The Tyranny of Success

Borderlands 2

A game can be made for any number of reasons. Games are made for profit, fun, learning, and self-fulfillment. Yet, there’s one fat white whale that each game chases down; success. Every developer, whether it’s a starry-eyed sole indie developer on his laptop or an insecure visionary heading a large company, strives to reach the cultural tipping point that puts their game on the map as a true success.

Successful games have an aura about them. I’m not just talking financially successful games either. Critically-acclaimed games dominate the headlines and can even shift the industry. Hell, it’s been months since Skyrim’s release and it’s still making waves. Arguably, if it weren’t for Minecraft, indie games would still be in the shadows, without a bearded leader.

Success comes at a price though.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3For one, it gets the ball rolling for an inundation of sequels. The wave of acclaim that followed the first Modern Warfare pretty much cemented the fact that a Modern Warfare 2 was coming, and a Modern Warfare 3 would come after that.

When Borderlands became a sudden success, we pretty much knew that Borderlands 2 would eventually follow. This goes for almost every franchise out there now. The success of the flagship game can force a company’s hand and lead to the development of safe bets rather than novel ideas. Then for each game that comes out in that franchise, we get word that the horizon is simply expanding and the game universe is being elaborated upon. That’s great and all but when we get a year full of three-quels like 2011, it gets a little old.

A successful game can hurt a developer as much as help it. Success can shelter developers and give them a comfort zone that they dare not breach. Why be groundbreaking in a whole new way when you’ve gotten quite good at creating new situations for familiar faces? Why gamble with gameplay or genre innovation when you can just create another Halo with better graphics?

When a developer finally hits the top of the charts with a success story, they’re shackled to it until they can break free with a bigger success that comes with a heavier chain.

Successful games don’t just enslave their developers, they also enslave the rest of the industry. Frequently, they inspire copycat games, which eventually water down the affected genres. One game has a binary morality system and it does well enough that for years onward we get overrun with black and white morality systems.

Sandbox Games

Look at how well the modern Grand Theft Auto model has done after GTA III’s release. Prototype, inFAMOUS, Saints Row, Crackdown, The Saboteur, and Assassin’s Creed are all descendants. The sandbox genre just won’t let up. They’re all a little same-y, but damn good when done correctly.

On the other side of things, some games have unexpected success and do break free of the mold. They aren’t sequels and they aren’t trend followers. Games like Demon’s Souls carve their own path through it all. Demon’s Souls is special in that it hasn’t truly been copied since its release.

And yet, it’s managed to spawn its own sequel. Time will tell if From Software ends up running multiple sequels off this success the same way it’s done for Armored Core. The way things are going, we may end up with a Dark Demon’s Souls somewhere down the line.

Further from the AAA sensations that I’ve mentioned already, we come to something that’s truly become one of the biggest video game phenomenons of all time.

NotchNotch’s Minecraft has been amazingly successful. It’s spawned countless copycats, it’s made Notch into the face of the indie gaming scene, and it’s probably the most widely covered game on YouTube. Every time I mention Notch, you probably picture a smiling bearded man with a cool hat. That or his Twitter picture.

Though Minecraft is Notch’s biggest success, it’s also a bit of a thorn in his side.

Quite simply, Notch is known for Minecraft. This gives Notch the unfortunate task of measuring up to it every time he goes on to work on a new project. Every single article you read that mentions Notch’s new projects will end up comparing them to Minecraft. Even GAMElitist is guilty of this. It’s simply unfair.

Notch has even said that he wishes Minecraft was a success later in his career simply because every game he makes will simply wither beside it. The bar is set extremely high.

“It kind of feels like whatever I do next is never going to be as big. I’m kind of worried about everything feeling a bit pointless and hollow compared to the success of Minecraft.”

Minecraft is an early magnum opus that will continue to burden its developer for many years. I fearfully await the day when Notch gets back on the wagon and decides to just make a new, super Minecraft. Something that threads all of the world’s servers, allowing truly limitless discovery and player interaction.

Then we come full circle, back into the spinning disk of sequelitis.

Success is a siren beckoning seductively at every developer. Reach it and you’ll be rewarded but you’ll never be free.