The new console cycle is a great opportunity to refresh franchises, introduce new IPs, and even change the way publishers, developers, and console manufacturers do their business going forward. It’s an exciting time for tech, and a chance to put lessons learned in the last generation into action. However, with launch titles like Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag, Call of Duty: Ghosts, and Battlefield 4, not to mention the ubiquity of games coming to both current and next-gen consoles, there’s one lesson I don’t think anyone cares enough about.
Annualization, incremental updates, and off-year dev teams are just some of the dirty words the next-gen doesn’t seem to be addressing. Some game franchises seem locked into a crash course of relentless yearly updates strapped with doubt and expectations. Even if they manage to meet expectations, the same song and dance starts again next year.
Why it’s bad
Do you remember a time when nearly every big franchise sequel was hotly anticipated? It still happens, but it’s almost always when that franchise is given a chance to sit out for more than a year. It helps when we know the same development team is behind it. Lately, the anticipation hasn’t been about the return of a franchise we love, but whether a team can even make a competent game a year later, or whether a new team can capture the special sauce of a series.
Even when a game is surprisingly good, it’s not nearly as exciting as it used to be — unless you’re talking about a new IP or an obscure indie game. If this year’s Call of Duty is the best one ever (it isn’t) then it’s still another one of ten billion Call of Duty titles. Even though Assassin’s Creed 4 has reviewed well, I haven’t even made the effort to put the disc in the tray because I know, more or less, what I’m getting out of it.
Why it’s not always bad
Sometimes quick sequels are welcome. Battlefield 4 has had people generally excited because really, it looks like BF3 2.0. People haven’t tired of the franchise yet, but DICE should probably take a long break before BF5 comes along. Even if BF4 is a welcome quick sequel, it’s been plagued with bugs and issues since launching across current gen, next gen, and PC. It probably could have used another month or two to iron out everything, but the holiday rush prevents any chance of that happening.
Unless you’re Watchdogs.
There’s a clear contradiction here — the care that goes into launching a new IP isn’t the same as the long-running franchise. One is anticipated but unproven, while the other is established and successful already. Why wouldn’t you put the extra care into the sure thing?
There seems to be no stop to the pace once you start it, to the point where, when Rocksteady wanted a break from Batman to work on something else (or they simply needed more time for what they were cooking up), WB formed a new studio and pumped out the weakest and least inspired entry in the series. The Batman Arkham franchise, before about a month ago, felt like one of those great, untouchable franchises you rarely get outside of Nintendo or Valve. It felt like a series with success you can respect. Not so much anymore.
Oh, but I was supposed to be talking about the good side of all this wasn’t I?
No really, there is a good side sometimes
In the struggle to maintain franchise relevance, or simply keep the lights on, a publisher will sometimes dust off a franchise and throw it to a new guy to see what happens. Sometimes the result is a game like DmC — a game that despite so much doubt and criticism thrust in its direction, ended up being an excellent entry and a brilliant reinvention of an admittedly tired franchise.
There’s a difference between putting a fresh face on something and giving away someone’s baby because they want to work on something else. A franchise won’t die on the vine if it takes two, three, even four years for a sequel. Would Bioshock Infinite have been a less anticipated game if Bioshock 2 never came out? Were the profits from that game and The Bureau really worth what it did to the people that worked at 2K Marin?
There is a balance to be found between profit and artistic vision. Publishers need to be smarter about choosing enthusiastic teams and acknowledging that game development requires a ton of drive. A game can’t be good if the team behind it doesn’t believe in what they’re doing.
A different way of looking at it
Publishers should consider how a franchise’s success can lead to successful new IPs. Was The Last of Us not built upon the lessons learned throughout developing Uncharted? Was it not anticipated because it was from the developers of Uncharted? When you toss a franchise around from developer to developer it loses its meaning, but keep that franchise and developer close and you can see the influence it has.
Would it mean anything if you said, “From the creators of Call of Duty” at this point? How many people even know who developed each game in the franchise? Yet, at the same time, the excitement for Titanfall comes partly from the knowledge that these are the guys who established Call of Duty and really made it what it was. There’s genuine value in the teams and people behind these games. As much as publishers want to toss them around like so many pawns, it might be time to give them the respect, time, and patience they deserve. They might even make more money and keep more fans around in the end.
This isn’t an easy lesson to learn, but I hope that the game industry can collectively see the timeline before them. Sure, Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed still make a ton of money, but it’s been said again and again that that’s not really a sustainable business model. Along with that, there’s the dreaded death of consoles, rise of mobile, and worse. But really, the new consoles are here and they’re pretty cool, so it might be time to stop making excuses and start respecting this industry for what it is — a well of creativity and talent that when pointed in a positive direction, can make a truckload of money and many happy fans.
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