How to Destroy a Universe in Order to Make Money in 6 Easy Steps

The games industry is often accused of having a bad case of sequelitis. Most big games are sequels, or in some other way part of some franchise. I think it’s a bit simplistic to blame the industry for this — looking at sales and income, the games industry has understood (just as Hollywood has) that the way to make lots of money is to make a sequel. Not necessarily because it’s cheaper, but because that’s what people buy.

So having established that we’re in the business of making sequels (and yes, I am), we need to look at lore. With each sequel, there’s a new story, but also an extension of the universe that story takes place in. Fans of series don’t generally love the stories themselves — more often fans are in love with the universe. The magic that surrounds something like the Star Wars universe (or did, until the prequel movies were made) or Lord of the Rings stems from the depth of the universes they take place in.

It’s easy to forget this and only focus on the new story you’re trying to tell. Even if this succeeds, and even if you make a fair bit of money from it, you may be lessening the total value of the universe by breaking the lore.

So without further delay, I present 6 ways to easily spoil the magic and destroy a universe:

  1. Un-ending an end, or forced resurrection. This happens when the decision is made to make a sequel to a story that has been ended, thus altering the lore or coming up with convoluted ways to explain the miraculous continuation of a storyline that had been conclusively and definitely ended.The effect is that fans feel cheated and the value of the previous ending is reduced. Two good examples of this effect are the Terminator franchise un-ending of the end in Terminator 2, and the Alien: Resurrection movie.
  2. Accommodating a new target audience by changing the universe. This happens when a spinoff, sequel or prequel changes the universe in order to accommodate for a new target audience — often a childrens’ version of the series.A perfect example of this is how many Star Wars fans felt that the Star Wars universe was tainted by the introduction of children’s movie character Jar Jar Binks and elements like the Hutt Pod-race. The prequel movies undoubtedly made a healthy profit, but destroyed some of the Star Wars magic in the process, lessening the total value of the franchise.
  3. Not doing your research. This tends to happen when a universe changes hands, like a new author finishing a book series after the death of the original author, or a franchise being handed to a new games studio by a publisher. The new authors then make mistakes that lessen the credibility of the universe by simply not knowing or understanding some aspects of it.For instance, in the prequels to Frank Herbert’s “Dune”, written by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson, an invention is used several thousand years before its invention in one of the original books of the series.
  4. Killing your core. Most universes are built up around some core occurrence. Star Trek is built up around the exploration of a vast mystical universe by crews on space ships, for instance. Removing the defining characteristic of your universe is a bad idea.This happened as the Wing Commander saga unexpectedly ended the war that was the core of the universe, removing the core component that had powered the lore. A few games were released after this, introducing a new enemy but the momentum of the universe had failed. Another good example of this is when an action movie was released based on the adventure series Mission: Impossible, even including a betrayal committed by the beloved protagonist of the series for good measure.
  5. Forgetting your core. Sometimes, what makes a series special is taken for granted during the production of a sequel, to the very point that it’s forgotten entirely. Games are especially open to this phenomenon — in the rush for technological innovation the heritage is somehow forgotten.Doom 3 is a good example of this. With all the cool dynamic lighting and shadows in focus, the game completely failed at following up on the style of the previous games. Instead, the gameplay degenerated into a form of technologically advanced “Boo!” with monsters appearing out of nowhere in rooms with blinking lights.
  6. Diluting your story. Charlie Jane Anders calls this “Being a story slut” — feeling the need to tell a lot of stories that may not fit in to the universe you’re telling them in. The end result is that the fans lose track of what the universe is all about.I’ll repeat Charlie’s example for this: The Matrix. By losing focus on the issues and story in the first movie, the entire Matrix universe is tainted by this dilution, losing some of its magic.

Often, these errors are immediately obvious to any fan. Why are not spotted and fixed?

Sometimes, the simple answer is that they’re accepted damage. For instance, if you want to make money out of a new Alien movie, you’ve accepted the fate of the lore the moment you started. This can happen because the franchise is in the hands of people who don’t care about the universe they’re extending, or because the people doing the sequels have simply lost track of the context for what they’re creating.

More often, though, I suspect the mistakes are the responsibility of a single person in charge, who either refuses to listen to others or who rules with such an iron fist that others don’t dare to sound the alarm. This appears to be the case of Jar Jar Binks, where the production team waved the red flag but were ignored.

So if you’re going to make a sequel, make it a good one — and don’t repeat these common mistakes. That way, you don’t have to be responsible for the next expression like “Jumping the Shark” or “Nuking the Fridge

7 Comments

  • By Johan Svensson, Sunday, February 22, 2009 @ 16:45

    “Nuking the fridge” totally made me want to see that Indy movie.

    The Doom games coined the expression “monster closet” – a section of the map that opens up on a trigger, with the sole purpose of throwing more monsters at the player. Those early games had no other way to spawn enemies apart from pre-placed monsters, so that was the only way to do it.

    And then Doom 3 just kept doing it, and it felt horribly primitive and out of place.

  • By Paul Evans, Sunday, February 22, 2009 @ 17:04

    Great article! Additionally I think some of the drive for sequels are driven by publishers attempting to develop a franchise they can exploit with ancillary products rather than just a single game. I guess the recent commentary made by Activision’s CEO and what happened to the Ghostbusters game illustrates that way of thinking.

  • By Protector one, Monday, February 23, 2009 @ 10:06

    So how was the ending of Terminator 2 un-ended? I thought everything that came after T2 respected how it ended.
    As a side note, pod racing is awesome.

  • By slicedlime, Monday, February 23, 2009 @ 10:59

    The whole plot of T2 was essentially that the people who built skynet did so based on tech that was only possible to build with the chip they had (yeah, there’s some circular reasoning in there).

    I agree that it’s not as clearcut a case, but I know many people felt that the “our future’s our own” ending was diminished by the continuation of the series.

    Also, check out this place and these guys.

  • By Protector one, Tuesday, February 24, 2009 @ 11:41

    Yeah, I saw those links in your Twitter stream. :P
    I believe the story of T2 was possible, because in Terminator’s world, when you travel back in time, you end up in an different time-line. That’s also why Reese could become John’s dad.
    I don’t like this type of time travel either, but many pieces of fiction do it like this. :S

  • By slicedlime, Tuesday, February 24, 2009 @ 14:08

    I agree, it’s possible. My point, though, is that people *felt* cheated in some way or other. And regardless of how much rational logical explanatory weight you feel you have behind your reasoning, your fans feeling cheated is a good sign something’s wrong.

    A couple of links to illustrate what I mean:
    - Review of T3 expressing the problem
    - “Deleted scene” from T2 with an alternate, less fuzzy, ending. This makes it pretty clear that, at the time of the creation of T2, the storyline was meant to decisively end.

  • By Protector one, Wednesday, February 25, 2009 @ 13:48

    That alternate ending might be less fuzzy, but is also totally lame! “Michael Jackson turned 40″? “Instead I got drunk”? It is ‘Terminator 3D’-bad. :P

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