In the Chinese Zodiac, 2009 is roughly the Year of the Ox (actually dates are Jan 26, 2009, to Feb 10, 2010). I found SHOCKING similarities in the titles that came out (as well as the studios/publishers that released these titles) in 2009 and the traits of those born during the year of the Ox.
I know it’s not 100% reliable, but this is from Wikipedia:
Ox (Water buffalo in Vietnam) (Yin, 2nd Trine, Fixed Element Water): Dependable, calm, methodical, born leader, patient, hardworking, ambitious, conventional, steady, modest, logical, resolute, tenacious. Can be stubborn, narrow-minded, materialistic, rigid, demanding.
I’ll go into them one by one, applying each trait where I feel it fits and show you why sequels belong in the Year of the Ox.
Sequels are dependable in that they sell well because we as consumers will purchase the sequel if we enjoyed the original. Perfect examples of this trait are Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 and Halo 3: ODST. While improvements were definitely made, consumer fans of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, and the Halo franchise in general were going to drop their $60 on the title no matter what.
Gaming publishers are methodical in that they have a mission (to sell titles and make money) and they take cold, calculating steps to accomplish that goal, regardless of how it affects the consumer. If the target demographic (shout out to Bryan, Matt, and the boys at The Target Demographic, by the way) of gamers roughly ages 17-35 has disposable income, it’s highly likely that it’s going to a sequel of a game that they enjoyed.
Sequels are born leaders because of the two previous traits that they exhibit: dependable and methodical. Modern Warfare 2 OBLITERATED the Day 1 launch record set in April 2008 by Grand Theft Auto IV. Assassin’s Creed 2 improved upon the initial title so much that, even though it moved ONLY 1.6 million units in it’s first week, it’s set to be one of the critical and commercial successes of this holiday season. Uncharted 2 also took major leaps in improvement from the initial offering to this year’s release, and it’s on many critics’ and consumers’ Game of the Year lists (even considered in a class all its own).
Publishing companies are extremely patient because they understand that their franchises have massive followings of fanboys who will buy their titles simply because of name-brand value. Halo: Combat Evolved was absolutely ground-breaking; Halo 2 was an improvement on many fronts, but didn’t innovate or take a leap forward. If it’s not broken, then why fix it? Now we have ODST, and consumers are still spending the money because of four simple letters: H-A-L-O. It’s a similar situation for Activision’s Call of Duty franchise. For CoD, CoD2, and CoD3, every game was set in WWII, but the title still sold because of three letters: C-O-D. I know that Modern Warfare 2 isn’t set in WWII, but it still has those three letters at the beginning, doesn’t it? Precisely.
Although publishing companies and sequels may not have to be hardworking in order to market the title and produce results, respectively, but that certainly doesn’t stop them. EA/Harmonix and Activision/Neversoft worked their tails off promoting Beatles Rock Band and Guitar Hero 5 even though they didn’t have to because the titles would have sold on name value alone. If you liked Rock Band and Rock Band 2, it was almost a given that you would plop down your money for The Beatles Rock Band. The same idea applies to every Guitar Hero iteration prior to GH5, not to mention every other ‘Hero’-named rhythm title.
Both publishers and sequels have to be ambitious in order to take the risks necessary to ensure that consumers’ collective and proverbial palates are both pleased with the ‘taste’ of the current product, but also to ensure that there is just enough of an unknown there that they will keep coming back for more in a year or two (or five). Activision/Infinity Ward took a major risk including the airport level in Modern Warfare 2, but the level has caused such talk outside of the gaming industry that it helped sell the game. Furthermore, the inclusion of Special Ops as a game mode gives them room for massive improvement in future Modern Warfare titles as well as producing DLC missions to continue the revenue stream until MW3 hits shelves.
The definition for conventional in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary is this: ‘lacking originality or individuality’. Aside from a few graphical tweaks and updates as well as some subtle tweaks to gameplay mechanics, this is the true definition of a sequel. Developers and publishers are also of the old adage: ‘If it ain’t broke, then don’t fix it.’ I don’t have a problem with playing the same style game (Modern Warfare 2, for example) with the next sequence in the story, but after a certain amount of time, I’m tired of it. At some point, all great things must come to an end. Case in point would be M*A*S*H or Friends from television.
Sequels are quite steady in that they are continuous sellers, regardless of release date. With the economy in its current state, this fact is even more evident given the massive backlog of titles that gamers have yet to touch. In the month of September alone, gamers saw the release of Guitar Hero 5, DiRT 2, The Beatles Rock Band, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2, Need for Speed SHIFT, Virtua Fighter 5, and Halo 3: ODST; and that’s JUST the sequels. October saw Uncharted 2, GTA: Chinatown Wars, Forza Motorsport 3, Ratchet & Clank Future: A Crack in Time, and Tekken 6. Then, as if we needed any more titles ‘steadily’ streaming into our gaming universe, November hit us HARD with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, Assassin’s Creed 2, and Left 4 Dead 2. Those three November titles have the potential (some would say CoD:MW2 by itself) to sell more copies than the rest combined. At any rate, sequels provide a steady income stream for developers and publishers that may need more time to focus on those original IP’s, or the companies may just abandon originality altogether, given the rough economic times.
