Stop Making Sequels
The critically-lauded sequel to the critically-lauded Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor (Tiger Style, 2009) has not done very well. When Tale of Tales had their own very public failure a little while back I wasn’t sure we should draw any larger conclusions aside from “making money in videogames is hard, The End.” The failure of Tiger Style to capitalise on a six-year old success is being called out as the dead canary emerging from the coal mine that is the mobile game market. THE INDIEPOCALYPSE IS HERE, IT’S REAL AND IT’S NOT JUST GOING TO EAT YOUR LUNCH – BUT ALSO YOUR CHILDREN’S LUNCH.
I’m still not sure we should draw any larger conclusions aside– wait, wait. Let’s think about this.
I detested the idea of being hooked into social media every second of the day which was the main reason I was successful at not-buying a smartphone for many years. This meant I came to Spider late, in 2013, well after all the critical applause had died down. It had been worshipped as an example of mobile gaming done good. TouchArcade said it “perfectly represents the promise of iPhone gaming”. The game feel was perfect: there was joy in flicking a spider around a touch screen, spinning webs to snare insects. And there was something hidden in the backdrops of the game, environmental narrative to be deciphered. It was, after all, about The Secret of Bryce Manor.
But I tired of it. I started to wonder exactly how many more bugs I had to munch through to find out The Secret. I played less and less frequently and remembering what secrets I’d discovered became a challenge. I eventually stopped. That’s when Tiger Style chose to announce they were going to ship a sequel called Spider: Rite of the Shrouded Moon – and I had to wonder why. Although reviewers and critics talked up the environmental narrative – I cited it here myself in The Beautiful Dead – the gameplay seemed to appeal more to the commuter, looking for something to kill the time on the bus, on the train, on the toilet. Did the average Spider player even care about the environmental narrative sideshow?
How different, I thought, can the Spider 2 gameplay be versus the original? Why would I be bothered with a “new mystery”? It reminded me of Bioshock burnout – I had zero interest in acquiring Bioshock 2, despite all the recommendations. I just couldn’t imagine hordes of Spider players salivating over the prospect of another 2000 insect-infested levels.
Now, here’s the crucial thing, the scary thing which should put fear into the hearts of developers everywhere. Are you ready? Here goes. I actively avoided reading anything about the sequel. I was so disinterested, I didn’t even want to spend time reading about it. Perhaps the reviews suggest fantastic new mechanics that shake up the web-spinning genre, I don’t know. I didn’t even realise the sequel had become just as critically lauded as the original.
My gut tells me indies should beware of sequels because that commercial success is often a trap. It does not guarantee interest in a follow-up. People will smile and say, yeah, sounds cool, I loved the original. But think of the absolute disaster of Darwinia+ which almost wiped Introversion Software from the face of the planet. That beautiful originality may be just too perfect as it is, making it difficult to convince even your fans that there’s value going back to the same well. God, it’s not just indieware: I enjoyed Portal 2 but somehow it didn’t taste as juicy and delicious as the original and would probably hesitate to buy a Portal 3 if such a thing were made real.
Now if it’s easy to churn out a sequel and you’re reusing lots of assets and code then what you’re doing is leveraging the hardcore fans; it’s closer to DLC or an expansion pack than a full-blown sequel but DLC sells best if it comes out quickly. Tiger Style invested two years in the sequel and it emerged six years after Bryce Manor: this was no sequel-lite. Going to the other extreme, you can probably keep a game’s systems completely intact if you’re offering the expense of a brand new story – like an RPG or FPS which can feel fresh. But Spider buries its story in the background so Shrouded Moon doesn’t jump out at me as the kind of sequel that would feel vibrant and different.
In the pockegamer.biz article where Tiger Style came clean about Shrouded Moon‘s failure, David Kalina of Tiger Style said, “Making a sequel can sometimes lead you into a trap where you feel the need to outdo the previous game in every possible dimension.” Tiger Style were supposed to release in Spring 2014 but it slipped a full year. Ever since Darwinia+, my spidey-sense tingles whenever I see an indie charge down the throw-everything-at-the-sequel path. It’s the reason I have concerns about Rob Hale working on Waves 2 to fund another game called Notorious. The original didn’t do as well as Hale hoped; why will the follow-up which is probably going to look very similar in any screenshots do any better? He has to crank it out relatively quickly to ensure that every month spent on that game can pay for more than a month of Notorious development – otherwise switching focus doesn’t make any sense.
