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Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Yosuke Matsuda's Law of Third Titles

By LUDWIG VON KOOPA - Let's come up with examples. And counter-examples.

Remember "Project SETSUNA" from Square Enix's E3 2015 presentation? It got a line in our log, and another line in our total E3 2015 recap. It's being developed by Square's new subsidiary, Tokyo RPG Factory. And we know nothing about it.

Anyway, Yosuke Matsuda, president of Square Enix, was referencing this "Project SETSUNA" when he said (according to Kotaku's translation):
"I believe that it is very difficult to immediately build up a big IP. Looking retrospectively at the gaming industry, many games take off or get their big break at their third title. [...] I call this my “Law of Third Titles” That’s why for the first and second games, you experiment to a degree where you can still be flexible, and if the series has grown enough to be able to expect a big hit for the third game, you expand the scale. If the third title is successful then all is well."
Now, it's impossible to make one rule that fits everything in the videogame industry, but this IS something that I've noticed in the past.

The Legend of Zelda NES Adventures of Link A Link to the Past screenshots comparsion
How the hell did this happen if not for the Law of Third Titles?

A lot of the time, the first, second, and third games in a series have some oddball things going on. They're not all alike and have some substantial differences. You have The Legend of Zelda, an overhead adventure game. Then it suddenly turns into a sidescroller with Adventure of Link, and then they figured out that no one liked that and went back to an expanded-scale version of the NES game with A Link to the Past. After that, Nintendo knew they had a huge hit on their hands! And most Zelda games since were based off the storyline and gameplay structure model that A Link to the Past established.

Other examples of quirky beginnings and then success by the third game include the Metroid series and the Super Mario Bros. series. Oh, and I guess Fire Emblem. That had a weird second game, didn't it?

Of course, some titles don't even make it to a third game and it's unclear why, after such amazing success. Look no further than Square's own Chrono Trigger, which was quite successful but only spawned one sequel, Chrono Cross. ...And we don't really talk about Chrono Cross, so maybe that's why there wasn't a third title.

Then there is the MOTHER series, which only HAD three games. ...Is the reason there isn't an official fourth one because they figured at number three it wouldn't be a successful IP? (Or maybe they just figured they already told the story they wished to tell.) I hear MOTHER 3 was great, so I wouldn't say that ruined the series. For an example of a third game that probably killed any chance of a franchise's future despite the first two being great, look at Golden Sun: Dark Dawn.

It was probably this that did it. ...Nah, it was the game being pretty mediocre.

Don't forget about games that peaked at their third game and never reached the same level since, like the Wild ARMS series.

I feel like, with all of the data and experience that developers have now, this whole "history says that" thing is an outdated notion, right? The videogame industry just isn't like what it was in the 1980s where developers take a new IP and just radically experiment with it. Now people plan out sequels already while the first game is being devised. It sometimes gets to the point where games within a series are so similar that I have no idea what the differences are between games, or that they are even different games. Looking at you, Batman: Arkham franchise! That was planned inorganically from the start.

Basically, Matsuda is saying that "Project SETSUNA" needs to have at least three games under its belt to judge it. He's really saying that to Square's finance department more than anyone else. There just happens to be some examples that correspond to what he's saying. I guess if he's doing the "I'm planning three games in this new series" inorganic method that's done now and not back then, then he can't really call upon the past where game studios lived or died depending on the first game in the IP's success. (Besides Mega Man, which got many great sequels despite the first game being awful.)

"If people don't like the first game, then we're still entitled to make two sequels!" Guess that means "Project SETSUNA"'s first game might be pretty bad with those expectations, eh? 

You're highly encouraged to offer examples, counter-examples, or quirky situations to go along with what Yosuka Matsuda says. There are hundreds of these out there, so share what comes to your mind in the comments section!

See Ludwig's "Sequelization!" article for how sequels are pretty good.
Ludwig name-dropped Arkham as a segue to this guest-posted review of Batman: Arkham Origins!


  1. Thumbs up for that Wild Arms shout-out. Are WA4 and 5 really not good? I'd toss out the Spyro series as an example, although its downfall is in part because it kept changing hands.

    I disagree with your assessment of the Arkham games, though. Arkham Asylum has a very different feeling from Arkham City, which is why there's a core group of us who prefer Asylum to its sequels.

    As for planning 3 games from the start regardless of how the first is received.... don't turn this into another FFXIII situation, Square Enix...

    How would you saw the Law of Third Titles works with the Ace Attorney series, where the 2nd game is considered one of the worst, but the 3rd is usually ranked the best (or at least it WAS until Investigations 2; get a move-on on that localization, Capcom)?

    1. I'm actually super-distressed that the user who uploaded Wild Arms 1, 2, 3, and 4 OST in four giant videos deleted them sometime on Tuesday.
      But yeah according to total lack of discussion and review aggregation, WA4 and WA5 weren't well-received!

      Don't you worry, Arkham will get Fair & Balanced coverage on KoopaTV. :)
      ...Seriously though, it's a terrible naming scheme. Similarly I feel a great strain whenever I try to differentiate "Rayman Legends" and "Rayman Origins". Like, I don't want to say it wrong but the names are so similar and it doesn't help that the first of those chronologically is embedded into the second one.

      Well, Tokyo RPG Factory might have different sequel philosophies than its parent, right? Right? ...No? Well, FFXIII situation it is. That's really the fear OF the article.

      I thought of the Ace Attorney series while writing this article, but I purposefully didn't because I wanted someone to pick up on it.


      So thanks to Capcom Unity, we definitely know that Ace Attorney, despite being similar/literally reusing assets between its trilogy, was not planned from the start. Or else this sudden rush wouldn't exist.

