On the Ethical Question of Cloning

No, not sheep. Computer games.

Part III (read part I, part II or the comments).

In the last entry, I brought up a few facts about the state of Heroes after Ubisoft purchased the Might and Magic brand name. These facts were:

Fact #1: H4 was not universally liked.

Fact #2: H3 was a stable, well-liked evolution of H2.

Fact #3: H5 has a new developer, Ubisoft.

Fact #4: Games are a Business (or Ubisoft is NOT a charity).

Here I will tell you why these facts justify making H5 a “H3-clone”, though I think the clone label is a little harsh. And please note that I am not saying that from a fan’s point of view, this was the most desirable decision. I’m telling you why it was the right decision.

And the Verdict is…

Four facts. Add them up, and what does it mean? We’re ready to tackle the question of whether it makes sense that H5 is a “pseudo-clone” of H3. I put the pseudo there because even the most rabid H4-o-phile can’t honestly say that they think it’s just going to be an exact H3 remake with better graphics. Surely some things will change. But it does seem like a lot of the “improvements” in H4 have been discarded and the style seems to be more similar to H3. Is there anything wrong with that? Furthermore, if it made sense for 3DO to take some risks in H4, as I believe it did, why doesn’t it make sense for Ubisoft to do the same in H5? The facts I discussed in the last part can be used to understand the undesirable circumstances defining the state of the Might and Magic name prior to the initial development of H5.

The reason that it made sense to take risks with H4 but not currently with H5 because the HoMM name is now in a much more tenuous position than it was during development of H4. Despite the Forge debacle, the HoMM name was strong after H3 and its expansions were released. But H3 was fundamentally very similar to H2 and after many years of basically the same thing, it was time to put a fresh spin on a great but admittedly well-worn formula. The developers actually had a lot of good ideas for H4, but ultimately they were only partially successful and the result created a rift among fans – some liked the changes but many didn’t. An additional feature that hurt H4 was the lack of multiplayer support, which, though added later in a patch, was felt by many to be a betrayal of sorts because it was advertised on the box. I suspect that many upon seeing the “darkened icon” gave up on the game and never came back. But even with a poor single-player experience and an initially nonexistent multiplayer capability, the game wasn’t such a disaster that it was a lethal blow to the brand-name. What really crippled the franchise was the collapse of 3DO, which, in its desperate attempt to stay afloat, put out two very tepid expansions that did very little to mitigate the fundamental problems of the game. Though they enjoy something of a cult-status today, the Gathering Storm and Winds of War expansions really only served to prove to everyone that 3DO was wheezing its last ragged wheeze. If 3DO had been able to invest the time to properly attend their good but poorly implemented ideas, the current situation might now be very, very different. And those risks I was talking about might have actually succeeded and H4 might have been a game for the history books.

But as they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

After 3DO was finally laid to rest, the Might and Magic brand name was purchased by Ubisoft. At the time, HoMM fans were just happy that an H5 was even going to be made at all, regardless of what form it would eventually take (griping and nit-picking about the details always comes later. Of course, Ubisoft bought the Might and Magic name because it had substantial marketing power. After all, M&M was one of the pioneering brands of computer role-playing games. Unfortunately, though the Might and Magic name carried a lot of power, it remained that Ubisoft had bought into a series whose name had been partially compromised, not only by H4 and its expansion (vide supra), but also by the even more maligned Might and Magic IX. The crux of the matter is that Ubisoft likely found itself in a difficult and strange position because of the unique circumstances regarding the recent history of the game, and as such they were left with a very important question of design: do they make their new sequel more like H4 or more like H3, or do they go off on their own an do something totally different?