We’re really talking about issues of attention and marketing, not of design or polish. As Randy Smith of Tiger Style suggests, the market has changed in the six years since Bryce Manor hit the App Store. But Bryce Manor launched when the App Store was just one year old, during the gold rush where it seemed developers could make a fortune from any piece of crap shoved onto the App Store. Perhaps it’s Bryce Manor‘s success that we should be suspicious of, rather than Shrouded Moon‘s inability to repeat it. Think again of Darwinia which was assured a captive audience as it was one of the first indie titles on Steam: another gold rush success.
There’s a certain type of developer that believes that all you have to do is make a great game and everything will work out just like in them fairytales. Ergo, if it did not work out, you did not make a great game. If you come and read Electron Dance with any regularity, you know I have no stock in this view. Hell, I’m writing a book about the difficulties of being an “indie” and the slow death of independence. But it’s the very work on this book that has led me to reject the indiepocalypse narrative.
Smith again: “We’re just at the start of a wave of painful consolidation and reorganization in the market which is likely to eliminate certain types of games from plausibility.” This is something I can get behind. The changing market means it is expensive and risky to throw two years into a mobile game unless you’ve managed to hook into a lucrative vein like Angry Birds or Candy Crush. Even relatively cheap experiments like Threes run the risk of being killed and replaced by their own clones, with the public none the wiser this has happened mere months on.
Okay. I’ve not proved anything here and I have no experience in selling indie games. (Well, not any more.) All I wanted to do is put forward an alternative perspective on the Shrouded Moon story, that the sequel’s conception was snared in the web of the original’s success. Did anyone ask for a sequel? Was there any genuine interest? Because I can answer that question just by looking at the sales figures in the wake of great reviews and the answer appears to be no.
- Update 27 Sep / 1700: Tiger Style co-founder David Kalina responds in the comments: “But to instead use the lack of traction of our most recent game and claim our previous work is somehow suspect, to be honest, is kind of insulting.”
- Update 25 Sep / 1630: Rob Hale just hit me up over Twitter and mentioned that he was having to rebuild Waves on UE4 as a stepping stone to Notorious. Therefore, it “seemed silly not to let people buy it when I was doing the work anyway”.
- Randy Smith is of the original Thief team which is why I’m usually interested in what Tiger Style gets up to. He is also a year younger than me but this has nothing to do with anything, honest.
- If I remember rightly, Tiger Style promoted Shrouded Moon ahead of its announcement with an ARG on Twitter.
- Again, from the pocketgamer article: “For Smith, this is a deeply personal project.” The article talks about commercial failure, but then argues the motivation for this expensive project was personal. This is more a criticism of the article; I would have liked to read why Tiger Style were convinced there was interest in a sequel.
- There’s also a question of telemetry data. F2P games thrive on knowing what their customers are doing. Pay-first games often don’t spy as much, so their developers are more blind to customer interests and behaviour than their F2P brethren.
- It’s not so easy to blame “unwanted sequel” issues for the lacklustre sales of N++ (Metanet Software, 2015) as the prime suspect is weak marketing and the game already went through one successful sequel iteration.
- These are my opinions. Write your opinions in the comments below. If you have no opinions, I’ll take onions.
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13 thoughts on “Stop Making Sequels”
Whenever I read an article where an indie developer is explaining why their last game didn’t sell it annoys me when the writer or developer then tries to extrapolate a bigger trend from it. A lot of indies have also had success with sequels. Just look at the sales figures for Democracy 3, the Blackwell series or Sanctum 2:
I think you are right the question is to figure out if your audience will buy your game but just because your game is a sequel does not automatically mean they won’t. If you still have interesting concepts to explore in the sequel then there’s probably still a market for it.
Joel, I have just about finished my sequel to PONGS. This is crushing. Why are you crushing me, Joel? Not to mention future hopes for The Artist Is Present 2: This Time It’s Personal.
I’ll add this to the article soon: Rob Hale just hit me up over Twitter and mentioned that he was having to rebuild Waves on UE4 as a stepping stone to Notorious. Therefore, it “seemed silly not to let people buy it when I was doing the work anyway”.
