Lately it seems every game I a play has a "2" in its title: Uncharted 2, Mass Effect 2, Bioshock 2, No More Heroes 2, Assassin's Creed 2. I'm not complaining. The common wisdom that says sequels are bound to be inferior cash-ins on their originals ignores a mound of evidence to the contrary. With the exception of NMH2, which both improved on and fell short of NMH1, these games illustrate how developers can smartly iterate on a successful formula and produce games markedly superior to their originals.
So how did they do it? I think these games impart some useful lessons in how to do sequels right. I'm not a game designer, so my observations are derived purely from a player's perspective; but from where I sit here's what I see.
- Hold fast to the vision of the original, but resist the temptation to retrace your steps. Give us a new destination and ensure that journey amplifies the meaning of the first one. Bioshock 2 is a case study in how to do this effectively. Bioshock 2 functions as a dialectic with the first game, re-exploring Rapture by revisiting and re-contextualizing its environments and opposing ideals. I'll explore this further in a post devoted solely to Bioshock 2 later this week.
- Learn from your mistakes, including the ones we don't know about. The most obvious outcome of positive iteration is fixing the stuff that didn't work in the first game. Assassin's Creed 2 eliminated the repetitiveness; Mass Effect 2 upgraded the combat mechanics; No More Heroes 2 jettisoned the open world; Bioshock 2 killed the maddening "Circus of Values!" clown (voiced in the original by Creative Director Ken Levine) - a little thing, yes, but THANK YOU.
These are welcome changes, but skilled designers see things many of us don't, and targeting those issues too suggests a development commitment that transcends addressing player complaints. Mass Effect's awkwardly staged cinematics didn't draw much ire from fans (in fact, lots of reviewers praised them), but ME2's greatly enhanced dialogue scenes prove its designers weren't satisfied with what they accomplished the first time.
- Bigger isn't necessarily better. Bioshock 2 and Mass Effect 2 are both shorter and more compact than their originals, and both are better games for it. Some bemoan the loss of backtracking in Bioshock 2 or the fewer number of planets in ME2. Not me. The narrative drive forward is more powerful in both sequels, and neither sags in the middle as their predecessors did. More stuff to do doesn't necessarily translate into better.
- You don't have to 'go dark.' The common trajectory in storytelling across media is to darken the protagonist as he/she grows more complex. This can be a good or bad thing (Prince of Persia: Warrior Within = bad; The Dark Knight = good), but it shouldn't be treated as a default choice. We learn more about Drake, Desmond, and Shepard in these games, but their designers wisely avoid the sullen, doleful fate that befalls other game heroes. Travis grows a little angsty in NMH2, but the game isn't committed to exploring it.
- Don't assume "developing the characters and story" are sufficient reasons for a sequel. Uncharted 2, Bioshock 2, and Mass Effect 2 each advance an existing storyline, but they also do more important things like enhance their gameplay with genuinely fun new options and features; refine their interfaces; lower their barrier to entry for new players, and generally communicate a sense that this game has been honed and polished by a development team that went all-out. A sequel needs a compelling story, but that story should be embedded in a game that feels like it's advancing too.
This, in my view, is the particular triumph of Bioshock 2 - a game whose most convincing initial argument for a sequel was financial. That 2K Marin overcame this cynical impetus and built a game that surpasses the original in nearly every way is a testament to their ingenuity and their devotion to creating a sequel second to none.
I'm sure I've neglected a few 'rules' in my list. If so, I hope you'll let me know.