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Pressing the reset button

Since more than a decade, publishers are often tempted to reboot old popular franchises. But are they doing it the right way? There isn't one, but history showed us that it's easy to fall in some traps.

Over the years, and particularly since the popularization of 3D games (gen5-6), we have seen an impressive number of developers and publishers try to reboot some of their franchises, either deemed too old to continue to work with the same old gameplay (sometimes despite their continuous success), or simply having poor sales. And we’re far from having seen the last of those, with more options to do a reboot (mobile, let an indie developer care about it, revive an IP now that’s it considered dead since long enough, etc).

The following post could be thought as common sense for some people, but unfortunately, publishers keep repeating the same mistakes than more than 10 years ago, again and again. At a time where new reboots might be announced, at the Game Awards, the Playstation Experience, and other events (who knows what might happen at E3?), here’s hoping that this could help some developers to remember the basics.

 

Is it really a reboot?

When making a reboot or hearing about one, you might hear this question quite often. If the game is fitting in the storyline of the other games but completely changing mechanics (Metroid Prime for example) or following other games (Call of Duty 4 Modern Warfare), is it really a reboot? If the changes are subtle, but welcome after a long time away from the screens (New Super Mario Bros was the first 2D Mario Bros in years), is it really a reboot?

The fifth generation of consoles led to both reboots and 2D to 3D transitions (some people actually consider Mario 64 as a reboot of sorts), being a lot more confusing than the current gen reboots. A game is usually considered a reboot when it is bringing a game franchise from limbo, modernizing it to appeal to new audiences, while trying to keep what made it popular in the past. It shouldn’t be surprising if the next Star Fox game becomes a part of this debate, or if a returning old franchise follow what its most popular game did, rather than trying to change the formula (will the new Doom do that?).

 

Following trends (or not)

The main problem of failed reboots is easy to spot: it tries to follow trends with little to no thoughts behind it. The last decade was a particularly good example of that, when “dark and gritty” was supposedly the best way to make people care about a game. You probably don’t want to remember games such as Bomberman: Act Zero, Space Raiders, or Final Fight: Streetwise, but they were the perfect example of this problem.

Bomberman Act Zero   Space Raiders

There’s also the obvious problem of following trends in terms of mechanics rather than thematic, and that’s sadly what happened with the recent Dungeon Keeper on mobile, which was already criticized enough for all its changes to the classic formula, by press and gamers alike.

However, this doesn’t mean that following trends is necessarily a bad thing. It “just” needs some reflexion beyond that. The latest Tomb Raider is a good example of that (even if it lost a part of what made the old ones so good, the fanbase widely accepted it), just as Shadow Warrior, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Rayman Origins, or XCOM: Enemy Unknown. All of those games successfully modernized older games, making them more accessible while keeping them close enough to what made people love the originals. It kept the spirit intact.

 

A fanbase problem

Sometimes, defenders of the reboot will try to say that the criticisms behind the game are irrational since they come partly from a harsh and vocal fanbase. But you have to keep in mind one thing: when you are rebooting a game, whether the fanbase admits it or not, it is the userbase that is expecting the most what you are going to do to revive a franchise. If you are doing it correctly, they will help marketing it with their enthusiasm and their passion. If you just don’t care about your fanbase, they will let you know about it, and a lot more than you might think.

Sometimes, you’re really just better off making a new IP than making a fanbase hate this new game, and potentially destroy even more a good franchise, or make this fanbase even more angry, making your next reboot attempt even more difficult. Two good examples come out from this: Devil may Cry and Metroid: Other M. While they aren’t bad games, despite some obvious flaws, their respective fanbase were angry enough to let know all the other gamers and the rest of the internet how those games were bad.
In the former case, Capcom slowly to market the older Devil May Cry 4 a lot more (including it in bundles, fanpages, etc) than the reboot, garnering disappointing sales numbers for Capcom (way less than the previous one), and making Ninja Theory receive a lot of hate mail (or hate tweets?). It also marked the end of Capcom letting external developers produce big budget games with their franchises.
In the latter case, Nintendo, traditionally known for making evergreen titles, has seen this title join pretty quickly the bargain bins, and is carefully thinking about their next move with this series. Yoshio Sakamoto, a key member on this franchise, apparently wants to focus on something else, like the other quirky games he is known for (WarioWare, Tomodachi Life, Rhythm Heaven...).

What is Devil May Cry

Those games would have certainly worked a lot better with a new name in front of it, rather than attracting the rage of its fanbase by disrespecting or misunderstanding what was at the heart of those games (sometimes unvoluntarily).
On the opposite side, a successful reboot like Space Invaders Infinity Gene, Ninja Gaiden, or Kid Icarus: Uprising (which only keeps some basic story) will often be defended by die-hard fans better than any article could. They can convince the rest of the fanbase that this reboot is good because they precisely know what a fan is expecting from a specific franchise.

 

In short: respect the original game; carefully study what made this game popular (it can be just the lore, some gameplay elements, the complete package, or something a lot more complex than that); respect the fanbase and try to read between the lines of what they are trying to highlight (but don’t follow exactly what they want if you want to expand this fanbase); modernize, but don’t follow trends blindly.
Finally, think a long time about the necessity of a reboot. Sometimes, creating something new and letting an old game rest in peace is the best solution.

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