A Look Back At: Franchise

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.Image
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).COD-DOG2
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.

A Look Back At: Achievements

With the Xbox One and the PS4 coming out in merely a few months, I thought I’d start this little hobby of mine by looking back at some of the best (and possibly even the worst, depending on your point of view) innovations and ideas which were introduced to the gaming audience over this last generation of consoles, whether it be the effects of Franchises on gaming as a whole, the emotional attachment to characters in recent games, whether they be real or forced upon the player as a narrative device. I wondered which aspect to start but, for me, the greatest addition has certainly been that of Achievements for the Xbox 360 and, to a lesser extent, that of Trophies for the PlayStation.

Achievements completely changed gaming for me, even before I moved over to Xbox Live from my previous offline account. For those first two years it was a race between my siblings and I which, of course, I completely dominated (relatively anyway, I still burn with embarrassment whenever I remember proudly showing off my 12,000 Gamerscore to a friend of mine who, unbeknownst to me, had almost 48,000, even back then). They changed the way I play games but, most of all, they changed the way I count a game as finished.

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Now, it used to be, unless the game was one I was madly, madly in love with (games like Freedom Fighters, Knights of the Old Republic, Star Wars Battlefront, Half-Life amongst the hundreds of others I fervently remember, along with anyone lucky enough to play said games back then), I would beat the campaign mode and call the game finished. But now, you can tear through a campaign or the story and end the game with only, say, a third of all the possible achievements. I do love achievements, but recently they are starting to make me feel as though I have to carry on playing games that I have long since ceased to enjoy, not that I choose to name any names here (Dynasty Warriors 7). It seems to me that, for as enjoyable as achievement hunting is, it has made playing certain games less of a hobby and more of an ordeal.

I have tried to fight my own overwhelming sense of nostalgia when discussing this aspect of achievements but I know that when I was younger, and video games did not have achievements (a time period that even gamers I know whom are as little as two years younger don’t remember), it was the gameplay, the narrative and the feel of the game which drew you into finishing the game. I still feel it is a similar way with certain PC games, particularly on Steam, where I don’t really feel the achievements mean anything.

Realistically, in the grand scheme of things, a non-gamer could say that Achievements and Trophies in any iteration barely mean anything, but that isn’t the way that I feel, and I’m sure it isn’t the way you feel either. They seem to act as markers for, well, almost the last few years of my ‘career’ as a Gamer, if you’ll accept the term. I feel that they would mean more to me had they been there right from the start, that if suddenly achievements from the games I played when I was barely able to climb the stairs, games like Final Fantasy III, Dizzy the Egg and Rune: Viking Warlord were marked on my Gamer profile, then I’d definitely feel that my profile was a bigger part of me than it is already is.

The first achievement I ever got, that I can call mine anyway, was for escaping from the sewers in Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. Though I try not to write too, well, too over-emotionally, it was the perfect achievement for an Achievement Hunting virgin. After half an hour of creeping through dark dungeons and stinking sewers, looting Akaviri Katanas from the hands of dead Blades (the guards of the Emperor, a character briefly played by Patrick Stewart), I emerged into the sunlight, blinded for the briefest of moments until all I could see was the small, then unfamiliar icon, appear at the bottom of the screen.

Since then, I have seen the thing pop up hundreds of times. At the exact time of writing I have 3761 achievements, so if we round that down to, say, 3600 (for every achievement I have got at the same time as another, for example when I finish a Halo on Legendary, thereby unlocking every other difficulty achievement and the one for completing the final level), the fact that I can still remember my first is, at least to me, quite astonishing. Mostly because I’ll admit to having a memory like a sieve with all the metal removed, but also because I did not like the idea of achievements when I first heard about them, all those years ago. I didn’t like the idea that someone could virtually see everything I had done on a console, or in any specific game, and judge me for it. Normally, I wouldn’t care but, seeing as one of the most important aspects of Achievements is to show off to other gamers, it would be kind of hypocritical to proclaim I don’t care what other gamers think of me.

The trouble with Achievements recently, is that they are one of the few reasons I am playing some games, particularly those I would have little interest in playing otherwise, RAGE for example. I couldn’t force myself to get more than two hours in before I gave up on it, not because it was too hard, but because the entire game felt, at least to me, as though I was playing a Borderlands without the joy of online play. Now I have nine achievements on the game and that will stay on my profile forever, because I certainly don’t see myself buying the game again anytime soon, no matter how dirt cheap it may go. Though I barely have any 100% games, at least compared to the amount of games I’ve played, (I think I’ve only achieved 100% on fifteen games at the moment, and few are games to be proud of) I like to think that I finish games with an acceptable level of their achievements and the fact that this low percentage is forever hanging from my profile, like a desiccated limb, angers me a great deal.

However, I could overlook these annoyances if it wasn’t for one achievement in one game, the ‘You Blew It Up’ achievement in Halo: Reach, which you, well, achieved when ‘Your team blew up the research facility in a matchmade Invasion game on Breakpoint’. We stopped playing Reach soon after I got this achievement, which was worth 13G, meaning my Gamerscore is eternally a number which is not a multiple of 5. It’s a small and, to be honest, quite a pathetic complaint compared to all the travesties in the world today (not least the fact that someone, somewhere, thought that adding Quick-Time-Events, Escort Missions or Turret-Sections to every other game developed over the past few years was a good idea), I know, but it still pisses me off to no end.

One of the single scariest things about the next generation of consoles is the idea that players may be able to gain achievements by watching TV series’ on the Xbox One. This, to me, just seems proof that the next generation is much less a series of consoles, but rather a multimedia box. I don’t want to provoke any kind of console warfare, I think the internet has seen enough of that already and the damn things aren’t even out yet, but I feel that achievements will start to mean much less to the Gaming community if you can gain them just for watching The Walking Dead, Game Of Thrones and Breaking Bad. Although, I have to say, if you’re brave enough to force yourself through every episode of, say, Falling Skies, Glee, Sex in the City or that goddamned Honey-Boo-Boo thing, you probably do deserve an achievement.

Looking back (you see how I tied it all together with the title in the end? That’s what two years of doing essays for English and Creative Writing does for you!) and despite the ever-growing concerns I have for the future of gaming, as they become more and more like interactive narratives (which, of course, I have no problem with, especially if we take Telltale’s The Walking Dead as a forerunner of the idea that games are little more than interactive story-telling). All I do worry about with the recent changes in the ways that games are being viewed, and developed, is they often contain little to no challenge, which is almost a polar opposite from earlier games, where you would guide a little metaphorical drug addict around a darkened maze collecting pills and being chased by ghosts, with absolutely no narrative accompaniment. I still feel that achievements have been a greatly positive addition to gaming in general, making it a more competitive hobby, harkening back to the days of Arcades  where you would struggle to top the leader board filled with the creatively formulated initials of future royalty, leaders of industry and the free world, like ASS, BUM and POO, and breathing life into games that players may otherwise stop playing much sooner but, in some circumstance (hate to mention Dynast Warriors 7 again but, it is the best example I can think of) it is not necessarily a good thing.