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Video games: stuck on repeat

While thumbing my way through the news feed on my mobile during my commute one morning (which I’ve since stopped doing because I’m sick of reading about Fallout 76 and Red Dead Redemption all the time), I came across an article about the best-selling games of 2018. I thought I’d have a quick scan to see which titles had made the list and something struck me: almost every single entry was either a sequel or one featuring characters from an existing franchise.

Coincidentally, a few days later Chris from OverThinker Y tweeted a link to an article he’d contributed to Obilisk called Modern-Day Gaming: Are There No More Good Ideas? He wrote: “It’s tempting to ask, [looking at a best-selling video games list], whether there just aren’t any more good new ideas. Perhaps every decent spark of imagination has been used up, and we’ve got all the stories we’re going to get: everything from here on out is derivative, friends, so get yourself a stiff drink and make the most of it.”

Both of these events got me thinking. If there’s one thing I’ve got a real fondness for (not counting Monkey Island, ice-cream or kittens obviously) it’s a well-crafted spreadsheet. The last time I did any real kind of video-game data-analysis was back in June when I looked at our understanding of the term ‘retro’ in a post dedicated to Brandon from That Green Dude – so I think it’s time to bust out the formulas once again. Prepare yourself for bar charts and line graphs, readers!

Background

When planning this experiment, I began by collecting data from the past ten years since 2009. It wasn’t long however before I decided to extend this to 11 as I wanted to see whether world events such as the financial crisis in 2008 had had any effect. Here’s where my data came from:

  • VGChartz: the 100 best-selling games globally across all platforms each year from 2008 to 2018
  • Metacritic: the 100 top-rated games across all platforms each year from 2008 to 2018
  • Wikipedia: for information to help determine the category for each title in the above lists

  • I’m aware of concerns around the accuracy of data published by these websites, but they’re the most easily-accessible sources available on the internet so I’ve worked with them to make this experiment as simple as possible. However, it’s worth noting there may be some errors when it comes to the releases which appear on the best-selling and top-rated lists as a result. The information obtained from Wikipedia enabled me to place each title into one of the following four categories:

  • Sequel: a direct sequel to a game in an existing franchise, but not ‘spiritual successors’
  • Spin-off: new games featuring characters from existing franchises, as well as DLC releases
  • Port / remakes: ports of existing games, remasters, re-releases and ‘complete’ editions
  • New IPs: first instalments and new standalone games that don’t fall into any of the categories above

  • It was necessary to check and classify a total of 1,569 titles in order to consolidate the data for analysis. As you can imagine, a lot of manual work was involved and there could therefore be some errors in my categorisation choices. I’m confident in the findings overall however; and anyone who’d like to check the figures for themselves is welcome to download a copy of my spreadsheet. Simply change the category for an entry on the ‘Game catalogue’ worksheet and everything else will update automatically.

    Hypothesis

    As mentioned above, my feeling when reading the article about the best-selling games of 2018 was that the overwhelming majority of them were sequels. This was confirmed by Chris in his Obilisk post: he noted that the first new IP in the list for this year was at number 21 (Detroit: Become Human) so the rest of the top 25 were either direct sequels or spin-offs. Alongside our opinions, the community’s general feeling is that we’ve started to see more ports and remasters over recent years.

    The cynical among us are likely to say this all comes down to money. Remakes are an extremely attractive proposition to publishers: developing them is far less expensive than creating an entirely new IP and such releases have the potential to be brought to market far quicker. And as is the case with sequels too, they don’t have so much risk attached; they already have an established fanbase along with a proven sales record, so you know they’re going to bring in the cash.

    But is it true that an increase in non-new-IPs is happening and if so, why? It would be interesting to compare the best-selling and top-rated lists with a breakdown of all titles released during the same eleven-year period to see if there’s a connection but this is almost impossible. As I wrote earlier this year, 7,672 games were released on Steam alone in 2017 – and checking SteamSpy’s figures for 2018 at the time of drafting this post revealed that this amount has increased to 8,883 so far this year.