Option #1: Venture into the Unknown

This option was out of the question. When a brand-name suffers a hit, particularly as the result of deviating from established precedent, the first thing you do as a company is restore confidence in the name. You need more consumer credit. It was not the time to take a risk by deviating again from established precedent. After all, many would argue that it is precisely that which brought the series to its knees and the brink of extinction in the first place. One doesn’t tempt the fates twice. Of course, by then fans of the games were already wondering: What will Ubisoft do? Will they do my game justice? Consumer credit is to a large extent built on trust, and a lot of that trust is not only put into the brand name, but into the company that owns the brand name. When the brand name is sold to an unknown, that trust is unfortunately not sold with it, and so the new company starts over with very little consumer credit, but they still have the burden of customer expectation. Thus while many of the more progressive fans might have been happy if Ubisoft had been more daring, the truth is that another poorly received game under the Might and Magic title, especially one from a new developer, especially one that failed due to radical new changes never seen before, would have absolutely killed the brand name (and any chance of long-term marketability) as far as the less-progressive fans were concerned. There is no mercy when a company takes over and massacres a beloved series, consumer credit or not.

Option #2 (Try to Fix H4) or Option #3 (Go with what works)?

Trying to do what 3DO didn’t and rebalance the new ideas in H4 was one option, and it’s an option that H4 fans obviously wanted, but really it was not a good one. There’s still debate going on by HoMM fans whether, for instance, heroes on the battlefield could ever even work. Some people think it’s the single greatest reason H4 was terrible. Some people think it’s the single greatest reason H4 was fabulous. Debate aside, what we do know is that heroes off of the battlefield works; even if it’s clumsy and unrealistic in the eyes of H4 fans, they can’t but agree that a HoMM game built off of this system is at least serviceable. The same goes for other “features” of H4. In essence, a game based off of H4 might work if done properly, but a game based off of H3 will work if done properly. And again, at this point it does not make sense to take unnecessary risks with a franchise name that already has been weakened by bad releases.

So, as I stated above, the fact is that while the merits of H4 are really a matter of personal taste, it is undeniable that most people liked H3, but only a fraction of fans liked H4. And most of those who liked H4 also liked H3. The practical conclusion is that the formula in H3 is the best formula on which to start anew because it’s the least risky and the comparative price for failure (versus the price of failure that H4 paid) in this case is large, which renders a low-risk option the most desirable from a business standpoint. Now, I will agree that it appears that Ubisoft took that a little far, as some features of H4 could not do anything but improve upon the old system (caravans, for example, is one that all but a select few seem to have liked). All I have to say to this is that we don’t really know what Ubisoft is planning in a lot of cases. Maybe they came up with something even better? But in the end, making an “H3-clone” – at least in terms of core gameplay - was a smart thing to do, and is the best chance of ensuring not only a serviceable (though maybe a bit overly derivative) H5, but also ensuring that there will be an H6 or H7 at all. If H5 is good and reinforces the Might and Magic brand name, then Ubisoft will find itself in a position that is more amenable to taking risks in later versions because there will be renewed confidence in the brand name and the company that now owns it. And that really is good for everyone – not only the hard-core and casual fans but also for the company.

I also want to add here as a nota bene that I do not believe that H3 is going to be an exact (but graphically updated) replica of H5. This is especially so with regards to the superficial things like creature lineups and also the lack of some of the H4 “features”. The disgruntlement of some fans at this apparent regression to an earlier game has led a lot of them to nit-pick on some of the other insignificant details, such as creature names. While I admit the “favorite succubus” does seem a little silly – but really, is it any sillier than “Frenzied Gnasher”, “Master” Gremlins, or “Mighty” Gorgons, let alone a hero named Spazz Maticus? – such things really don’t affect the state of the game and are just fans venting their frustration. Since I started writing this 3-part article, however, some more details have leaked out that further convince me that Ubisoft appears to be doing a great job of adhering to the successful but safe formula of H3 (which I’ve argued in sensible) but also introducing new things that we haven’t seen before, but which appear like they are optional, such as the various MP game modes. Who knows what other details will be leaked as the release date nears? Naturally, only time will tell how good H5 ultimately is, but that’s really a different fundamental question. From the information I have available now, it appears the Ubisoft is making intelligent choices with their investment, and that lends me confidence that we’ll be seeing products bearing the MM brand name for quite some time.

