Tough acts to follow
The Sims 4 came out just a little while ago, and I like it. It’s had some stuff snipped from it and some other things added in; conversations feel a lot more organic, for one thing, and relationships are thankfully measured along two axes rather than one. It’s solid, in other words. But its biggest competitor is hanging over its head in the form of the third game in the franchise.
I’m not really interested in talking here about what features were removed for this incarnation of the game; by and large, the cuts feel like they were good removals considering what got more development as a result. But I found myself thinking how difficult a road the game has ahead of it based not upon its own merits but simply by virtue of being new. There’s no reason a new game with a new engine can match up to what a predecessor with five years of development has accomplished, and yet it has to do exactly that. It’s a tough act to follow.
In the early days of Magic: The Gathering, the designers faced a similar problem. How would you get players to keep buying new sets of cards after they’d already assembled an ideal deck? The first approach – quickly abandoned after a couple of sets that went down this road – was to ensure that the newest set was the best thing out there. Sure, people would buy, but you wound up in the sort of constant arms race that no one really wanted for gameplay.
A better solution was found in the form of set rotation. Old cards get removed from tournament formats as new cards get added. That means that if you want to stay current, your deck is forever in flux; the combo that worked half a year ago now relies on sets that are not legal for play, and you can no longer just roll up and wreck faces. Sure, that’s not going to stop people from slinging the same old decks out around the kitchen table, but Magic has also done a good job of making competitive events simple enough to access that you can jump in and then step away without being super serious about it; you always have reason to try and stay legal.
The developers realized their big competition was the stuff they’d done years ago. It’s why the second album is the hardest, the second novel seems the weakest, the second episode has the most to lose. You’re competing directly against your last success.
A lot of it depends on how much of the game is giving you space to play around. Mega Man sequels have had the advantage that by the time a new game is coming out, you probably have the last game’s stages memorized. For all the mockery of annual sports games, they contain updated rosters and mechanical tweaks. But compare that to the plight of every new Final Fantasy game, which doesn’t just have to be better than other games on the market, it has to be more beloved in the minds of people who liked the previous games. With 14 numbered titles, sequels, spinoffs, and other materials muddying the water, every new game has to prove itself against everything that came before.
Sometimes it just can’t. I don’t think Final Fantasy IX is a bad game by any stretch of the imagination, but it falls down when being compared to its predecessors. This despite the fact that the game compares favorably with a whole lot of other console RPGs available around that time; put FFIX in a cage match with Legend of Dragoon and it’ll be the unquestioned winner before you finish explaining the rules. The Walking Dead‘s second season got dinged by early reviews comparing it not to other adventure games but to its immediate predecessor. That predecessor had been slowly released over time, it had a complete story arc and a lot of emotional investment.
This is the same problem that fledgling MMOs frequently face. It’s not enough to have your game be ready to go with plenty of content, you have to give players a reason to come play your game instead of the other games that have more content, more update history, and more social inertia. A lot of games can’t quite manage that, not because they’re bad but because they can’t convince people to migrate whole cloth.
The Sims is a particularly egregious case, not just because any new installment is going to be compared to the five years of development on the old one, but because it’s hard to find new ways to tell people “come play me!” The fundamentals of play are the same between The Sims 3 and The Sims 4; there are new things going on, sure, but you are not going to start playing the fourth installment and then throw up your hands in total confusion. And the stuff that the new edition adds – things like more organic conversation structure, more variable and reflective moods, better abilities for your Sims to interact with one another – are all foundational.
You’re still trimming down the list of careers and yanking things like vacations to be rolled out in the future. Sure, when they do get added, they’ll be added to a more robust engine that lets players do a lot more in these environments, and some of the problematic elements can be quietly pruned… but it’s still a big change for players to adapt to for what seems, on the surface, to be very little gain.
No, it’s not a fair comparison, but it’s how we work. It’s the same reason why Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was judged against Star Trek: The Next Generation at first, even though the latter show had gotten five years to spread its wings and find its voice while DS9 was just starting out. We compare what’s current, not equivalent points.
On some level, this is something we can try to change on a conscious level. We can recognize that yes, however much things may have changed since a game first came out, its follow-up is not going to reap all of the benefits of that development time. But it’s also just a result of how games are. We expect a sequel to be better than the last installment in every way, no matter how unrealistic that is.
Sometimes, your biggest enemy is the great thing you did yesterday.