Sequels, Series, and Burnouts

Wikipedia defines burnout as "a psychological term for the experience of long-term exhaustion and diminished interest (depersonalization or cynicism), usually in the work context." Everyone experiences burnout in some form, even in the context of gaming. Most World of Warcraft players experience MMO burnout at some point. As a writer and game journalist, I've experienced burnout both in terms of writing and gaming. It's easy to become jaded.

But what about game developers? The teams that put together the game's art, sound, mechanics, script, and (especially) programming must certainly experience burnout from time to time. Questions to consider: when, where, and how much, does "burnout" affect the gaming industry? This is the topic I'd like to consider. And I'd like to argue that "burnout" can be seen most often in long-standing series and sequels.

Let's start off with the obvious choice: Final Fantasy. The "main series" has seen so many changes in producers, directors, main programmers, and designers, that it's difficult to truly call it one cohesive series. If you need the history lesson: Hironobu Sakaguchi, creator of "Final Fantasy," was in charge of I through V. He worked alongside other top Square producers for VI, and then took a backseat role for VII and VIII, allowing Tetsuya Nomura to gain some ground. Sakaguchi made his final work out of Final Fantasy IX, and then again took a "backseat" position for X. From there, Sakaguchi was out.

And we didn't hear from Sakaguchi for awhile. Then, out of nowhere, Sakaguchi announced that he would be developing original titles with his newfound studio Mistwalker. And guess who followed Sakaguchi? Nobuo Uematsu, that's who. Uematsu solely composed the soundtracks for Final Fantasy I through IX, but he needed some help with X, and then only contributed about 30% of the music for XI. By the time XII came about, Uematsu was only on to write the vocal theme song. Uematsu admitted in various interviews during the development of Final Fantasy IX that he felt rushed, especially after putting out over two hundred compositions in the past few years for VII and VIII.

So why did Sakaguchi and Uematsu leave? Some argue that it had to do with the politics of Square, the Square-Enix merger, and a desire from the public for more trendy, modern games (as opposed to the medieval fantasy 2D epics of the 8-bit and 16-bit eras). But I think there's more to it than that. I think the pressure to make the same kind of big, epic, multi-million-seller game time and time again was wearing down on these two industry veterans. Since the two of them moved on to Mistwalker, it's clear that they are taking things at their own pace. "Blue Dragon" and "Lost Odyssey" may not be major hits, but they are solid, enjoyable RPGs. The music is decent, though certainly not Uematsu's most powerful work. And I think that, ultimately, Sakaguchi and Uematsu are okay with that. They experienced burnout, had some time to recover, and are now working on smaller scales.

But the "Final Fantasy" burnout isn't limited to the oldschool crew of Sakaguchi and Uematsu. We must not forget the story of Yasumi Matsuno. Matsuno got his start with "Quest," a developer under the supervision of Enix. The Ogre Battle series was Matsuno's baby, but then Matsuno made a switch over to Square and created Final Fantasy Tactics, a much-beloved game that was recently remade for the PSP. Matsuno continued to work on a loosely-connected series of games that Square Enix now recognizes as the "Ivalice Alliance." Vagrant Story was the next entry, followed by Final Fantasy Tactics Advance. Then the bombshell came: Final Fantasy XII for PlayStation 2 would be a part of this "Ivalice" series, and Matsuno was in charge. But after about halfway through the production phase, Matsuno officially announced that he would bow out. There was a lot of speculation as to why, and Square-Enix officially cited "health issues" as to why Matsuno has been on indefinite hiatus. Indeed, many Ivalice Alliance titles have come since, and Matsuno has had no part in them. His name isn't listed anywhere in the credits for Tactics A2 or FFXII: Revenant Wings (both for DS). What happened? If I had to guess, I'd say "burnout."

As a self-proclaimed game music expert, I've seen many composers rise and fall as well. Michiko Naruke, the series composer for Wild Arms, did full composition for three games in a row. Then, citing health reasons, she worked alongside a crew of other composers to get the job done for Wild Arms 4. That "crew" went on to become the sole composers for Wild Arms 5, leaving Naruke behind. And has Ms. Naruke gone on to bigger and better things? As far as we know, no. She's just disappeared. What's the story here? It's tough to say for sure, but if you listen to the three soundtracks she endeavored to compose by herself, you can see a quality vs. quantity issue from one soundtrack to the next. It seemed that the developers were creating games with larger scopes each time, which in turn required more songs from Michiko Naruke. And, if I had to guess, I'd say that putting out this amount of music wasn't what Naruke had in mind when she signed up to compose the first Wild Arms soundtrack (which, for the record, is a beautiful album).

Or, consider RED's hit series, Sakura Taisen. Ouji Hiroi, the series mastermind, saw great success with the first two titles. In an attempt to introduce a new cast of characters and a new setting, the third title added the "Paris" cast. Some fans felt the series lost its luster here, but if that wasn't the case, it certainly is the case with Sakura Taisen 4, which attempted to use both casts to create a game with merged content. Sakura Taisen 4, furthermore, came quickly after the third one, and it was lacking in solid development and construction. The 5th installment was a somewhat better product, even with the addition of a third cast (the "New York" group), but since then, we've heard precious little from Ouji Hiroi. Burnout from doing all this work for the same franchise? Possibly.

Personally, I believe the key to avoiding burnout is to pace yourself, and take breaks often. Though I don't always hold to this ideal in my writing and my gaming, we can see that some of the most consistently successful developers and publishers have. Take a look at Dragon Quest, a series that is now four installments behind Final Fantasy. Now, Dragon Quest has been taken on by different development teams, with Level 5 on top of VIII and IX and Arte Piazza covering VII and most before that. What kept this series so strong for so long? I think the answer is that the development cycles were, generally, longer. Now, there is such a thing as erring in the opposite direction, since too long of a development cycle puts you at a loss since technology progresses so rapidly. This was the case with VII, which was five years in the making and as a result played like an early-PlayStation-era game instead of late-PlayStation-era game. But generally, the "big three" of Dragon Quest (Yuji Horii as producer, Koichi Sugiyama for music, and Akira Toriyama for art) have made the long haul and do not seem to be stopping anytime soon. Based on the development cycles, they've allowed themselves time to rest.

When a successful RPG is followed up by a lackluster sequel, it's typical that the response from both the critics and the gamers is that the publisher was going for a cash-grab, a cheap tactic that allows the name brand to sell the game, rather than actual decent gameplay. And certainly, this could be the case many times. But let's look at it from the other perspective. You're a game designer, and you've released a successful game. Of course, your paycheck, and the paycheck of all the employees under you, is dependent on further sales. The wellbeing of your family members is at stake. And, you have some good ideas for a sequel, but compared to the ten years you'd spent dreaming about the original game, this sequel isn't quite as formed in your mind. The result? A fair effort on your part and the part of your staff that, unfortunately, is deemed a failure by the public at the time of its release. Ouch.

As long as the pressure stays high to create decent games, particularly in the RPG genre (where plot, gameplay, and aesthetic are all highly valued), burnout will be a common obstacle for the developers. Let us hope that the developers of today will learn lessons from the mistakes made by the people who came before them, and instead of attempting a grandiose series with sequels and spin-off titles, they will relax, and perhaps try introducing a new IP or two to gauge whether or not their other ideas can be successful as well.

- Patrick Gann


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