Game Philosophy: Designing the Gameplay of Sequels

This is blasphemy! This is madness!

Madness?

THIS.

IS.

Logo

Today’s topic:
Designing the Gameplay of Sequels

So I once had a talk with my good friend Carlo and he asked the question: “How can I tell when a change is good or bad?”

It’s quite a difficult question to answer, because it’s not an exact science. Sometimes you just can’t really predict the audience’s reaction.

Even what I’m about to say may not actually be the right answer in itself (but don’t tell my army of clones that).

Generally, I go by the traditional wedding rhyme.

Something old, something new,
Something borrowed, something blue.

Yes, I just compared designing sequels to a wedding. Just hear me out.
Yes, I just compared designing sequels to a wedding. Just hear me out.

“Something old, something new” should be obvious, something from the previous iteration should still be in the sequel yet also adding something new. But I want to point out a specific “something old” that should be kept. And that would be the “Main Concept”.

To compare, let’s dust off one of my favourite games again:
ninjagaidenblack_xboxbox

Take away the huge combo list of this game. Take away the fact that you play as a ninja. Hell, take away the whole story of the game whatsoever. The game in it’s pure core is about one single thing: “The enemies aren’t there to be killed, they’re here to kill YOU”.

It’s a very simple concept and that’s what the design of the game is based around. In the case of this game, the enemies are smart, REAL smart. You can have three of the same types of enemies and instead of them doing the exact same thing one after another, they assign roles. One will attack you from the front, the other will attack with a ranged attack and the last will try to get behind you.

Now to demonstrate, here’s a sequel that did it right in taking this main concept and still add something new:
Ninja_Gaiden_II

This sequel decided to go for a different direction. Whereas in Ninja Gaiden Black you usually come across 3 to 5 enemies per encounter, here you more commonly go against 5 to 7 enemies per encounter.

Now you might be thinking “Oh, that’s just heightening up the numbers, that’s nothing new”. And you’d be right, but that’s not the main difference here. The main difference is in how they changed the enemies from “smart” to “desperate”.

The enemies still assign roles to one another, but now they actually change their strategies when you cut off one of their limbs. Having lost their vital organs, they no longer “think” and instead just go completely berserk. It’s not about them surviving the fight anymore, now they want to take you with them.

And that’s the thing, it’s different, but it NEVER deviated from the “The enemies aren’t there to be killed, they’re here to kill YOU” mentality.

And now let’s go back to compare this to the black sheep of the family that did the change wrong:
Ninja-Gaiden-3_PS3_STANDARD_US_ESRB-FIN_cover

First, let me make it clear that for all my rantings about this game, I’ve generally calmed down about it. When push comes to shove, this game is okay. It’s nothing terrible or anything and if someone really wants to play Ninja Gaiden without dying too often, I’d actually even recommend the remake, Razor’s Edge.

But back to the discussion, what this game did wrong was that it took a different direction that DOES deviate from the original game’s main concept.

The game is now about how powerful you are and how the enemies cower in fear over you.

It now has Quick Time Events which make you do Awesome Things™ and make you feel like a typical American Badass and all that.

But that’s not the main concept, and it misses the point of what the previous games did right.

The previous games ALREADY made you feel like a badass for simply SURVIVING.

Doing a Quick Time Event to dodge some falling icicles is never going to get the satisfaction that you get from killing three steroid-filled ogres with Triceratops Skulls as masks from the pure gameplay.

In Ninja Gaiden 3, finding out that there are 10 enemies running towards you will simply give you the feeling of “Ugh, this is going to be a boring 10 minutes”. But in Ninja Gaiden II you would instead go “OH SHIT!”

In summary, Something Old and Something New should be that the Main Concept is retold in a new way, rather than altering the Main Concept altogether.

Next is something borrowed and something blue.

Jurassic-World-Velociraptors-4

Okay, that’ll work. Who do I call to get a Featherless Blue Velociraptor at my wedding?

Anyway, something borrowed and something blue do require some stretching of the actual definition.

In Wedding Terms, the something borrowed is something you borrow from someone who has been blessed with children to encourage vertility, while something blue is to signify something pure.

In my terms I will refer something borrowed as borrowing some of the latest trends of the gaming community and then something blue as coming up with an as-of-yet under-utilized or even completely new feature to justify making this sequel in the first place.

Now, I can see some purists already saying “NO! YOU SHOULDN’T FOLLOW THE LATEST TRENDS! I WANT MY GAMES TO BE EXACTLY THE SAME AGAIN AND AGAIN!”.

Well, here’s the thing, notice how the 2D genre has become a Niche now. That’s because 3D has taken over as the main medium of games. And if you want your franchise to stay alive, you need to at least incorporate it in your game in one way or another.

Sure, sometimes the trends do become grating…
003-QTEPart4

But that’s why you have to be careful about your choices. Don’t just pick something because it IS a trend. Make sure the trend is something that would actually strengthen your game as a result.

Now, just as how “Something New” is linked to “Something Old”, “Something Blue” should be linked to “Something Borrowed” too.

The new “pure” gameplay feature that justifies making this sequel should also be linked to the “Something Borrowed” for one very simple reason:
Your player needs to be able to get into it as quickly as possible.

If a gameplay feature you implemented is linked to a current trend in video games, it would be easier for people to get used to the new feature. Otherwise they would just push it aside for the sake of sticking with what they were more accustomed to.

However, I also believe that is also why both “Something Borrowed” and “Something Blue” should be linked to the “Something Old”‘s Main Concept.

Because no matter what you do with your sequel, never deviate from the original game’s Main Concept.

If a game gained a following because it was about a talking unicorn that farts cotton candy filled with the hopes of children everywhere, don’t try to change it into a new game about a rainbow spewing robot, they liked it because it was about a friggin talking unicorn that farts cotton candy filled with the hopes of children everywhere!

You can change the environment, you can change the age rating, you can even change the genre of gameplay, as long as you keep the game’s main concept that made it sell so well, which in this case would be a talking unicorn that farts cotton candy filled with the hopes of children everywhere.

Hang on, where’s my notepad…

Published by Huy Minh Le

Huy Minh Le is a Video Game Enthusiast, Movie Lover, Writer, Content Marketeer and regular TvTropes reader! His studies in Game Design, Art, and Writing has led to a very creative, yet analytical mind.

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