Remake Fatigue? Not for Video Games

Illustration by: Design Lad

While Hollywood creators are criticized for relying on established properties, video game developers are ramping up reboots and revivals that aim to feel "familiar yet fresh."

A cursory glance at the 2019 box office reveals why some critics have argued that there are no original ideas in Hollywood. Of the top 10 global earners, only two — Captain Marvel and Joker — were not direct sequels or remakes of existing franchises. And even those revolved around classic comic book characters.

The considerably younger video game industry has escaped such scrutiny even as it mimics the film business in mining catalogs for new content. In 2019, nearly all the 10 top-grossing titles on PC and console devices in the U.S. were direct sequels like Borderlands 3, incremental sports releases like NBA 2K20 or a reboot like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, which earned more than $600 million in three days. The only exception was EA and Respawn Entertainment's Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, based of course on an iconic franchise.

"Nostalgia is a powerful thing," says Peter Fabiano, producer and game developer at Capcom, which has had success in remaking its Resident Evil titles. "People want to see something familiar yet fresh. With games, hitting that sweet spot is a challenge."

Capcom struck that balance with 2019's Resident Evil 2, a remake of the 1998 original that has sold more than 5 million copies, besting the lifetime sales of its predecessor. Now the company is gearing up to launch a highly anticipated remake of Resident Evil 3 (the trailer has topped 2.6 million views).

Nintendo, too, capitalized on fan nostalgia by remaking 1993 Game Boy classic The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening with revamped graphics. That game, updated for the Nintendo Switch, sold more than 4 million copies in 2019.

Just as in film — where all but four of the 46 features topping $1 billion are based on an existing property or franchise — video game reboots can be big business. In eight of the past 10 years, a Call of Duty title has been the top-earning game release. The other two years, sequels to Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption won out.

Still, there are clear differences between the industries when it comes to remaking a classic title. "Unlike film, it's not just about preserving the story or shots," says Fabiano, noting that developers must keep the essence of the source material while making something that still feels fresh. "We also create assets from scratch, and working through the whole process is always a challenge."

Adds Paul Yan, co-studio head of developer Toys for Bob: "There's a unique component with games where there's a muscle memory built into them. I don't think there's a parallel to that in film."

Yan's studio has a lot of experience remastering older games, including Activision's Spyro Reignited Trilogy, a 2018 redesign of the three original PlayStation games: 1998's Spyro the Dragon, 1999's Ripto's Rage and 2000's Year of the Dragon. The packaged trio sold more than 2 million copies, banking largely on fan nostalgia for a series that launched in 1998. Spyro Reignited followed the 2017 release of Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy, a collection of remastered versions of the three original Crash Bandicoot games from the PlayStation era. That title topped 10 million copies sold.

The success has prompted Activision to follow. In a February earnings call, CFO Dennis Durkin said the company will "tap into our portfolio of beloved IP to bring several remastered and reimagined experiences to our players in 2020." That could include franchises such as Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, Call of Duty and Guitar Hero.

Says Wedbush analyst Michael Pachter: "Remakes are 'free money' for their owners. They cost very little to remaster into high-definition and are highly likely to generate 10 to 20 percent of the original title's unit sales."

“I think when you come up on a big 10 or 20 year anniversary of a classic, there’s a nostalgia wave that hits,” says Lewis Ward, research director of gaming and VR/AR at tech market research firm IDC. “There’s a chance to sell it to people who loved it the first time around and also grab a new audience that’s never played it.”

Just as Disney has found success in remaking animated films like Aladdin and The Lion King, Yan sees a trend in game remakes emerging. "There's just such a wealth of IP from back in the '80s and '90s," he says. "Those communities back then were more fractured and niche, so there's a bigger opportunity to open that up and be more mainstream with modern remakes."

While there are concerns about remake fatigue in Hollywood, there's no sign of it among video game developers — at least seven remakes will be released in 2020.

"If the opportunity makes sense, I don't see why we would be resistant," Yan says of remakes. "Grown adults wept with joy at the sight of Spyro Reignited. It spoke to how powerful tapping into these memories from formative years is for people."

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Top Video Games of 2019

Sequels dominated game purchases, nabbing eight of the top 10 slots.

1. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2019 (Activision Blizzard, Remake); Original release: 2007

2. NBA 2K20 (Take 2 Interactive, Sequel); Original release: 1999

3. Madden NFL 20 (Electronic Arts, Sequel); Original release: 1988

4. Borderlands 3 (Take 2 Interactive, Sequel); Original release: 2009

5. Mortal Kombat 11 (Warner Bros. Interactive, Sequel); Original release: 1992

6. Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order (Respawn Entertainment); Original release: 2019

7. Smash Bros. Ultimate (Nintendo, Sequel); Original release: 1999

8. Kingdom Hearts 3 (Square Enix, Sequel); Original release: 2002

9. Tom Clancy's The Division 2 (Ubisoft, Sequel); Original release: 2016

10. Mario Kart 8 (Nintendo, Sequel); Original release: 1992

A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.