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Familiarity breeds contempt

What’s going on here? Has the entire game industry been infected by Rocky-itis? I guess that’s a bad analogy; there were only five Rocky flicks, and “Final Fantasy” is now up to number 11.

One of the great joys of being a Game Master is sorting through the mail each day and tearing through the shrinkwrap to reveal whatever brand new titles the game publishers have sent me. There’s nothing like tossing away an old game and booting up something completely fresh and different. Heck, just recently I’ve gotten my hands on “Silent Hill 3,” “Romance Of The Three Kingdoms IX,” and “Final Fantasy XI.” And you can bet your bottom dollar that I’m practically salivating about the upcoming “Half-Life 2,” “Driver 3,” “Gran Turismo 4,” and–Lord, let my patience hold out–“Ultima X.”

Wait a minute! What’s going on here? Has the entire game industry been infected by Rocky-itis? I guess that’s a bad analogy; there were only five Rocky flicks, and “Final Fantasy” is now up to number 11.

There are lots of good reasons, of course, why a publisher opts for making a sequel rather than striving for something new. One, they know they’ve got a built-in audience, that gamers tend to buy whatever looks familiar, especially if it’s similar to what they played before and liked. For publishers, that means risk aversion. They know they can make big bucks on a me-too game without taking on the risks of developing an original property.

Another reason: Even if a developer spends two years creating the greatest non-sequel known to gamedom, just let him try and get some publicity for it. The fan magazines won’t touch it with a 10-foot joystick.

Someone who can vouch for that is Scott Miller, the founder of two of my favorite game companies, Apogee and 3D Realms, which created such original franchises as “Wolfenstein 3D,” “Commander Keen,” “Duke Nukem,” “Max Payne,” and (anyone remember this classic?) “Rise of the Triad.” When Scott first came out with “Duke Nukem,” not one gaming magazine would give it a drop of ink.

“When we previewed it for the editors, they all told us how great the game was,” said Miller. “Getting covers, however, was nearly impossible.” That’s because magazines depend on newsstand sales and need to put something familiar on their covers so gamers will spot them and pick them up. Risk aversion strikes again.

So what is a publisher’s motivation to burn the midnight oil building something new? Especially when we gamers have created the impression that, when we shop for games, all we want is more of the same?

But I don’t think that’s what we want at all. I think we are constantly on the hunt for something fresh and exciting, which is why games like “The Sims” and “Half-Life” do so well. The trouble comes when publishers want to repeat their last success with a follow-up that’s equally new and exciting; some know how, others don’t. Twenty-one years after Nintendo launched its first Mario Bros. game, that franchise is as hot as ever with new Mario titles successfully taking advantage of today’s technology. On the other hand, enthusiasm for “The Sims” is petering out and Electronic Arts is struggling to keep the line going. Soon it’ll be interesting to see what developer Valve is able to do with “Half-Life 2” five years after the original won countless Game of the Year awards.

The bottom line is it’s up to us to insist on quality. As the cliché goes, we need to vote with our wallets. Think back to how exciting it was to play “Half-Life” the first time. If you’re willing to bypass all the second-rate sequels to hold out for something that’s just as much fun, then do it. Don’t lower your standards. But if you’re willing to settle for the 12th iteration of “Deer Hunter,” don’t complain about sequelitis. There are publishers out there who are more than willing to give you exactly what you want.

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