How to Sequel - A Guide on Not Screwing Up a Good Thing
Check yourself before you Shrek (the Third) yourself.
There are few things in life that are certain; death, taxes and every game that sells well is getting a ‘2’ after its name. You can swap game for almost every form of media going but the fact remains, when something is hot, someone will funnel money into it to make more.
This wouldn’t be a huge problem had it not been for a history of miserable sequels, from Shrek the Third to Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts. Most media just can’t do it correctly. This doesn’t mean that the history of sequels is completely dark, Shrek 2 is sequel perfection and Borderlands 2 is damn close. A good sequel needs to avoid classic traps and hit on some key notes to make something special.
If you find yourself with a good thing, here’s how to not screw it up.
What Not To Do
The first thing you should avoid doing, at all costs, is take your IP into a direction that makes no sense. This is what Nuts and Bolts did, to its huge detriment. When anyone picks up a sequel, they want to carry on what they know. In Banjo’s case, it’s 3D platforming with a collection of fun characters. Nuts and Bolts is by no means a bad game, it’s just fundamentally not Banjo-Kazooie.
Another example of this is Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. This black sheep of the otherwise iconic series took everything that made the first so legendary (I am, in no way, sorry for the legend word play,) and put it in a box in the corner. The comparison between the two is like night and Shrek The Third, because Shrek The Third is trash. So, don’t go off the rails. If you have a brilliant idea for a game, make a new IP and don’t tarnish the one you have.
The second thing that should be avoided like Shrek the Third is taking your game nowhere. This can be seen most egregiously in the Call Of Duty (COD) franchise. No one calls COD excellent, they’re the same. Each iteration on COD does exceedingly little to the basic formula of ‘shooty shooty bang bang’. Yes, it works. I’m not going to argue against the multi-billion dollar success that is the series, but the lack of actual innovation across fifteen games is a tad embarrassing.
The third, and for now final, thing to be avoided is incredibly simple. Don’t make a sequel at all. I’d put a safe bet that whatever indie wunderkind has made your favourite game poured everything into it. This was painfully illustrated in Indie Game: The Movie (2012). If you haven’t had the pleasure of watching it, firstly, go do so. Secondly, come back and finish the article. What the movie illustrates in painful detail is just how challenging it can be to produce in indie game. The sections of the documentary coving Phil Fish were particularly painful, it was clear he had broken himself. The same could be said for the makers of Super Meat Boy, both men working on the project appeared exhausted. The video game industry is a killer and it has a taxing effect on its developers. I’m in the final stages of my first game, a bartending simulator set in 1920’s Chicago, and it has drained my entire team. If you haven’t actually made a game before, I can promise there is no emotional tax as thorough as creating a video game.
The entire point of this is to say that if you don’t need to make a sequel, don’t. If you have no direction to take the game, don’t take it anywhere. You’ve created your work of art, now leave it to be admired.
Here’s what you should be doing
Now that my trademark negative tirade is out of the way, I’ll move to the fun part. How to make a good follow-up to your game. It’s not complicated, but it is damn difficult. A good sequel does a lot without changing the core USP’s at all. The things that each sequel needs are: direction, expansion, mechanical advancement and pre-existing interest.
The first thing you need to assess is the direction you want to take the sequel, where is it going? Using Borderlands 2, as a perfect example, you can see clearly where Gearbox wanted to take the franchise. Borderlands set up the perfect, post-apocalyptic bandit world but, even as a diehard fan of the original, it lacked actual story. It was a proof of concept disguised as a work of art. The direction the game went in created the most iconic modern era video game villain of all time, Handsome Jack. It took the wild loot-based gameplay cycle developed through the first game and moulded it into a smoother experience. It’s this clear direction for the game that helps it be one of the better video game sequels.
The next thing is expansion. When you make another game you need to expand, either the world, characters or both. This is vital to maintaining interest in your sequel. If the game is narrative driven but without expansion of previous characters or the world, then what’s the point? If you’re risking a sequel then take the ideas you cut from the first game and rework them, or better, come up with new ones. Take a look at the differences between Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask, the worlds are vastly different but they’re very clearly linked. The game and narrative is so excellently expanded and taken somewhere that is unexpected but yet, it is clear that it’s sequel. Majora’s Mask is, infamously, an exploration into grief. This is a far cry from the more traditional fantasy adventure that its predecessor was celebrated for. The insane men and women behind this brilliant series expanded out from a strong mechanical basis to tell a more interesting story, with a wealth of characters that could each be their own article.
Closely tied with expansion is mechanical advancement. This is simply the fact that something has to change with the mechanics of the game. It doesn’t matter if it’s wearing masks, removing unneeded elements from the game or turning your traditional formula on its head and making Breath of the Wild. Every successful sequel does something mechanically different than before. When you work on a game for months, or years, on end you end up creating tight mechanics. There is temptation to recycle these mechanics identically, don’t. Make sure to continue innovating, change things slightly. I promise you, someone out there will have an issue with something mechanical within your work. If one person has an issue, some more people had it but didn’t speak up. Don’t be arrogant enough to believe that your work can’t be improved. Always look to improve the mechanics of your game and don’t be afraid to change things when making a sequel.
This one is harsh, but true. Does anyone want your sequel? Honestly, does anyone want another one of whatever you are providing? Make sure you properly do some due diligence when thinking about making a sequel. You may have poured your heart and soul into a project, giving it money and blood and sweat and tears, doesn't mean you should go back. This assessment is the hardest thing to do and I wish there was a simple solution but there isn’t. I can, however, offer some positivity to finish.
The best idea you’ll ever have, is the next one.