On Friday, it finally happened: Kingdom Hearts III came out. Only in Japan, granted, but barring a catastrophe—which wouldn’t be a shock where Kingdom Hearts is concerned—the supremely long-delayed sequel to 2005’s Kingdom Hearts II will arrive worldwide on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One next Tuesday, bringing an end to a path to publication as labyrinthine as some of the series’ game titles (Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue?) and plot points.
Counting mobile, handheld, and browser-based games—but not counting collections and remasters—Kingdom Hearts III is the 12th installment in the Kingdom Hearts series, an action-RPG crossover between Disney and Square Enix (the makers of Final Fantasy) that first appeared on PlayStation 2 in 2002. It took only 3 and a half years for Kingdom Hearts II to come out, but the next direct console sequel languished in development hell for more than 13 years before proving it wasn’t vaporware. Although the game was officially announced at E3 in 2013, it was in development as early as 2010, and discussions between Disney and director Tetsuya Nomura started as early as 2006.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Kingdom Hearts III’s long-belated release—aside from the fact that the game evidently didn’t lose its way during its protracted development—is that the game won’t be the most distant sequel released in 2019. Polygon’s list of 2019’s most anticipated titles, which includes Kingdom Hearts III, also features Shenmue III (18 years since previous installment), MechWarrior 5 (17 years), Psychonauts 2 (14 years), Devil May Cry 5 (11 years), Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 (10 years), Crackdown 3 (nine years), and Rage 2 (nine years), in addition to name-checking two more upcoming sequels that haven’t received release dates, Beyond Good & Evil 2 (16 years) and Metroid Prime 4 (12 years). In keeping with the theme, the best-selling game in Japan prior to Kingdom Hearts III’s street date was Ace Combat 7, the first entry in the long-running flight-combat series’ central continuity since 2007’s Ace Combat 6.
Some of those as-yet-unreleased games may slip into 2020 or beyond, further increasing the time between sequels. The examples cited above don’t share identical origin stories, but taken together, this barrage of sequels to aged games reflects a few ways in which the video game industry’s current conditions have grown ripe for revivals of long-dormant franchises. In an increasingly crowded and risky market where development costs are constantly climbing, publishers are reaching for recognizable names, even if they’re attached to series that seemed defunct.
Video game data is difficult to come by, so it’s tough to track the incidence of such sequels over time. Although we obtained records from the NPD Group of game releases, grouped by franchise, from 2000 to 2018, pre-2000 data is spotty, and even post-2000 information is challenging to parse for extended absences between related titles, thanks to the plethora of platforms on which games can appear, the presence of spinoffs, and the tendency for remixed and remastered versions of games to appear even in the absence of full-fledged sequels. The distant sequel isn’t solely a 2019 phenomenon: Follow-ups have taken their sweet time in past years, too, from the notoriously long-delayed 2011 shooter Duke Nukem Forever and the same year’s Marvel vs. Capcom 3 to lesser-known examples such as Deception IV (2014), Carmageddon: Reincarnation (2015), and V-Rally IV (2018). But there’s about to be a deluge, and it doesn’t look like a coincidence.
The first, and simplest, reason that so many sequels are arriving so long after the games they follow is that games are getting bigger in scope and size and are taking a ton of time and money to make. “If a AAA game takes three or four years to make when everything goes right, then any delay in starting the sequel, any significant stumble in development, is going to push the sequels that much further out,” says Brendan Sinclair, North American editor of gamesindustry.biz, via email. Last year’s best-selling game, Red Dead Redemption II, came out 8 and a half years after Red Dead Redemption and was in grueling development the entire time, suffering three delays. That’s what it took to produce a game with a world of unprecedented detail and enough content for completionist playthroughs to average more than 140 hours.
Kingdom Hearts III is another entry in the “making modern games is complicated” category. KH III took so long to complete, Nomura has explained, partly because technological advances over the course of three console generations demanded a mid-development migration from an internal game engine to the more powerful Unreal Engine 4, and partly because of competition from other Square Enix projects. Nomura himself assisted with multiple Final Fantasy titles during the period between Kingdom Hearts II and III.
Of course, most of the forthcoming distant sequels haven’t been in development for a decade or more; they’re recent projects that arose after a fallow stretch for a franchise. And they’re becoming more common because a series resurrection represents a relatively low-risk approach to the industry’s blockbuster arms race. “It’s a hit-driven business, and the big publishers (EA, Activision, and the like) have been chasing a strategy of fewer, bigger, better titles,” Sinclair says. “And when you’re competing in that space, you either have a megahit you’re constantly refreshing every few years at most, an entirely new thing you’re hoping to make into a big deal (very risky), or you look for money in the couch.”
