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Worthy sequels September 11, 2008

Posted by Mike in Articles, Console, Games, Miscellaneous.
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Amazingly for the ordinarily bean-counting videogames industry, a mediocre sales performance for a particular game no longer automatically means that it won’t get a sequel. A game’s Metacritic rating – its average review score across selected online and print sources, as collated by Metacritic.com – is increasingly being worn as a badge of honour by publishers, and finally it seems that being seen to have a roster of compelling titles, rather than just a money-train of financial success no matter what, is fast becoming a key consideration.

The likes of Electronic Arts’ CEO John Riccitiello have openly stated that quality is now king, and the welcome by-product is that critically revered but commercially unsuccessful games that would formerly have died a quiet death, only being mourned by a small band of devoted followers, have been given another chance to show their worth.

The Rare-developed Viva Pinata, for example, was Microsoft’s initial tentative dip into the ocean of casual gaming back in the autumn of 2006. An unfortunate flop on initial release due in part to the so-called “Gears of War demographic” of the Xbox 360’s userbase at that time, this well-regarded gardening game eventually limped via a combination of aggressive discounting and hardware bundling to sell just over a million copies. For a big first-party release, this was hardly a stellar performance. Earlier this year, however, the enhanced sequel Viva Pinata 2: Trouble in Paradise was announced, and found its way into shops last week, once again the recipient of a positive critical reception. Initial sales figures suggest that it may once again fail to trouble the upper echelons of the charts – and the lack of discernible marketing has been disappointing – but the fact it was made at all is a promising development.

An even more surprising forthcoming sequel is Beyond Good and Evil 2 from Ubisoft. The original game was the brainchild of Michel Ancel, one of the few individual developers with a public profile among the gaming community. (Other star names include the likes of Peter Molyneux, Shinji Mikami, Hideo Kojima, and Shigeru Miyamoto, but it is still a relatively unique phenomenon.) Released in 2003 into the packed Christmas market on Playstation 2 as a timed exclusive, and subsequently sneaking out on Xbox and Gamecube early the following year, it was clear that Ubisoft had no idea how to promote the game. It’s hard not to be mildly sympathetic about the company’s plight, however, since BGAE followed the adventures of a green-skinned photo journalist named Jade, and her pig-like uncle Pey’j, through a variety packed mix of stealth, photography, vehicle sections and limited combat – a recipe for high valium expenditure from the Ubi marketing department if ever I saw one.

Widely regarded as a severe commercial flop, with the game’s fans bemoaning both the advertising and the general public’s unwillingness to try something different, a return seemed about as likely as a certain better known Jade going on Celebrity Big Brother again. With that in mind, when the sequel was announced in May this year, it was a bolt from the blue cheered by the videogames community. It remains to be seen whether the title is simply Ubisoft reluctantly indulging the whims of its star developer, or whether it will genuinely try to make the series as successful as it deserves to be. Here’s hoping it’s the latter.

Even EA is getting in on the act these days, with the fantastic (and cruelly underselling) Boom Blox on Wii strongly rumoured to be getting a sequel next year. And, to its credit, EA is even giving critically mauled potential winners more time and another chance – take the karaoke/rhythm action game Boogie, for example, for which a far better looking sequel is out on Wii this autumn and may finally do justice to the concept.

It’s easy to imagine Duncan Bannatyne facing down the trembling executives of Microsoft, Ubisoft and EA in the Dragons’ Den to deliver one of his famous blasts: “Wodja min you dun know the duffrunce between a hut and a muss? This is no’ a biznuss. And for those reasons: a’m ow.” But for those of us who hope to see the videogames industry gain a better balance between its commercial interests and giving developers the time and opportunity to create games worthy of our cash – even if they may not be sure-fire commercial successes – recent events have hinted that a heartening future may well be ahead.

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