[HDR Knowledge is a bi-weekly column written by Nayan Ramachandran and chronicles his hopes and wishes for the future of the industry. This week, we take a look at the root of series loyalty, and what it means to stray from the path of series continuity.]

All dedicated gamers have their favorite series: Final Fantasy, Halo, Dragon Quest, Ys, Metal Gear, Splinter Cell. No matter which one you pick to be your personal favorite, there are always elements that tie each entry in the series together to create a cohesive entity.

In the days of 8-bit gaming, series were the result of a continuing story, or the additional adventures of a well-loved character. Games like Super Mario Bros. and Rockman (Mega Man in North America and PAL territories) flourished through brand recognition has the years went on. Gamers came to feel comfortable with a series, usually for gameplay, and sometimes even aesthetics or story.

HDRKnov902.jpgAs time went on, developers started to become more inventive about how they approached the idea of a series iteration. Final Fantasy is an excellent early example. While Final Fantasy II for the Family Computer offered much of the same gameplay and atmosphere that fans of the first game had come to expect from a sequel, the game’s story was completely disconnected from the previous iteration, offering totally new characters, challenges, and even world. Final Fantasy may not have been the first series to change what gamers expect out of a series, but it was one of the best.

Castlevania has had a winding history as well. While the first two games starred the most famous vampire killer in the Belmont family, Simon, the third game in the series introduced his ancestor Trevor as the game’s protagonist. Within those three games, the gameplay also varied, going back and forth between action platformer and action adventure. While the game kept the series “in the family”, so to speak, for several titles, the series finally strayed from the Belmont family in favor of John Morris (the purported son of Quincey Morris from Bram Stoker’s Dracula). The series would continue to stray from and return to the Belmont family in later installments, and much of it only served to confuse the issue of series cohesiveness further.

Over complicating the entire discussion is the distinction between franchise and series. While the motivations behind some series are noble (Inafune dreamed of making a sequel to Rockman), the modern existence of the series is ruled by money. As game development costs rise each year, publishers become more and more allergic to new ideas and change. Square Enix has had to weather such a storm, expanding the Final Fantasy name and sticking it on games that otherwise would have no resemblance to the series otherwise.

HDRKnov903.jpgWhere in the Playstation 1 era, Squaresoft flourished with a wealth of unique IPs, today’s Square Enix is far more afraid, sticking the name Final Fantasy on all its biggest titles. And who can blame them? Financials have shown that fans of the company are not interested in games that don’t bear the name (evidenced by the lackluster sales of It’s a Wonderful World).

In the case of creating a distinction between series and franchise, and thereafter creating a solid thread that ties a series together, the existence of IP expansion tends to make things a little ugly. Even if we confine ourselves to the simple idea that all “numbered” installments are part of the main continuity, this excludes Castlevania, Contra, Metal Gear, and even Rockman.

What really is the common strand that brings a series together? What defines a game as part of the main continuity? Final Fantasy defined its main entries by high fantasy, as well as thematic story elements such as the crystals, and a struggle between light and dark. Final Fantasy VII changed a lot of this, by introducing steam punk to the mix, and largely doing away with the crystal premise entirely (which had been missing in previous iterations as well). The conflict became far more personal, and much of the high fantasy disappeared from the series.

The high fantasy in the Final Fantasy series reared its head again in Final Fantasy IX for the Playstation 1, which was designed as a Final Fantasy for traditionalists, and even reintroduced the crystals to the storyline. Final Fantasy XI was an even larger departure from the other entries, as it retained the thematic characteristics of the story, but the game itself was no longer a single player RPG, but a Massively Multiplayer Online RPG, in the vein of World of Warcraft.

Other than Square Enix’s declaration that this online game was the eleventh installment in the series, Final Fantasy XI shunned much of what made the series proper so appealing in the past, changing the structure of the gameplay, the structure of character progression, and even the basics by which the player interacted with the world.

HDRKnov901.jpgNintendo’s Metroid series changed more considerably when it finally made its way into the foray of 3D on the Gamecube. While past Metroid games had been 2D action platformers using the same viewpoint as its contemporaries, the new Metroid, dubbed Prime by developers Retro Studios, was presented from a first person view, akin to shooters like Quake and Halo.

When the game was first revealed, many long time Metroid fans demanded and explanation for such a drastic shift in the gameplay. Some even declared that Metroid proper was dead, and this new series was nothing more than a shadow of what 3D Metroid could have been.

Retro and Nintendo fired back with a simple explanation: both companies felt that Metroid was not defined by its viewpoint or its graphics. Such changes were only cursory and did not take away from what really made Metroid: a sense of exploration, and isolation. Thematically, the argument was air tight. The series still featured heroine Samus Aran as well as her long time enemies the Space Pirates, and of course the alien metroids. Many still condemned the series, and some outright ignore its current iterations.

For developers, it can be hard to understand what it means for a specific iteration to be part of a series. Many times developers want to take a series in a new direction for the sake of their own sanity, and for the sake of growing the series to be something more. The danger, of course, is in angering fans. Nintendo has been given a tremendous amount of latitude when defining what made a Super Mario game. The series’ progression from Mario Bros., to Super Mario Bros., to even Super Mario Galaxy, the series has time and time again thrown out what it considers the Mario canon and given us a whole new world to explore.

HDRKnov904.jpgWhy do Mario fans let such inconsistencies fly, while small changes like Raiden’s appearance in Metal Gear Solid 2 cause such fervor. Is it the make up of that series’ fans, or is it the doing of developers? Perhaps the key is in defining the series hallmarks at a young age. Castlevania had the benefit of big gameplay changes within its first four games. When Symphony of the Night finally went the exploration route after experimental tinkering in both Castlevania II and Dracula X, gamers were likely more receptive to the drastic shift. It probably also helped that many current Castlevania fans started playing the series from Symphony’s release.

Perhaps game series with a very consistent make-up from game to game tend to attract fans that expect a specific type of atmosphere and gameplay, and want it over and over again. They consider the series’ synonymous with a certain type of gameplay, story and protagonist. While Super Mario Galaxy seems on its surface like a strong departure from its past entries, each game does still adhere to certain thematic and gameplay related elements far beyond simply ‘jumping on mushrooms with eyes.’

Maybe the key to giving yourself room for reinvention in later iterations is not to adhere particularly to a given concept from the very beginning. By constantly changing what people expect out of a series, it becomes difficult for gamers to complain that some stale and stagnant gameplay mechanic defines the series, and thus allows developers to continue being creative, and reinventing the series their fans love and desire.

[Nayan Ramachandran sometimes strays from the path, but that's because he has the attention span of a gnat. He also writes his own blog, HDRL.]