The Sequel Effect

There’s something I’ve been noticing as I slowly descend into a life that is mostly dominated by watching things or playing things. There is a pattern to sequels or, more specifically, how sequels have to work for them to have any chance of success. For a change, it isn’t actually the fault of the developers/publishers here, though – they don’t have a choice.

After a good/successful game (or movie or TV series), there is a reasonably good chance of a sequel. Hell, the game doesn’t even need to be that good/successful sometimes, for reasons about which we can only speculate, and still get a sequel. The thing is, if this game is successful, a sequel has to stay true to it’s prequel but also manage to innovate and change as it does so. This, as you might imagine/have noticed, is a difficult thing to do in something that has achieved huge success and a lot of praise from gamers/movie-goers and critics.

Take, for example, Modern Warfare (I am aware that I keep using Modern Warfare as an example, I’ll do my best not to in future, honest). MW was received with huge amounts of praise from everywhere. It was credited with revolutionising both single player and multiplayer in the FPS genre (and, to be fair, it did), people even went so far as to claim it had perfected the multiplayer FPS. Sales exploded, money just rained down on Activision’s face and suddenly something far greater in number than just a fanbase sprung up. The game practically created the term ‘spectacle’ as far as FPS’ go and demolished all competition for a long time.

[drop]So, where were they going to go after that? Treyarch didn’t stand a chance. Already deep into World at War’s development, they must’ve known that taking the CoD series away from its sudden modern setting was going to upset a huge chunk of this new following but there wasn’t really much they could do about that. Whilst they added a cooperative zombie mode and vehicles in multiplayer, they couldn’t quite match the sudden leap that had occurred with the previous game in the series.

However, Infinity Ward could have done something. But they didn’t. They’d already reached what was often considered twitch-shooting perfection – the controls were responsive, the graphics stood up reasonably well for the time, the multiplayer was superb – there was nowhere to go. And so we get to that rule when it comes to sequels: more.

Instead of innovating with Modern Warfare 2, they just added more of their previous innovations. Suddenly it’s difficult to play too much single player without a slow motion assault on a room cropping up twice, the reasonably good storyline in Modern Warfare was suddenly ramped-up to a storyline so convoluted and ineptly told that people were no longer playing the storyline as they were just the levels. Multiplayer was given customisatable killstreaks, which was probably the best innovation in the game but still just amounted to adding more killstreaks.

This more rule is present in a great many other games, too. Take God of War, for example. The first game was an excellent story – a Greek tragedy is in amongst all the limb ripping and head crushing, and this game, again, is often credited with getting the hack ‘n’ slash genre down perfectly. It’s difficult to find a big game in the same genre that doesn’t feel like God of War and isn’t compared to God of War ever since. So from this, where could the series move on to? More. Not a single person I’ve met thinks the story through the rest of the trilogy is as strong as the storyline of the first game, but everyone is pretty much in agreement that the game got gorier, the scale got even bigger and the action got more and more insane. An easy example is to compare the first boss in the first game (three-headed hydra) with the first boss in the third game (the God, Poseidon).

The theme is not limited to games, either. Heroes’ (the American TV programme) first series was huge, with a good storyline full of genuine intrigue and, whilst the following series were still good, they generally just got more convoluted, bigger in scale and more new people with fancy powers. Take any film series and I’ll bet its sequels just amount to ‘more’. Both the Lord of the Rings books and films do the same thing; the Two Towers has a huge amount more conflict than the Fellowship of the Ring, with more battles that feature more troops being an obvious example.

[drop2]Is this bad? When I get a God of War game I expect more God of War, and when I get Call of Duty I expect Call of Duty, so no, it’s not always a bad thing. I buy a sequel to a game because I want more from that series. However, it isn’t always good. Modern Warfare (again) is a prime example (again). It’s almost universally agreed that the series is stagnating, that there hasn’t really been any meaningful changes to Call of Duty since Modern Warfare 2, perhaps even Modern Warfare depending on how you define meaningful.

It’s pretty easy to pinpoint why, even ignoring the things mentioned above it’s probably not ideal for a new game in a series to release every year. It has to be difficult to make any meaningful changes in time frames as short as the CoD developers have between releases – though I could be wrong considering that they seem to be using the same engine every damn time. Another reason could be that it’s just far too risky to really change the formula. A big change going wrong in a series that is as wildly successful as Call of Duty could possibly have some very negative repercussions. Personally, I would imagine that Activision wouldn’t be too crazy about changing the game too much.

