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Xbox 720 questions: will free-to-play spell doom for sequels?

How updates could take over from annual releases

I'm not sure if you've noticed, but we tend to write rather a lot about Minecraft round these parts. That's partly because reader adoration for Minecraft is roughly akin to Mario's taste for mushrooms, but it's also because unlike most videogames, this one is actually getting more interesting over time. Even the teensiest, most perfunctory of Minecraft Xbox 360 updates is a chasm of tweaks and additions - new item crafting recipes, host options, Creative Mode, new mobs and new structures to uncover.

If only all games could enjoy such a protean afterlife, you say. Well, odds are they will. The purported Second Coming of free-to-play gaming on Xbox 720 promises to upend what we know about how franchises evolve. No longer will "innovation" be accomplished solely via additional boxed releases, priced the same as the games they're building on. Instead, it's likely a significant proportion or even the lion's share of changes will be ferried to our consoles piecemeal, as indirect revenue models take up the slack left by moribund high street sales.

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The seeds of this switch-over have been long in the gestation. Last year, Infinity Ward implemented a system which allowed it to make daily tweaks to Modern Warfare 3's predictably troublesome gun balancing. "What we've done with this game is we've given ourselves the ability to update on-the-fly - like every day if we want to, or every afternoon or whatever, we can sort of update a few files that work on balancing guns or balancing issues," the studio's Mark Rubin told OXM at the time, adding that this reflects a broader "transition" in the industry.

"Originally you put a disk in and that's it, you maybe got a patch once in a while because of some crazy bug fix, but it wasn't a lot of daily fixing - it's not like an MMO where they iterate," he elaborated. "We're in uncharted territory! I don't know how it's going to go, honestly."

The Call of Duty: Elite service is a more conspicuous instance of this, though it's also possibly an example of the dangers of jumping the gun. Subscribers bagged early and frequent access to new modes and maps, while non-subscribers had to wait for the ensuing "Content Collections". Activision has now pulled the plug on the subscription model and moved the emphasis back to relatively irregular, "meaty" DLC packs, but the iterative updating strategy has found a footing elsewhere. 343 has quietly (and temporarily) added SWAT and Team Sniper to Halo 4's multiplayer mode offering, for example. Meanwhile, EA's David Rutter has made no bones of FIFA's evolution into a full-blown digital-centric service, pending the right alterations to console hardware.

As he told us last year, "the idea that most consoles are now connected lets us go beyond just serving consumers updates to the game. Do we deliver new features throughout the year, update gameplay - do we update the entire game at the end of the season rather than release new packaged goods? Those are things that aren't necessarily supported yet by first parties or ourselves, but as the industry side changes the way games are made I think that's the way things will go."

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The rise of the update as a vehicle for meaningful design choices is to be welcomed for obvious reasons. It spares us the cost of shelling out for a modestly evolved version of a game we bought last year, and also allows developers to respond more rapidly, cheaply and thus creatively to player requests and complaints. I've already touched upon some of the possibilities in a mildly hare-brained feature - the one that gets me most hot and bothered is the practice of sneakily adding dynamics to open worlds, so you've got reasons to go back other than gathering every last collectable and polishing off every last sidequest.

On the other hand, I worry that the demise of sequels would also deprive the industry of a key incentive for wide-ranging, dramatic change. Few sequels are as ground-breaking as they make out, as veterans of the big annually released franchises will appreciate, but there's a certain baseline of difference publishers are required to meet in order to winkle more pounds from pockets. Chop all that up into small, relatively indistinct digital packages, and there's a danger the piecemeal-ness of it all will become boring. Of course, there's nothing to stop a publisher releasing a full-blown new IP in place of a sequel, but the orthodox take on new IPs is that they seldom pay themselves off in one game - follow-ups are necessary to recoup the initial investment.

What do you think? Does the concept of a sequel have a place in the digital age?

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