Alexander, I think most of the business advice out there is endless extrapolation! I think there are plenty of situations where sequels make sense – as I alluded, story works well when it’s front-loaded and Blackwell falls into that really well. And sometimes your hardcore fans clamour for a deeper version of the game they played before. That’s a tricky balancing act, of course, because each iteration gets less welcoming to the outside world, but if you can get your fans to pay for that increasing complexity it makes perfect commercial sense.
Although I’ve slanted this post towards sequels, really I wanted to shoot down the suggestion of the indiepocalypse here.
Pippin, I’m sorry. Telling it like it is. Imagine if there was a Sportsfriends II? Barabariballs: now with multiple balls. Hokra is succeeded by Hokramon where the dots are replaced with Japanese anime characters. Super Pole Rocket League: Poles now have rockets attached, hilarity results. Ludvig Van Joust: Joust but with more tracks and an obscure Clockwork Orange reference. Ban this sick videogame filth.
I think it’s totally fair to suggest that there may not have been enough audience demand for a Spider sequel. In our specific case, that’s certainly part of the story. (I don’t necessarily conflate YOUR lack of interest with a GENERAL lack of interest, but hey, it’s clearly not setting the world on fire). The first game was a hit for us in a very different era, and we believed that the qualities that made the game connect with people in ye olde 2009 would potentially lead to even greater success if we iterated on the concept. We got hit from both sides — we overestimated consumer interest and underestimated the cost of development. It’s a bummer.
That said, I’m not totally sure I get your point. On the one hand, you want to “shoot down the suggestion of the indiepocalypse” … and yet you also agree with Randy when he says “We’re just at the start of a wave of painful consolidation and reorganization in the market which is likely to eliminate certain types of games from plausibility”? What’s the difference exactly? And why is it so important to “refute the indiepocalypse”? Are you worried that everyone is going to pack their bags and stop making games? I don’t get it.
“Indiepocalypse” is just hyperbole. Nothing “apocalyptic” is happening. Still, it seems pretty clear that the world is changing and games and studios that might have been successful 5 years ago are not finding traction today. Developers with positive track records are struggling. If we really are entering into an era where certain types of games can no longer find markets, is that a problem or no? For me, as a developer AND as a player who wants games to continue to evolve, it’s kind of a big problem.
I get that you might not want to take one specific case and draw a big, sweeping conclusion from it, but clearly we’re not the only ones. But to instead use the lack of traction of our most recent game and claim our previous work is somehow suspect, to be honest, is kind of insulting.
Thanks for taking the time to drop a comment on an article which is… pretty negative. Actually it’s rare around these parts for me to get quite *this* negative (let’s pretend I didn’t make fun of Bioshock Infinite last week) so someone coming back to say, “hey, dude, insulting much?” is a new experience for me. Anyway, this is just blather: I’ll respond quickly to some of your points.
* My lack of interest/general lack of interest. Yes, I’m extrapolating too much but I needed to draw out a plausible explanation why a sequel might not capture the hearts of its fans to refute the indiepocalypse angle; I thought Spider was a great game but gradually realised I was going through the motions after a certain point, well before reaching its end (the bedroom I think?). It seemed possible that even its fans might not have wanted more. (I have more to say about digesting narrative slowly another day.)
* Actually: I’d never intended to avoid reading about Shrouded Moon. But when the news came through this week I realised that’s exactly what I’d been doing. I suspect part of me was also disappointed your next release was not something different again, as Waking Mars was. (I bought a copy some time ago but STILL haven’t had a chance to play with it.)
* Indiepocalypse – we disagree over what it means. Tiger Style put “#indiepocalypse ?” into their Twitter and that’s probably the original reason I became interested in the failure of Shrouded Moon as opposed to simply being downbeat about another decent indie hitting hard times. “Indiepocalypse” has become the new term for the “indie bubble”; and I’ve been hearing about a soon-to-come indie wipeout for years even before the bubble term fell into common parlance. I completely agree that certain avenues of development are closing down and I am concerned about the shape of our indie future. But I don’t think “indie development” is going to collapse which is what most people read from the term. We can disagree about what it means but the meaning I have here is what I was firing at. This one item I guess is a MUCH larger discussion.
