The Game Archaeologist: The danger of expecting lightning to strike twice

It's no secret that many of the more successful Kickstarter projects over the past few years have heavily capitalized on player nostalgia, brand names, and former dev gods who are back for another round. The formula for drawing in the big bucks seems to be the following: Take something players hugely loved back in the day, dangle the concept of a sequel (spiritual or otherwise), and promise some measure of iterative improvement.

I once wrote about how we really can't go back again to recreate a particular game experience because it was usually a confluence of several factors that were related to where the industry was then and where you were then. I'm not saying that there isn't value to retro gaming, playing classic MMOs, or involving the past in future development! But there is a danger in how we as gamers become so beholden to our nostalgia that we dare lightning to strike twice -- and we're paying big bucks to see that happen.

But can we? Will it?

"Do it again, devs!"

To keep the excitement alive during the long development process, many developers of these retro-sequel projects continually retweet testimonies from fans regarding their love of the original game. Richard Garriott is fond of doing this, and his recent retweet from TheDigitalMoose prompted the formation of this week's column:

"You mad[e] my childhood amazing and [I'm] looking forward to you doing it again," he wrote. "Thank you for doing what you do."

On the surface this is a nice compliment and an expression of enthusiasm. I can get behind that. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this tweet was symptomatic of a larger problem that lurks on the threshold of this new Kickstarter MMO generation -- namely, players aren't just hoping that developers can prompt the same feelings, love, and invested passion with this new project that they did with a classic long ago; they're more or less demanding it. And since they have a monetary investment in these projects, this above statement and others like it could be read as a threat:

If you don't make a game that will make me feel amazed just how I did back then, I will turn on you. If you can't live up to your promises and whatever desires in my head that I'm projecting on this game, it will end badly for you.

In other words, do it again, devs -- or else.

Chasing that digital dragon

I'm a little concerned about this because I know how the gamer group mindset operates and how we as a community love to chase these powerful feelings that former titles produced in us. There's the giddiness of entering an MMO for the very first time, and while that can never be reproduced, perhaps an alt or an extended absence and return might produce a lesser jolt of the same feeling. There's the love of a game world that drives us to look for other games that have a similar focus.

In my view, it all comes down to reasonable expectations and an attitude of contentment. The truth is that no matter what developers you assign to a project, no matter what they promise during the fundraising campaign, no matter how hard you try to mentally glue your hopes and dreams on a game, it's just not going to be the same thing. A historical recreation isn't like actually being present at a certain point in time; it's just a facsimile trotted out to evoke old feelings or new understanding. It's a fool's endeavor to try to rebuild exactly what was.

And the thing is, few of these devs are doing that. I look at projects like Star Citizen, Shroud of the Avatar, and Camelot Unchained, and I see devs that are taking core concepts from the past and being smart about marrying them to updated ideas and new approaches. Personally, I think Pantheon's failing during its campaign came from a dev who is so stuck in the past that he's trying to make the same game he's done twice already without any steps forward.

Despite what I hear from time to time from players who claim they want the same game with modernized graphics, I don't think that's the truth at all. We want to move forward. We want to see games take all of the little innovations that have proven to be better than what we had in the past and incorporate them into the legacy of former game design excellence.

Lessons already learned

Stepping away from crowdfunding for a second, let's look at the example of Champions Online. Here was a promising "spiritual successor" to City of Heroes made by the same studio only this time with better graphics and an actual IP (however little-known it was). City of Heroes was a modest hit for its time and quite beloved, so it stood to reason that Champions would be even better.

But sequels being sequels and games being games, merely standing on the shoulders of past achievements doesn't guarantee future success. Champions Online was rather lackluster and failed to capture the same affection and fandom that CoH did. You could attribute many factors to this, including the state of the industry when each game released, but Cryptic showed us that having most all of the same ingredients and the same chefs could indeed result in one superior product and one lackluster one. On paper, Champions should have improved upon City of Heroes. In reality, it couldn't match up.

And when you have even fewer ingredients? Well, let's just say that I'm not exactly holding my breath in anticipation of the scads of CoH tributes in the making. I admire the spirit and moxie, but anyone expecting final products that can fill the exact gap left behind by the former superhero MMO will undoubtedly be in for great disappointment.

Hear what they're saying, not what you wish they were saying

Garriott wouldn't say that Shroud is Ultima Online 2, but he'll certainly welcome favorable comparisons and connections from fans who want to jump on board because of what he made in the past. The problem here comes from some players who have unreasonable expectations that the devs must make lightning strike twice.

A much better approach would be to take what the dev is actually telling you will happen without personal embellishments and to evaluate the final product based on its own merit and lacking any nostalgic baggage. Devs sometimes like to talk big, but they also know that their statements can come back to bite them, so they've started to get smarter about what they say. I'm finding that more and more as of late the anger and venom that emerges is usually due to fans projecting their own wishes on a project rather than actually listening to what is being said.

New isn't always better. Some of these games will disappoint. Some will even bomb. That's what happens in this industry across the board. But if we're willing to grow up, to move forward with a new generation of games without throwing temper tantrums that it must be exactly as it was in the past (just with a higher polygon count), I think we could find a great deal of contentment for our future.

When not clawing his eyes out at the atrocious state of general chat channels, Justin "Syp" Olivetti pulls out his history textbook for a lecture or two on the good ol' days of MMOs in The Game Archaeologist. You can contact him via email at or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.
This article was originally published on Massively.