How Video Games Deliver Sequels In A Live Service World

The games industry has relied on a numbered sequel for years, but the tides and business models are changing with the emergence of the live service games. This article intends to look at the value sequels as well as the alternatives and some examples from the gaming world.

For years we’ve lived in a world of video game sequels where the original game would come out and then be followed up by a number of successful sequels. Super Mario Bros is a good example of a video game series that had numbered sequels that had varying successes. The original game sold 40m copies and was followed up with Super Mario Bros 2 (7.4m), Super Mario Bros 3 (17.2m) and Super Mario World (20.6m) on the SNES. Other examples include the Borderlands, God Of War and Final Fantasy series.

Video games have evolved from single release products to constantly evolving, live-service products shaped through audience feedback and seasonal updates. Video games are still a place to enjoy a great single-player experience, but they are also social experiences. They are somewhere you can hang out with your friends and go to a concert (as 11m people went to Marshmallow’s concert in-game in Fortnite).

As games have evolved from, and continue to evolve into live service products the method of tackling sequels is an interesting topic. Some have done a great job and some not so. There are companies in the business of live service games that have refused to create a sequel, perhaps nervous of upsetting the apple-cart and disrupting the financially rewarding flow of transactions coming into the business.

There’s plenty of benefits to the developer/publisher for numbered sequels. It’s a good opportunity to promote the game from a marketing and sales point of view. With the marketing comes a chance to shout about your game and perhaps pair that with a new console to further amplify the hype. Sequels also provide the developer to show off new features, develop skills or abilities further and give more of what the audience loved before. Think of Mario developing his skills beyond jumping in Super Mario Bros to flying in Super Mario Bros 3 and then again in Super Mario World. Sequels also provide the opportunity for a reset. Maybe the developers feel like they’ve boxed themselves into a corner and want to wipe the slate clean.

Although there are benefits to sequels there are also risks. Sequels can split communities as we saw with the release of Destiny 2. Many players who played together on Xbox and PlayStation decided to upgrade to PC, leaving fractured clans and a split community across 3 platforms who couldn’t play against each other. There’s a risk that all the updates from the original could get missed by the team that working on the sequel. Using Destiny as an example once again the team working on Destiny 2 and the Live team working on the updates to original Destiny got out of step. By the time Rise of Iron was rolled out, Destiny 1 was in a great place. Destiny 2’s launch saw the features that had been built up over many small incremental releases removed.

A sequel can also be a good opportunity for players to have a look around at what else is out there, breaking the comfort of active and engaged audiences. If you have a reasonable live-service model then this is not likely something you want to disrupt as a business model. This has led to some companies being very nervous about a numbered sequel with League of Legends developer Riot famously saying there would “Never be a League of Legends 2”.

As an alternative to numbered sequels, the modern way of conveying change and improvements to players is through the seasons model. Rather than building the game from the ground up in a new engine with new graphics the game is incrementally improved over time and the narrative changes at a shorter time period – normally months rather than years. Live service games like Apex Legends, Destiny 2 and Fortnite have embraced this model and provide ever-evolving worlds with frequently added content and seasonal updates.

There’s plenty of benefits to the seasonal model with smaller, microtransactions leading to often healthy revenue streams. Free to the user can often mean getting the game in front of more eyes, which hopefully leads to a bigger audience and if you can create a world that players care about and don’t mind spending a little money on cosmetics then you’re onto a winner. Seasons also allow companies to iterate and experiment. Try something out and if people don’t like it, well, it’s not long to wait before that feature/weapon or mode goes away with a new season. Perhaps the only downside of this model is it’s more difficult to promote a big step change and that microtransactions don’t have the best reputation with consumers.

Destiny is a good example of how not to approach a numbered sequel in a live service game. Features that took years to get into shape, a step back in the weapon system, 4v4 rather than 6v6 and generally a slowly game style all added to players leaving in droves months after Destiny 2 had been released. The number 2 in the title gave Bungie a good opportunity to reset and build on what they had developed in the first 3 years of the Destiny franchise, however, the oversimplification and stripped back version of Destiny did not resonate with its core audience and was focused on the casual player. This led to the community wilting (Trials of Osiris consistently having 145,000 players per weekend whereas Trials of the Nine had 71,000), many community leaders leaving the game looking for others to fill the void.

Overwatch 2 is an interesting take on “How to provide a sequel to a live service game”. Overwatch has been a very successful PVP focused game for Blizzard and they recently announced the sequel Overwatch 2 was coming out sometime in the near future. Blizzard is taking a hybrid approach of offering a numbered sequel and a live-service-like update to keep the community together, focused and engaged while developing these new features around their audience.

Blizzard knows Overwatch fans are active and engaged and they don’t want to disrupt their audience’s enjoyment (partly because they continue to pay for a steady stream of profitable microtransactions), but they’ve also learnt from their former Activision-Blizzard game buddies Bungie. So they’ve come up with an interesting idea where PVP updates are going to be delivered to Overwatch 1 free of charge, while at the same time developing Overwatch 2’s replayable PVE and story modes around the successful structure of PVP. This allows Blizzard to provide enough new features to warrant the 2 in the title, without the risk of upsetting and dividing their existing community.

In summary, developers still lean into the numbered sequel, but the tides are changing and teams are experimenting with new models as the landscape evolves. It will be interesting to see the impact of Overwatch 2 and as we move into 2020 what other experiments companies try. For now, the numbered sequel still has value for both developer and audience alike but the landscape is changing and it’s an exciting time for those following the live service game model.

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