Any gaming company’s logical train of thought should be to keep the coffers full. It’s a proven economic fact that we as gamers will fork over our precious hard-earned dollars (or our parents’ dollars) for a known entity (sequels) versus an unknown, original IP. To be honest, I don’t blame us. While we hunger for something new and original in our heads, our hearts tell us that something original isn’t as good as the last two Call of Duty titles or Halo 3 can be with more improvements or tweaking. It makes 100% logical sense (I’m channeling my inner Spock, here) to go for the known quantity because said known quantity pleased and contented you enough in the previous iteration, and our minds tell us that it can only get better. Most often, this is certainly the case.
Resolute is defined by Merriam-Webster as ‘marked by firm determination; Bold, Steady’. Given that ‘steady’ has already come up, bold and determined are also terms that can define sequels and gaming companies in general. Companies continue to develop and tweak IP’s and franchises so much and so often that there are fighting-game franchises that have nearly TEN titles in existence (Street Fighter immediately comes to mind). Tekken 6 and Virtua Fighter 5 hit the market this year, and Soul Calibur is catching up. The easiest genres in which to create sequels are sports (EA/2K Sports’ annual offerings of their sports titles), fighting games (detailed a few seconds ago), and racing titles (Turn-10’s Forza franchise has three, and SONY’s Gran Turismo series will get its fifth offering early next year).
Sequels are definitely stubborn in that they will sometimes outright refuse to deviate from the normal even a little bit in order to innovate. The Guitar Hero series is a perfect example. I don’t have to experience Guitar Hero 1, 2, 3, or 4 in order to know what I’m getting with Guitar Hero 5. The only differences appear to be graphical updates and new tracks. I’ll give credit where deserved, though. Guitar Hero World Tour did open it up from an instrument perspective; however, Rock Band kind of stole that thunder, so that’s not exactly innovative on Neversoft’s/Activision’s part, as EA/Harmonix beat them to the punch (by nearly a year). I’ll throw Activision a bone by saying that they are innovating with the releases of DJ Hero and Band Hero (to a degree). I’m personally waiting for Dulcimer Hero, Opera Hero, and Xylophone Hero (thanks to Nathan Hardisty).
Sequels have become so narrow-minded of late, at least on the single-player side of things, that they are settling for shorter stories with little-to-no character development to the point that the single-player feels like a tutorial and ‘real-time’ training session that’s preparing you for the multi-player modes. Modern Warfare 2 had a single-player campaign that was widely completed in a single day. Halo 3 ODST was similar, from what I heard. Is it just me, or do all of today’s true shooters have short campaigns? Even Uncharted 2, arguably the game of the year, had a campaign that was less than 15 hours long (and that’s being generous, apparently). I don’t want it to sound like I’m equating narrow-minded with just short campaigns. When I say narrow-minded, I mean the opposite of open-minded. The titles again aren’t being innovative. Every sequel that released this year performed well in what it was supposed to do. But that was basically the same thing that it’s previous entry did well two or three years ago; in some cases, (L4D2) a single year.
Being rigid also plays into the definitions of ‘stubborn’ and ‘narrow-minded’ in that sequels are created to do one thing: marginally improve over the previous title (which even some sequels fail to do). Case in point: Gears of War 2. Epic created what was widely considered the best original IP of that year (2006). Gears of War 2 told the next part of the story and marginally improved upon the previous title’s gameplay, both single- and multi-player. This year’s version of that appears of be Left 4 Dead 2. The original Left 4 Dead revolutionized how we look at zombie-killing action titles: it added the co-op factor. Left 4 Dead 2 changed exactly one thing: setting. Yes, they added more weapons, but that’s not exactly improving anything. L4D2 functions on the exact same engine that L4D was built upon. The two look so similar, in fact, that some gamers (futilely) decided to boycott L4D2’s release because they felt shorted on the original L4D experience. Earlier today, it was announced that Left 4 Dead 2 had moved 2 million units worldwide; congrats to Valve. I guess rigidity is allowed as long as there are millions of zombies to hack and dismember.
Finally, gaming companies and sequels are being very demanding in trying to win over our (or our parents’) hard-earned money that publishers have pushed back many of their original IP offerings (exceptions include Borderlands, Dragon Age Origins, and The Saboteur) into 2010 because of how flooded the market has become with all of their sequels that are fighting it out.
In closing, sequels have some tough jobs on their hands. They are the staple and foundation of the annual offerings from our beloved gaming companies. However, they work their tails off, and, more often than not, they succeed in their task. If you need to till a field to plant crops, then you strap a yoke to an ox. If you need to ’till’ the consumer-base to ‘grow’ a revenue stream, then you strap the proverbial yoke to a sequel.
**I want to thank Jennifer Kye and Nathan Hardisty for their contributions to this piece.**