When a video game sequel is not a sequel anymore
Path of Exile is a popular free-to-play (F2P) online ARPG. It built up its success on the vacuum left by Diablo 3 when it was released and poorly received. It promised “old-school” gameplay and delivered it — although the game also became famous for its humongous passive skill tree.
Now, six years later, they announced Path of Exile 2 , a game with an improved engine, seven campaign acts, new classes, new skill gem system “and much more”. Except that it will share the first Path of Exile’s game client, and will be launched as an update.
I was trying to wrap my head around this concept while reading this article on PC Gamer. Apparently, Blizzard will follow a similar path with Overwatch 2: it will be released as a separate game, but will slowly merge with Overwatch 1 as one game. And, to tell the truth, I think it’s a pretty good idea…with some caveats.
First of all, this is not a new idea. Some games already did something like this in the past, and it worked very well. Warframe, one of my favorite F2P games, succinctly — or not — added more content over the years and greatly expanded the game. Without considering things like the melee combat rework — which is on its third iteration — and warframes that were reworked over that time, there is still a lot of new stuff. The archwings, for example, which take the combat from a planet’s surface to space and allow three-dimensional movement, were a nice — albeit controversial for some people — addition, and were also reworked over the years. Next year, they promise to release what is basically spaceship combat… in something that started as a third-person action game.
A few years ago they released the first open-world map on the game, an immense stretch of land crafted by hand, as opposed to the usual quick procedural-generated levels on which the gameplay loop relies on. Then, they released a second open-world map, and it seems this trend won’t stop there.
Keep in mind that I didn’t account for the always-expanding story and universe, all the while adding new guns, characters, and mechanics. Arguably, one could say that Warframe is a “mish-mash” of two or more games. And, as expected, this brings some new problems to the players that weren’t there on the original release, the worst of all being that it is necessary to play dozens — or even hundreds — of hours to see what the game really has to offer. At some point, the gameplay is even flipped upside down after unlocking some abilities, forcing a new approach to the maps and enemies.
Path of Exile followed suit over the years, although in a less chaotic way. There were no huge changes to the gameplay loop, only additions and some new mechanics. Considering that both games have a very fair business model, being F2P without “pay to win” items, that is expected for their continual survival.
Just look at the (now defunct) Marvel Heroes. That game was re-released almost yearly as a way to signalize that things changed, and to avoid being punished by low scores that weren’t updated as the game polished its experience.
As told by PCGamesN in this article:
Realising how far they’d come, Brevik had the game rebranded as Marvel Heroes 2015 in order to advertise the fact that this was a true rebirth, and hopefully attract new players and re-reviews. It worked. “It was very successful for us; it raised our Metacritic score to 81.”
During its lifetime, the game was called Marvel Heroes, Marvel Heroes 2015, Marvel Heroes 2016, and Marvel Heroes Omega, each iteration better received than the previous one.
Overwatch, however, is a paid game. It is necessary to buy it to be able to play. Overwatch 2 will almost certainly be paid too. So why would this be a good idea? Because, as said in the PC Gamer article, it will avoid splitting the players. Online games live and die by the wave of people playing them, as the lack of players, for whatever reason, might signal the downfall of a game. Nobody likes to wait 5 or more minutes for a match because there aren’t enough players around, especially when the focus is on player versus player (PvP). Just look at Battleborn, a nice game that, due to the time it was released, never amassed the popularity it needed (more people are playing Euro Truck Simulator 2 now than there ever was playing Battleborn), living now as a lesson about how a good game can fail.
So avoiding to divide the players by first merging the online aspect of Overwatch, and then both games itself, Blizzard prevents people from abandoning the game altogether. It’s a smart move that has been used before, although with mixed success.
Left 4 Dead was released in 2008 by Valve in a time when zombies were booming, appearing a lot in movies, comics, and other games. The 4-player cooperative experience and asymmetrical PvP gathered a lot of followers. The “zombie movie vibe” given by the posters on the loading screen and film grain effect was a hit, and the campaign was divided on acts as if they really were movies from the same collection.
Exactly one year later, Left 4 Dead 2 was released. Except for an updated AI and a few tweaks with the gameplay, there were no visible improvements. Even though the game was as well-received as the first one, there were complaints that the previous game was being abandoned, while all updates and bug-fixing were focused on the new one. The people complaining weren’t wrong, but in the end, Valve released the characters and maps from the first game in the second one, turning it into a “2-for-1 deal”, somewhat blurring the line defining sequel and prequel.
Nowadays, I often see complaints when a sequel is released and there’s hardly any visible improvement over the previous one, be it graphically, in the engine or just gameplay-wise. In the 90s and early 2000s, a sequel was a finished product released at full price with, usually, a new story and setting. Consider Fallout 1 and Fallout 2, for example, as the engine was slightly improved, but the games used the same assets. The main aspects that tells one game apart from the other is the campaign and characters.
However, we have to keep in mind that this was before the widespread use of broadband internet, when update patches had to be downloaded from the developer’s website after buying a physical disc, before digital stores were a thing. In the modern world, it’s easier to put an update online and have all the users play with the most recent version of the game in an instant. All in all, I’d say it’s hard to define what can be considered a sequel in this type of media. You can’t just merge two or three movies together (well, you can, but it would be a very long movie), but it’s possible to merge different games into one — given enough time and budget.
I don’t really like the idea of a game evolving over time and losing its original aspects, and probably a lot of people don’t like it too, as we now have World of Warcraft and World of Warcraft Classic, both being supported by Blizzard at the same time, to grab this share of the market. However, having multiple “versions” being shared by the same client — which seems to be going to happen with Path of Exile — is something I can get behind. As the “games as a service” philosophy spreads, having agency over which game to play and how to play might be an important stepping stone for survival and consumer satisfaction, in what is now a world with mutable media.