Anyone who knows me knows that my second-favorite hobby (after making sure my fingernails have no white parts) is numerology. You can't use a number over and over again on my watch if you expect me to not take notice. The Games Industry tried to slip a battleship-sized "coincidence" past the public in 2011. Most of you might not have noticed it. I, however, am a Certified Professional when it comes to working with or looking at numbers. Allow me to blow your mind: the following games were all released in 2011:
Gears of War 3
Modern Warfare 3
Super Mario 3D Land
Do you notice the pattern? If not, pay special attention to the bold text in the above list.
That's right—these titles all contain the numeral "3".
What do all of these threes mean? Well, certainly next year is 2012, the year in which Mayans believed the world would end. Also, 3 times 3 is nine. And three threes is "333", which, multiplied by two—another small prime number—is "666", which Christians believe to be a significant number to avoid when having a numeral tattooed onto the back of your hand. (Also, "999", which is "666" upside-down.)
Is The Games Industry pointing the way toward the apocalypse? That's a trick question, and you know it: geologists and naturalists and Carl Sagan alike all say that survival is an exception, and extinction is the rule. Since extinction rules, that means that yes, The Games Industry is pointing the way to the apocalypse. Also, whatever shirt you are wearing while you are reading this is also pointing the way to the apocalypse. If you're topless, that's pointing the way to the apocalypse, too.
Most specifically, I'd say The Games Industry is pointing at its own creative stagnation. A numeral "3" in the title of a game means—sometimes unequivocally—that the makers of the game in question have made two previous games that are more or less the same game. (However, in the case of Super Mario 3D Land, for example, things get fuzzier to define.)
A quick trip over to Metacritic—the convenience store of game review sites—can give us some nifty figures.
Gears of War 3 scores a 91; Gears of War 2 scored a 93.
Uncharted 3 scores a 92; Uncharted 2 scored a 96.
Two examples is probably enough to establish a pattern, though let's pull out a third:
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 scores an 88. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 scored a 94.
That last example really kicks our budding theory into high gear: the difference between a 94 and an 88 is staggering. A "94" says "pretty decent video game for people who don't deserve the absolute best". An "88" says "wait for the bargain bin" or "maybe purchase used if you don't know what to get your grandpa for Old People's Day".
You don't need a graduate degree in mathematics to see that something is wrong. Depending on your point of view, the something that is wrong could be either that reviewers are noobs who wouldn't know a good game if it electrocuted them in their sleep, or that games are getting worse. I don't have either of those points of view, so all I'll do is observe that in general, people don't find things as impressive the third time around.
In the field of film, one particular mantra has survived since basically the dawn of time: sequels suck. Sequels as a concept only became A Thing only after "Let's Go See A Film" had infiltrated the public's collective subconscious as The Thing To Do on the weekends. This took decades of films struggling, surviving, and growing artistically. Psychologists can tell you in a few elegant words that sequels are successful because people yearn for familiarity, even when they're going out of their way (to the cinema) to have an adventure (see a film). They want some guarantee that they're not going to have a horrible time.
Decades pass; the institution of film is polished like a shiny stone, and trailers now figuratively stop one breath short of the announcer saying, "Don't worry: there's a happy ending". I overheard some small group of people saying, earlier this year, of the preview for Real Steel, "Why didn't they just call it ‘Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Robots'?" I wanted to scream at them: because they'd need the license? Because then they'd have to share the money? Because the idea of robots hitting each other isn't necessarily patented? Because the idea of robots hitting one another is cool even if it's not indisputably connected to the name of some easily-breakable toy your neighbor might have had when you were in kindergarten? People scare me—that's why I rarely go outside.
If "sequels suck" on principle, then why did The Godfather Part II win the Academy Award for Best Picture? Because it was a sequel before sequels were "A Thing". It wasn't a cash-in on familiarity, either—they made that film because the story simply wasn't finished with the first film.
Are any video games like that? When we (by which I mean "me") were kids, the rule for game sequels is that they were Always Better. The mechanics got deeper and better as the developers had more time to thoughtfully observe players playing their games. For example, who the heck genuinely likes Street Fighter more than Street Fighter II?