    It’s therefore necessary to stick with VGChartz and Metacritic alone because classifying more than 1,500 titles has been time-consuming enough (but if anyone wants to employ me to do the same for all new releases over the past decade, give me a shout). We’ll still have plenty detail to reveal some intriguing insights however, so let’s now jump into the nitty-gritty next and see what we can find out. Bring on the graphs!

    Findings

    Are most best-selling video games sequels? The figure has dropped slightly to 59 for 2018 but the answer is still a resounding ‘yes’. From 2008 to 2012 the number in the top-100 increased significantly and, although there was a dip until 2015, the overall trend shows that sequels are still on a slight rise. Compare this to the top-rated list however and there’s a contrast: the number of follow-ups here has dropped to its lowest at 24 and the trend shows a rather large decline in the past 11 years.

    So perhaps sequels may sell particularly well, but they don’t always fare so positively when it comes to the reviews. Although such releases accounted for 46% of all games that made up my data and surely resulted in a hefty profit for publishers, only a quarter of them made it onto both the best-selling and top-rated lists from 2008 to 2018. We’ve all got a story about a series we fell in love with and then a follow-up we disliked (I’m looking at you once again, Fable III).

    It’s once again a story of two sides for new IPs. There are only 12 in this year’s best-selling list and an overall decrease since 2008 is evident. There is some good news however because such releases are more likely to appear on top-rated lists: although they accounted for only 16% of all games in my data set, there were 21 for 2018 alone and the trend shows this is on the rise. Although we may be less quick to purchase a new title, it seems that we’re more likely to adore them when we do.

    Perhaps the most interesting thing shown by this analysis though is what’s happening when it comes to ports and remakes. The trends show an increase in such games appearing on the best-selling and top-rated lists over the past 11 years; indeed, such games stand at their highest points in both groups for 2018 (23 and 48 respectively). Publishers will be understandably happy about this as remasters and the like come with guaranteed money but why are we as consumers lapping up releases which technically, we’ve already played before?

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    Conclusion

    In October 2017, PC Gamer published the results of a survey in connection with developers’ opinions on Steam and it’s no surprise that ‘the Upcoming Games list is becoming useless’ appeared in the top-ten issues reported. The higher the number of games released on the platform, the more discoverability among gamers becomes an issue for creators. Public relations (PR) activities such as promotion and building a community before the launch of a title are therefore increasingly important.

    These tasks are made so much easier when that game is a sequel or remake with an existing fanbase, and publishers like this low-risk approach. As written by Chris: “You don’t have to win people over, to convince them that something will be worth loving, or even explain to them what the thing is, which is half the trouble of marketing a product people aren’t already familiar with… all you really have to do is remind the fans that the thing they already love exists, and just sort of gently suggest that perhaps they might want to spend money on deluxe editions of a new instalment of that thing.”

    Publishers aren’t the only ones who love sequels and remasters however. When I was in secondary school all those years ago, I remember a history teacher telling my class about cinema’s role during World War I. He explained that movies were a form of escapism for those living through those turbulent times: a source of laughter and fantasy, an antidote to the anxieties of their lives for a short period. Isn’t this just what video games have become to us today?

    I’m not saying the present here in the UK is anywhere near as terrifying as the war, but with so much uncertainty in today’s world it’s not wonder we look for distractions to make us feel better. Video game sequels and remasters provide us with a warm comfort-blanket of nostalgia – a word derived from Greek terms meaning ‘returning’ and ‘suffering’ – reminding us of golden times past. They give us the opportunity to forget about all that’s negative around us take a brief respite in a digital land.

    With events such as the 2008 financial crisis and 2016 Brexit vote, the reasons above could go some way towards explaining why we’ve seen an increase in non-new-IPs in the past 11 years. They could also help us understand why so many of the new IPs within my data set seem to be party titles: collections of simple mini games that don’t take so much effort to produce or play, and which we can gather with friends and family over for an evening of distraction.

    So what does this mean for the future? With so many sequels, spin-offs, ports, remakes and ultimate editions – games which are essentially ‘safer bets’ for publishers – it does make we worry that original IPs don’t always get the attention they deserve. But, as said by Chris: “Creators, though, are continuing to prove it’s possible to create something that’s truly worth experiencing despite this, and I have faith in the ability of people to carry on doing what people do: rearranging the glass into something beautiful.”