That last category is where the distant sequel comes in: It’s the product of a known but not-capitalized-on commodity that’s already in a publisher’s portfolio or easily obtainable. A license with a prominent past, Sinclair says, is “something you know already has a fan base to build off of, something that will get attention without you needing to push so hard. Something that is old enough that it could probably benefit from having modern tech and gameplay conventions applied to it.”
That name value is particularly important for big-budget single-player games, a class that contains most of the high-profile distant sequels on the way. That group of games, NPD Group industry analyst Mat Piscatella says via email, is “currently undergoing disruption and competition from the growing strength of service-based multiplayer games such as Rainbow Six Siege, Destiny, Call of Duty, PUBG, and Fortnite [and] the related increase in importance of downloadable content and microtransactions, all of which is being driven by an ongoing shift in why people play, moving away from solitary gaming experiences toward more social ones.”
Couple that with the pressure to make single-player-centric, offline-oriented games enormous and the competition from thousands of new indie games flooding Steam and other online marketplaces, and “the likelihood of profitable success, particularly in single-player-focused AAA content, continues to get more challenging,” Piscatella says. That makes minimizing risk more important and increases the temptation to pursue existing IP that might make consumers nostalgic enough to spend.
In that sense, the rash of distant sequels in the interactive realm isn’t unlike the rise of rampant reboots and remakes we’ve witnessed in movies and TV, where a corresponding onslaught of scripted content has put a premium on established brands that stand out against the backdrop of bottomless originals. Hearing about the first MechWarrior release since 2000 may make many gamers think, “Now that’s a name I’ve not heard in a long time”; still, at least it’s a name they’ve heard at some point, and potentially one with positive associations from a formative period in their gaming pasts. That title may be worth a longer look, where another game would get glazed eyes.
Some of the series receiving sequels long after their “Continue?” countdowns seemed to run out weren’t financial successes; Shenmue, Beyond Good & Evil, and Psychonauts were all commercial duds to different degrees. In the cases of Shenmue and Psychonauts, crowdfunding came to the rescue, demonstrating that an audience existed for sequels to the cult titles, which led directly to successors getting green-lit. Psychonauts raised almost $4 million on Fig, while Shenmue raised more than $7.1 million on Kickstarter and other crowdsourcing platforms, making it the most-funded game in the site’s history and one of the most-funded projects of any kind.
“Crowdfunding has tended to be one of those things that [is] as much a proof of interest for other investors or partners as it is to actually achieve development funds,” Piscatella says. Even $4 million or $7 million won’t cover the whole cost of a major modern game. But it does, Piscatella adds, “show that some number of people out there are willing to put money up years in advance for the product, which with some creative extrapolation can turn magically into a sales forecast.” Publisher Starbreeze committed $8 million to distribute Psychonauts 2, while Shenmue earned additional funding from Sony and publisher Deep Silver. Even though Kickstarter support for video games has started to decline, it remains a viable path for gone-but-not-forgotten games to spawn sequels—or reboots or spiritual successors—years after the usual release window has closed. And more and more publishers—some standalone entities and some indie-oriented divisions within larger companies—are eager to partner with smaller developers that might consider rehabilitating an inert IP.
Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 could be a bellwether of yet another new model of distant sequels. The successor to 2009’s Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2 is being developed by Team Ninja and published by Nintendo, which will make it exclusive to Switch. “The console manufacturer digital marketplaces are now the leading retailers of content on consoles,” Piscatella explains. “Console makers also know exclusive content is one of the big draws and motivators for purchase.” That changes the risk/reward calculation for console makers: If they help fund or distribute a distant sequel in exchange for exclusivity, they can recoup their costs by providing another selling point for their system. As a result, Piscatella says, “I can definitely see a likely scenario where console manufacturers take a more active role in funding these kinds of games.”
In the short term, the spread of distant sequels will likely depend on how the wave that’s currently cresting fares financially. “If Kingdom Hearts III comes out [Tuesday] and sells well and takes the top spot on the January rankings and sets a sales record for the franchise, and if [Devil May Cry] comes out and shows growth from previous release, we could see more of these types of games show up,” Piscatella says. “The games industry always wants historical benchmarks on which to base future expectations, [and] they’re shockingly happy to rely on outliers and exceptionally small sample sizes of successful titles to do it. On the other hand, if most/all these games fizzle, well … same goes the other way.”
In the long run, though, all indicators point toward a future that’s populated by progeny of the past. In the gaming industry, as in most entertainment arenas in the era of unceasing distraction, “What is dead may never die” remains a sound strategy for convincing consumers not to press pause.
Thanks to Jessica Barbour for research assistance.