It's here that MMOs diverge from movies and other video games. With those, the original is not in any sort of danger, other than the perception of having its legacy dragged down into the muck (Caddyshack II, anyone?) and perhaps overstaying its welcome. An MMO sequel, on the other hand, can cause serious consequences to its ancestor.
Here at Game Archaeologist, we look at classic games that have often seen their time come and go. But what happens to one of these titles when a sequel attacks? Almost anything, it turns out.
MMO sequels can be the best of all worlds. They can take a well-known franchise forward with the latest graphics, new features, and a fresh start. When that old tire is looking bald and thin, putting on a brand-new one with the little rubber hairs sticking out is an attractive prospect -- if the company has the scratch and interest to pull it off.
So when the original is looking tired, a sequel can come along and offer a viable alternative to both loyal players and new ones. Players are encouraged, in not so many words, to migrate over to this virgin promised land while leaving behind the remnants of the old one.
We saw this happen twice in 2012 with both PlanetSide 2 and Guild Wars 2. In both cases the original is still alive but severely drained of its population now that version two-point-oh has landed. It's telling that SOE didn't even bother to convert PlanetSide from its subscription model (it remains the final sub-only title in SOE's library) and that ArenaNet focused the final months of Guild Wars on pointing players at the sequel.
Sequels form a new and separate playerbase
Yet sometimes a sequel can be so different that it doesn't leech but instead forms a second, independent community that parallels the first. While we all rolled our eyes at SOE for constantly stating that EverQuest II wasn't a sequel, it's apparent now that it was a deliberate attempt to position the second EverQuest in such a way that it wouldn't cripple the original by being a successor.
And heck, sometimes the original is so popular that even when a studio would prefer players to move along to the sequel, it just doesn't happen. Lineage still pulls in a boggling amount of money for NCsoft despite there being a much better-looking sequel on the market (and a third one on the way). Oddly enough, in North America, it was the other way around; Lineage II is popular enough to retain players even as NCsoft pulled the plug on the original Lineage's US servers.
If studios can pull off this trick, they can reap the benefits of not leeching from their own players while still broadening their reach.
One of my favorite films is Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn. Made by Spider-Man director Sam Raimi, the sequel was essentially a funnier, snappier remake of the first film once Raimi got the profits and influence from his work on the original. Sometimes you can't make the full product you'd like to at the start, so you make what you can, rake in cash, and then use the proceeds to start over again.
So it is with MMOs. We've seen plenty of MMOs revamp, reboot, or simply restart as the studios gain the resources and opportunity to do so. It's happened with RuneScape and Neocron, and it's happening now with Darkfall and Final Fantasy XIV. Personally, I think that this can be a terribly exciting time for fans of the game, especially since they'll all be in it together rather than have to make the decision between one title or another.
Sequels cause players to cling to the original
In 1985, the Coca-Cola corporation introduced one of the most notorious products of all-time: New Coke. It was a sweeter, less acidic cola that was meant to replace the classic formula, and while taste-testers did prefer it over the original, the vast majority of Coke-lovers hated the mere notion of it. The end result was that New Coke got trounced and the classic formula was brought back to wild applause.
The reason this is taught in marketing classes worldwide is that New Coke showed just how loyal consumers can be, even when presented with an objectively superior product. Plus, never underestimate how much people dislike change.
So yeah, sometimes a sequel has come along that should've attracted players by droves but instead propelled them right back into the familiar arms of the original. Asheron's Call 2 is probably the best example of this. I've read plenty of testimonies of Asheron's Call players who refused to move on to AC2 once they saw how different it was, even though it had better graphics and progressed the story to a new era.
For every MMO sequel that makes it to market, there are a few that were prematurely killed in the development stage. EA pulled the plug on not one but two Ultima Online successors that might have had any of the above impacts on the original (although we'll never know, will we?). The long-awaited Jumpgate Evolution limped into limbo a few years ago as well.
So are sequels worth it?
In my opinion, MMO sequels take a risky prospect (developing these games) and add another wild card to the process. Sometimes sequels are needed to keep a dying franchise alive, and sometimes a sequel will grow, not leech, the playerbase for the studio. But it seems there are many more ways that disaster can happen, and the power of name-brand recognition to rally the faithful is debatable. Having that "2" or "3" tacked on might prove to be more of a liability when it comes with enormous expectations and budgets.
That's why I think we'll see a lot more "spiritual successors" instead of outright sequels in the future, such as Shroud of Avatar and Camelot Unchained. If people want to connect the dots between the franchises to net more players, that's a win. But if it allows for companies to develop smaller, more focused products that cater to a specific or different audience, that can be a win too.
When not clawing his eyes out at the atrocious state of general chat channels, Justin "Syp" Olivetti pulls out his history textbook for a lecture or two on the good ol' days of MMOs in The Game Archaeologist. You can contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.