Sequels and Remasters: sucking the marrow from your bones

Something others have said, but might be worth a take on, is that sequels and remakes are what the industry does when it doesn’t know what else to do. Remasters especially epitomize this, seeing as you essentially have the game already. But if you’re wondering why, the answer is very simple: because pencil-pushers only know what worked before.

This phase of the video game cycle is pretty much a distillation of why I have a distaste for pencil-pushers, so it’s worth breaking it down.

It sold before

Pencil-pushers don’t know what makes a game good. Full stop. They only know what previously sold well, and because math is not art, they will decree that whatever sold well needs to keep being made until it stops selling well. Which is the point we’re at, where pencil-pushers are nervously tugging their collars, because they have no idea what might actually sell well when that happens. The limit of their creativity more or less boils down to "that, make exactly that again!" It’s desperate flailing. They figure you bought Horizon: Zero Dawn on the PS4, so they really, really hope you’ll buy it again on the PS5 if they can hire a few artists to make it marginally prettier. Never mind you can PLAY it on the PS5; they just really hope that pretty sells. And it sadly quite often does.

That’s also why sequels come crawling out of the woodwork that don’t actually add anything, like Jedi: Fallen Order Again. They figure if you liked it before, you might still like more of exactly that. Nothing gets iterated on because that would change what sold before. "Exactly that, but…" introduces uncertainty, and pencil-pushers hate uncertainty. And then you have remakes that maybe change quite a lot on the surface like Dead Space that solve what to iterate on by making the silent protagonist talk and not much else. Which is to say they put quite a lot of effort into making a game that "suits modern tastes," but didn’t actually need a remake. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a silent protagonist; it lets you project on them. That can lead to you being invested in different, but equally valid ways.

These are a holding pattern, like an airplane circling the airport waiting for something else to take off so they can land on the runway, fuel up, and take off in the exact same direction. Once something is successful, the pencil-pushers are going to all breathe a sigh of relief and point at whatever it is and say "make that." Maybe that’s going to be a risk that one of them ventures, but most likely it’s going to be something that blows up in the indie sphere, because indies have the freedom to be creative.

Why are you like this!?

The easy answer for why pencil-pushers have such a stranglehold on the creative industry is because creatives at some point need someone to tell them "no." Creatives have tons of cool ideas and not all of them can be in one project. At some point you need to start distilling it down and some of the most interesting stories of gaming industry failures, the Duke Nukem Forevers and such, are stories of creatives without any limits. This is incompatible with finite money. You see this in all sorts of things, like how Nolan Bushnell was pushed out of Chuck E. Cheese when he started borrowing against it during its initial success to pursue projects that simply didn’t pan out. They brought in a pencil-pusher who took one look at everything and said "no" and started trying to shore up the core business based on what had worked. This ultimately was valuable short-term.

The problem only starts when these pencil-pushers overstay their welcome. "No" is a leash. If it’s a leash in the hand of someone who knows how to move forward, it can be incredibly valuable, even long-term. But pencil-pushers don’t know how to move forward, so they tend to strangle the creatives even when the creatives choose a good direction. Because they don’t know what a good direction looks like. The pencil-pusher sees the world as one big cliff except where they’re standing. They don’t see the rainbow bridges to places of wonder and success that creatives do; they see stable ground under their feet and nothing else. Maybe that ground is slowly eroding, but until they’re standing on one toe, stable is stable. It’s not until someone else builds a solid bridge TO them that they can cross, because a solid bridge doesn’t require the leap of faith a rainbow bridge does.

Games have largely let the pencil-pushers take over and the pencil-pushers have overstayed their welcome. Much of this is because they’re in positions of power. As much criticism as I have of Nintendo, the biggest thing I APPLAUD them for is having creatives in those positions. Nintendo takes risks. Sometimes you get the Virtual Boy or Wii U; sometimes you get the Game Boy or Switch. That’s why Nintendo is still making both hardware and software when SEGA isn’t. (SEGA is a LONG story, but the gist is that SEGA of Japan stopped trusting SEGA of America and made a bunch of very poor business decisions trying to minimize the risk of the upstart PlayStation in a market it didn’t understand.) The key here is that one has to accept that with a creative soul in charge, there will be great successes and great failures, but it will always be great. Pencil-pushers are put in charge when things are on a backswing to get the pendulum swinging back toward the center, but as soon as it gets there, it stops dead, ejecting whoever was expecting it to still be a swing. And it stays there as the world passes it by. Because that’s what pencil-pushers DO. They bring you to stability. That’s what they’re hired for. It’s just that nobody seems to get rid of them afterward when they can afford a little swinging again.

Basically, pencil-pushers are doing exactly what they’re supposed to. It’s the job they’re meant for. It’s like medicine: sometimes you need it and it makes you better, but then if you don’t stop taking it, you can swing all the way around to slowly poisoning yourself.