It’s a wrap!

So in essence, what I’ve been trying to say in this 3-part article in the general sense is that to expect frequent revolutionary changes between sequels is as unwise as it is unfair. And to expect a revolutionary H5 is doubly unfair because the risks of permanent damage to the MM brand name are just too great.

Sure, your motivations are honorable: you just want a good game. But your interests are driven by personal entertainment. There’s no (real) risk as far as you are concerned – if a game ends up sucking because the company made too many revolutionary changes to its sequel, you’ll just go somewhere else. Maybe you’re out 50 bucks. You’ll live. But a company doesn’t have the luxury – it has to play the game of statistics and tread carefully. Brand names are everything; they’re the life-blood of commerce. Ruin them by reckless gambling, and that’s why companies go out of business.

The truth of the matter is the while you as an individual (and, most likely if you’re reading this, as a hard-core fan) have expectations of what should be in the game, Ubisoft must cater to the “average gamer”. You want revolutionary changes because you've been playing this game constantly for 5+ years and know every little statistic, weakness and strength of the game, every loophole in the strategy, and you know every difference between H3 and H4. You don't want to see a "clone" because you've become saturated - it will just be more of the same for you. But the average gamer isn't like that - it's been three years since they played Heroes. If H5 is like H3, they probably wouldn't even realize it; they'll just recognize it as the formula they knew and loved, but prettier and in 3D – and because the game is sure to work (because it’s based on a formula that worked), it’s more likely to please the average gamer, and if the average gamer is more likely to be pleased by H5, they’re more likely to purchase H6. On the other hand, if the average gamer picks up H5 and it fails because the company took unnecessary risks to please a 5% minority who want big changes to a game they've been playing steadily for half a decade, this series has no future as far as the average gamer is concerned. In baseball it’s three strikes, you’re out. In the gaming industry, you really only get two.

Finally, some of you claim you won’t buy it or you’ve adopted a “wait and see” attitude, and that’s your prerogative. It’s also your prerogative to make observations about the state of the game and express your disappointment if it’s going in a direction contrary to what you want. But saying that these decisions are illogical ignores the larger issue of the state of the HoMM brand name and demonstrates that you’re thinking like a fan and not like a game developer. And besides, I know, just as you know, and just as Ubisoft knows, that, despite what most of you hard-core fans say, you will buy this game. That’s what makes you a hard-core fan. And if the game is based off of H3, you’ll probably like it, even if you liked H4 better, and not only will you buy and like Heroes 5, but assuming it’s done competently and is bug-free, you’ll probably buy the expansions, too. And because of that earned trust, Heroes 6, which may be more revolutionary because risks with the core formula will then be less risky, will also do well. And the security of the MM brand will be secured. For as the saying goes, “Slow and steady wins the race.”

Part II.

Last time I discussed why it makes sense to make evolutionary rather than revolutionary changes to video/computer games. For the remainder of this three-part article, I will discuss this in the context of H5, which many people feel is going to be nothing other than an H3 clone. There are some instances where it makes sense to take bigger risks in producing a sequel by making larger changes to the core elements associated with the game. It did made sense in H4 (though the risks ultimately did not pay off). But in H5, it makes no sense whatsoever – in fact it makes sense to regress to an older formula - for reasons to be discussed forthwith.

In this part of this three-part thingie, I present four facts surrounding the decisions to make H5 “more H3-like”. In the final part, I’ll discuss why I believe the decision can be rationalized in terms of these facts.

The Facts

Fact #1: H4 was not universally liked.