* That paragraph about the original success being “suspect”, sorry – I’m not entirely sure that’s phrased well and can come across as callous, particularly as it sits beside the “any piece of crap” line which isn’t levelled at Spider. So: I was not suggesting Spider did not deserve accolades. Neither did I intend to suggest it did not deserve success. What I was trying to isolate was that its success may have arisen because it got in early. The matured market is the normal market and the early, immature market is not. Any commercial success during the immature period may be as much a function of quality as it is of lack of competition. How can we distinguish which factor is most significant? That leads me to the Darwinia comparison (although TBH Darwinia+ is not the perfect sequel disaster for the sake of comparison).
* “I’m not totally sure I get your point.” Oh this one is totally valid. When I published I could see the focus was a bit hazy, but it was written quick just to get the thoughts out there. Is it about sequels? Is it about indiepocalypse? Is it actually about Spider? WHO KNOWS. At least there’d be some conversation about the issues raised. So thank you for being part of that.
Gosh I wish you’d sent this comment earlier, I was supposed to go to bed over an hour ago 🙂 You see, you already have your revenge David.
Thanks for the well-considered response, and apologies if I cost you some sleep the other night 🙂
Regarding the use of #indiepocalypse in our Twitter, well, Randy runs the Twitter account (mostly) and I’m not entirely sure why he used that hashtag, though I’m guessing he did it to be provocative / to try to get us involved in a broader conversation. Which I guess may have worked! “Bubble” does, in my mind, more accurately describe what I think is going on — that there was a market situation where a greater percentage of participants could find success and that it no longer exists. My belief is that things are only going to get worse / more difficult for our sector of the industry, and I’m not sure what to do about it.
I take some issue with the idea that “today represents the norm, but the past was an immature market.” Markets are always evolving, and it’s not like there is some process by which they evolve towards a fixed state. There will continue to be disruptive forces that change the landscape (what if Apple TV became a real gaming platform? what happens with VR platforms in 2016? etc). Additionally, the landscape may become even MORE hostile towards developers of our size. There continue to be new entrants and new ideas, consumers have to pick through floods of new content, everything is guaranteed to go on sale or be free at some point, there are massive amounts of free entertainment available to players both inside and outside of gaming… if you’re not a known quantity, it’s going to be increasingly easier for a consumer to ignore you completely. If I’m reading between the lines from your last post, it sounds like you’re a player who is interested in our studio’s work in general AND YET you still never made time for either of our last two games. Which is totally fine! And in fact, is probably representative of many people. That’s how I feel about most of my Steam library at this point… I have dozens of unplayed games that I “want” to play…
The point is that market gatekeepers still play a huge role in the shape of our world — Steam and Apple and Sony and Microsoft still hold tremendous power over the indie game dev landscape — and I question whether or not they really have our best interests in mind. I accept that I might disapprove of how Steam treats indie games due to my perspective, and that it works for a much larger percentage of the population, but the point remains the same: for small indies to reach big audiences, the platform holders still play a huge role in most cases. I doubt these corporations are going to change in ways that prop us up… I wonder if instead there might be room in the market for new storefronts that more actively promote and support certain classes of indie games. Humble used to play that role, in a way.
Of course the impetus is on us to find ways to reach customers anyway, and to do that in spite of an ever-shifting landscape. Our big hook for Spider 2 was the location-based weather feature. We thought this was a thing that would drive retention, get people talking, keep them coming back, etc. Clearly the reception to it was more like “neat gimmick!” and that’s obviously not what we were looking for. Maybe the signs were there early and we didn’t listen to them.
My biggest regret looking back is that we lost our agility. I work independently because I want to choose what I work on. We backed ourselves into a corner with Spider, spent every last dime in our bank account, and now are looking at an uncertain future. In any event, it will be an interesting challenge to try and work our ways back into a strong position!
Thanks for the conversation,
An interesting piece Joel.
I’m not sure how far I got into The Secret of Bryce Manor but I grew tired of the mechanics before the environmental narrative got its claws in me. I kept dipping in hoping for it to finally take hold but it never really happened. I even changed the mode to give me limited webs so I’d have to consider my actions and engage with it more instead of just flitting about until all the bugs were webbed, but it wasn’t enough. I wouldn’t mind revisiting Spider to see if this time it’d click because I do love the idea of it still.
