The world of entertainment is no stranger to a franchise. Movies, television, video games and even books have trilogies, quadrilogies and other series that seem forever expansive and intertwine mediums.
During 2012 it seemed every video game franchise in existence had a new instalment available. Alongside the usual suspects of Super Mario and Call of Duty there also arrived new instalments of Max Payne and Mass Effect.
In the months of October through December 2012, six new releases arrived into my game collection, five of them sequels and even the exception, Dishonored, is now labelled rightly so as a new franchise and many reviews noticed traits of franchises such as Thief and Deus Ex within.
Just one of the 20 best-selling games of the year in the UK was an original title in Sleeping Dogs footing the list but that is also heavily influenced by elements of already well-established franchises.
So why are there so many video game franchises? Many developers depend on their key properties for a reliable income. The money generated can be absolutely massive, with commercial success comparable to major box office takings. The latest Assassin’s Creed released may have 3 in the title but it is actually the 11th in the series (including handheld and mobile platform releases). Ubisoft have pledged a ‘true sequel’ every two years but still have a yearly Assassin’s release to ensure a steady cash flow. However it can’t just be about the money, why do gamers constantly anticipate for the latest incarnation of so many franchises?
Familiarity and longevity. The world, gameplay and characters worked the first time so why shouldn’t they again and again? Reasons to enjoy playing have already been established and we want to be placed there again to carry on that enjoyment. An emotional connection can also be created. Many of the most successful franchises like Mario and Zelda have been around since a lot of gamers were children. Having that feeling again but with better graphics is often welcomed.
Improvement and reinvention. There were notable sequels released this year that made significant improvements on their past titles. The Darkness 2 was one that made the most notable improvements that bettered its predecessor. A more superior and interesting art style and game play with newly added powers to wield out-weighed a predictable storyline so much as to hope that the series could even carry on in a third title. Franchises are also given reboots and remakes in order to keep it fresh and relevant and most of all keep it selling for many more years.
But is the continuation of major franchises ruining originality in video game development? Do developers struggle so much to come up with an original idea and to build new code from scratch that it is simply easier to work on numerous sequels? Are they just as bad as the movie sequel that no one asked for? I don’t recall there being much outcry over the release of Halo 4, the eighth Halo game overall (including Halo: Anniversary), than there was regarding the announcement of Star Wars Episodes VII – IX.
Is this because more faith is placed in video game development then in the realms of Hollywood? Or maybe the time between video game releases are usually lengthier between film releases meaning an audience is more ready for the latest sequel.
There is no slowing down and 2013 will see plenty more franchises show their latest offering including reboots of Tomb Raider and Devil May Cry, the much-anticipated Grand Theft Auto V along with new installments of Gears of War, Crysis, Metal Gear, Bioshock and Splinter Cell to name a mere few.
While these are all hot titles many are eagerly anticipating, video game franchises can unfortunately falter as dramatically as an unwanted film trilogy. The biggest of developers can attempt to stretch their top titles so far that they begin to break. For example Capcom are coming dangerously close to ruining Resident Evil for many. Operation Raccoon City was hoped to be an honest mistake, an attempt to please the Call of Duty audience with frivolous over the top, shoot to kill gameplay with no engaging plot line and little to no fun in playing. But similar flaws were found in the main title sequel, Resident Evil 6. Thanks to melodramatic narrative what was once an intense and challenging survival horror is now a cheesy set piece filled action adventure, succumbing to the pressure onset by COD’s popularity.
Indie gaming is steadily on the rise thanks to virtual consoles and downloadable services but it is also becoming the main outlet for originality. It seems it is now the only place for a ‘first of its kind’ title to be found. Independent developers need to seriously seize this kind of opportunity. Although the successful arcade title will also inevitably spawn as many as numbered sequels that will sell.
So is originality under severe threat in video game design? If a franchise is nurtured so carefully for financial gain why can’t the profits be invested back into the creation of the new rather than just another sequel? Are new properties just going to be rehashes of successful titles anyway?
Original titles are very few and far between, which should make an audience more open to trying them out but it seems instead that developers and publishers don’t give players enough credit in thinking they’re ready for the new. They appear to believe that we all prefer to be wrapped in the warm recognition of what we already know. The original and new should not and does not scare us. We’re just not given enough of it.
Franchises become franchises though because they are successful. Only an enjoyable gaming experience can warrant so many sequels surely? All the previously mentioned titles released the past year were actually great games so should we be just thankful that so many are available to us? Should we consider ourselves lucky that developers are willing to continue spending their careers working towards the latest and greatest sequel, grafting for that one improvement that will create a masterpiece?
In another year after all the sequels, reboots and few hidden originals are released it will be interesting to see what state the world of franchises will be in and whether developers start to experiment a bit more with their properties, if not create a new one entirely.