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Why video game reboots are a good thing

Sometimes there’s a depressing sense that the video game industry is intent on emulating the film industry. A lot of importance is placed on developing intellectual property that can grow into a franchise. This is all about bottom line profit as risk-averse publishers–like risk-averse movie studios–look to suck in consumers with recognition. Once someone is hooked on a series they’re more likely to buy the next installment than a new game they don’t recognize, or so the theory goes.

We get sequels, prequels, and the new favorite way to suck more life out of an existing franchise – the reboot. Take a look at the top ten video game sales chart and you’ll see that it is virtually always dominated by franchises. Is this really because people are only interested in buying titles they recognize, or is it because the publishers are plowing megabucks into promoting their franchises because they offer a better return on investment? It’s probably a little of both.

Tipping Point

In Hollywood all franchises seem to have a tipping point when the law of diminishing returns kicks in and the sequels just degenerate. This doesn’t really apply to games in the same way. A lot of video game franchises don’t tell a coherent chronological story. They aren’t tied down in the same way as movies are. The Grand Theft Auto series is a good example, you’ve got a set of stories in the same world but they are only loosely related.

Whenever a franchise begins to get stale, it is free to change direction quite dramatically. It’s not unusual for new entries in a series to be handled by a completely different developer. They often end up with very little other than a couple of themes and a title in common. In fact it’s not unusual for games to start out with one identity and end up with another by the time they are released. A lot of games are retro-fitted to franchises and some even go the other way and start out as part of a franchise before being split off to become something new. Assassin’s Creed was going to be a Prince of Persia sequel, for example.

The Case for Reboots

There’s actually a lot to be said for reboots rather than sequels, prequels, or remakes. Sequels and prequels are a real challenge, even for great writers, because they have to fit with what came before. Remakes don’t offer a new creative team the room to reimagine characters and situations. Reboots let them pick up on the essence of what made the original great, but to take it in a fresh direction and make it appealing or relevant for the new generation.

While films may become dated and harder for new audiences to connect with, the problem with classic games is much more severe. We can educate the new generation about the awesome titles of yesteryear, but many classic games are inaccessible to them. It’s not just that the graphics are hopelessly dated, though they definitely are. The original platforms they were designed for are obsolete. The control methods are long gone. The game mechanics themselves have been built upon and often improved over the years.

In short, they will never play the original games (with the exception of specific titles chose for an HD re-release), and if they do the experience will not be the same as it was for people at the time. We can’t expect them to feel the thrill we felt on coming face-to-face with the G-man in Half-Life, tangling with Psycho Mantis in Metal Gear Solid or reuniting with Zelda in the Ocarina of Time. Video games date fast and while addictive hooks and clever mechanics never completely lose their appeal, they can’t hope to have the same impact on a new generation.

They’re Nothing New

A few high profile reboots like the forthcoming Tomb Raider game have projected the reboot topic into the public arena and everyone has ideas about which games they would–and wouldn’t–like to see new versions of. The thing, is reboots are nothing new in games. As mentioned before, each new GTA release is effectively a reboot. The same is mostly true of franchises like Super Mario, Civilization, and Final Fantasy.

They all take the principles of the original, the essence of it, and create something new without necessarily being constrained by the original rules. It often results in great new games and it breathes new life into franchises that desperately need it.

Reboots Are a Win, Win for Publishers

No matter how popular a series is people will only buy the same game so many times. We need new iterations to offer something new. Reboots are the ultimate fence sitting act for publishers. They get to appeal to fans of the original franchise and build on all that recognition, but they also get to pull in newcomers and take the game in a different direction. The risk of some innovation is mitigated by the existing fan base.

What About New IP?

It would undoubtedly be nice to see more original IPs being given a chance. Getting funding for a new game with a unique premise that can’t be summed up in a sentence by saying something like “It’s a mercenary racing game that’s a cross between Mario Kart and Call of Duty!” is very hard.

Franchises do at least provide a solid base for publishers to potentially invest in the odd new property. The bitter truth is they make far more money with established franchises than they do with entirely new properties, and most people are hesitant to splash the cash on the latest indie release no matter how enticing the concept.

If we’re stuck with sequels, prequels, remakes, and clones–and make no mistake we are–then the reboot is the best of the bunch. It offers something for newcomers, a fresh angle for old fans, and room for developers to experiment. Sure it can be soul destroying to play a disastrous release that shatters precious gaming memories, but when it works everyone is happy.