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How do you grow a series mechanically?

How do you make a sequel to a mechanically complete game?

Batman: Arkham Asylum hit upon a way to make a really good Batman game, a game that mixed stealth and combat with gadgets in order to make you feel like the Bat. Batman: Arkham City took that formula and put it in an open world environment, making the game less linear and letting you feel like the protector of a city and not just like the strongest patient in the asylum.


They are both really strong games.

The problem subsequent Batman games had to then deal with then is this: what now? Because while I have problems with Arkham City it didn’t feel like it had any huge mechanical gaps that subsequent games could fill in. It felt like it had a robust mechanical vocabulary for making the player feel like Batman, it felt complete. So what can you add to the sequels (other than game breaking bugs and frame rate issues)?

Batman: Arkham Origins tried expanding on the detective part of Batman’s identity, which was interesting, but also would only take up a very small fraction of the gameplay. It could only happen in certain predetermined scenes, also it was holding your hand the whole time which made it feel less like you were solving the crime and more like you were watching Batman solve the crime (which is still neat). The rest of the game was considered at best a rehash of the previous 2, though it received much lower review scores that either.

Batman: Arkham Knight has added the Batmobile, or rather the Bat-Tank. On the playable versions of the game (which isn’t all of them as one might think) the Bat-Tank has not been well received, even in reviews that in generally praise the game spare a paragraph or two to either condemn or be bewildered by its inclusion. Batman already had zero problems getting around the city since he could glide, basically fly, everywhere. Grounding him doesn’t make him more mobile, it makes him less mobile.


Turns out people don’t need a tank to feel like a stealthy creature of the night.


 

 

 

A lot of game series have this problem, you need to make a new game in the series and so NEED to add things to the game in order to sell the game to people who already own the previous versions but there isn’t anything more the game needs. Errant Signal has a great episode that talks about the Tony Hawk series trouble with this problem. Early Tony Hawk games would keep adding mechanics that made the game feel better and more complete, include more ways to string combos together and what not, and by Tony Hawk 3 the game had found a complete mechanical vocabulary for combos and tricks. 

There aren’t 3 Tony Hawk games though, it’s about to release the 10th game in the series and ever since 3 they struggled to keep finding things to add to the game. This results in them adding random things that just diluted what was fun and great about the game to begin wih.


Can I please just get back to the trick combos?

This is Mechanics Creep (some call it Feature Bloat). When you keep adding and adding to a system until it become a bloated unfocused mess. It might retain flashes of great and exciting game play but those moments drift further and further apart as more mechanics are shoved in between them.

Demon Souls has 2 kinds of spells: Magic and Miracles, with a total of 34 spells between them. Dark Souls has 3 kinds of spells: Pyromancy, Sorcery, and Miracles, with a total of 71 spells between them. And Dark Souls 2 has 4 different kinds of spells: Pyromancy, Sorcery, Miracles, and Hexes, with 95 total spells between them (not including DLC spells). Now it is entirely possible that this trend is simply making the game more robust and full featured, that it isn’t simply adding for the sake of adding. And you could be entirely right in saying so, many games early in a series are missing what will become key elements of a series (Tony Hawk is a great example of that) and I’m not here to complain about the Souls series, I’m here to praise Bloodborne.

It is easy to think of Bloodborne as part of the Souls series, in fact I think that is how most people think of it. And it is a seriously great addition to an amazing series. What makes it so great isn't just what it adds to the Souls formula though, it is also what it took away. It took away shields (not entirely, but they are not effective at all in Bloodborne) and spells in order to add the bullet system and a much faster and more aggressive combat system. It isn’t just the previous game plus more of those things in a new setting, the game leaves behind as much as it takes with it which allows it to make a completely fresh game that has 0 clutter and doesn’t struggle to distinguish itself from the rest of the series.

When I first heard about Batman: Arkham Origins this is what I thought was going to happen to the Batman games. Not another Batman game plus new mechanics but a Batman game minus mechanics that let us fix some of the fundamental problems the game has been struggling with and put a new/different focus on core elements. They couldn’t figure out what to add to the game without breaking it and so they were going to experiment with removing from the game in order to make something that required the player to play it differently.

I envisioned a game about Bruce Wayne before he was Batman, where he doesn’t have all his gadgets and is still figuring out how he does this whole vigilante thing. Maybe there wouldn’t be detective vision, or maybe you wouldn’t be able to use it for long periods of time because the tech wasn’t complete yet. Maybe he wouldn’t have the cape for gliding around with because he wasn’t even Batman yet, just Bruce Wayne hiding his face. This would make the game more ground level as you aren’t easily gliding over everything, which would make it more about the texture of the city around you (as you can’t just fly over it all and land on the exact spot you want to go to). And since it becomes more about the city it would be a Batman game not just about beating people up but about SAVING people.

A game not about how impossibly strong Batman is, but about how hard it was to become him. In Asylum and City Batman got new gadgets because he remembered he had them and thought that they might finally be useful. He always had them, even had access to them, he just didn’t have them on him for some reason. But in an origin game he could not have things because he hasn’t invented them yet, and the tech could have problems because it haven’t been perfected yet.

Sadly the second I watched the trailer for the game I was quickly disabused of this notion. Turns out they didn’t make a prequel because they wanted to experiment with a weaker Bruce Wanye but because <SPOILERS> they wanted to make the main villain the Joker again and he died at the end of City. Luckily in Knight they figured out a way to have the Joker be dead and still have him in a lot of the game, because god forbid we have a Batman game that doesn’t focus so heavily on the Joker. I mean, it isn’t like Batman has any other interesting villains. </SPOILERS and SARCASM>

Removing a mechanic can shift and evolve a game just as much as adding to it, though it can be much more controversial as different players will enjoy different mechanics in a game. If a game re-focuses on a mechanic that a player doesn’t like by removing one they did then the game stops being fun for them. Bloodborne probably wouldn’t of been as well received by the Souls community if it was called Dark Souls 3 because it was so different. Expectations can color a game and if you were expecting Dark Souls gameplay and got Bloodborne you might be reasonably upset. If you are only expecting something like Dark Souls and got Bloodborne though then the differences might not bother so much, or rather you might be able to go in expecting something a little different and enjoy it for what it is instead of hate it for what it isn’t.


With the announcement of Dark Souls 3 we can also get a chance to see if/how Bloodborne effects the main series. Does it give it a new way forward, or does it free it from going down this path?

But what will kill a series is only adding to it and never removing anything from it, because at some point it will collapse under it’s own weight. The longest running series (Mario, Final Fantasy, Zelda and the like) are games that are happy, eager even, to re-invent themselves. Not always completely, but they change and remove things, not just add them.

Thoughts?

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