SAN FRANCISCO--If ever there was pressure, it falls on the shoulders of development teams trying to follow up a smash hit with a sequel.
That's the position that the folks at Epic Games find themselves in right now as they put the finishing touches on their forthcoming video game, Gears of War 2. And that's because the original Gears of War sold more than 5 million copies, becoming one of the most successful titles for Microsoft's next-generation video game console.
On Tuesday, Gears of War 2 was one of the featured games at the Microsoft Games Studio Spring Showcase event here. Dozens of video game journalists flocked to the shindig, as they do each year, for a series of tight controlled demos and hands-on play with a few of the titles.
I got a chance at the showcase to talk with Cliff Bleszinski, the design director for Epic Games, about what it's like trying to follow such a big hit like Gears of War and what kinds of expectations are being put on him and his team as they get ready for the expected November release of their much-anticipated game.
"There's a ton of pressure," Bleszinski told me. "But my confidence in myself and my team is exponentially high...We're nervous, but confident at the same time."
It's no small trick to sell 5 million copies of a game that costs $60. Nor should it be, given that that equates to more than $300 million in revenue for the publisher. Few titles reach those kinds of levels.
And while it's far too early to tell if Gears of War 2 will live up to its predecessor's success, there are certainly some things that augur well for it.
First, there is a huge hunger for it. Gears of War sold so many copies because it was considered a top-notch game, and Epic is very well-respected in the industry. So it's safe to say that a lot of people will buy the sequel based purely on the anticipation that built after they played the original.
Similarly, the number of potential buyers is higher simply because it's coming out a couple of years after the original, and a lot more people own Xbox 360s now than they did when Gears of War came out.
"The threshold (for sales success) is higher because there's quite" a higher Xbox 360 install base, said Bleszinski, who added that after Gears of Wars became a hit, "we got a note from (Halo franchise developer) Bungie saying, 'Thanks for raising the install base'" for Halo 3.
The same factor is true, of course, for any new Xbox game, or for titles on any platform. Still, despite more potential buyers, a game like Gears of War 2 is going to have to seriously deliver the goods in order to sell as many copies--or more--as the original did.
Another game in the same boat--and also on display Tuesday at the showcase event--is Fable 2, due out this fall from Lionhead Studios, the home base of, yes, fabled game designer Peter Molyneux.
Along with a bunch of other journalists, I sat through a half-hour demo of Fable 2, during which Molyneux explained why the sequel will be so much better than the first Fable.
"I had a dream when I created Fable 1," Molyneux said, "which I didn't realize, which was to create a truly memorable experience."
I'm sure there are plenty of people who would quibble with Molyneux's self-deprecation, but regardless, he said he and his team set out, in creating Fable 2, to make a game that tells a complex, dramatic story.
He explained that it is both a role-playing game and a simulation. And as part of the narrative arc, he said, the title is centered on learning what it feels like to have nothing--you start off as a street urchin in a little village called Bowerstone--and then progress to being a true hero.
Among the game's innovations, he said, are getting rid of the ubiquitous game "mini-map," which he said is confusing to casual gamers, and adding, instead, the concept of "breadcrumbs" that players can follow back from whence they came.
"With the breadcrumb trail," he said, "it will always show you the way back."
Molyneux said that Fable 2 is a completely free-roaming, free simulation game, meaning that players can explore anywhere they want and do just about anything they want.
And everything they do affects the rest of the game, he added.
For example, at one point early in the game, the main character is told to go in search of five lost warrants that have blown away. Depending on whether the player finds them and gives them back to the man who requested them, the village can become a trader's paradise or a crime-riddled slum.
"Every choice has a consequence," Molyneux said. "When you're playing Fable 2, you're never sure what you're going to see next."
One of the biggest challenges he and Lionhead faced, Molyneux explained, was trying to build a game that would simultaneously attract casual gamers and the core audience that regularly spends $60 on console titles.
To do that, he said, one innovation has been to make the Xbox controller very easy to use, with just a few simple functions available at first. But as players gain experience points, he said, they can spend them on new functionality for their controllers, bringing all new weapons and fighting abilities to their control. That dynamic, he argued, would bridge the gap between the two types of gamers.
After Molyneux finished, Bleszinski stepped up and gave a demo of level 2 of Gears of War 2.
It was impressive. Loud and beautiful, the game was a cacophony of mayhem, destruction, and war. Not feeling qualified to give a proper review of the game myself, I'll leave that to my colleagues. But I will say that based on what I saw, I can't see any reason to believe that Gears 2 wouldn't do better than its predecessor.
As Bleszinski had told me earlier, "I damn well hope we kick the first Gears' butt in sales."
The rest of the day was spent ferrying around the Dogpatch Studios, where the event took place, getting demos and being given a chance to play the other games on display.
Those games included Ninja Gaiden II, from TECMO/Team NINJA; Viva Pinata: Trouble in Paradise, from Rare; Too Human, from Silicon Knights and Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts, also from Rare.
All in all, it was a fun, if exhausting day.
It's hard to say how well any of these games will do, and certainly I would say that none will do as well as Halo 3 or the recently crowned best-launch day ever Grand Theft Auto IV, but I would bet that Microsoft Game Studios has some hits on its hands.
Only time will tell.
On June 10, Geek Gestalt hits the highways for Road Trip 2008. I'll start in Orlando, Fla., and visit many of the South's most interesting destinations. Stay tuned, and be sure to keep up, both now and during the trip, with what I'm doing on Twitter.