Was the quality of H4 a matter of individual opinion? Yes. But the fact remains that many HoMM fans were unhappy with some of the radical changes that appeared in H4. Personally, I think some of them were great ideas. I think many of them weren’t. A lot of people still play H4, and I commend the mapmakers who have turned out reasonably decent efforts for this game. But really, many feel that playing it can be an exercise in tedium, and even those that like the game will often admit that at the very least the game is woefully unbalanced. Whether you pin the cause of this deficiency at a teetering developer which didn’t have time/resources to adequately finish the game (e.g., the incompetent AI) or whether you pin it at a fundamental inability of the new ideas to be effectively integrated into the HoMM formula regardless of the resources that were thrown at it (e.g., heroes on the battlefield), the important thing is that a sizable portion of HoMM fans did not like H4. I brought up the risk of changing core elements in my last article, and H4 is a good example of what can happen if you do that.

Ironically, I think it was a sensible gamble in H4. After all, 3DO had taken HoMM through several very well-liked iterations and so the game was well-enough established that it could afford to take larger risks with its brand-name. This is because the fans could (and ultimately would) tolerate a poor showing. In a manner of speaking, when a brand name becomes “strong” by building up trust through several years of meeting user expectations, that brand name earns itself what I like to call “consumer credit”, which essentially means that if a subsequent product bearing that name turns out to be a dud, the user base may disregard it, in the process eating a little bit of that credit away. Too many duds and you as a company exhaust your credit line, and you start to eat away at the fundamental reliability of your product line. This isn’t specific to games, by the way. It’s true of any product, be it soda to sneakers to fish food.

Back to H4 – So 3DO/NWC had built up a substantial consumer credit and so it made sense to gamble a little bit because the ultimate potential for loss was small. But, as often happens as a result of taking risky choices, it turns out that the gamble failed, and the franchise took a hit. Because of the consumer credit, however, and because H4 wasn’t a complete disaster, the brand name wasn’t damaged too much. Yet it was damaged and this will come into play later.

Fact #2: H3 was a stable, well-liked evolution of H2.

When H3 was released, it was a hit. H3 was built off of the very successful H2 – it was just “bigger”, by which I mean that the core elements were virtually the same, but every aspect of the game had been expanded in some way. More spells, more creatures, more artifacts, more everything. H3 did change some things, most notable of which was the AI. But really – it was the same game and so it could be said that H3 was an evolution of H2, and because H2 was loved, H3 was loved also. That’s how you build up consumer credit.

Now, some of those players went on to like H4 better; and a lot of them went on to like H4 less and then returned to H3 (some of them are still playing H3). So regardless of whether you think H4 was an improvement over H3 or not – statistically the fact that a sizable portion of those who played H4 either (a) quit playing HoMM altogether or (b) went back to H3 means that H3 was, by percentage of total players who played it and also liked it, the more popular of the two. (After all, I am not aware of a sizable portion of HoMM fans that went back to H2 after H3 had been released.) Put another way, most people who liked H4 also were satisfied with H3, even if they though the former was superior to and an improvement on the latter.

Fact #3: H5 has a new developer, Ubisoft.

When a game title is purchased from a dead company, the reason this is done is because the new owner thinks the game title will help sell games. Ubisoft could have easily made a Heroes-like game without purchasing HoMM, but name-recognition is a powerful force that drives game sales (look at how Square slaps “Final Fantasy” on just about everything they turn out). People are more likely to try your game if they recognize the title as something they trust, even if there’s no logical reason to do so anymore. Unfortunately, with the benefits of purchasing a brand name comes the burden of expectation. Sometimes, even if a product bearing a brand name is good, if it veers far away from the expectation of a sizable percentage of your customers, the producer may still lose consumer credit. Specifically with regards to H4: people have played four versions of HoMM, and those people will have certain expectations about what a HoMM should be – and any developer of a new product bearing the HoMM brand name had better figure out what those expectations are. And the way to do that is too look at previous products bearing that name, and how they were received.

Fact #4: Games are a Business.

