Vague Patch Notes: Have we ever really had an MMO sequel?

Similar, but not the same.

In the wake of Justin’s recent column on whether or not MMO sequels are a good idea, MOP reader Bobfish had an interesting question asking whether we’ve ever really had a sequel. His logic was pretty simple insofar as most of the games we think of as sequels (either because they’re explicitly sequels in the title or they’re at least later in the numerical sequence, like Final Fantasy XIV compared to Final Fantasy XI) aren’t really trying to be the same game but rather a new game with various thematic links to the old one.

And it’s a good question! Because it’s actually a contentious idea that requires picking apart what a sequel is in any meaningful fashion and further requires examining whether or not, say, FFXIV actually is a sequel to FFXI, which I’m pretty sure it isn’t. Based on… no logic actually any more unassailable than saying that it is! Yeah, this one has a whole lot of stuff to unpack and it’s just plain weird. Let’s get into it.

Let’s start with the basics. According to a quick search, the dictionary definition of a sequel is “a long-winged web-footed seabird with a raucous call, typically having white plumage with a gray or black mantle,” at which point you realize that your phone misheard your pronunciation. Once you correct it, you’ll see the definition is a published, broadcast, or recorder work that continues the story or themes of an earlier work

This is technically accurate, but it gets really messy with video games in lots of different ways. Consider this: is Mega Man X a sequel to Mega Man 5?

Chronologically the answer is “yes.” MMX continues the theme of MM5 in both themes (good robot tries to prevent destruction of world by bad robots led by a notable leader) and story (X himself is built by Dr. Light, the same creator in MM5). And yet it’s also clearly wrongMMX is a spinoff series that doesn’t tie in with the original series, and both of them have gone on to spawn multiple sequels.

Well, maybe this part.

In terms of video games, we see sequels as being just a little bit different. It’s not just enough for the new game to be titled as a sequel; the game is expected to also play like its predecessor in various ways. Probably. But that’s also not true; no one would contest that World of Warcraft was a sequel to Warcraft III, and yet while both games play faintly similar due to some RPG elements in the latter, no one would consider them as remotely the same genre.

MMOs in particular create weird situations. EverQuest II is an explicit sequel to EverQuest, but it isn’t a sequel in the sense of continuing the story of its predecessor. It takes place far enough in the future that really nothing that goes on in the first game would logically have an effect upon the world of the sequel. In many ways it’s more like a spinoff, except that the former is definitely meant as a sequel. Just with different mechanics, goals, and designers!

By contrast, Guild Wars 2 is similar… except that it came out after the end of major content for the first game, meaning that there’s no stuff happening in the older title that would possibly affect the newer one, apart from distant relatives and references. It also abandons some of the ideas of the prior game in favor of being more of a standard MMO in many aspects, something that Guild Wars briefly actively avoided being. (If you don’t remember the designers insisting that the game wasn’t an MMO, well, it happened. It was dumb then, too.)

Oh, and here’s a real head-scratcher for you: FFXIV‘s whole Return to Ivalice content was centered around the story of Final Fantasy Tactics. The story of FFT is relayed in a framing device as a history being told by Arazlam Durai of what really happened during the war, one that challenges assumptions about one major historical figure and one forgotten one. Arazlam Durai is the name of the NPC responsible for guiding you through the Return to Ivalice content… which also involves him learning the whole stories and confirming the reports relayed in FFT. In other words, FFXIV may be the story of the framing device that isn’t just a sequel but an explanation.

This is all a roundabout way to make the point that “what is a sequel” and “what isn’t a sequel” winds up getting very fuzzy with video games in general and MMOs in particular.

Same hat.

This isn’t quite the same as saying we’ve never gotten pure sequels. Destiny 2, for example, is indisputably a sequel to its predecessor. It follows the same world, progression, lore, story, and so forth, partly as the game never seemed entirely sure of how MMO it was supposed to be. But other games are definitely sequels in mechanics but less so with story (Phantasy Star Online 2) and other sequels are neither at the same time.

So now we circle back around to the original question – whether or not we’ve ever gotten a real sequel – and that also requires defining what an actual sequel looks like.

For me, the answer is pretty obvious: A game is a sequel when it is explicitly meant to tie into a prior game as a continuation. Not when it’s simply linked to it through an overall franchise, but when there are direct links tied between the original title and its later game. So GW2 and EQII? Totally sequels.

FFXIV, meanwhile, is not a sequel; it’s not tied into Vana’diel or its story and is not meant to be. PSO2 isn’t really a sequel by this logic, as while its gameplay is very similar to its predecessor the story isn’t a direct connection. They’re both just… later games in the franchise.

But the problem here is that much like usage of “pay-to-win,” the use of these terms is in the eye of the beholder. You could definitely argue that mechanical similarity is more important than lore, which would make GW2, EQII, and FFXIV all not really sequels while PSO2 is a sequel. Or you could argue that it’s more about whether these titles are immediately adjacent in a franchise, in which case FFXIV is not a sequel but the other three are. You get the general idea.

With any new game, you’re going to have debates about whether or not a sequel is true enough to its predecessors to really count as a sequel. Every new game in The Sims has featured some pretty big alterations from its prior versions, but it has indisputably felt like the same basic virtual dollhouse in terms of theory. Similarly, all four of the games I listed before definitely feel like they’re taking notes from the prior titles in their series, even while they often play entirely differently.

So, have we ever had a proper MMO sequel? Yes. Also, no. It depends on what you mean by a proper sequel. MMOs in particular have found that people are much more willing to buy an expansion with new levels and stuff to do rather than just another title with a new selection of areas, and the overall path of sequels and releases seems to reflect that fact. And what seems sufficiently sequel-ish will be in the eye of the beholder.

For today’s work-from-home assignment, try to unpack whether Guild Wars is a sequel to Diablo II. That one will be fun.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.
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