Think of some of your favorite sequels out there – Uncharted 2 or Portal 2 or Diablo 3. How do they make you feel? Sometimes it can be hard to describe what was great about a fantastic sequel, other than it was just awesome, or, phew… they didn’t screw it up!
But the recipe for a great sequel is rather simple:
- 1/3 The Same
- 1/3 Improved
- 1/3 New and Fresh
Games are no different.
1/3 The Same
The most important part is that a sequel feel familiar, otherwise you risk alienating your fans. Don’t redesign aspects of your game just because you want to leave your mark on it or because you think everything has to be better.
To get started, ask yourself these questions:
One area of your game that’s easy for a designer to overlook is music. Don’t neglect music! Sometimes your sound team will want to do an entirely original score. Don’t let them. Using a few familiar musical themes in your sequel can be a shortcut directly into your player’s emotions and make them feel at home instantaneously (and then they’ll be more willing to struggle to learn your “improved” UI). Every time the Legend of Zelda overworld music fires up in any of the Zelda games, things just feel right. In The Sims 3, we use some music from the original Sims game, The Sims, when your characters go into the day spa. (I wish we used more!)
Familiar settings have similar emotional effects, and can serve gameplay at the same time. The Diablo series uses Tristram in all three games – it’s the same location, but different spots in time. The player feels a familiarity, but also a sense of wonder as they experience the changes. My personal favorite example is Super Metroid, which uses some locations from the original – there’s even an energy tank in the same spot in the ceiling – but time has passed, and you get to see beyond the borders of the first game and explore the old spots in new ways. You even get to see where you first destroyed Mother Brain, which brings back a wash of memories. Instantly, you are more attached to this game. And then you find a secret below her holding tank. It’s one of my all-time favorite level-design spots in gaming:
This is perhaps the easiest part of designing a sequel. It’s a designer’s natural tendency to improve all things (and this is also why the part above is so difficult).
This 1/3 of the game is all the stuff that worked pretty well in your previous installments which maybe players didn’t respond to as positively as you’d expected. Or maybe these things worked well for a while, but with added depth or tweaks, could be fantastic. Or you just need to live up to the current bar in gaming.
Here are just three examples of the features we improved in The Sims 3:
1/3 New and Fresh
The new stuff! This is the most exciting part of the game to design, and this 1/3 will probably take 80% of the effort. It’s a journey of good ideas, bad ideas, trial and error, play tests, and constant iteration. (And also pizza binges and one too many beach balls... yes, those are behind-the-scenes photos.)
Sometimes the next step is clear. In The Sims 3, that step was: build a seamless, clockwork neighborhood where all the Sims are living alongside you. This one big step led us to many of our other new features, which built on it, or supported it – features like collecting butterflies and gems in the world (to keep the space between homes interesting), and a “story progression” system (to keep all the other Sims aging, employed, and full of drama as time passes).
Sometimes the next step is not clear. Either way, this part must come from reflecting on your previous titles, from an awareness of your community’s desires, and from your design-filled heart.
This recipe isn’t a magic hammer, and the proportions are just general guidelines. You’ll also still have all the hard work of actually designing the ingredients. But if you begin to think in these terms of 1/3 The Same, 1/3 Improved, and 1/3 New, you’ll be more likely to end up with a sequel that broadens your audience, makes your fans feel at home, and builds your brand into a series of hits.