Nowadays, however, with "innovation" being a marketing buzz-word instead of just something that happens naturally, a sequel isn't a guarantee that you're getting a totally fresh experience.
BioWare markets Mass Effect as something of a "The Godfather" — a story that must be told in multiple volumes before it is truly finished —, though I wonder how much of that is smoke and mirrors. I feel like the majority of video game sequels are churned out because—well, because familiarity sells, and also because, "Hey, we have all these triple-A 3D art assets sitting around, and we can reuse at least some of them."
So here's my Metacritic conspiracy-theorizing for the day. My research a few minutes ago yielded a hard and fast rule we can apply to games which sell well enough to encourage the production of two (or more) sequels: The first game in a series scores moderately well enough. The second game scores higher. The third game scores lower.
There are exceptions to this rule. Exceptions are boring! Let's talk about the not-exceptions. Why do I think Part 2s score higher than Part 3s and Part 1s? Simply put, when a Part 1 is super-popular, it develops what we Games Industry Professionals call "A Fanbase". When a publication writes a less-than-praise-screaming review of A Franchise which has A Fanbase, said Fanbase will react with threats of violence or terrorism. They will come right up to this publication's virtual doorstep and demand retractions or apologies, even if—and this is crucial—the publication isn't even one the fanbase had ever heard of before two seconds ago.
For example, the Final Fantasy series has millions of fans. When I wrote the first English-language review on the internet of Final Fantasy XIII, I gave it only two stars. Despite accusations of being a flame-baiting trolling hit-whore, a monster, and a pedophile, my reasons for writing the review were actually because I found the game—and the exercise of forensically dissecting its development process using my own experiences and piecing it together using overheard word-of-mouth anecdotes—near-endlessly fascinating. I reviewed it as a game designer, my audience being fellow game developers. I gave it two stars our of four, which I found a fair score. I also put nearly 18,000 words of meticulous-notes-based-research behind my opinion.
That did not, however, stop me from receiving the following email literally forty-five seconds after the review was posted—literally six hours, fifty-nine minutes, and fifteen seconds before anyone could have possibly finished reading half of my review:
"suck a dikk i hope u burn in hell stop sucking nintendo's dikk fanboi"
There you have it.
Are publications afraid of these people? Sure they are. Should they be? They sure should be! Earlier this year, when I wrote a jokey article about Square-Enix being doomed, some kid found my phone number on the internet and signed me up for literally every solicitation call list in existence. Fans of a thing or an organization are god-darned terrifying. When I wrote my over-the-top joke article about fashion tips I got a series of increasingly irate emails from a kid calling me a "Fat fucking Sony fanboy". How close was he to taking the city bus to Target, buying an icepick, and then beginning the eight-hundred-mile walk to my house? He could still be on his way right now.
In short: publications just can't be giving games low scores if the game title has a "2" or any higher number in the title. A "2" is proof that someone likes your game enough to want to buy it again—and games in general are pretty darn stupid, so if someone likes a game enough to buy two that are pretty much the same thing, we're already millimeters away from proving they possess the wherewithal to literally kill someone for not liking something.
(Note to self: make a game with a "2" in the title without making a "1" first. Metacritic will light up like a Christmas tree.)
When Kingdom Hearts 2 scored 10, 10, 10, 9 in Japan's biggest game magazine Weekly Famitsu, The American Internet was aflame with with aspersions re: that fourth reviewer's sexuality and his place of residence; some kids on GameFAQs.com were talking about organizing a trip to Japan to slit this guy's throat. I wish I were making this up. These are people who can't even read the Japanese text of the review: they're looking at numbers and lighting on fire. Yes—you don't want to mess with these people.
Of course, that's why I mess with these people. It's a great hobby for me. Also, I have recently invested in a lot of turtleneck sweaters, so it'd be harder for my haters to cut through that. However, I'm not sure it's why Simon Parkin messes with these people—I'm pretty sure he wrote this less-than-beautyshocked review of Uncharted 3 because he was being an honest, conscientious critic. If you're currently researching a PhD thesis entitled "Proof That People Aren't Psychos", don't look at the comments thread there, because that'll be all your research down the toilet. I just looked at Mr. Parkin's Twitter page, and (at the time of this writing) he hasn't tweeted in over three hours, so some Uncharted fan probably killed him.