It’s rare for me to finish a game wanting more though, even a great one, so the idea of sequels or even DLC or expansions often leaves me cold. I often welcome moving on. There are exceptions of course. I wasn’t excited about Bioshock 2 either (and I certainly didn’t want more Bioshock) but that game really surprised me and left me wanting more, and thankfully Minerva’s Den delivered too. On the other hand, I went back to Dishonored recently for The Knife of Dunwall DLC and was disappointed that I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as the original. It was more of the same, as expected, but I didn’t expect it to feel quite this… familiar and repetitive. I’ve done all this before, I kept thinking, and I didn’t want to go full psycho-serial killer just to mix it up. This leaves a question mark next to The Brigmore Witches and an even bigger one next to Dishonored 2.
Back on the indie front: Paul Eres says he’s planning on an Immortal Defense sequel(!).
I’ve posted a comment in the email discussion, but I thought this belonged here:
So, *are* sequels a bad move for an indie dev team? As pointed out above, they sometimes go very wrong (Darwinia+, I guess Shrouded Moon). One could see Sunset as a kind of Tales of Tales sequel to their previous work in that it was a fairly straightforward attempt to replicate past successes and build on work that had gone before (though their failure was due, frankly, more to the loss of grant funding than the game’s failure per se).
But then, as Alexander pointed out, Blackwell is a franchise whose success is due largely to the point that it worked very well as a series of sequels. I think Hotline Miami 2 did ok? The Bit Trip games are just a series of interlocking sequels on different platforms, right? (Never played them but want to.)
I guess my question is just pragmatism, really: was it a good idea for Cactus to work on Hotline Miami 2, or should he have done something else? Did it make sense for Supergiant games to follow up “Bastion” with “Transistor” (similar mechanics, different dressing) or should they have worked on “Bastion 2”? Which option is most advantageous for devs, and what factors determine whether a sequel will succeed or fail, or whether it’s the right option?
** David **
Well, truth be told, I think we agree on most points. The market is always evolving but there’s a special phase whenever a new market opens up when it seems to be easy to make money, primarily due to lack of competition.
The early indies on Steam created the legend of Steam = Money and that period is well and truly behind us. The early bundles were lucrative before we had bundlegeddon (and now it’s only Humble that provides indie value I think?). It’s why we sometimes get devs queueing up to be first on a new platform – like how the Skulls of the Shogun dev unwisely wedded themselves to Windows 8. This phase of entrants flooding the market is expected if it seems easy to make money and I think has been discussed a lot by people like Dan Cook and Tadhg Kelly, who are more on the F2P side of things, of course.
There is, of course, a chicken-and-egg problem: which comes first, the customers or the games? Apple pulled it off and Steam had already built a strong audience (mainly off HL2!) when the early indies began settling in. There are failures of course – Ouya did not convince, OnLive tanked and I think the Android market took awhile to get going with some developers still maintaining that it’s far too much trouble to build there due to the target hardware being so random and unreliable (channelling Michael Brough here).
But I am 100% in agreement on the gatekeeper issue (monopsony) which I am convinced is one of the greatest threats to culture. I’m not going to go much further now because I think I’ll end up writing my entire book in these comments otherwise 🙂
Good luck: I sincerely hope Tiger Style survives to fight another day.
** Gregg **
I enjoyed Spider and didn’t regret spending the money on it but, yes, I just felt I’d got all I was going to out of it. I played over several weeks, doing a little bit more on the odd train journey. It was nice to find the various secrets but I kept forgetting what I’d discovered.
I heard on Twitter that The Brigmore Witches was the best of the bunch but that was from someone who found The Knife of Dunwall amazing. Somehow I have a copy of Bioshock 2 in my Steam library. I don’t know where it came from. I should play it sometime.
I would like Paul Eres to finish Saturated Dreamers. Eres is clearly one of those indies where the games are not his primary means of support.
** James **
The correct answer is “it depends”. I think I used to be of the mind that if The_Game is successful then The_Game_Sequel will do very well, because you have now built up an audience. I think this is a slam dunk thing if you can churn out the sequel fast (e.g. Five Nights At Freddy’s) because even if it fails, the loss is capped at a more manageable level.
