Thursday, August 20, 2009

the importance of 2.0

also by the letter g I’ve been playing Loco Roco 2 on and off for awhile now, always inching toward beating it while never actually getting all the way there. As I normally do with games these days, I was looking for the blog post in the game, but nothing was immediately evident – Loco Roco 2 is definitely an improvement on the original, but much of what I said in my write-up still applies. It’s easy-breezy. While gameplay has improved, it is still more notable for its art and attitude than the actual game. Who wants to read about all that stuff again?

What it did get me thinking about was the importance of the revision, not just in games but in most media and technology. The second chance is an opportunity to really examine your product, identify its intrinsic strengths and weaknesses, and expand on the former while shoring up the latter. It’s also important to the establishment of a platform, whether in the form of a solid product line or a game franchise.

I’m hard-pressed to think of anything that wouldn’t benefit from 2.0. The much-loved Windows XP is actually a refinement of the long-forgotten Windows 2000, and the upcoming (and exciting!) Windows 7 is a refinement of the reviled Windows Vista. The first iPod was groundbreaking, sure, but only once Apple added USB and Windows support to later models did the product’s popularity really explode. SuperBabies: Baby Geniuses 2 corrected many of the most glaring flaws of the original Baby Geniuses. The list goes on.

Let’s keep looking at Loco Roco, and also let’s add Patapon to the mix. Both games are cut from the same cloth, stylistic Japanese-flavored oddities with interesting concepts but unavoidable flaws. In addition to the problems I had with the original Loco Roco, I would contend that the original Patapon was hampered by its repetitiveness and its repetitiveness. Loco Roco 2 and Patapon 2 are, largely, the same as their predecessors, but with a bunch of the wrinkles ironed out (to continue with the cloth metaphor). Loco Roco 2 adds a little more variety to the mix of levels, inserts some more interesting boss battles, and lays the cutesy cutscenes on pretty thick. Patapon 2 makes the creation and enhancement of your fighting force more tolerable via a leveling system that is much preferable to the last game, where if you wanted to replace one Patapon with a stronger one you had to kill the weaker one to make room. Gentle tweaks, but in those two cases they probably ended up with the best possible version of the concept.

The thing about refinement is its potential. Take Army of Two as an example. Rob and I, as you’ve heard, liked it more than we thought we would, and as a result the second game is very much on our radar. If EA can take what was fun about the first game (the bromance, the closer-quarters action sequences) and take out what wasn’t fun (the over-the-top racial profiling, firing down a runway at a hiding enemy’s hairline, the pretense that the game has anything important to say about anything) they’ll have a pretty good action game on their hands.

More storied franchises have done this too – few people care much for the first Mega Man game, but the second game (which Capcom only allowed series creator Keiji Inafune to do if he and his developers did it on the side, in addition to their regular duties) formed the base for a franchise that still releases two or three titles in an average year. Here, however, we see the problems with continuing the approach beyond the second entry in a given series, when there is too much emphasis on refinement and not enough on innovation. Walking the line between alienating people with newness and letting one’s product stagnate is difficult, but it can be done and more people need to learn how.

Have… have I made my point? Basically, I don’t think we should judge a game’s follow-up too harshly for directly copying large chunks of the first game. Innovation is nice, but so is refinement – there has to be a level of change between “none” and “drastic.” It’s when 3.0 looks too much like 1.0 that you start to get yourself in trouble.