March 2016 saw the release of over 100 brand-named video games and downloadable content (DLC). Among these games were Far Cry Primal, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD, Mortal Kombat XL, Hyrule Warriors: Legends, WWE 2k16 and Resident Evil 6. And what do the games listed off have in common? They’re all sequels or reboots in a larger game franchise.
Though just a fraction of the games that came out recently, rebooted games and sequels comprised a large portion of this month’s releases. For some, this is great news. I personally can’t wait to get my hands on a version of Hyrule Warriors for the 3DS and the Wind Waker content that comes with it. For others, sequels’ strong standing in the market is less than ideal.
According to The Atlantic, game industries’ fixation with sequels exploits player nostalgia, suffocating opportunity for new titles. This fixation results in big names like Mario and Final Fantasy getting “slapped on everything from basketball games to dance titles,” with little room for new ideas. The article also makes a fair case in pointing out Splatoon, the first original game Nintendo has released in 14 years, and Overwatch, Blizzard Entertainment’s first original game since 1997.
For some, the knowledge that the vast majority of major companies continuously rehash old material is infuriating. Claiming to want new material, gamers respond by refusing to purchase what they see as consistent variations on the same idea. Sales numbers of the Wii U presents itself as a prime example of this reaction, with the system reporting a major flop.
However, poor reception to the Wii U represents the exception to the rule, not the rule itself. While gamers claim to favor new ideas over old, nostalgia frequently serves as an asset to the video game industry rather than an anchor, players dictating what thrives and what shrivels up. The proof can once again be found in game sales.
Zooming in, the GameCube serves as a chief example of gamers preferring familiarity. Games hailed for their innovation, such as Animal Crossing, Pikmin, Beyond Good and Evil and Eternal Darkness, while fantastic additions to the system, failed to sell nearly as well as their already established counterparts, Super Smash Bros. Melee and Mario Kart. Examining critically acclaimed titles for other ports, Portal and Bioshock sold about four million copies each, which is nothing to scoff at. However, Mario Party 8’s eight million copies sold puts those numbers in perspective. This is not to say that Mario Party 8 outsold Portal and Bioshock because it is a better game; it sold because it is more familiar.
From a monetary perspective, the continued distribution of recognizable franchises provides less risk to big name companies, another installment of Mario Party being almost guaranteed to sell. But what about the players? Are we being robbed of new material by showing companies that we will continue to buy the old?
Not necessarily. While it may seem an unpopular opinion, I believe that nostalgia is good for the video game industry. Now, before you gather your pitchforks and torches, hear me out. Recent studies on psychology and consumer behavior suggest video games have the potential to evoke more nostalgia than any other form. However, the effect is not described as a bad thing. Rather, with nostalgia so closely tied to creating and maintaining social connections, video games have more potential to generate that kind of emotion, with socialization an inherent and increased part of gaming. The end result of that nostalgia is not a feeling of anger or of being robbed; instead, it's one of empowerment and decreased loneliness.
Think of the first game you ever picked up, console or handheld. Try to remember how excited you were. Maybe you were just curious or perhaps even a little nervous. There was an entire world in that box, in that cartridge or on that disk. And it was just waiting for you to turn on the system and start playing.
I still remember the first time I turned on Pokemon Silver. Imagine my surprise as I wandered around in the little universe I had on my tiny Game Boy and stumbled upon my first random encounter, a level 2 Pidgey. I had no idea what to expect from my little 8-bit screen and unfortunately knocked the poor thing unconscious. Since then, the Pokemon franchise has branched out and developed, but still remains close enough to its roots to draw out that memory each time I play.
Game developers recognize the emotional response playing a familiar franchise draws out in the player, like playing a new Pokemon installment reminds me of destroying a level 2 Pidgey, and adjusts the content they put out to satisfy that feeling. And, admittedly, money acquired from sales motivates a fair sum of that adjustment. However, if we continue to purchase variations of the same franchises, doesn’t that reflect just what players want?
And what exactly does this mean for the community of gamers? Are we caught in a continuous cycle of Mario saving the princess, with no chance of anything new ever capturing our hearts? Again, the answer is no. With the money made from big names like Mario, companies like Nintendo are able to put out games that satisfy desire for innovation, like Splatoon.
And it’s not just larger companies that are able to put out new material. Patron and donation-based sites, like Kickstarter, allow players to financially back projects they wish to see completed, allowing new and lesser known names into the industry. Shovel Knight and Undertale, games praised for their originality while still paying homage to old favorites, were both Kickstarter games that reached near cult popularity. With this in mind, the market may have a home for old and new just yet.
April 2016 will witness the release of Dark Souls III, Star Fox Zero, King’s Quest: Chapter 3, Gears of War 4 MP Beta and Bravely Second: End Layer. All are part of a larger game franchise. And it’s time for us, as players, to be okay with that.