Back Again For More: Sequels in the Video Game Industry

If your video game idea is so awesome, then why not double your fun and make it again?

One of the things you notice in the game industry is sequels. Lots and lots of sequels. A mountain of sequels. Holy crap, there's a lot of sequels.

This is not because game designers as breed can be a bit repetitive, sometimes unoriginal in their thinking and have a tendency to lock their jaws on to something with the tenacity of a demented bulldog.

No really. 

It's because sequels build on the original games in a big way. 

You may have noticed a few modest hits such as Halo, Call of Duty or Gears of War. The sales charts of such sequels have a lovely growth curve which warms the chilly hearts of the company CFO - and ensures that the devs have a place to go to work every morning. 

It's an unfortunate reality that all too many studios have a hand-to-mouth existence. And it's a damn shame because if a game is worth funding in the first place, it's probably worth ponying up the cash to make the sequel right from the start. 

Look, half of the work is simply getting started with a new title. Hammering out technology and pipeline and figuring out what makes your game actually fun - all that mundane stuff. Once the machine is up and running smoothly - or at least, no longer spewing out fire and smoke - that's when things start to get good. The team has gelled, the platform is stable and you're churning out your content. And, that's when you have to release. 

Why not just keep going and make the sequel? (assuming you didn't leave a mountain of developers corpses in the wake of your release)

This is effectively what happens with online games - and it works. Optimizing a game on an existing platform is so much easier than building it in the first place. Even the ugliest of ducklings can grow up to be lovely, er, or somewhat less ungainly swans. 

Really, we should just give up the fiction of "pre-production" (that time where you are supposed to figure out what game you are making) and just make your first release the pre-pro. For one thing, I've never a pre-pro that really accomplished what it was supposed to. And if you start with the "first game is pre-pro" mentality in mind, you can probably release a sequel to the market surprisingly fast. If the first one was a hit, you'll follow fast with more of the goodness. If it was a miss, you'll find out where you went wrong and do the necessary course correction. 

The original Red Dead Revolver was a somewhat lackluster effort. But God love 'em, Rockstar wasn't going to let the idea die just because everybody seems to think the Western genre is a dead horse unworthy of a flogging. And by most accounts, Red Dead Redemption is going to be a success (time will tell how much). 

The Lord of the Rings trilogy happened because they made all three at the same time. Why? Because you couldn't afford to build the sets, costumes and equipment, tear it all down and then come back and do it all over again for the sequel. It was an all-or-nothing bet. Same thing with the Matrix sequels (which, say what you will, did make a mountain of money). 

And video games, if you use the same people and/or same technology, scale even better than a film. The cost to do two games is likely not [Cost x 2] but probably something more akin to [Cost x 1.5 or 1.75], if you plan things right. 

Games with a somewhat underwhelming first release but build on the establishing technology and team expertise stand a much stronger chance in succeeding big time with release number two. 

If you're going to play high stakes poker - why not bring enough money to make more than one bet?

- Sean Dugan is a developer who believes in doubling down, doubling your fun and double espressos. 

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Image by Alika Christian


  1. I wonder how many studios have the option of following up an underwhelming first release with, well, anything? My personal experience is limited to studios that were ready to be shut down at the first sign of turbulence, regardless of whether or not the (first) game was even done; coworkers had mostly come from companies that bet everything on their first release (and then went under). Given the odds that any new game will be a success are fairly low, that is a pretty reckless strategy, certainly. That seems standard for start-ups, however, especially since the cost of developing a AAA game these days is so high that finding funding for one game is near impossible, much less two. Established studios seem like they're in a better position to use this strategy, but I wonder how many give teams a second chance to build on previous failures. It would certainly be a smarter strategy than scrapping everything and starting over... any sense of how many studios are in a position to take this advice?

  2. Yeah, I've been there where you're barely able to think about funding for a single game, let alone two. But I think it points out how broken the funding model is for the games business. (and to some degree, how bad developers are often at raising capital!).

    To me, I think the high risk nature of console titles these days practically necessitates a shift to this longview approach. It makes no sense to me to risk, say, $15 million on an all-or-nothing gamble when you can probably get much better odds of success by committing to, say, $22 to $25M. Yes, its a bigger bet but you're increasing your chances of actually making some money pretty considerably.

    Of course, all this assumes you've got the basics in place - a strong team who have a track record of making games. Oh, and maybe a half-decent idea for a game. (That might help some)

  3. Games seem to have the least sustainable funding model of any "entertainment" product. I remember reading, many years ago (when all game sales were boxed sales that briefly appeared on store shelves), that something like 1 in 4 games was financially successful, a number which is supposedly also true of films on initial release, but a higher success rate than for music and books. Films, of course, have a much longer lifespan than games, and have DVD sales, etc, to generate most of their revenues. I imagine digital downloads are giving a (relatively) modest second wind to game sales, but I don't imagine there are as many games that are successful as films (eventually are). Music and books are low cost productions, relatively, and the industry (i.e. those people in the offices with regular salaries) consists of those who package and market the product, rather than the creators. In some sense those industries' losses are subsidized by the actual creators themselves. My fear is that the game industry will adopt more of that model, although in some sense it has gone in that direction already - the outsourcing, unpaid overtime, reduction of benefits, low salaries buoyed by theoretical future bonuses that don't actually get paid, etc.

    It seems as if the few companies that are really successful at raising capital take money that could fund several games and blow it on one (Hello, Flagship!), which is doubly unsustainable. (How Flagship intended to make its money back, I'd really like to know. I can't make the math work, myself.) This brings up a question for me, though. Does $15 million still get you a (reasonably ambitious) AAA title, assuming you're not starting off with an engine?

  4. Amazing article. I actually have been using the word "Marveloper" to mean a hybrid between a game developer and a Marketer / entrepreneur.