In the entertainment industry, sequels are a fact of life. Properties and IPs that are proven to sell can generally be guaranteed to sell again unless a heavy misstep is made, and so they are turned out with varying degrees of love and effort given to them year after year. This is especially the case in the video game industry, where long running franchises dominate the scene to the point where new IPs struggle to get a foot in the door.
Generally it can be accepted that a sequel will sell well if it provides a consistent experience. The Call of Duty or Assassin’s Creed franchises, with their yearly releases, are great examples of this. Most iterations of the games in these series’ are largely indistinguishable from each other in a general sense. The details might change, particularly who the protagonist du jour is and where the game is set, but general gameplay elements and franchise staples can be expected to be largely the same with perhaps a bit more polish and some few new items will be added. In essence, these large franchises sell well for the same reason Applebee’s and other “fast casual” dining establishments are popular: They’re consistent. The consumer knows exactly what they are getting for their money. They may not be particularly wowed by their meal (or game) but they rarely leave disappointed either since they knew what they were getting themselves into. Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty, like Applebee’s and Chilis catch a lot of flak for not being particularly good or just being samey, un-innovative, etc. but that’s not really the point. Their point is to sell well and generally scratch that itch for a military shooter or fajitas you have. In that sense they succeed. The games might not be great or even, at times, good but they accomplish what they set out to do.
Still, I think it’s valid to explore not just what makes a sequel marketable or successful, but what makes one good. How do you make a game to follow up a popular title without just making it a largely reskinned version of the first game? Sequels by and large are put in a very tough position. The designers made a great game, they poured their heart and soul into it, and it became popular enough that people wanted more. Great! So…how can they top their best effort?
The answer is, sadly, sometimes they can’t. But a few shining franchises have managed it, and a common theme seems to be that good sequels fall into two categories: Games that provide more of the same, and games that massively shake up their formula with each iteration.
When I say “more of the same” I truly mean to put the emphasis on more rather than same. Many good sequels are simply bigger than their predecessor. They expand on a formula that worked with more gameplay, bigger worlds, a more epic story, and generally everything the first game did they aim to do bigger and better and more fun. The Mass Effect series is a good example of this. Each game raises the stakes of the story, improves on the basic game mechanics, adds more stuff, new things to explore, expands the lore, and so on. Each successive game builds on and – generally speaking, despite the controversial ending to the third installment – improves on the previous game. The games were massively successful and are collectively, to me, one of the best franchises ever made.
One of my other favorite franchises takes the opposite approach: Reinvention. Jak And Daxter: The Precursor Legacy was a fun, upbeat, impeccably designed collectathon platformer that, to me, is a strong contender for best 3D platformer ever made. Naughty Dog had could have taken the first route and probably have made another exceptional mascot platformer, but they decided to take a gamble. Jak 2 (with the added subtitle Renegade in Europe) is a game that should not have worked. Or more accurately would not have worked with a lesser studio attempting such a radical shift. But it did. Jak 2 took an upbeat, brightly colored platformer with a mute protagonist and successfully transplanted it into a dystopian future where everything is gray and lifeless, the protagonist has become a brooding snark machine, and gunplay has a high focus and it’s so good. It worked because it was new, it was different. It kept enough of the familiar to build off the original, but was not a slave to it. Which is really the key point: Doing away with “sacred cows”, artifacts of design that many sequels feel they need to be chained to just because they were in the first game.
Mind you, nothing chains a sequel or franchise to one strategy or the other. Jak 3 was still an excellent game, and largely took the first approach in regards to Jak 2. The Witcher series has consistently reinvented its gameplay with every iteration, but also added much more of the same; it is only certain core mechanics that are lost or gained (most notably the removal of rhythm based combat from the second and third games, and to a lesser extent the concept of distinct fast, strong, and group fighting styles that was so integral to the original Witcher).
In short, I suppose, what makes a good sequel is down to the design and development team(s) A.) Knowing their property and correctly pinpointing what was good and should be added to and what was bad and should be removed or played down and B.) Be willing to make changes, even sometimes large sweeping changes that can change the identity of a series forever. The creation of a good sequel is proof that your original success was not just a fluke, and is a test of your skill. You can luck into making a great game, but it’s much harder to luck into making a great sequel.