The situation is this: the flaws pointed out in that review—and a few other reviews—of Uncharted 3 have been there since the very first darn game. The character has always been a murderer; the story has always been cripplingly simpleminded; the acting has always been sub-soap-opera quality. Was the reviewer wrong to point any of these things here in the review of the third game in the series? Of course not. Did the fans accuse him of that cardinal critical sin of "nitpicking"? Of course they did. Were the fans in the wrong to complain that these complaints were mere "nitpicks"? Maybe they were; maybe they weren't.
The way I see it, the third game in a series is the time to Do Something Huge or Do The Whole Thing Perfectly. If I ran a video game review web log, I'd make that a rule for my writers: go ahead and be harsher on the third game in a series if it doesn't either Do Something Huge(ly New) or Do The Whole Thing Perfectly.
Speaking even more subjectively—isn't Installment Number Three just about the right time for the developers to stop and think, "Hey, where are we going with this thing, really?" Put another way, isn't it the time to go, "Hey! We're successful and popular! They loved us once and loved us even more the second time! . . . What if they stop loving us?" If there's one thing I've learned from OKCupid.com, it's that they always—always—love you less the third time.
This might be why, say, Ubisoft followed up Assassin's Creed 2 with Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, or why Nintendo followed up The Legend of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link with The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. This is also why they followed up Die Hard 2: Die Harder with Die Hard With A Vengeance. And look at that: all three of those were pretty good threes.
IN WHICH I PASS JUDGMENT
I am not a professional video game critic. If I were, I would be dead. I would have been impaled in the top of the head with a basketball pump three seconds after publishing my third review ever. It probably would have been the editor-in-chief of whatever magazine I wrote for who killed me: how dare I dislike literally everything?
Here's me capsule-reviewing the Big Three Games that came out this year. Spoilers: I didn't like any of them. Even Deeper Spoilers: I liked the first of all of these series more than I liked the second. My brain is obviously more built for marketing job tasks than for criticism.
Battlefield 3: It sures does have a bunch more stuff in it, and the same loving attention to detail poured all over the production quality of the voices yelling at you. As far as schizophrenia simulators go, this one's the most "Here's Another One" yet.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3: In the first one, they detonated a nuclear bomb. It killed the guy you were controlling. In the second one, they made you point a gun and kill innocent people. In the third one, they show a little girl explode. Okay. So the progression is: Dead Soldier < Dead Civilians < Dead Children. In the next one, they're either going to need to involve sexual violence . . . or just, uh, stop?
Gears of War 3: America and The World's Footballiest Third-Person Shooter just got footballier. Unfortunately, that also means more steroids and more scandals (or the digital analogs of those things). With Gears of War, I was like, "This is hilarious: I love this: I appreciate this as a vehicle for air-tight game design and level design". With Gears of War 2 I was like, "This is hilarious: I love this: I appreciate this as a vehicle for air-tight game design and level design which has been carried a little bit further and tweaked lovingly." With Gears of War 3 I was like, "Okay, enough of these meatheads and the scrotum-flesh-texture-faced alien meatheads who antagonize them." Well, now Epic is making a game that looks like Team Fortress 2 caught syphilis from Left 4 Dead, so that could be neat.
Uncharted 3: With Uncharted, I was like, "Aha—Gears of War is rubbing off, and I like the way this guy's T-shirt doesn't come out of his belt." With Uncharted 2, I was like, "There sure is a whole lot more stuff happening, this time!" With Uncharted 3, I'm like, "Well, the box kind of says he's going to get deceived so that doesn't encourage my imagination too much."
Resistance 3: With Resistance I was like, "I like how you can see the bullets in the air, and I sure don't like much else." With Resistance 2, I was like, "Oh, hey—something to do that does not involve a television." With Resistance 3, I'm like: "Oh. Hey. Wow." A look at Metacritic reveals that Resistance 2 scored 87; Resistance 3 scores an 83.
. . . And there we have it: let's turn this hypothesis upside-down:
SOMETIMES, 3 IS KING
Remember that thing I said earlier, about how the third game in a series should be the part where the developers go, "Okay — where are we going with this?" Resistance 3 was one of those 3s. You know what else was one of those 3s? Super Mario Bros. 3.