There was a time, long ago, when computer games production was simple, often done by a handful of people who did the designing themselves. The Ultima series was born in this fashion. So was Might and Magic, for that matter. This was a hobby and a passion, and some true works of art were created. I put that in bold for a reason. We had a debate on the Round Table boards a long time ago (look for the Behind the Curtain: Saving NWC thread) where some people were claiming that HoMM and other modern games are works of art and that the creators should not sacrifice their artistic vision for the sake of what fans wanted. This debate was in the context of the much maligned Forge town (let’s not go there). Their argument went like this (their terms in bold): When an artist forsakes his vision to appease the masses, crap is produced. My contention was/is that art ceases to become art when the goal behind it is to turn a profit in a non-personal way. Sure, the game designers may put some personal artistic feeling into the games they make, but fundamentally there really is no “artistic vision”, or at least there is no “artistic vision” beyond what will help a game sell. It’s a totally different beast when money changes hands on a massive scale.

The problem here is, of course, that on a personal level, we as fans love these games perhaps a little too much. And we tend to think on a personal, individual level. This is especially so in the case of a game like HoMM, which, due to the capabilities offered by the mapmaking system, tends to hold our attention long after the average game has long-since been put on the shelf to collect dust. I mean, seriously: it’s been 6 years since H3 was released in 1999. That’s an eternity as far as the gaming industry is concerned, and yet people are still playing the game like it was released yesterday. Some people even still play H2! Unfortunately, when you have a game that makes it so easy for the fans to be the “creators” and lends itself so well to repeated playing, eventually we as fans almost lose sight of the fact that neither NWC, 3DO or Ubisoft is in this to provide us with entertainment. But be not deceived: they’re not making these games to express themselves artistically. Games aren’t made to be admired, loved, enjoyed or even to be played at all. First and foremost, they’re made to be sold. Everything you love about a game is there because it helps the game sell. They’re doing this to make money. And they’ll accomplish that in any way they can, and there are times when their interests don’t necessarily agree with yours. They market their games to anybody with 50 bucks to blow on the latest cool piece of software. You (plural – meaning hard-core HoMM fanatics) are only a small subsection of that group.

Now that sounds obvious. So why do I feel this needs explained? Well, I don’t really like to single someone from the Round Table boards out, but I will anyway for the sake of an example. In the context of simply rehashing old material in a game sequel, Dragon Ranger writes the following in the thread about whether there’s really anything new to be found in H5:

In a world that is so proud of a free market, such a lazy attitude from the developer or publisher is inexcusable.

Really? I'd argue that the blame goes to the consumers. Companies just cater to what consumers want. If companies put out bland products, and people buy them, it's not the companies' fault, is it? Isn't it the fault of consumers, who aren't discriminating enough? If the average gamer wanted revolutionary changes in every new sequel, games would be made that way. But that’s clearly not what gamers want. Whether that expectation is a conscious one or not doesn’t matter. Companies are just out to make money – they sell their customers what sells.

In that context, let’s restate Fact #4 a different way that maybe is a bit more blunt:

Fact #4b. Ubisoft is NOT a charity.

As a commercial entity, Ubisoft will put in the minimum amount of work and take the minimum amount of risk they can to turn the maximum relative amount of profit. Companies like this employ in some cases hundreds of people, some of whom have the sole task of evaluating how much risk is reasonable per unit chance of reward. That is their job. This sort of evaluation is done way before development of a product even begins. It goes without saying, then, that if Company X turns out a bland product, and I'm not even sure H5 qualifies because it doesn't look at all bland to me, it's because they have judged that you or someone else will buy it anyway.

