This little trip down memory lane comes after the news that Ubisoft will only consider developing or publishing videogames in the future, if they already are, or can become at some point in the near future, part of a franchise. In a recent interview in A List Daily, Tony Key, the publisher’s Vice-President of sales and marketing, stated that “That’s what all our games are about; we won’t even start if we don’t think we can build a franchise out of it. There’s no more fire and forget — it’s too expensive”.
First of all, from the business side of the argument, I understand. They are particularly well known for their previously established franchises, Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, anything Tom Clancy related, and most of their stand-alone titles such as the ever-unforgettable (and not in a good way) Enchanted Arms, haven’t really grabbed the audience’s attention as well as, say, Splinter Cell, Driver and Prince of Persia.
However, I still find the idea that a title has to be able to become a franchise abhorrent. I feel that it is acting as confirmation that the industry is only in place in order to make money. Obviously I understood that all along, I am not a fool, but to see it in action is disheartening.
I feel that, especially recently, franchises have been dominating the industry which is stifling the variation, a variation that I already felt, as I’m sure many of you do, that is already waning. Even the latest games I am excited about, GTA V, Saints Row 4 and Rome: Total War II to name but a few, are all part of a franchise. I suppose they do enable developers to take a game mechanic and refine and improve upon it, thereby making a better game each time. That is the plan, anyway.
Even some of the few games I am looking towards which I would not necessarily say are part of a franchise, The Bureau: XCOM Declassified (yes, I know it is part of the recently revived XCOM franchise, but it’s gameplay seems such a variation from the series’ normal of turn-based strategy, that I tend not to think of it as such), and Watch Dogs but, with Ubisoft’s recent announcement of their intention towards franchises, it looks likely that this game will evolve into a franchise.
I may well be opening myself to ridicule here, but I feel that many franchises either should have remained as stand-alone games, or have ended by now. Games such as Dynasty Warriors, which is currently up to 8, not including all the ‘Xtreme Legends’ and ‘Empires’ versions, or even, and has had no real innovation since the second title. It isn’t even as if it continues the story, instead simply retelling the same narrative over and over again. I almost curse myself for saying this, but I feel that even Gears of War, that cover-based, testosterone-fuelled bloodbath, should have ended at 3, and that Judgement was simply a company panicking that they might not have such a dependable source of income anymore. By no means was it a terrible game, but I feel that it lacked much of the content which made up Gears 1, 2 and 3. I feel that, though the writing was relatively poor in the series as a whole, after Gears 1 they seemed to realise that very few players actually cared about the narrative, and only wanted to hear ‘The Coletrain runs on Wholegrain, baby!’, or ‘Cool it, Dom’.
Though I may be disparaging the writing as a whole, I must say the storyline involving Dom and his wife in the second instalment of this gun/chainsaw-toting murder-spree was the stand out point of the whole series for me. The game seemed too macho to pull it off effectively but, to my pleasure, the payoff was enormous.
Which leads me on to the second point; in that often times the writing for these franchises grows less and less engaging as it ages. I think we all remember the debacle following the Mass Effect 3 ending (which I didn’t mind so much, but it seemed a little lazy), and this problem is present even in that holiest of games, Bioshock.
The first Bioshock was a terrifying journey through the darkest sides of humanity, the formerly glorious setting of the underwater City of Rapture having warped into a horrific vision of a world without any real law, without a sense of morality.
It had a narrative which drove me again, and again, even after I was long bored of the gameplay. The second instalment, however, was little more than a tolerable add-on or an XBLA game, and certainly didn’t deserve its own entire retail game. The writing bored me, and it came to a point where I was just praying for the game to be over.
But then Infinite swooped in, (literally) rescuing the entire series from the mental pile of mediocrity I had already inserted the franchise into. The relationship between Booker and Elizabeth, the careful way in which they almost replicated the terrible, breathtakingly beautiful world of Rapture in the sky had me on edge, thinking the writers were leading me in one direction, instead to be thrown completely wild. I have to say, the ending became a little confusing, but I like that it took me a little thought to understand it.
Key also went on to say. “It became very clear to us about two years ago that this is a blockbuster world we live in now.” Now, this is the comment that really irritated me. It shows a lack of understanding on the VP’s side that I can’t believe he could even consider saying it. Case in point, Minecraft, the PC title and its XBLA counterpart combined have sold over 17 Million copies worldwide over the past few years and I can’t imagine how anyone could possibly call Minecraft a “blockbuster” title. Even State of Decay, a game I will openly admit to being in love with, a recently released Zombie Survival Game, a first title from a newly formed studio, sold over 250,000 in its first 48 hours and has currently sold over 550,000 worldwide!
I understand that perhaps these numbers are almost trivial in comparison to, say, the 1.3 Million units of Last Of Us which were sold in the first week (according to Forbes magazine), but I don’t doubt that Naughty Dog’s PlayStation exclusive title cost much more to develop than Mohjang’s Minecraft or Undead Lab’s State Of Decay.
I must admit, I tend to believe that innovation is not made by the producers or highly-paid developers of “blockbusters” and the franchises which tend to follow them, instead by the indie developers, modders or smaller development companies whom have a reputation to build, who lack the comfort of an audience buying their product, simply because they are such an established company, like Ubisoft.
For this point, I’m going to take everybody’s favourite franchise, Call of Duty. These games sell millions, as a guarantee, and thereby they don’t need to innovate. Oh wait; I forgot the addition of a dog to the upcoming COD: Ghosts. Well, that has turned my argument completely upside down hasn’t it? Will you just look at all that innovation! It’s like you can cut it with an automatic shotgun, with explosive shells’, bayonet attachment (or something like that, I’m a little out of date).
Seriously though, the gameplay has stayed the same, and besides an increase in the quality of graphics, the amount of explosions and dubstep used in the trailers, and a decrease in any feeling of enjoyment whilst playing, I would struggle to tell the difference between any of games developed by Treyarch or Infinity Ward since Call of Duty 4.
I do enjoy many franchises, Total War, Assassin’s Creed, Halo and Battlefield to name but a few, and I understand that often they are one of the best ways to tell a story, despite the danger that the sequential writing might be considered in more of a negative light than the original narrative. I also understand that, if you can draw players into a franchise, you are guaranteed more money from their pocket than if you were to develop or produce a stand-alone game. Some franchises are so rich, so deep and interesting that there would be no way in which it could be given justice in just a single game. If the Mass Effect series had remained a solo game, the audience with myself included, would be clamouring for a sequel. It is when a franchise is created for the sake of creating a franchise, or simply to make money, that irritates me. I hate myself for quoting Liza Minnelli, but I do know that money is ‘what makes the world go round’, but I guess I’m still just an idealist.