Here's a whole bunch of three games that were, in fact, The Charm.
1. Super Mario Bros. 3. It could be that games were young, back then. That's why the developers didn't stop fighting or innovating after the second game. Super Mario Bros. 2, in Japan, looked and played almost exactly like Super Mario Bros.—it was just a lot harder. So Super Mario 3 brought in a million little innovations. It had a huge host of different types of stages and power-ups; it supported and encouraged dozens of play styles. Super Mario Bros. 3 is an example of some people with two successful games in a row, thinking, "We need this next one to be really special." That's something people don't seem to do anymore.
2. Street Fighter III: Third Strike took a lot of hate for many years. I have heard people say as recently as two years ago that Street Fighter III "destroyed" their "childhood". Those people need to dip their head in a bucket of ice and beg for forgiveness. People who have no business passing judgment on anything disliked Street Fighter III in droves because it wasn't Exactly Like Street Fighter II. It didn't have All The Same Characters in it. This is one of those cases where the popularity of the predecessor doomed the developer no matter what they did. It took serious stones to populate Street Fighter III with a cast of no-name newcomers. In today's industry, that never happens anymore. Witness how Street Fighter IV, at launch, was literally Street Fighter II, with 3D graphics and a couple new characters. Also, Capcom went through pains to explain that it was set between Street Fighter II and III. Then why call it "IV". "Because the story doesn't matter," the pre-installed fanbase cried before I could finish asking the question. Well if it doesn't matter, why have characters at all? Why not have cylinders attacking cubes with spheres? It makes me afraid of the shockingly lame story Street Fighter V will have to contrive to either keep the game set before Street Fighter III or to set it after Street Fighter III and keep the characters looking the way they did in Street Fighter II. Anyway, Street Fighter III made some huge, bold changes to the mechanics and look, and it's a shining example of a third game that didn't Just Give Up.
3. Mother 3 is a game by a guy who you couldn't summarize by calling him a "game developer". If you only had one sentence fragment to sum up Shigesato Itoi, your editor would probably end up leaving "video games" out of it. Mother was a quirky (bizarre) Japanese-style role-playing game for the Nintendo Famicom; Mother 2 was an even quirkier RPG for the Super Famicom. Mother 2 was hardly a cash-in on its predecessor's popularity. It was almost a Godfather, Part II of video game sequels: it was the continuance of a greater story, told because the creator simply Was Not Finished. Twelve brutal years passed between Mother 2 and Mother 3, during which its creator did many other things. Thus it was that Shigesato Itoi came back to video games only when he had an idea that required it be a video game. So there was Mother 3. They say narrative artists tell the same story again and again. I suppose that's usually true. I suppose that as an artist gets older that story becomes better for all the telling. Mother 3 is a curious thing; whether it's a fantastic sequel or even a fitting one is an answer I'm not interested in finding. It is, however, certainly a more perfectly designed Work Of Significance than its predecessors, and it deals with Similar Themes, and so it earns its place among the kings of threes.
4. Dragon Quest III was the third entry in a formula that was winning before the game even started: Dragon Quest might have sold because it had then-white-hot young artist Akira Toriyama's signature style all over the box. Further inspection led curious consumers to realize his art was all over the inside of the game, as well. The second game expanded the tale of a lone adventurer to include two companions. The third game could have added nothing new—instead, it added a whole universe's worth of depth: a class-based party member development system, a whole second world, and a genuinely affecting narrative. Some will argue that the Dragon Quest series got "lazy" after the third installment, just because they didn't add a whole lot to the formula. Don't listen to those people: they probably also think chess would sell more copies if pawns could fly.