There's nothing inexcusable about that, either. It's the nature of business, of supply and demand. Until you (plural) as consumers demand better and more “revolutionary games”, companies will not supply them. Just as until you as consumers demand more games for the Commodore 64, companies will not supply them. There's no reason to. Why on earth would a computer game company take an unnecessary risk to produce a game that will probably sell just as well as a game that can be produced with less risk? Unless the company feels that putting less risk in now can jeopardize the success of future releases (i.e., sometimes doing nothing risky is a risk), there's absolutely nothing to gain by taking risks with their product names. We’ll get into the specifics of how these decisions apply to H5 in Part III, but generally speaking, it is crucial that a game developer identifies what the average player wants and what the average player thought of recent products that also bared the brand name in question. The company caters to the average gamer because they have the most purchasing power. In contrast, the “hard-core fan” is often small potatoes, a vocal but statistically small group of the otherwise enormous, dynamic and fickle game-playing community that is persuaded into spending its money primarily by eye-candy, 30 second CGI movies, blurbs in gaming magazines and, most importantly, brand names. In this sense, it might be argued that the importance of the opinions of the average hard-core fan is not proportional to the passion (and shall I say, the vociferousness) with which they are often expressed. Thus the hard-core fan often comes off feeling cheated.

Does that suck? Maybe, for you as a hard-core fan. Don't like it? Fine. Overthrow capitalism. That should help.

Part I.

If anyone has been following the Round Table boards lately, you know what the big “controversy” is right now surrounding Heroes 5. You also know where I stand on the issue. But for those who don’t, or for those who need reminding, the controversy is this: from what comparatively little (and I stress little) the folks at Ubisoft have leaked to us about the forthcoming latest installment of the HoMM franchise, it does appear that it will be a regression, at least in terms of game-play and design, back to the core elements of Heroes 3. That is to say, some of the new and quite radical changes made in Heroes 4, vis-à-vis Heroes 3, which are often viewed upon in a mixed light by the collective body of “fans”, have been scrapped in favor of a more “classical” approach. Naturally, those who liked the changes in H4 are somewhat disgruntled by this realization and have started calling Heroes 5 a “Heroes 3 Clone” or “H3-3D”. Many have said they will not buy this product because it offers nothing new.

Too bad for them, if they’re being honest. But I think it’s just, as they say, empty promises.

But the larger question here is this: must a video game (or computer game) sequel be revolutionary (with respect to the earlier game) to be an improvement on the original? And perhaps more in the context of Heroes 5: does it always make sense to gamble the good name of a game and jeopardize future installments just for the sake of being “revolutionary”?

The answers are: no, and no. If you think otherwise, you’re not being realistic.

History is rife with examples of computer/video game sequels that relied on the “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it” philosophy and were as good if not better than the originals. At the very least, these examples certainly weren’t worse (though, there are examples of those too, although one must make the distinction between a bad game and a bad-selling game; sequels to good games are usually good-sellers, even if they’re less than sterling). In most cases, these sequels were very similar to the original games except they had moderately updated graphics or minor changes to the core game-play to address issues and bugs that were a problem the first time around. The best example that I can come up with is Ultima 7 and Ultima 7 part II, which is really a sequel of Ultima 7 even though they bear the same “number”. The games were almost exactly identical; in fact they used the same engine. There were minor changes to the inventory system, but by and large they played the same. And yet, Ultima 7 part II is probably one of the best games in the entire Ultima series, despite the fact that it is essentially a clone of Ultima 7. Might and Magic VII is a virtual clone of MMVI. Might and Magic V is a clone of MMIV (which are basically both clones of MMIII!). Baldur’s Gate II was very similar in style to Baldur’s Gate I. Etc., etc. Sure the sequels may be bigger and badder and more colorful and employ more weapons/creatures/character classes or what have you. But fundamentally sequels are generally the same as the games which preceded them.