So why are we here?

Because live services are collapsing. They flooded the market and the market could only support a few of them. Ultimately, the industry can only support a small handful of one thing at a time, especially anything that requires a major time commitment. But the industry is full of pencil-pushers all chasing the audience for one thing. People have finite time and money and the industry doesn’t account for that because they assume that people will choose their offering over all the others. It’s like everyone rushing to a buffet to grab the mashed potatoes, but once all the mashed potatoes are scooped up, they’re gone. And rather than go for the baked potatoes, or green beans, or popcorn chicken, the pencil-pushers all crowd around the mashed potatoes and ONLY the mashed potatoes, screaming about how their plate is the best, but there are no mashed potatoes left; they’re screaming at air.

But the chef just came out to tell them there are no more mashed potatoes. So all of them are waiting for some indie to take a baked potato and mash it in the skin with some bacon bits, chives, sour cream, butter, and cheese so they can collectively scream, "WAIT, YOU CAN DO THAT?" and all rush to the baked potatoes and mash them with none of the rest of that stuff and act like "mashed baked potatoes in skin" is the new hotness and be proud of themselves because it’s good enough, but they don’t understand what made the first one great.

But in the meantime, all of them are looking at the corncobs left on their plates from corn on the cob and hoping that if they salt it a little, they can have more corn. Because corn was wonderful when there was corn. It doesn’t matter if there’s really all that much more corn or not; they maybe can suck on the flavor and get a few kernels they missed and gnaw on the cob itself and it’s almost like having a little corn again.

The more they can gnaw on (the corn cobs, the drumstick bones, the ice cubes from their drink), the less it looks like they’re starving in the middle of a buffet. Because nobody likes to look stupid, but none of them ever learns, either. Because learning might mean they find something wonderful like the baked fish or it might mean something not so great like the sketchy boiled-down gravy that’s been sitting there since opening. And nobody wants to be in the position of everyone pointing and laughing when they find the sketchy gravy when everyone else is chewing on their "fine, but not great" corn cobs.

And maybe the gravy would’ve been the perfect thing to go with the mashed potatoes if they’d just gotten to it hours ago, but it’s not now, because sometimes a thing can be the right thing at the wrong time. And maybe the gravy is terrible for the mashed potatoes at this point, but it’s the perfect thing to go with the potato wedges to really get it to stick to them, but nobody is looking at the potato wedges. Maybe they collectively decided there WEREN’T any potato wedges, even when the potato wedges never went away or got refilled. Maybe they decided the potato wedges were gone when someone pointed out the mashed potatoes. Maybe give things a few minutes and they’ll all be shocked that there were potato wedges all along that went fantastically with the sketchy gravy and potato wedges will be "in" again, even if the gravy totally escapes them.

None of this changes the fact that all of them are crowded around an empty tub of what used to be mashed potatoes looking for someone else to show them what to do, chewing on chicken bones and corncobs and ice until someone does it because none of them wants to take a chance on looking stupid.

If this sounds like I think pencil-pushers are stupid, in a way, yes, but also no, because they’re really smart about making sure they stay in the buffet and watching for what to take next when something runs out and really good at convincing everyone nobody’s sick of it yet when they have the next one thing. The ones who aren’t even that smart starve to death outright. And in some ways, it can be less embarrassing than a creative in the buffet because the creative in the buffet sees everything, but doesn’t always know what goes well together, so they’re going to put the sketchy gravy on the mint chocolate ice cream and end up heaving in the bathroom sometimes, because not every combination is a winner. But sometimes the sketchy gravy goes on the potato wedges and it’s better than anyone expected, too. And the creatives are there doing all of that all the time, most of them little indies running around with everyone ignoring them, and a lot of the time it’s okay and they just keep going back and eating, but it’s only when someone says "HOLY CRAP THAT’S GOOD" that the pencil-pushers notice and then start loading up their plates with whatever the base ingredient of that is, which tends to mean the indies don’t get any anymore and have to find something else, but they’re already always doing that; that’s why one of them is already rushing back to the table with baked fish on a Jell-O square. And maybe that sounds like the worst idea ever, but it happens to be a lemon-flavored Jell-O square and it all mostly works out.

Ultimately, both groups are eating, mostly, without starving to death; it’s just the pencil-pushers are ever hungry trying to load up their plates with whatever they can grab whenever they find something they think is good and subsisting in between while the creatives are full Goblin Mode rushing around to take tiny bits of everything all the time and then when they find something good they get a plate piled high with it and eat like a king.

So that’s where we are. Indies are never not going to be rushing around sampling everything and the pencil-pushers are suddenly listening really intently for anything that sounds like "YUM" while they try to suck the last juice out of what they knew was good before, because the thing they were all trying to load up on isn’t something that leaves any juice and now it’s gone.

…I probably shouldn’t write so close to supper.