… or redefining game systems and mechanics in a sequel.
Some time ago I finished Dragon Age 2, which is in my mind a great game, but maybe not a
“true” sequel to Dragon Age: Origins. Dragon Age 2 got a lot of different reviews. Most professional ones say it’s a great game with only a few flaws whereas a large group of users wrote reviews which show a complete different point of view. Also I had several interesting discussions with friends according to expectations when someone tries to develop a sequel. All this led me to the question for this post:
What is a “true” sequel?
Let’s start with briefly talking about mechanics and which can easily be changed and which
Core mechanics, or "The Road" of your game, are all the mechanics which define the actual game and are rooted in the high concept of the game itself. The core mechanics highly affect the core dynamics and thus the things a player will do while playing a game. For a lot of games a core system is for example the combat system. Changing core mechanics in a sequel always is a bit risky, because it may change the way the game is played and thus may create some conflict with the expectations from your fan base. Personally I recommend to every game designer, that he should study his audience and fan base, before changing a core mechanic. An important part of this study is to directly ask your fans, because looking only in your game’s forum is not enough. It is not enough, because in average only 5 – 10% of your fans post in the forum, so you can’t be sure if all the fans have the same opinion by just looking into some posts. For example during the development of Drakensang, and besides reading the forums, we invited players to our studio for focus tests, so that they can share with us what they think. Besides asking your fan base and keep in contact with your community, I also encourage you to stick with your core ideas while developing a sequel, because even if you have to make some improvements, in the end these core ideas defined the original dynamics and feel of your game and that’s most likely what your fans expect.
Auxiliary mechanics are extensions of the existing systems, are only loosely connected to the core concept or help to strengthen and transport the core ideas. A typical auxiliary system is for example the UI system. Yes it is needed, but normally only in such a way that the core mechanics can be used by the player. I think it doesn’t hurt to change this kind of mechanics as long as you keep the original feel in your game. Personally, I think auxiliary mechanics are the best place to introduce new concepts and mechanics with your sequel, because they less likely mess up the whole feel of the game and also I believe that fans are more willing to accept changes in the less important systems than in the core ones. Auxiliary mechanics can be a great place for innovation and also a great tool to enrich the gaming experience in your sequel compared to the original one. Just think of them as if they are the trees and flowers which grow along your "Road" and make it pretty. Making something prettier usually doesn’t hurt and your fans more likely welcome the innovation.
Before I now try to answer the question, why Dragon Age 2 is a great game for me, but not a “true” sequel, let me share with you 4 definitions for "sequel" which I think maybe helpful when talking about them:
True-sequel: This kind of sequel shares almost the same core mechanics and the same lore with its predecessors. It only has a new game story, new challenges and may makes some adjustments or slight improvements to the core mechanics. Also some auxiliary mechanics may have been changed, added or improved to create a better gaming experience. Typical examples are Add-ons, DLCs and annual sport games.
Semi-sequel: This kind of sequel either shares almost the same core mechanics or the same lore with its predecessors. It also features a new game story. In this kind of sequel some core mechanics have been changed and it also delivers a slightly different gaming experience. Auxiliary mechanics may have gotten a complete overhaul and the game can almost look like a completely new one. Typically this kind of sequel causes the biggest problems with your fan base, because it may doesn’t feel like the predecessors and doesn’t fulfill the expectations, even if in general the game is better than its prequels.
Usuallymost sequels can be found in the upper two categories or are something like half a true and half a semi-sequel, depending on how much was changed.
Namesake-sequel: This kind of sequel doesn’t share anything with its predecessors except the name or IP. Personally I think we should avoid such sequels, because they don’t deliver a piece of what our fans expect and I see them usually only as a marketing tool. But do we really need such marketing tools? Can’t we simply convince our players to move with us to a new IP just by the level of quality we deliver with a new game? Again it is not completely wrong using namesake-sequels but personally I like to challenge us, game designers, to create a new high-quality IP, if we want to create a new game which has new core mechanics and a new lore, instead of just branding it with an old name in the hope of getting more customers. Also namesake-sequels should not be mixed up with spiritual successors, which also can have the same name, but try to restart/revive a formerly successful IP and to keep its core ideas.
Spiritual successors: This kind is pretty similar to the namesake-sequel kind, but instead of just using the name, it tries to reinvent the game while trying to keep the original core idea. Also most of the core mechanics can (but don’t have to) be equal to the ones in the original game, except that they have been updated to the current state of the art. Usually this kind of sequel is used to restart a formerly successful IP or to create a new IP based on formerly successful game mechanics. Examples are the upcoming Tomb Raider from Crystal Dynamics (spiritual successors of the original"Tomb Raider (1996)") or Dragon Age: Origins (spiritual successors of "Baldurs Gate (1998)").
Finally let me end with my opinion according to Dragon Age 2.
Dragon Age 2 made some changes to the core mechanics according to Dragon Age: Origins. The most obvious once are the combat mechanics and the dialogue mechanics. For me both systems made huge steps into the right direction and I think that they are better now than they have been before. I also understand that a lot of fans are a bit disappointed and feel like as if Dragon Age 2 isn’t a Dragon Age any longer, because the game feels different than Dragon Age: Origins, due to the changes within the core mechanics. These changes also result in slightly different dynamics, which again can cause some confusion.
But does this really transform Dragon Age 2 into a bad game?
I think “No”, because the new systems perfectly support the story that is told in Dragon Age 2 and to tell great stories in Thedas was one of the core ideas of Dragon Age. Yes, Dragon Age 2 is different and that’s why I would call it a semi-sequel, but it’s still a great game. I encourage everyone who loves great storylines to play it and to play it longer than the first 5 hours, because the story needs some time to get going. After the first 5 hours, you really start interacting with your party members; you try to find out what’s going on in Kirkwall and why the seeker wants to hear your story from Varric.
I hope this post shows a bit why I think Dragon Age 2 is a great game, but not a true sequel to Dragon Age: Origins. Again not being a true sequel doesn’t mean that a game can’t be great, but it may result in bad reviews from the users, because it doesn’t fulfill their expectations.
It is always hard to produce a good sequel (or game at all) and as a developer myself I can only encourage everyone to let us know, in a friendly and reasonable way, what you liked and what not. We will and should listen to your feedback and if possible we’re willing to make adjustments so that you have more fun playing our games. Giving them and us a great time, tell a great story and ultimately create a game that is just fun is (and always will be) our main objective.
Thanks for reading my blog and I hope you’ve a great day.
God bless you