And why wouldn’t they be? In fact, the very reason companies make sequels to good-selling games in the first place is because if people liked the original, they will probably like the sequel if the sequel shares a lot in common with its predecessor. It’s a way of milking an idea. So if you’ve got a good thing going, how does it make sense to radically change it around? If you make a bowl of soup that your dinner guests just adore, does it make sense to totally change it around the next time you serve it to company? Granted, you might change a little bit. You might try a different garnish. A little paprika. Perhaps some grated cheese. If that works, then you might try some more changes the third time. If it doesn’t, then you probably aren’t going to add it the third time around; maybe you’ll add something else in stead. What you don’t do is take a successful chicken noodle soup, and then add mayo, pickles, mushrooms, blueberries and peanut butter the next time and hope that the same people will suddenly like it just because you tried a bunch of new things with it. It goes without saying that if you mess with the formula enough and disappoint enough people through bad decisions, eventually you’re going to ruin the integrity of your product name – or your reputation as a cook. Instead of saying “OH WOW! A new [insert game title here] game! I’ve got to have this!”, your customers will says, “Oh.. a new [insert game title here] game. Looks interesting… but the last two weren’t that great. Maybe I’ll just wait on this one.” Remember, most gamers are people with limited budgets who can’t afford to buy every game that comes out – they have to pick and choose. If a game company put out a couple of duds, gamers aren’t going to take a risk on them any longer. This is why brand names die out.

That’s not to say that sequels should be stagnant. People can take only so much of something before they become bored (MM8?). You take a good formula, and you tweak small chunks at a time. In this manner, if something you did turns out not to be such a hot idea, it is (a) easy to get rid of the next time around and (b) its potential impact on the quality of the product as a whole is probably small. Thus the progression of games is generally evolutionary rather than revolutionary. This makes sense, and is good business. Self imitation is how you ensure the longevity of your product. Have revolutionary sequels been successful? Absolutely. But many of them sank. Like rocks. Ultima 8 is a great example. Ultima 9 is even better (and shows that two successive failures dooms a company). And might I suggest that so is Heroes 4.

But let’s leave the virtues of H4 aside for now. We’ll touch on that in part 2.

The classic Morph Ball feature in Metroid Prime surprised many skeptical fans by making it into the hyped Game Cube sequel, illustrating that even "revolutionary" games are best when they retain their core elements.

Generally speaking, the only time when it makes sense to completely change a sequel to a game is when many years have passed between the original and the sequel. This is because you’re at this point not dealing with the same audience that played the original, so the risk isn’t as great. (I’ll get back to risk versus reward later.) But even then, core elements are left intact, because a game brand name is associated with certain features that just cannot be tampered with without dashing user expectations. So even under the umbrella of being “revolutionary”, game sequels STILL have to retain something of their original selves. A good example is the Metroid games for the Nintendo consoles. When Nintendo announced they would be making (well, Retro made it…) a revolutionary 3D update to the classic Metroid games, fans were naturally a bit skeptical. How could a 3D game retain the core elements that defined the Metroid formula? Retro DID revolutionize the game by bringing it into 3D, and the new game, Metroid Prime, was fantastic. But though it was “revolutionary”, it also contained just about every game-play element of the originals, and it is for THIS reason, not because it was “revolutionary”, that it was admired by a very discriminating fan base. If MP had left something out that was deemed essential to the formula, be it the “morph ball” or the “back-tracking through a seamless world”, which were integral parts of the original games, MP probably would not have been nearly the success that it was. If Retro had left those elements out, some people (particularly those who didn’t remember the original games) may not have missed them; but a lot of people would have, and though the game probably would have sold well, that less-than-stellar experience would have lingered in their minds. And when it came time for the NEXT sequel, gamers would have treaded a little more carefully if the new game also promised to omit some of these core elements. Thus it is important to realize that even when a company decides to be revolutionary (and in this case, there was not much of a risk involved in doing so with the Metroid franchise), that path must be approached with caution. It’s a fine line between going too far that a new sequel completely loses its identity and not going far enough that you’re really just selling the same game in a new box. Generally game developers err closer on the side of the latter, because if a game is good, gamers will want more of it – they want it to be the same, or at least similar. For a while.

In essence, success is all about baby steps. And that’s smart business.

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