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Game Design In Theory

The Quake 3 Effect

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Let’s suppose you have a really good game.

A cult classic, even. There’s a hardcore audience for it, an audience that loves this game to death, an audience that will give anything for a sequel–and which constantly tells you that they’d give anything for a sequel.

There’s just one problem: Every time you try to make a sequel, it fails. It’s not necessarily because you’re a bad designer, either.

The Quake 3 Effect

is a term I’ve coined to describe a situation where you have a really well-received game, but you can’t seem to follow it up. To trigger this effect, you need 3 things:

  1. A game that becomes extremely popular, with
  2. very specific, tightly-balanced mechanics and
  3. An audience that cares deeply about those mechanics.

The effect is named after Quake 3, which was a good game (*sips monster*). It was a great game, in fact. It was such an incredibly well-balanced and well-designed multiplayer FPS that it is the gold standard of the arena shooter, even all these years after its release. The name Quake 3 is synonymous with carefully-tweaked competitive gameplay, movement techniques that feel satisfying to use, and the golden age of boomershooters.

But not one Quake 3 spiritual successor has reached the heights that Quake 3 once did, and even the two sequels are living in its shadow.

Spiritual Successors Struggling to Stand Out.

The trouble with most of Quake 3’s spiritual successors is that they don’t change enough things to be worth it. After all, the appeal is in Quake 3’s incredibly well-tuned design, and why fix what isn’t broken?

Unfortunately, this raises an important question: If I already own Quake 3, and your game is just Quake 3 with a coat of paint, why should I give you my time or money? I can just go play more Quake 3.

Thus, most Quake 3 spiritual successors–being clones–stay out of the spotlight. Their target audience is entirely Quake 3 fans, and those guys already have Quake 3. To make matters worse, most (but not all) Quake 3 clones also struggle to help new players understand the nuances of the game. As a result, not only do these projects rarely get much traction within the Quake 3 community, they also fail to bring in players from outside of it, leaving them with little to no players at all.

Sequels Shirked By Stans

The other side of the coin is the sequels, which attempted to shake up the formula. Quake 4 was a singleplayer game in the vein of Quake 1 and 2, while Quake Champions sought to bring unique characters and a more beginner-friendly UI to the table.

Both games struggled to gain attention, because they changed things–which means that the target audience took one look and said “Thanks, I hate it”. It turns out that when your game is known and loved for a particular gamefeel and specific mechanics–i.e., when you have a highly competitive first-person-shooter that feels perfectly balanced–anything you change will piss off your hardcore audience. Quake 4 was hit a little less hard, because it wasn’t banking on the Quake 3 audience–it was banking on the Quake 2 audience.

However, Quake Champions was dead on arrival–not just because it was awkward and unoptimized at launch day, but also because every step they took became a misstep in their core audience’s eyes. Even things like visible item respawn timers, which help new players learn how to better play the game, were heralded as signs that Bethesda was abandoning the original vision in favor of some sort of–*shudder*–Triple A game design.

By the time Quake Champions was playable, nobody was playing it. And that’s sad.

When It’s Not The Quake 3 Effect

There’s another game that has yet to come out–Bomb Rush Cyberfunk–which is, like the Quake 3 clones, a spiritual successor. However, it hasn’t suffered from the same negative response that Quake Champions and some less-clone-y Quake 3 successors have, and I have a theory as to why.

See, Quake 3 is loved specifically for the way it plays. It had a tournament scene for a long, long time, and to this day it stands as a shining example of good balance. Jet Set Radio Future, on the other hand, isn’t loved for the way it plays–it’s loved for the way it feels. People don’t hold JSRF tournaments. Hell, by all accounts, JSRF just kinda felt clunky to play at times.

The thing that draws players in for a JSRF successor isn’t the details of the gameplay, but the look and feel of the game–the aesthetic, not the mechanics. As a result, Bomb Rush Cyberfunk may succeed where Quake Champions failed. This isn’t a guarantee, of course–and there have certainly been mediocre JSRF successors, like Hover–but Bomb Rush Cyberfunk has a better chance than Quake Champions, and I think it’s because Bomb Rush Cyberfunk is inheriting a style, not a set of mechanics.

Update: 2021-10-05

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