So all this boils down to there being a right way and a wrong way to make sequels. The wrong way would be to just offer more of what you already had and do nothing else, whilst the right way – the way that, if you remember, brought Call of Duty to the world-conquering behemoth it is today – is to mix things up. Make changes, innovate whilst finding a way to keep true to the series. Good luck with that, the fanboys await your decisions, frothing at the mouth.



  1. Considering there’s only been a single game since MW2 in the CoD series, I think it’s a bit harsh to lambast the lack of progress simply from one title to the next. You have to take it in the overall context.

    And another point, how is Activision releasing a new CoD every year much different from EA having BF and MoH run alongside one another? It’s not so dissimilar, really, though there are key and noticeable differences between the two series.

    So if you just think that perhaps Treyarch could rename their games to Doll of Cutie or something, and nobody would really complain. It’s not the same as the yearly sports releases, they’re two parallel development paths that have started from the same root position, and trying to keep some commonalities between them.

    Just like if Nintendo created a new character for every Mario game, there’s not necessarily that big a difference between a sequel and a new title.

    • Doll of Cutie = epicwin!

    • I never get the CoD bashing any&everywhere

      EA roll out game after game after game with next to no criticism, Acti do anything approaching it and get lambasted from all angles for daring to try & make money.

      Activision popularised (or came up with) the way to release a game yearly, even though a year obviously wasn’t long enough development time, so used two alternating studios who make different products but still appear under the same banner.

      This production method isn’t used in EA’s annual sports releases, who instead work to a wishlist and then cut tweaks/improvements on the list as time runs out so the changes are incremental. EA however have now seen the Activision model and are starting to roll it out through their franchises, name Need For Speed, using Criterion & Black Box alternating November releases in the same way Treyarch & IW do, however EA have gone a cash-in stage further using Slightly Mad Studios to make a third game under the Shift brand, although I suppose all the EA lovers & Acti haters will forget this when Sledgehammer release a CoD game (once they’ve finished helping IW mopping up Zampella & West’s mess) I’m pretty sure Battlefield will rotate with Battlefield Bad Company now that it’s hit the consoles, and then of course there’s the remarkably similar Medal Of Honor with almost no differences or advantages over existing products on the market place… but who cares, lets just take pot-shots at CoD

      Call Of Duty has just become the easy target as its the most successful gaming franchise loved by millions of players, & derided by a core. I partly think there’s the ‘too cool for school’ effect at work, where people have a rather snobbish outlook and like to look down on popular franchises such as CoD, because some weird Japanese thing no one’s playing must be better as its much cooler because no one’s playing it.

      • Please don’t get me wrong, I love Black Ops, I still play it regularly. This article is not about Call of Duty, it’s just using it as an example, and I’m not saying they’re bad games.

        And I have no idea whatsoever why I didn’t mention yearly sports games. Honestly, I have no clue at all why that slipped my mind, it’s the very definitely of the bad way to make sequels.

      • I meant to say ‘it’s the very definition of the bad way to make sequels’.[sigh]

  2. lol, moaning about CoD sequels. What is this, 2009?

    • If you read the article, he’s complaining/talking about all sequels in general and how they all fit the same pattern. It’s not just CoD it’s everyone. He even says how it’s not their fault either.

    • moaning about tsa again uuuhh? starting to feel like groundhog day around here

  3. I kind of agree that the quick turn around of these games has somewhat stagnated them. Less time between releases tends to result in less innovation, unless the developer can afford to throw hundreds of people at it. I guess if you think about it, ultimately the quicker turn around of games can only be a good thing as it drives technological innovation faster. Developers just need restraint when it comes to thinking more is a good thing when it comes to story, MW2 a case in point.

  4. I think the premise of this entire article is a bit flawed. Firstly there aren’t annual releases of Modern Warfare (Call of Duty yes). Secondly as the above poster mentioned there’s been only one sequel to Modern Warfare and Treyarch didn’t make it (i know you know that). Treyarch made the net COD game which wasn’t even expected in gamer’s minds to be a “sequel” to Modern Warfare because it didn’t carry the MW moniker. COD as a franchise has been setup so that each game isn’t a direct follow-up from the last story-wise, and each game follows it’s own path in terms of gameplay features and systems. Modern Warfare 2 was an exception to the rule. I’d liken that franchise to Final Fantasy, which is in my mind a big stick in your entire argument. EVERY FF game is completely different, from story, to characters, to world, to gameplay, battle and item systems, to the way levelling works. Final Fantasy started doing that from it’s inception and so it’s gamer fanbase was bred on that premise that each new instalment in the series is completely new and different. It works and has done for Square Enix now for 14 iterations (that’s an achievement).