Look at any FPS sequel, and they’re always showing off different environments, the odd weapon, different interactions and a bit of story. They try hard to make it look different yet similar. This is all hideously expensive. Indies, who have smaller budgets, often have difficulties playing that sort of game. They can play this game though. RPGs and point-and-clicks are all about story and environment so often.
I think the danger is if the sequel has a similarity problem to the predecessor. That the sequel could be perceived to be overly similar to the original; that’s why I didn’t go near Shrouded Moon. Some people respond to N++ in the same way. I do think Hotline Miami 2 could have been failure – I was nervous when I heard it announced but it relies on front-loaded story. But playing it can be a brutal experience of rapid repetition, and some players may feel fatigue and not want to return to the play cycle three years after the original.
Maybe an interesting exercise would be to survey sequels for the last few years and see how they have fared and how long they took to make.
(I would not label Sunset as a game sequel.)
Sequels are complicated. Psychologically (to the audience) and professionally/creatively (to the developer). Audiences want them for games they enjoy, but are quick to blame sequels when they discover it’s impossible to recreate the feelings they had when playing the original game for the first time. Developers have financial and practical justifications for making them, yet good ones like Spider 2 sometimes fall victim to forces that are difficult to account for in planning.
Sunset did poorly in part because its developer’s reputation preceded it. You can’t do what Tale of Tales has spent years doing and expect a mainstream effort to succeed just because you went out of your way to describe and market it as such. Tiger Style doesn’t have that problem, though, so figuring out why Spider 2 did poorly is more complicated.
To me, the first Spider’s strength lay in the perfectly-tuned controls — being a spider was fun — and the environmental narrative tied it all together, but wasn’t the thing that really made the game work for me. Spider 2 is generally the same way. Experientially everything is more or less where I left it, with an expanded spider-verse for more heft but the same fundamental mechanics that I enjoyed. But for some reason I’m less interested in moving around like a spider. Maybe it’s the passage of time, or maybe I expect something different from mobile games today, or maybe (and this it the real issue) it’s just that the original came first. That’s what hurts sequels, often more than anything actually being wrong with them.
Given the costs and time needed to develop Spider 2, I wonder if maybe the issue is one of development expectations. Had it cost half as much and required half the time, would Spider 2 still be considered a poor performer? Hindsight is always perfect, but I wonder what Tiger Style would have done differently had it known then what it knows now.
James: I feel like the Bit Trip games are kind of an unusual case because they’re mostly in completely different mechanics/genres. One’s a Pong-like, one’s a forced running platformer, one’s a rail shooter, like that. They have a common storyline, though it’s so abstract you might not be able to tell, and a common aesthetic, and they’re all also rhythm games of a sort, but in some ways it’s more like the relationship between Super Mario Brothers and the Mario RPGs. Or not. I haven’t played a lot of these games.
Runner2 is definitely a straight-up sequel, same genre with different mechanics and updated graphics and that. But that was after six games.
@HM and Steerpike: all very interesting thoughts, thank you. I find this idea of “Different yet the same” really interesting, especially when you think about different genres. For a FPS, “different” means “more guns and a different campaign”; in an adventure game it means “a new story/setting”; in a platformer it probably means “new mechanics”. Devs have to be careful in how they think about/present/market any “new stuff” that builds on what they did before: an expansion of an adventure game’s story could be its very own game (ala Blackwell), but more levels for a platformer would do better as DLC or even a free expansion. I’m also thinking about eg. FTL’s free expansion: it added a lot to the game, but I don’t think those additions justified a whole sequel – so I think the devs made the right decision by making it free to existing customers.
@MattW: thanks for clearing that up! So it sounds like they’re not really sequels, but rather loosely-connected games in a “constellation” rather than a series? That sort of reminds me of the “Endless” games from Amplitude: they did Endless Space (4X space strategy), Endless Legend (4X land strategy) and Dungeon of the Endless (“roguelike dungeon defense”). The games are set in the same universe but differ in their mechanics to the extent that they’re kind of different genres. Maybe this is their solution to the sequel problem – make stuff that “feels” similar (same universe) but is also new, fresh and exciting (new genre/mechanics)? Maybe other indies could learn from this to avoid the Spider 2 problem that Steerpike mentioned?
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