5. Metal Gear Solid 3 is technically Metal Gear 5—the same way that Modern Warfare 3 is technically Call of Duty 8 (or so). I swear, in a couple of years they'll pull a Mario Kart 7 on us and we'll all be freaked out / sort of impressed that they're up to sixteen Call of Duty games. Hideo Kojima once said (in an interview I conducted) that he wanted to call Metal Gear Solid simply "Metal Gear 3", though Konami's higher-ups told him they shouldn't do that because they don't want to shun newcomers. So when the game was popular, he said he wanted to call the next game "Metal Gear 4", and they said he should call it Metal Gear Solid 2, to keep fans of Metal Gear Solid. Metal Gear Solid 2 was a weird cluster of pseudo-artistic organized rambling. It was bizarre and fantastic, the product of one man eating so much pop-culture he vomited until he was heaving dry. For Metal Gear Solid 3, Hideo Kojima's stomach was empty. It's a restrained and intelligent game with sparkling situation design and a story which includes characters you're more than welcome to care about. It's an odd one among other Big Threes; it's almost like a Two, for how intensely it was hyped and lauded to a point where its sequel needed to Be Huge Or Die. Say what you will about Metal Gear Solid 4 (and I've personally said a lot), though at least that game Did Something Huge.
6. Driv3r was released in 2004, one year after the film "2 Fast 2 Furious". Unlike the movie "Se7en", which was not the seventh part of a series, Driv3r really did have two predecessors. To transform a "7" into a "V", one's brain needs to rotate the "7" 90 degrees clockwise. That's a lot to ask of many casual consumers. They probably lost themselves 10 million dollars, there. To turn Driv-three-er's "3" into an "E", all you need is a 180 horizontal mirror flip. And so it was that the games industry learned: if your game name is a single word which contains an "E" and it's in all capital letters, try to make it successful enough to warrant two sequels, because then you can put a three right the heck in there.
7. 1943 was a top-down shooting game by Capcom, released in 1987; it is the sequel to 1942, which was released in 1984, which was a book by George Orwell, who also wrote Animal Farm. In addition to being a top-down arcade-style shooting game in which the player pilots an airplane instead of a space ship, 1943 also proved that a game can end in the number "3" and not actually be the third game in a series.
8. Final Fantasy III is tricky—because we're talking about the Final Fantasy III that was released in the United States, for the Super Nintendo, and not the Final Fantasy III released years earlier in Japan for the Nintendo Famicom. Square of America did not release Final Fantasy II, Final Fantasy III, and Final Fantasy V in the United States because the games were perceived as too weird, technical, or too lacking in literary merit (that's the nice way of saying their plots were ugly and incoherent). Final Fantasy VI, however, when dubbed Final Fantasy III, served as a perfect marker in the barren wasteland of videocreativity: this was The Third Marker, the third point in the soon-to-be-downward-spiraling line graph representing the excellence of the "Final Fantasy" name. Stood against I and IV (as II), VI (as III) was clear proof of progress. With the first installment, the makers proved they could, in fact, make a whole video game. The fourth installment of the series summoned narrative conscience; the sixth, as the third great leaping point, assembled an operatic cast of characters and genuine literary influence. It was businessmen who made Final Fantasy VI a "3", and it was one of those cases where the businessmen were right.
9. NHLPA 93 was the last installment of EA Sports' NHL hockey series where the ice was blue by default. Go ahead and try playing NHL 94 for more than a half an hour. It'll melt your retinas. The other day, my business partner Brent "Porterhouse" Porter was talking about how on earth anyone will ever make a game more conducive to screaming than NHLPA 93. Then we went ahead and made that game. I'll talk about it later, if you want me to.
10. Grand Theft Auto III was the three-dimensional PlayStation 2 follow-up to two rinky-dink well-meaning top-down 2D open-world games for the PlayStation. Some people will dare to say that they like either the first or the second Grand Theft Auto better than Grand Theft Auto III, though those people are posers, the way the people who will say that The Lost Vikings is better than Action Button Entertainment Game About Vikings #1 (to be released circa 2016) will be posers. I personally consider Grand Theft Auto III to be that rare Three where its series was not complete artistically until the third time around. Many gamers younger than myself share this view, even: Grand Theft Auto III is, for all intents and purposes, The First Grand Theft Auto. Somehow the term "sandbox" hadn't been coined through the first two games: this was the one that got people wanting to throw around new terms to describe its experience. (Personally, I think Vice City is a better game — also, it gave the character a voice. And San Andreas, the third of the Grand Theft Auto III trilogy, is a perfect example of a modern Three Game — overloaded with overkilling features.)
