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Page last updated at 11:01 GMT, Monday, 18 July 2011 12:01 UK

Have computer games become boring?


From 'threequel' to sequel, Marc Cieslak reviews the latest games releases

By Alex Hudson
BBC News

There are some vintage video games that will live long in the collective memory. Space Invaders, Tetris and Doom were original, inventive and didn't have a number after their name. Nowadays, the market is saturated with sequels and franchises. But does that mean innovation has dried-up?

In the video games industry at the moment, things are coming in threes.

Gears of War 3, Far Cry 3, Uncharted 3, Mass Effect 3 and Battlefield 3 - along with countless other sequels - are being released this year. Many will be played on the PlayStation 3, itself the latest offspring of a hardware dynasty.

In fact, half of the global top 10 best-selling list is made up of sequels. In the European list, it is six out of 10.

Critics have bemoaned the relentless rise of sequels, some going as far to say they will "harm the marketplace irrevocably".

But follow-up games have been around since the days of Ms Pacman, and players appear to be endorsing them with their wallets. In the US, over $2bn (£1.3bn) was spent on video games in the first quarter of 2011.

No Bruce Willis

The growing scale of the games industry means it is often compared to the movie business. Little surprise then that it should adopt a similar production model.

This summer sees the return of Harry Potter, Cars and Transformers and big games publishers are following suit, leveraging an existing audience to ensure the games are profitable.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3
The biggest titles at the E3 gaming expo were sequels

"The best way to think about it is the franchise is the star," says James Binns, head of Edge International.

"Hollywood studios put a lot of money into a Bruce Willis film but there aren't the same stars in video games, so what you rely on is the characters of the game instead."

What gaming lacks is the "slow burn". Films often become more popular over time and enjoy the financial safety net of DVD and television sales. Games do not have that luxury.

True, there have been a handful of recent, original hits. LA Noire and Heavy Rain received great critical and commercial success. But taking a chance on a new title seems to be the exception rather than the rule.

"Videogames can cost tens of millions of pounds to make and tens of millions on top of that to market," said Mr Binns.

"Anything that a producer can do to reduce the risk in a project, they will do, and sometimes that means taking a safe bet on a character they already know."

'One idea a year'

One theory is that all the good ideas have been used up. Looking at yet another first-person-shooter, it is easy to believe the old saying that "there is nothing new under the sun".

"The video game industry has always played around a limited number of themes. There is maybe one new idea a year," said Michel Guillemot, CEO of games company Gameloft, earlier this year.

Nintendo Wii U device
Sometimes new devices require innovation to utilise new features

Many of the most successful game are hardy perennials. The ever changing roster of global soccer stars gives licence for a fresh Fifa title every 12 months, and Call of Duty now follows a once-a-year release cycle.

The predictability of what will top the gaming charts has irritated many in the industry.

"The games industry has stopped creating anything new, and consumers are starting to say 'Hey, what you're selling - I'm not buying'," Peter Tamte, president of Atomic Games, told VG24/7.

But Microsoft's corporate vice president Phil Spencer, who has previously been critical of quick, multiple releases, admits there is an audience for them.

"[CoD publisher Activision has] done a good job building a good game, continuing to release each year and I think the fans feel like it's a good thing that they do that," he told IGN.

Still innovating?

Others see a technical virtue in having two, three or more follow-ups to a successful game.

"Personally I don't think sequels hurt the industry at all," said Mat Sneap, co-owner of software company Eurocom.

"It lets us improve products, incorporate feedback from reviewers and people that play the games. If we have to constantly build games from the ground up, unless we have years of development like LA Noire, it's very difficult to be competitive straight away.

Milla Jovovich poses during a photocall for Resident Evil Afterlife
Big games become brands that extend to films and merchandise

"I think it does give the developers a chance to innovate, as once the core gameplay is locked down from the original game you can look to push in other areas."

And sequels regularly appear on lists of best and most creative games.

Titles such as Final Fantasy VII, Streefighter II, Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Call of Duty, Modern Warfare all come with a history of releases behind them. But each has found fresh ways to re-interpret its subject matter.

Perhaps the real differentiator between good and bad games is the time and effort spent on creating them. It is releases that are "churned out" that truly incur gamers' ire. Often those will get noticed more if they happen to be a poor follow-up to a strong title.

The reason that Heavy Rain and LA Noire were so well received, critics believe, is that so much time and effort were put into them. Likewise, lovingly crafted sequels should receive the same recognition.

"For me, the most important thing is when we release a Halo game, it's the quality and is the pinnacle of design and creativity on our box," said Phil Spencer, corporate vice president of Microsoft Game Studios.

"That's what that franchise stands for."

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