      Anyway, Law of Third Titles very clearly does apply to the Ace Attorney series, just organically. People recognised that Ace Attorney was an awesome franchise after the third one. I... believe I only got Ace Attorney 1 after Trials & Tribulations came out.

      The Law of Third Titles allows for any order of "good" "bad" "best" within a set of three games. If the first game is bad but it still continues, you know it's a sign that it was pre-planned and it'd be too expensive to just abandon those commitments. If the third game is bad, then according to the Law the franchise should be aborted. The second game is totally allowed to be bad because of the Law's "experimentation" clause, and Ace Attorney took advantage of that.

      You can think of examples for any of the permutations, including where the first game is the best (Mega Man X, X2, and X3... or even clearer, Yoshi's Island, YIDS, and YNI) or where the second game is the best and the third game ruins it (Donkey Kong Country).

      Now, this may be for a variety of reasons (totally different developers in Yoshi's Island's case), but one reason is that, if a franchise's future ISN'T planned properly (if you're going to plan out three games, make sure to introduce new features as you go along and don't get tempted to put everything cool in the first game), it'll become stale quickly. Capcom is famous for doing this to Mega Man, which is why the Mega Man X series ended up like it did.

      You should only continue a franchise if your developers don't feel like they're doomed to work on a franchise they've exhausted their creativity for. If your company's biz model isn't based on doing contract work, then what the hell are you doing just going through the motions? On paper, it makes sense to milk your cash cow franchise, but your exhaustion WILL show up in your game product and it'll just get worse over time. Which will demoralise your talent AND reduce sales.


    2. Hmm, I see. I've still only played Wild Arms 1 and 3, but I'll change that eventually. I've often heard 2 is the best of the series.

      How is the Arkham naming scheme any more logical than, say, Ace Attorney's? Sure, fans sometimes call them AA2 and so on to distinguish, but if you go by their actual names, the first one is the only one you can guess (because it has no subtitle).

      To be fair, I have not yet played FFXIII-2 or Lightning Returns to judge the trilogy... I just look at FFXIII and wonder what in the world justified THAT game getting not only one direct sequel, but two!

      Although I haven't looked for any proof, I suspect the first Professor Layton trilogy was also organic. First a simple game with a cute and slightly weird story... Then a sequel with a weirder story and additional content.... Then a third game with a long, crazy story and even more content, which set the structure for the eventual prequel trilogy (which was clearly planned as a trilogy).

    3. Arkham's naming scheme ISN'T logical that's the point. At least Ace Attorney has phrases for its sub-titles.

      Yeah I don't know where Square judged that there were enough people that liked Lightning to make those, 'cause from wot I can see Lightning only got backlash.

    4. What makes Arkham's naming scheme not logical?

      Maybe Lightning was popular in Japan. They certainly got the impression she's one of the most popular characters in the series.

    5. Maybe "logical" is the wrong word... 'cause you brought it up first not me.

      Well, "Origins" is the one that's chronologically first, but the rest are just a pretty generic noun that are interchangeable.

    6. But if we go back to expecting the titles to indicate chronological order, we're back to Ace Attorney's titles being just as illogical. :P

      Arkham Asylum is the name of the first game's setting. The entire game revolves around Arkham Asylum--which is also a recognizable location from the universe that would give Batman fans an idea of what the game is about. Arkham City, which came second, is the name of the second game's setting.

      Arkham Origins, as you already mentioned, refers to its status as a prequel. Arkham Knight is a character, so it breaks the pattern, but they couldn't keep naming *places* Arkham _____. And it's better from a series perspective to keep "Arkham" in the title once it became known as the Arkham series. That's something we were taught--if we're writing a series of books, it's a huge advantage to structure their titles similarly, so the reader can see at a glance that they go together.

      They aren't interchangeable, because if you swapped their names, they'd no longer make sense. How could you call the first game Arkham City when it takes place in a small asylum rather than a city, or Arkham Knight when there IS no Arkham Knight in the game? How could you call Arkham City Arkham Asylum when the asylum is only a minor part of its story? How could you call Arkham Knight either of those things when it doesn't take place in the asylum OR Arkham city?

    7. I dunno, the whole "Batman" thing is a pretty good indicator they go together.
      Maybe all I want is more than one word as the sub-title.

      (Hey, that asylum is IN a city. And Arkham itself IS a city. So "Arkham City" is just stupid. That's all I'm saying.)

    8. No... because Rocksteady isn't the only company that makes Batman games. There's a ton of Batman games that aren't Arkham games, or even close to them.

      "Arkham" is a city in the works of H.P. Lovecraft, but not in these games. Arkham Asylum and Arkham City are both locations in GOTHAM City. "Arkham City" is an area created after the mayor decided to expand the asylum into a blockaded-off section of the city. There is no "Arkham City" outside of that game. It's the central focus of the game, both in terms of location and story.

    9. Hey, Origins wasn't even made by Rocksteady, so they don't have exclusive claim to Arkham. :o
      ......'kay I understand I don't have a coherent argument anymore. (And haven't for several comments now.)

  2. Professor Layton is another good example where the series really hit its stride with the third game, which most people consider to be the best game in the series (and where its storytelling really started to become good). I feel the same way toward PL as I do toward AA, with the 2nd game being the worst and the 3rd being the best, but the majority disagrees with me on the second game.

  3. It is very difficult to build up a new IP. Codename S.T.E.A.M is an excellent example of this.

    1. Well, there are certain ways you can have an excellent start, which is making sure your *first* game in the IP is awesome (like Splatoon) and not just mediocre or worse.

      If you're off to a shaky start, having two more games isn't very likely to help. By the time you got three you're probably running out of ideas.


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