    Also, i’d disagree that it can be so clearly established that God of War’s story degenerated after the first. The consensus broadly on the internet is that GOWII had the best story, but again that’s beside the main point. Just because you and your friends personally didn’t like the story in GOW2 or 3 doesn’t make them any worse objectively. It’s a completely subjective issue and not really worth arguing as a point.

    Finally, returning to the main issue at hand of sequels being more, and your (poor imho) attempt to establish what is a “good way” and “bad way” of doing a sequel, i’d chime in with the intent to add a little more clarity. A game or movie in it’s first instalment invariably sets up certain expectations in it’s fanbase, this much you correctly established. However changing things in a sequel for the sake of changing things is NEVER A GOOD IDEA, and is much less about publisher pressure than simply the fact that the game’s identity that was established in the first instalment becomes compromised for no substantial reason (for the sake of mixing things up? Really?).

    The best way to make a sequel to a game is to firstly decide what is the core essence or identity of the first game, what is it about it that the fans love, and then seek to preserve that through each new iteration. Change is only necessary when there were clear weaknesses in a former iteration, that you as a developer can seek to change in order to IMPROVE in the next one (Mass Effect 2 is a great example of this – although some things were arguably changed for the worse). Change for the sake of experimenting with a new cool idea, so long as it doesn’t detract too much from the core essence or identity of the game established in the first instalment, can be a great thing too. But as your rightly said this carries it’s own risk of upsetting part of your fanbase that doesn’t like the new changes (these things are always subjective).

    I’d also argue that “more of the same” is sometimes just the best way to go and sometimes it’s often all that the fanbase wants. Gears of War 2 is a great example of only making minor changes and pretty much doing more of the same. Adding more spectacle and “wow factor” is necessary because as with most media once the audience has been introduced to a fiction; it’s world, rules, characters, it’s difficult to recreate that feeling of “newness” in a sequel when your audience isn’t coming in blind like they were the first instalment. “Bigger (in terms of scope), better (in that you’ve ironed out the kinks) and more badass (i.e. more wow)” is generally the best way to do a sequel because it’s really the bare minimum expectation of the fanbase, as well as in most cases being all that’s really expected. It’s even easier to do in games as opposed to movies or books, because as you also didn’t emphasise enough in your article gaming is an interactive medium and GAMEPLAY is generally the defining feature of these games that become franchises. Story only really serves to exist as context, and going bigger, better and more badass storywise, just allows you to add more creative and engaging gameplay elements whilst remaining within the rules established by your fiction. It works, and that’s why it’s generally done.

    • Battlefield series would be a great example of that.

      Not many people played Battlefield2: Modern Combat on PS2 bu those who did will probably agree that it might have been the best online experience on PS2 and also best in the Battlefield series.

      Every map offered you particular style of gameplay you wanted to play. Wanna lie down with a sniper rifle? Alright, many sniping points, you can get on top of any building you want. Want to use a chopper? Fine, there’s one or two on almost every map. Wanna drive a humvee or a tank? Alright, there’s enough for the whole team!

      Then “Bad Company” came, and they took out the parachutes (why oh why?), the prone position, ‘domination’ type of game (really?! I know they’ve added it later, but still…), capture the flag mode, thing that made cars so darn cool (you could stick a C4 on it and drive it somewhere, jump out and blow it up – in Bad Company as soon as you got out of a car it stopped).

      Then some of the stuff came back in Bad Company 2, but it’s still far from the fun of playing “Modern Combat”. You spawn in your base and just feel like there’s never enough vehicles for you to get in and you just end up running across the map and dying in the end. It just feels like all the BF series is about now is the FrostBite engine and it’s destruction.

      I miss the old BF and hope BF3 brings back the vehicles, great maps and fun gameplay.

      • I played BF2 on the PS2, and I have to say that I think, personally, that Bad Company 2 is the best online experience I’ve ever had in my life, with Halo 3 and CoD 4 a close 2nd and 3rd. I agree wit you about the prone, but I honestly had so much fun playing the game I didn’t notice. It’s just so good.

