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Video game sequels dominating the market during recession

If there's one thing the recession has taught us about video games, it's that original intellectual properties are not worth the expense.

Take this year's Electronic Entertainment Expo, for instance; Publishers flooded the showcase with announcements of sequel after sequel after sequel, hoping it would be enough to maintain waning gamer interest and bolster the bottom line. After all, adding another layer to an already baked cake is easier than coming up with a new recipe, right?

We saw previews for Assassin's Creed II, Metal Gear Solid Rising, Super Mario Galaxy 2, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, Final Fantasy XIV(!), Splinter Cell: Conviction, Bioshock 2 and Halo: Reach, all of which are continuations of established franchises.

And let's not forget variations on similar themes, such as a remade 2D Super Mario Bros., another serial installment in Beatles: Rock Band and a rebuilt original story in Silent Hill: Shattered Memories.

Part of me is excited about such a lineup of "new" stuff, because if nothing else, sequels allow developers to improve on a successful formula. If one scoop of ice cream is good, three is better, right? Problem is, after a few spoonfuls, the scoops all start to taste the same.

I'm as guilty as any gamer of blindly following the latest version of my favorite franchise. My slavish devotion to Resident Evil alone could supplement the GM bailout. This is not to say that I am satisfied with the series, however; if you recall, I slammed RE5 in favor of the much simpler — and much more fun — Killzone 2 ... yet another sequel. And a neighbor friend is currently whiling away her hours with The Sims 3, unfortunately for her husband, who couldn't care less.

Developers and publishers are shying away from original IPs in the current market, favoring big names guaranteed to sell en masse. And besides saving millions in development, art direction and marketing costs for new IPs, the sales strategy works.

Activision Blizzard Inc.'s quarterly profit jumped in the three months ended March 31. The company brought in a quarterly profit of $189 million, versus $43 million for the same period a year earlier. The reason? Strong sales of the latest installements in their Guitar Hero and Call of Duty lines (both of which, incidentally, are in the process of being updated yet again, along with another Tony Hawk-sponsored skateboarder).

And while every gamer, including myself, is drooling over the coming Modern Warfare 2, the Blizzard division adds to the rosy outlook by contributing the next Starcraft sequel to the PC market.

But at what cost? There was almost no mention at E3 of interesting new titles, even suprisingly popular stuff such as Xbox Live Arcade's Splosion Man, Disney's racing game Split/Second or even Activision's Brutal Legend, starring Jack Black. After companies like Electronic Arts lost their virtual shirts on new ideas like Mirror's Edge and even fair-selling Dead Space, creativity simply isn't being rewarded — by gamers or publishers.

This is of great concern to me, as I am just old enough to remember the great video-game crash of the early '80s, when a jumble of subpar software and a confusing assortment of consoles forced people into simply shrugging and unplugging. This time, it may well be a little different: The software is of excellent quality, but the games are so similar to each other, what's the point in spending another $60 to buy a new title?

That's not to say sequels aren't fun, though; Lately I've been eschewing trying out the high-marked, all-new inFamous for Red Faction: Guerilla, which is the third in that particular series. Of course, this time they changed the gameplay enough to make it feel like a new series, even if it is just Grand Theft Auto on Mars.

Then again, if the mark of a successful sequel is making it seem like a different game, is it really a sequel?

— Joshua Gillin writes about video games and entertainment news for tbt*. Feel free to challenge his opinions at jgillin@tampabay.com.

Video game sequels dominating the market during recession 06/17/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 17, 2009 8:39pm]

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