11. Quake 3 was the third game in the Quake series, a series that made increasingly less sense as it went on. That's remarkable because the games made no sense from the beginning. Quake was supposed to be like DooM, only with a less objective narrative. It's not about killing demons on a possessed space-base on Mars anymore: it's about killing These Freakopaths Right Here in Whatever The Heck This Place Is. The defamiliarization of the plot elements in Quake was probably id Software's effort to make a game that didn't encourage fanboyism of an effervescence that put off the delicious untapped noob sector of the almost-target demographic. They made a sequel, because that's what you do with these things. Then there was a third one, because that's also what you do with these things, and I'll be darned if it isn't the sportiest first-person shooter you are ever going to play. It didn't burn the world down, so when it came time to make DooM 3 they made a gritty reboot—because that is, now, what you do with these things. Well, I don't care what anyone says: Quake 3 got it right. When you won, it was satisfying as smashing a stack of sticks of butter with a sledgehammer.
12. Sonic the Hedgehog 3 is important because it's the last time anyone on earth ever went, "Oh, hey, Sega tried something new and it's actually pretty cool!"
13. Burnout 3 followed up two racing games that were sort of successful—only now it decided to focus on ramming people right the heck off the darn road instead of simply winning the race. That's a little bit psychotic! Though you know what? It was fun. And then they added all this weird obsessive little extra stuff, like the ability to tweak and bend cars in the air. There are a bunch of weird little serial-killer-brain-isms strewn about this game's design, though hey! Why the heck not!
14. Ape Escape 3 was one of those rare 3s that no particularly vocal fanbase screamed for. And here it is, in my mind, as this perfect little video game. It's a Super Mario-like with cute little puzzles and levels that include large-scale set-pieces, minutely tuned situations, and power-ups that allowed the players to actually express themselves through problem-solving. It wasn't just some dumb little game. I loved this game, and no one else even seemed to notice it. You could probably find it for three dollars.
Bonus: Romance of the Three Kingdoms—with just one kingdom, you've got nothing. With two, you've got something. With three—that's a romance. That's a love triangle, is what that is.
"3" is an important number. It's small and it's prime. It's the first prime number which isn't even—two being the only even prime number. Did you realize that, two being a prime number and half of all numbers being divisible by two, that means that two is a factor of literally half of all possible numbers? Three is a factor of only one third of all possible numbers—meaning that one in three numbers is a multiple of three. Two and three both have infinite multiples; however, the infinity of numbers with two as a factor is greater in quantity than the infinity of numbers with three as a factor! In short, some infinities are bigger than others. All you need to take away from this is that three is infinite: we can never stop having three of things.
As such, the number three pops up in theories in subjects ranging from psychology to entomology. In photography they have the "rule of thirds"—though let's not talk about that. In fiction-writing, they have a similar rule about mentioning something three times: it takes three references to make something a "motif". Bring it up a second time, and it might be a coincidence. Three times, and it's either Not A Coincidence or a stylistic choice of the author (or, in the case of journalism, the fact-organizer). Three is powerful. Rules being made to be broken, of course, breaking the fiction-writing Three Times Rule is especially powerful: remember when The Joker in the film "The Dark Knight" told a story about how he got his scars, and then he told another scars origin story later, which contradicted his first story? If he would have told a third story, that would have killed the motif. "The Dark Knight" was home to intelligent, thoughtful screenwriting. Why would we need The Joker to tell a third new story about his scars? Since both stories are on the same theme and contain different plots (the first that his father cut his face when he was a child, the second that he cut his own face in rage at his depressed wife), the device establishes that The Joker is insane. "The Third Scar Story" is "literally anything we can imagine by ourselves", because we now know The Joker is crazy. In this way, we can see that fiction—and probably art in general—doesn't need sequels. Encouraging the audience's imagination can be more powerful than a sequel. In conclusion, this is probably why Capcom canceled Mega Man Legends 3.
tim rogers is editor-in-chief of game review web log action button dot net and his game development studio, action button entertainment, will soon be releasing a game you could download for your iOS device if you are into that sort of thing (hopefully it will have two sequels before the end of 2012). you can follow him on twitter here.