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Are annual franchise iterations healthy?
We all know that Bobby Kotick and Yves Guillemot aren’t running charities; Ubisoft and Activision are in the business of making games for money, and big videogame franchises have the potential to make a lot of money.
This holiday season saw the release of the latest Assassins Creed and Call of Duty, two of the biggest selling franchises in the industry right now: With Modern Warfare 3 the fastest selling entertainment product ever, reaping $1 Billion dollars in 16 days (1) and Revelations marking the Assassins Creed franchises’ biggest ever launch (2).They are also the leaders in a growing trend toward yearly iterations of the industry’s biggest franchises, with an annual release of some form for the past 5 years.
This is really new for the industry, as sports games have been infiltrating the wallets of fans on a yearly basis for much longer, with annual updates of EA’s Fifa since 1994 and Madden NFL since 1992.
But with more and more franchises tending toward this trend in pursuit of profit, the worrisome possibility arises that annual releases could be milking franchises harder than the cattle of Lon Lon Ranch instead of allowing them a few years to pasture and creatively mature. Just look at the sudden decline of interest in Guitar Hero and Rock Band or the creative pothole that Tony Hawk found himself dried up in as evidence of this.
Consider a world in which Team Ico were forced to output a project ever year. Now I’m sure many of you (berated by the long wait for The Last Guardian) are imagining how great that would be. But the very reason that many of the greatest games of all time are called so is because they were given a lengthy development cycle, allowed to make mistakes along the process and evolve naturally into brilliant experiences. Just look at how many times Resident Evil 4 had to restarted before Mikami settled on a tone and setting(3).
If strict time constraints are imposed upon every project out there in pursuit of making more money whilst the teats are still lactating then the risk is run that those teats will dry up much quicker. The inevitable truth is that a development will be safer and less ambitious if time constraints are placed upon it from the beginning.
A counter argument could be made though that both the Assassins Creed and Call of Duty franchises suit annual iterations. Gamers clearly want more of that Call of Duty formula on a yearly basis, that much is clear in the sales figures, so why make them wait for something they do not want simply for the sake of innovation?
It is also a little unfair to suggest that there is absolutely no change whatsoever within annual franchises: Assassins Creed manages to consistently introduce new features – Multiplayer in brotherhood and Tower defence in Revelations -, whilst Call of Duty dabbles in Nazi zombies and its new community based Elite service. But these are minor updates, masking what is otherwise a rehash of last years experience.
It’s a balancing act that every developer and publisher must tread carefully, between squeezing every last penny from a franchises’ earning potential and fostering its creative possibilities. To far one way and you have Madden with its yearly updates amounting to little more than a new roster and ball colour, to far the other and you have Duke Nukem Forever; a project so troubled by the turmoil of its huge development cycle that it will either never see the light of day or completely overcook in the creative oven.
Do they damage the industry then? Well that depends upon your perspective. As a consumer it is your choice to purchase a product and the figures clearly show that millions of people happily make that choice every year for these franchises. As someone in the business of making money from videogames annual iterations make financial sense, bearing in mind the caveat of retaining enough creative integrity to remain appealing.
It is, after all, only serving the principle of supply and demand. And as economic downturns place more pressure upon developers to produce a hit, developing a franchise that can reap an annual income is the safer bet. But as the old saying goes – good things come to those who wait.