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    Kim | Later Levels View All

    Video game lover, Later Levels blogger and SpecialEffect volunteer. Big fan of wannabe pirates and fine leather jackets.

    26 thoughts on “Video games: stuck on repeat Leave a comment

    1. Great analysis, you really went above and beyond here! My friend Tom, who also makes spreadsheets for fun (including an excellent random insult generator, the Insultatron 2000) would be proud.

      Sequels are very prevalent in the more business-focused end of the industry for the reasons you describe above. If a company is spending millions on a new release, it’s best that it has some brand recognition to bring on board the people who have played the old ones and perhaps a few new ones along the way. (This can also backfire, however; I know I’ve never really got on board with Assassin’s Creed because I felt like I’d fallen too far behind to ever “catch up” with the series!)

      However, an important thing to remember is that neither critically well-received nor best-selling are the be-all and end-all of gaming, just like in any other medium. If we look at the games I’ve covered over the last few years, for example — many of which had poor critical reception from “professionals” but ended up being widely appreciated and enjoyed by the actual fanbases they were targeted at — then there’s a lot more in the way of original work.

      Sequels to established franchises still happen, of course — the Senran Kagura and Hyperdimension Neptunia series are probably the most prevalent in that regard across modern Japanese games, outside of obvious long-running series like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest — but smaller developers have the luxury of being able to experiment a bit more and still be a success. In their case, there’s an element of people being loyal to the company’s output rather than a specific franchise — I know I always enjoy RPGs from Compile Heart, for example, regardless of whether they’re Neptunia games or not.

      As always, it’s easy to get cynical about the most visible side of gaming — particularly, as you say, due to the sheer amount of bloody RDR2 and Fallout 76 articles out there, because clicketyclicketyclick — but remember to step off that beaten track once in a while and it’s easy to rediscover the joy of new and exciting things!

      Like

      • A random insult generator spreadsheet… why didn’t I think of that? *bows down to Tom’s greatness*

        You’ve picked up on something important here that I didn’t mention in the post and really should have: the data obtained from Metacritic was based on critic score. If I’d had more time, I would have loved to include user score in the mix also to see what the differences were – I have a feeling we’d get a much broader range of games. Actually, I might use that idea for a post in the new year!

        I get what you mean about loyalty. There are a few adventure game developers who I’d buy any new games from regardless of whether or not they were sequels because, as Ian mentioned below, I have confidence that I’m going to enjoy them. One of my resolutions for next year however is to step outside the genre more often so hopefully I’ll be able to look back this time in 2019 and say I stuck to it. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

    2. I personally am not bothered by the whole sequel thing. For me, I love to see the franchises I fell for as a kid still around around today and releasing great titles. Sure, technically every Zelda or Mario or Pokemon is a “sequel” and not an original IP, but 9 times out of 10 they still knock it out of the park. I enjoy seeing reinterpretations of familiar themes and having confidence that the game I’m purchasing is more than likely going to appeal to my sensibilities!

      Like

      • This is a side of the argument I didn’t cover in this post so you’ve given me something to think about. Perhaps it’s not only publishers who want to have confidence that the game is going to sell; gamers also want a similar confidence that they’re going to enjoy it. And with new releases costing as much as they do (not a comment on whether they’re overpriced!), I can totally understand that.

        Liked by 1 person

    3. Very well done. Personally I think part of the problem is cost. Games have gotten expensive so people don’t like to spend money on games when they don’t know what to expect. They know what they are getting from a Red Dead title or a Final Fantasy. A new IP regardless of how much promise it shows can still be very bad.

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      • Now that’s certainly true, and it’s rare I’ll pick up a game as soon as it’s released so I get the benefit of seeing what the general reception is. It’s not so much the money factor for me but more the time: I don’t want to end up wasting the few spare hours I do have in the week playing something I won’t like.

        I think it’s important to keep an open-mind though, as Pete mentioned above. I’ve purchased titles regardless of the criticism they’ve received and have thoroughly enjoyed them!

        Like

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