Sequels and expansions used to be different things, but at a time when many games are never supposed to end—never meant to be 'done'—the line has blurred. Path of Exile 2, for instance, isn't precisely a new game release. It's an exciting additional campaign and an overhaul of Path of Exile's current graphics engine and skill system. It's coming as an update, not a new Steam page.
Overwatch 2 is not a standard sequel, either. It's a new release (it has its own SKU, as they'd say on a quarterly earnings call) with new Story Missions, but Blizzard doesn't expect every Overwatch player to make the switch right away. To avoid splitting up players, the PvP multiplayer modes of Overwatch and Overwatch 2 will be updated in parallel, so that owners of either can play together. Eventually, the games will be merged into one game. Overwatch 2 will then exist despite there being no such thing as Overwatch 1. Or will they take the '2' off after the merge and just go back to calling it Overwatch?
Back in the '90s, multiplayer games got a few post-release patches and some official servers, but other than that, were left to modders and private server owners to do with as they please. You can still play Quake online today, but id Software's last stable version, called QuakeWorld 2.30, released in 1998. Quake's creators aren't involved in the frags happening in basement servers today.
Game patches are no longer preserved in that way. The version of Overwatch we played at launch will probably never be playable again, and that's true of most multiplayer-focused games. I can't dip into Rainbow Six Siege as it was at launch, and if Ubisoft were ever to make a Rainbow Six Siege 2, I suspect it would do something similar to what Blizzard is doing with Overwatch.
With every automatic game update, something is gained and something is lost. Even nasty balance issues that everyone was glad to be rid of can inspire nostalgia. Remember when Bungie dropped the bugged Prometheus Lens into Destiny 2 and players were vaporizing each other near-instantly? It was funny, but of course it had to be fixed. It's one of thousands of moments that can never be re-experienced. It also reinforces the idea that when you play a game matters more than ever.
The amount of patching that goes into online games today makes it infeasible to release each as an individual download and let players decide what version they want to run, and seamless online environments with microtransactions preclude user-run servers. The old days are never going to return.
Part of me wishes they would—it feels wrong that game preservation is effectively over in some cases—but I also don't want Rainbow Six Siege to be static. I love the discussions, drama, and excuses to dive back into a game that balance changes and updates create. Some of the most fun I've had in Siege was when the most recent operators released and everyone was carelessly throwing exploding shields down and accidentally getting their teammates killed. I can't wait to see what the game looks like in the first days after a woman with a giant sniper rifle is added. These ephemeral moments can't truly be recreated because they're shared experiences dependent on context.
By all accounts I've seen, Blizzard did come close to recreating the launch of World of Warcraft, which is what players wanted to experience in World of Warcraft Classic—not just the objective qualities of the original game. It's hard to see that success translating to many other games, and after another 15 years, I wonder if Blizzard will have to launch World of Warcraft Classic Classic to re-recreate that experience, and if it will actually be at all similar to the 2004 launch of WoW.
Path of Exile 2 and Overwatch 2 are fitting announcements to end the decade on. These unconventional 'sequels' are the result of a project that began 16 years ago with the release of Steam, and which has achieved dominance over the past 10, with Team Fortress 2 still kicking and seemingly no possibility of a Team Fortress 3 on the horizon. Sequels aren't completely dead—there'll be more Assassin's Creeds and Calls of Duty and all that—but more and more games are now platforms that can be added to and rebuilt forever.
There's a thought problem called the Ship of Theseus that goes like this: If you build a ship, and then over the course of a century replace all of its planks and parts so that none of the original building material remains, is it still the same ship?
Likewise, is Rainbow Six Siege the same game that launched in 2015? Or is it secretly Rainbow Six Siege 2? Have we been frequently losing games this whole time, allowing sequels not to follow—literally as the next part of a sequence—but to usurp their originals like body snatchers?
World of Warcraft provides the best example of this videogame identity problem: Classic is distinct from modern World of Warcraft, but it's also the same game, just at a different point in time. In the future, I wonder if Overwatch players will wistfully dream of the old days, too. Overwatch Classic, anyone?