Every gamer has been in this situation before.
A long-running franchise that you've been following for years now is about to release a new title with loads of hype and excitement behind it. The early online reviews are positive, and you rush out to buy the game when it hits shelves. For the first couple of hours, everything is great: new content to explore, new features in play, and old characters reimagined with the latest, shiny new graphics. This is awesome!
But once the initial excitement wears off, you start to realize that things aren't as great as you first believed. You were enjoying this latest installment just because it was new and unfamiliar — not because of its actual merit. Your second play session isn't nearly as much fun as the first, and by the third or fourth time, you're starting to realize that the gameplay is repetitive and tedious.
Unfortunately, you've run afoul of something all too common in the gaming industry: the bad sequel.
This is a phenomenon that we can apply to just about any franchise in any genre; if you're reading this, you can probably think of at least one personal example. I'm going to focus on Firaxis’s Civilization 5, a recent release from last September that falls under this categorization.
Civ 5 is unquestionably a bad sequel; while it released to rave reviews from the "official gaming press" due to heavy marketing from publisher Take Two, the user reviews have been far less generous, as evidenced by one-star ratings outnumbering five-star ratings at Amazon.com by a tally of 264 to 82. That's a rate of more than 3:1, with the worst score far outnumbering the best.
Civ 5 suffers from a number of faults in its design, like creating a global happiness mechanic which is supposed to curtail expansion (but doesn't) and a diplomatic system in which your A.I. competitors all act as insane warmongers. Most problematic of all is a one-unit-per-tile combat system, which is intended to create tactical warfare similar to the Panzer General series. But Civ 5 lacks the large-scale open maps and complex wargaming rules which made that series a success.
The result is a tangled mess where units clog up on terrain barriers to create unruly "traffic jams" compounded by an A.I. that has no clue how to play its own game. Tack on a horribly laggy and unplayable multiplayer component that makes competing against other humans nearly impossible, and you have a recipe for disaster.
If I had to sum up Civ 5 in one word, it would be "boring." It's a boring game to play with few interesting decisions to make and little going on. Short of outright not working due to technical errors, that's about the worst crime a game can commit.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about bad sequels is the social response that they create in their respective gaming communities.
Continue to page two for Michael's observation about how such online communities implode.
You will often hear players talk about how such a title has "potential," and certainly hopeful gamers have used the word often with respect to Civ 5. An interesting word, potential. In my experience, when an online community starts to bandy around the word "potential,” it's a sure sign that the game has proven to be disappointing or underwhelming.
Sure, Civ 5 has tons of "potential" to become something great. But so did Civilization 4: Colonization, Spore, Empire: Total War, SimCity Societies, Master of Orion 3, and all of the other mediocre strategy games that crushed everyone's hopes.
The timeline of a bad sequel always seems to follow the same pattern. The buildup to the game's release is full of excitement and anticipation, and rises to a fever pitch on launch day. The game comes out, and the fanbase is euphoric! For a few days, anyway. Then the stories start creeping out. Too many bugs detract from running the game. The second play session isn't nearly as interesting as the first, and the third is just plain boring. Influential, long-time community members start posting that the game lacks depth and isn't as good as past entries in the series. These claims are hotly debated, and forums turn into polarized camps of "haters" and "fanboys."
After a month passes and the initial excitement begins to wear off, more and more of the fanbase begins to lose interest. Some of those who initially defended the game begin to join the critics. A mantra begins among the faithful: "Wait for the patch!" Patching will surely solve these issues and salvage the game. The wait becomes interminable, and more fans drift away to other games. Then the developer finally delivers — hallelujah! Only…the patch makes marginal improvements, and nearly everything remains the same. More fans drift away, and the waiting for the next cycle begins. Repeat and rinse until the patching/expansion cycle comes to a close.
I could have been describing Civ 5's history over the past three months there. Or I could have been describing the process I watched with Master of Orion 3's release in 2003 or any of a hundred different games that fall under the heading of the bad sequel.
These things are cyclical, though; the community always goes through the same relationship with bad games — never deviating much from this process. I've seen it at least a dozen times over the years, and Civ 5 currently is firmly entrenched within this same cycle.
As I write this, word has just come out that Jon Shafer, lead designer of Civ 5, is leaving Firaxis to go work with Stardock on Elemental. There are no details on his departure, and it's most likely a perfectly normal part of the business process. At the same time, Civ 5 will now have to go forward without its lead designer in charge of the patching process, which would seem to indicate that further changes and improvements will be minimal. Civ 5 will remain a game of great "potential,” which (by definition) means that it will never actually be very good.
I have taken little pleasure in watching Civ 5 crash and burn. The bad sequel is never a fun process. For a full decade now (from 2001 to 2010) the Civilization games were where I made my home in the online gaming world. I had fantastic memories, I met innumerable friends, and I came about as close to the pinnacle as a fan of the series could reach: working on-site with the developers of Civilization 4 during the summer of 2005.
But it seems as though the series and I are simply moving in different directions now. My view for what the games should entail and Firaxis's vision no longer appear to be compatible. I've experienced this before: In the span of just over five years from 1992 to 1997, Squaresoft produced a litany of some of the greatest role-playing games, which I played to death at the time: Final Fantasy 4, Secret of Mana, Final Fantasy 5, Seiken Densetsu 3 (Japan-only sequel to Secret of Mana), Final Fantasy 6, Chrono Trigger, Super Mario RPG, and Final Fantasy 7. I'm honestly not sure how one relatively small developer could turn out so many amazing games in such a short span.
But Square's ideas of fun-game development diverged from mine over time. They embraced the high-budget, CGI-cinematic RPG — a style that I detest — and began producing games that I hated: Final Fantasy 10, Kingdom Hearts 2, Final Fantasy 13, etc. Square's games were virtually all I bought in the 1990s; I haven't bought one in over five years now. It is sad, but we simply moved in different directions and grew apart over the years, like grade-school friends who fall out of touch. The same thing is happening with the Civilization series, and it's a bittersweet moment. I'll miss those games, but it's time to move on.
If there's a lesson here, it's to recognize when you're trapped within the cycle of the bad sequel and move on as quickly as possible. Life is short. Don't waste your time hoping that a magical patch will fix a broken game. Thousands of other, better games you could be playing are out there. The world of gaming is a deep sea, and there are always more fish waiting to be caught….