Mental real estate, or the space a property occupies in your mind, is one of the most valuable commodities in modern entertainment, particularly in video games. When consumers are asked to spend upwards of 50 dollars on a piece of entertainment, it sure helps if either the series brand or the lead characters have already carved out a sizeable space in the players’ awareness. If Player A played UNCHARTED: Drake’s Fortune and enjoyed it, then chances are that he’s got Nathan Drake camped out in his mind and would gladly pay for UNCHARTED 2: Among Thieves.
This is the advantage that sequels have over first games in a potential franchise. A lot of work has to go into developing original IP (intellectual property) from a world building perspective. The rules have to be established, the characters have to be realistically presented, the story has to be strong enough to hold the player’s attention for ten hours or more… and on and on. It is understandably a tough job, and we as players understand this on a subconscious level.
When we first fire up a game, we are looking at two things: is the gameplay enjoyable enough and does the world of the game captivate. If both questions are answered in the affirmative, and if the story and environment in particular are overwhelmingly good, then we are often more likely to forgive minor gameplay and technical niggles, thinking that they’ll iron things out in the sequel.
And THAT is the advantage first games have, and advantage completely gone from any potential sequels.
When we play game number 2, having already become familiar with the rules of the world and the characters, we become a lot more stringent about what we expect from the gameplay and technical aspects of the game, not withstanding our increased expectations from the story and overall writing. Creating a sequel for such a demanding audience can be difficult, and can lead to tons of pressure.
Fortunately, all a developer has to do is look to Among Thieves, as perfect a sequel as can be made, for some quick and easy lessons. This is by no means a definitive list of course, just a light guideline showing some things Naughty Dog fixed in the transition from Drake’s Fortune to Among Thieves.
For a game which looked, sounded, and played well, there were definitely some frustratingly dodgy moments of gameplay in Drake’s Fortune. Oh sure, using sixaxis control to throw grenades and walk across logs must have sounded awesome in theory. In practice, though, throwing grenades was more of an exercise in frustration and walking a log was gimmicky to the point of distraction.
Sixaxis wasn’t the only offender either. In an attempt to beef up the action elements of the game, Naughty Dog implemented a combo-driven melee combat system, whereby players would press the square and triangle buttons in any number of combinations to get Nate to go all Tekken on some poor little pirates. Unfortunately, this was also an exercise in frustration as it just proved to be too overly complicated for something that was so ineffective.
Thankfully, Naughty Dog knew precisely what to fix when the moved on to the sequel. The woeful experiment that was enforced sixaxis usage has largely dropped to the wayside, even in Sony exclusives, and the games are all the better for it. Now, grenade usage in the game feels like an integral part of staying alive rather than an annoying afterthought.
Cleaned up as well is the formerly broken melee combat system, with the combos simplified to a quick and easy series of taps to the square button.
These two small fixes had a direct effect on tightening up the gameplay of Among Thieves, creating an overall more immersive experience, ad it’s hard to see the game winning all its awards if not for those actions; an important lesson that we hope the makers of Infamous and Star Wars: The Force Unleashed have learned.
Location, Location, Location
When Naughty Dog made Drake’s Fortune, they stressed that they wanted to give players something visually different from the overall “brown” feel of next generation game locations. And, boy, did they deliver.
The jungle island they created was lush and alive, with vibrant green colors and water so real that you wanted to take a swim in it. It most definitely broke up the monotony of what several games had given us up to that point, and it was so effective that you didn’t realize that you actually wanted more. Well, didn’t realize it until Among Thieves, that is.
In the sequel, Naughty Dog gave us one section of more jungle goodness, but then took us out and gave us stark snowy vistas, an intricate Turkish antique museum, dusty war-torn cityscapes, a tranquil mountain village, and an eerie mystical sanctuary. The sheer quality, and variety, of the new locations was staggering and went a long way to increasing both the scope and the grandeur of Nate Drake’s world.
A bit of visual variety would go a long way to elevating some games out there, and developers could do far worse than taking a page out of Naughty Dog’s playbook and throwing a couple of Tibetan Villages at, say, Dark Void.
Enemies Among Us
Drake’s Fortune introduced us to a whole new action hero, the heir to the Indiana Jones legacy. Nathan Drake, an adventurer of remarkable skill and charisma, with the intellect to find just the right clue and the wit to drop sparkling one liners left and right. Nathan Drake, focused and handsome, the man every man wants to be and every woman wants to be with. Such a hero should necessarily have sinister and lethal villains, the kind of nefarious and sinister bad guys to make us cringe in fear whenever they pop up. Indiana Jones had Nazis. Commander Shepard had the Geth. And Nathan Drake… had the pirates.
Who were dressed in rags.
And were bullet sponges.
Don’t get me wrong; the enemy AI in Drake’s Fortune was incredibly well done, with the aforementioned pirates skilled at flanking you and sneaking up on you. The thing is, they just weren’t believable as credible threats for much of the game, as it was difficult to buy that their flimsy layers of clothing could stop THAT many bullets. Yes, it is a game, and it is easy to accept things like that, but the thing of it was that it ruined, to a small degree, the immersion aspect of the game.
Thankfully, Among Thieves fixed this and gave us hordes of armored soldiers ranging from manic rocket launcher carrying baddies to living breathing walking tanks. Just taking one look at the shotgun guys was enough to ping a little “oh crap” moment in one’s head, not to mention the merciless GAU guys. And the fact that they are so heavily armored makes it a lot easier to swallow them as bullet sponges.
Having one’s villains be believable as threats is key to strengthening the immersion of a game, and Naughty Dog did extremely well on that point.
In the end, the evolution of a series from introductory chapter to sequel entails just as much hard work, if not more, as introducing a whole new original IP in the first place. It is on the developers’ shoulders to make sure that they do not rest on their laurels and deliver just more of the same. Rather, they have to be able to look at what worked and what didn’t, and make sure that they fix it. Naughty Dog, among others like Bioware and Valve, understand this. Let’s hope that other developers see what they’ve done and take those lessons to heart as well.