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E3 exposes video game industry's sequel problem

If there's one story that we seem to write at least every other year at E3, its how the industry is overly reliant on sequels and spin-offs, rarely creating anything truly new.

Halo Reach treads familiar ground.
Dan Ackerman/CNET

LOS ANGELES--If there's one story we seem to write at least every other year at E3, its how the gaming industry is overly reliant on sequels and spin-offs, rarely creating anything truly new. This year, the issue seems bigger than ever, with seemingly few original ideas in a sea of IIs, IIIs, and more.

Case in point: The games big publishers are depending on to carry them through the all-important holiday shopping season are for the most part all retreads of existing games. They include Gears of War 3, Call of Duty: Black Ops, Fallout: New Vegas, Halo Reach, Dead Space 2, Crysis 2, Civilization V, and new installments in the Rock Band and Guitar Hero franchises (a separate-but-related issue is the "rebooting" of vintage games, such as Kid Icarus or GoldenEye).

Its overly simplistic to blame a conceptual lack of originality for the deficit of new ideas, stories, and characters. Video games generally don't function under the auteur theory that many of the best films do, crafted by a singular creative vision (with a few high-profile exceptions); instead they more often are the ultimate example of art by committee. Game developers essentially create "work for hire" on behalf of publishers, which in turn resemble nothing so much as the classic 1940's Hollywood studio system, where studio bosses pulled the strings and set the agenda.

Unlike film, there's typically no huge secondary market for video games, such as DVD or cable TV sales. So big initial sales are key, which leads to an abundance of caution and an over reliance on sequels. Put simply, there will be a new Call of Duty or Madden game every year like clockwork, at least until they stop making money. At the same time, the handful of high-profile truly original new intellectual properties in recent memory, such as Heavy Rain or Scribblenauts, garnered critical acclaim but couldn't outsell established hits--although the latter at least did well enough to earn a sequel of its own.

Madden NFL 11 EA Sports

The biggest problem with the culture of sequels is that the games themselves become rote. While they're all excellent examples of their respective styles, Gears of War III looks a lot like Gears of War II, Halo Reach looks a lot like Halo 3 or Halo ODST, Call of Duty: Black Ops looks a lot like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II, and so on.

But there are only so many times one can go back to the well. Sports games such as EA's Madden have created an annual purchase habit with consumers, but that's because it follows the schedule of the real-life football season. Music-based games such as Guitar Hero and Rock Band tried the same thing, but found that audience fatigue set in after a few rounds of annual updates. The best-selling Call of Duty series has also moved to a once-per-year model, and while it remains a best-seller for now, it's not clear that gamers will continue to see it as a must-have annual purchase.

At the risk of compounding the issue, some of the games we're most looking forward to out of E3 this year are sequels, including Fallout: New Vegas, Dead Space 2, and Mafia II. Do you suffer from video game sequel burnout, or are new versions of old favorites the best way to get you to purchase a game? Let us know in the comments.