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Playing It Safe: The Risks And Rewards Of Sequels In The Video Game Industry

“There is nothing new under the sun.”

It’s a quote we’ve all heard before, whether from a professor or an old book. The sentiment tends to resonate with anyone who’s tackled a big creative project, from films to novels, mostly as a mantra to relieve stress. (“I don’t have to make something unique in order to succeed.) But in reality, the idea is more likely to cause stress than relieve it. 

Anyone in a creative industry has asked themselves, “How do I stand out unless I make something unique?” And that pressure is constantly rising, particularly today. Production costs keep rising while consumers look for cheaper, more convenient ways to enjoy entertainment.

While you could argue the film industry is suffering from this the most, perhaps a clearer example can actually be found in video games.

A Golden Age for Video Games

The Coronavirus pandemic shocked the world, crippling many big industries in the process. And while most creative industries (including video game developers) were put on hold or transitioned to remote work, consumers found themselves quarantined with nothing but time.

Video games experienced an unprecedented boom as a result, both in terms of active players and money spent. Gaming brought in $155.89 billion in revenue in 2020 — a record high by a huge margin — and is predicted to keep on rising until it hits $268.81 billion in 2025.

Those are big numbers. To try and focus a bit, think of it this way: The industry was valued at just under $57 billion, which is higher than the combined values of the film and music industries. That shocking comparison implies several things:

  1. More people are playing video games than ever before. (This one is a proven fact, given the statistics we just covered.)
  2. Gamers are spending more time/money on the hobby. (Also a statistical fact.)
  3. As video gaming becomes more popular and appeals to a broader audience, more people will want to make video games in an already-crowded industry.

The third point is supposition, a kind of “If A and B are true, then C is true” thought exercise. But let’s run with it for a moment. Greater awareness in an industry leads to more accessible tools, and we’ve already seen that in gaming with things like Unity, a free-to-use game development tool, or the ability to submit a game to digital marketplaces like Steam and the App Store, not to mention console storefronts through Xbox, PlayStation, and Nintendo.

All of these tools have been available for years now. And as independent video game development has grown more popular, it’s come with an influx of aspiring creators who you expect would have new ideas, experimental concepts, and exciting innovations. 

However, that hasn’t been the case. Sure, we’ve seen an increase in truly unique indie games. But we’ve also seen many game publishers shift focus to big-budget sequels or licensing successful IPs from Marvel, Star Wars, etc.

Why is that? Why do the “big” developers choose to play it safe when there are so many compelling indie games each year? Is there a shortage of new ideas, or is gaming’s rise in popularity (and influx of investment funds) pushing the industry into a creative desert?

As in most cases, the truth is “a little bit of both.”

The Challenge of Making Games

In the world of game development, there’s a sentiment you’ll hear from a lot of creators: “Making a video game is like learning to build a plane while you fly it.”

Game development is a tale of two disciplines. On one hand, it is a supremely technical challenge — developers are learning to use a complex graphics engine, writing code, building AI systems, and figuring out how to use online servers, sometimes all at once.

On the other hand, multiple teams of artists are discovering the look and feel of the game. This includes the visual style, the character animations, the story and worldbuilding, the sound design, and the music, and all these artists are also working simultaneously.

It becomes a literal house of cards where one small change could offset everything. Changing a single character’s place in a room could mean dialogue doesn’t trigger. The character could disappear entirely, or fail to recognize the player, or make other objects in the room float in the air and spin wildly. Interacting with this character could even launch the player through the floor.

With that in mind, it kind of makes sense to reduce the risks faced by game developers. If a team spends 10 years building a successful game, why wouldn’t they want to make a sequel? A lot of the work is already done, from the visual style to the worldbuilding to chunks of code. The benefits are numerous, and obvious.

But what are the consequences of that choice? What if we lived in a world where every film, novel, and game was a direct sequel? Or where every song, sculpture, and painting just iterated off of the artist’s first successful piece?

There are multiple reasons for this approach. Iterating on an existing intellectual property streamlines a lot of the pre-production timeline and budget, which makes it easier to bring on new staff and develop a game quickly. Sequels are also less of a risk, and that appeals to the publishers and/or owners who fund a lot of the biggest game development studios.

But there are two sides to this coin. As with film franchises, video game sequels cultivate higher (and sometimes unrealistic) expectations from fans. Developers may choose to explore a new idea or introduce a new system, which can lead to unnecessary/extra content, delayed releases, bigger budgets, etc. All of these ultimately affect player experiences.

In an industry where projects live or die based on their fan communities, any negative change to a franchise can become a potentially fatal flaw. This breeds the sort of risk aversion that saps the creativity out of any project, and so far we haven’t seen many cases of major game developers that successfully balance “player approval” with “investor confidence.”

“Playing it safe” is a dangerous game in any creative industry. For up-and-coming artists and filmmakers, “playing it safe” all but guarantees anonymity at best and failure at worst. 

But for established creators, it’s a tightrope to walk — you can either find limited success, or ruin your reputation and the reputation of your previous works. And as video games take center stage (to receive greater investments and public scrutiny), the risks and rewards of “iteration vs. innovation” may very well determine just how large the industry can grow.

Drew Gula is the senior content editor for Soundstripe, a company that provides content creators with SFX and lofi hip hop music. He’s also a lifelong gamer who hopes the creativity of indie games will continue pushing the industry forward.


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