      • I forgot the most important thing. Clan support, hello? Modern Combat had it, along with custom games. So why didn’t any of the following BFs get it? ;)

  5. Treyarch and innovation?,at a push i’d say the original Tony Hawks.

    • Thought that was Neversoft?

      • I thought they became one and the same but i’m about to wiki it.

      • Seems they were both involved in Tony Hawks 1,then Treyarch are listed with Neversoft for the first spiderman game and Kelly Slaters pro surfing.
        Seems to be Activisions in house shenanigans.

  6. “He’s big, but all washed up.”

    Laughing out loud!! :D

  7. Good god I love COD4. After that paragraph where you talked about it perfecting the war-based FPS I was just sitting nodding my head. I spent so much time on that multiplayer and it never got dull. That is until the hackers had their way with it mind.

    None of the COD sequels had that same feeling for me, Black Ops came closest with it’s pretty good story and Wager Matches but I just can’t get addicted to it like COD4.

    • This.
      COD4 was fantastic. The work I put in getting the Golden AK was sublime. A really great game that. MW2 was also great online as Spec Ops was a fantastic addition (Although mote missions should have been realised)

      • I also spent most time on COD4. It was the first FPS I invested a lot of time in and I’m never gonna get that feeling back. Spent so much time on it, never let myself get too annoyed while playing it, just pure fun. IW should just make COD4 – 2011 edition with more polished graphics and a massive amount of maps

  8. Modern Warfare? Maybe.. but what about the godforsaken Fifa series. Every year they add one useless new feature and update the teams. Why not just release a paid DLC to update the current game? There is absolutely no need for sequels there. Also, Mario. I’m not having a go at Innuendo but every other month sees another Mario game. Mario kart was fine. Super smash bros was fine. But the 10000 others that they just shoehorn the characters into are not. Start making new games, rather than flogging a dead rotting Italian stallion.

    That’s what I think anyway…

    • Nintendo not innuendo. Lawl mah phone dun bad speak.

      • That could actually work as a UK Ad campaign for the Wii.Chuck in Ant and Dec for instant win.

    • If you play FIFA every year you will see the massive gameplay improvements in 11. From 08-10 not much changed but 11 is streets ahead of the last few iterations.

      • What!? Fifa is Fifa. It’s the same every year. Yes they make adjustments and improve the graphics, but it’s still the same. Menu system is exactly the same in 10 as 11.

      • Yeah the menu systems are an absolute pain, but purely from a gameplay point of view FIFA 11 is a massive improvement on the previous year. Gameplay is so much more fluid and very game provides something different. AI is improved too and makes playing against the computer a lot more fun than it ever was.

        I just think it’s unfair to say all 11 had was a graphical improvement when the actual football on the pitch is so much more refined and fun to play.

      • I stopped with Fifa after 2010. Not going to buy another one. Had so many problems with online that I wont go online again with it. Would rather play fifa 10 with mates in the same room.

    • Also Fifa can sometimes be buggy, the pain….. really needs a good menu though.

      Eh… I don’t know I think Mario is great for new players, I’ve only played Mario kart on the Gamecube though, its so fun with other people.

    • i do agree they over use the mascot but galaxy is amazingly good

      • very true. but the amount of mario orientated games is insane. It’s like they have an idea but chuck Mario in so people pay attention. I have no doubt that De Blob would have done a lot better if Mario was featured sadly :/
        Still a great ganme mind..

    • Consdering how much I used Mario as an example in my last article I wanted to avoid mentioning him here, but yes, I agree completely.

  9. I think Battlefield: Bad Company 2 was different to the original in a lot of ways. They scrapped the original storyline. Multiplayer was completely refitted (although the game modes were similar). The style of the game was very different in my opinion.

    • agree, more linear plot, big set pieces – all very cod esque. Prefered Bad company 1’s campaign, remember it being quite long and open, so you could go about the mission the way you wanted to.

  10. One sequel I’m really looking forward to is Resistance 3. Resistance 2 just took everything up in scale, which is expected for most sequels, but Resistance 3 seems to bring it back to the level of the first game. Fighting in the resistance itself with a survival theme throughout. Cannot wait for that game.

    • Completely agree with this. R3’s extra year in the pot seems to have really tenderised the meat, boiled away a lot of the excess and led to a more refined and delicious Bolognese sauce…

      Lets just hope that Lasagna 4 One can do the same for… Wait a second, I’m just talking about food now… ;)

      • Resistance 3 is brilliant, don’t worry. ;)

Comments are now closed for this post.