The Game Archaeologist: Were sequels ever a good idea for MMOs?


From movies to books to video games, sequels (and all related spin-offs) are a common sight when a property is sufficiently successful enough. Even some not-so-great creations might get a follow-up or two, prompting much discussion over whether or not the makers should have stopped when they were barely ahead.

In the history of MMORPGs, there have been many more sequels than you might even realize, dating all the way back to MUD1 and its spawn, MUD2. Some of these died in development, some fizzled, and some ended up eclipsing their forebear. But here’s the question that I’ve been pondering as I look over the years: Were sequels ever a good idea for these types of games?

After much thought, I can’t come to an easy conclusion about this, but at least we can discuss it here today. So let’s tackle the pros and cons of making sequels, prequels, and side-quels for MMORPGs.

Sequel Pros: Bringing the concept to the next generation

Games age, and some age better than others. When a title gets really creaky or has fundamental design issues that can’t be patched up, then it might be time to start over with a more modern look and design scheme. Many MMO “sequels” are, in fact, an improved version of the original game that took what worked and added more to it. Recent looter shooters like Destiny 2 and The Division 2 are modern examples of this, but you can look back to old days to find several of these as well.

But what I think is even more important here is drawing in a new generation of players. Some people won’t touch a game that’s more than a few years old on principle (or preference). There’s a concern that older online games might only have a few years left, too, so it’s better to hitch your wagon to something fresh out of the gate and hope it endures. I’m not anti-old games — my favorite MMORPG is 13 years old, after all — but I recognize that there’s great marketing potential in bringing in more gamers with a current release.

Sequel Cons: Diluting your core audience

Asheron’s Call 2 is such an interesting case study of both how to do a sequel — and how not to. Turbine did a sufficiently good job in creating an MMO that still existed in the same game universe yet offered a different visuals, play styles, and setting. Yet the existing Asheron’s Call community felt fractured by its release, and the “newness” of AC2 wasn’t enough to draw in crowds of uninitiated fans. In the end, the sequel only served to dilute the core AC audience… who wandered back to where the critical mass existed.


Sequel Pros: Building upon an established foundation

MMOs are a risky business, so any advantage when making one is to be grabbed if possible. Some do this by hitching on to a big developer name or studio, others latch on to a popular IP, and still others build upon an established game that’s already proven itself and built a substantial playerbase.

It’s not a dumb idea. Players were more than willing to make the leap to Guild Wars 2 after spending many thrilling years in the first game and seeing how ArenaNet operated. The general (but not universal) feeling was that it was time to move on to a new and improved iteration of the game, and I think ArenaNet timed it just right so that players made the transition gladly and smoothly.

Sequel Cons: Killed sequels kills fan faith

Even with all of the reasons to create sequels, it doesn’t make their birth a given fact. EA saw the success of Ultima Online and greenlit not one, but two sequels — and then killed not one, but both games before they could release. And how did Daybreak’s fanbase take the cancellation of both Landmark and EverQuest Next? The studio managed to cut an open wound there that has yet to heal. All of this hurts the confidence of the community and most likely serves to drive them away from their current game because they don’t see the studio preparing for the future.

Sequel pros: Becoming relevant again

Becoming irrelevant to the gaming scene is a death blow to an MMORPG. It’s so vital for a game to make waves and get back in the headlines to signal that it is alive, it has a future, and it is where the fun is happening. There are many ways for an existing MMO to do this, to be sure, but there’s nothing like a well-publicized sequel to serve as a big shot in the arm for a franchise. Final Fantasy XIV saw this happen twice, first with its launch, and then with its relaunch. And while that’s a messy and multifaceted example, it’s hard to argue that by the time A Realm Reborn happened, players were ignorant of this game and what it offered. FFXIV’s profile was visible from a long way away in a way that FFXI never had.

Sequel cons: Settled players

One of the aspects of MMORPGs that makes these games rather special is that players can be in them for a very long time — many years, if not decades. And while the attraction of a shiny sequel is alluring, each player has to weigh that against all of the achievements and acquisitions that he or she has accomplished in the first game. If the player is not willing to part with all that, then even the best-looking sequel is going to struggle to argue for the switch.

MapleStory 2 was, from my perspective, a great sequel. It was colorful, it was charming, it greatly expanded on the graphics and gameplay options. And it failed, I think in great part to the long-settled MapleStory community being unwilling to uproot and leave what they knew and loved. It might have been one thing if the studio forced everyone to move via a shutdown (which is not a great plan, but it’s one that has been employed in the past), but the first MapleStory was doing just fine and getting plenty of updates. The sequel, therefore, had to rely more on drawing in a completely new audience, and that was a harder sell based on its quirky design that made it look more like a kids’ game than something for a wider audience.

No conclusion here

And so I continue to bandy back and forth the virtues of expending time, money, and developer resources to create sequels. As a gamer, I’d certainly love to see many of my favorite MMOs get awesome follow-ups, but as a historian, I know that a hit sequel isn’t assured — if it happens at all. Are they a good idea? Sometimes. Depends. But I can say that studios aren’t racing out to pump them out as fast as they did a decade or so ago.

Believe it or not, MMOs did exist prior to World of Warcraft! Every two weeks, The Game Archaeologist looks back at classic online games and their history to learn a thing or two about where the industry came from… and where it might be heading.
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