? Well, there isn't a problem, per sé, but there is a... longing. I'm sure I'm not the only person who just misses original stories. Only one in every handful of new games is a truly title, and since publishers these days sometimes consider new IPs to be risky, they're often low-budget, or just plain disappointing. While all these sequels are great, I'm buying fewer video games than ever, because I feel as though they're all just more of the same. I'm on the lookout all the time for original games, but I have to look pretty hard, because those games just don't get the marketing and advertising budget that Command & Conquer 44 will get.

    Add to all of the above the new trend in ‘Free-Roaming' and you have even less story-driven content. Oh, of course, the GTA series has stories, but since those games are intended to be only loosely linear, with player options that are nearly borderless, the stories have to be vague. Too much detail in the story locks the player into a linear path, and we want freedom. That being said, we have caught the first glimpse of a more contagious mutation of our viral strain: ‘Free-Roaming-Sequelitis'. Now we're talking some deadly stuff. Deadly to storytelling, that is.

    Where does all this leave us? Okay, we're not really so bad off: as mentioned, most of the spawn of Sequelitis are quite enjoyable. So maybe we shouldn't complain. But there's nothing wrong with thinking back wistfully to those days of immersive stories, shocking plot-twists, and delightfully new visions. For those of us in the industry, this offers two very different but equally enticing opportunities: we can recognize the symptoms of this plague, and take it upon ourselves to vaccinate the industry, putting fresh new content into the world... Or we can embrace the disease, and be grateful that the infestation has guaranteed us an easy ride: after all, it's a lot less work to make a sequel.

    Vadim Mercurio is a recent graduate of the Video Game Design & Development program at the International Academy of Design & Technology (Toronto campus). Though diversified to all creative aspects of Game Design, Vadim’s primary focus is writing for and about the video game Industry.

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