Aug 23, 2013
Intellectual property. If ever there was a phrase that could send chills up the spine of both gamer and developer alike, it must be Game IP. The mere mention of it raises the hot buttons of piracy, digital rights management (DRM) and whether or not information wants to be free. Fear not though, for what we’re going to be concentrating on here is franchise vs. new IP, and taking a look at our old familiar buddies Mario, Sonic and the Master Chief.
The gaming industry is addicted to sequels; it is an almost integral feature of the industry. It is such a taken-for-granted expectation that even in the Simpsons, the fictional Bonestorm video game received a sequel.
Are sequels worse?
There is a general rule that sequels are always worse, but it is obviously not the case for all games as there are plenty of exceptions to this rule (Mass Effect 2, Uncharted 2, Just Cause 2 etc.).
Where it does count though is how the games are perceived and evaluated. Originality matters. The originality of a story, or a game mechanic or a character impacts a player’s enjoyment. But to their benefitor detriment? To analyse the performance of sequels, let’s take a look at two very different series Halo and Final Fantasy.
The Halo series is easily one of the world’s largest franchises, and many people even directly attribute part of the success of the Xbox console to this alien stomping behemoth. How has its success been affected by being part of a series?
The graph below tells a fairly easily discernible tale; as the series continued, its metacritic score gradually decayed, while sales peaked with Halo 3 and started to decline after that. This may be because Halo 3 was sold with the tagline “finish the fight”, so when Reach and Halo 4 arrived, people realised that Microsoft couldn’t afford to let the fight finish.
Additionally, although they would be considered huge achievements outside of the looming Halo shadow, the ‘spin-off’ games Halo Wars, Halo ODST and Halo CE: Anniversary all scored and sold considerably lower than the games in the main series. This fits with a rule of thumb that spin-off games struggle to receive similar recognition to the main series.
To compare with another franchise, Final Fantasy is an interesting case to look at. Square Enix have been producing the epic series of phenomenally successful (over 100m sold) games since 1987 (although they were obviously just Square back then). Although we are now up to Final Fantasy XV, they were initially reticent to produce direct sequels; while narrative and design styles are maintained across the series, each game has its own story, characters and often new mechanics. The first direct sequel in the series, the confusingly named Final Fantasy X2, was produced 16 years after the franchise’s inception. By some measures, the game was successful; it sold 3 million copies and has an 85 metacritic rating, however this is a significant drop from Final Fantasy X’s 6.6 million sold and 92 metacritic rating. Similarly Final Fantasy XIII-2 sold less than half the amount of the original and received a metacritic score 4 points lower than the original. X-2 and XIII-2 are the lowest selling of the series since Final Fantasy VI in the SNES days.
That New Game Smell
New IP gets people excited and perhaps it is ironic that this was demonstrated best by an iconic venerable old gaming series. At the 2012 VGAs, one of the games with the biggest buzz was a surprise game called “the Phantom Pain” by a previously unheard of studio called Moby Dick Studios. The beautiful yet disturbing video piqued the audience’s interest, with people wanting to find out more;about the company, about the game – and it wasn’t long until the internet detectives had pieced together that this was likely merely a clever marketing campaign for the latest in the 26 year old Metal Gear series. A new Metal Gear obviously created a huge buzz – and yet was unusually subdued next to the initial excitement at the prospect of new IP during a particularly franchise-filled period.
The main word attached to producing new IP is risk. New IP can mean starting from scratch, which involves development, research, design and a dozen other aspects – none of which are cheap, to say the least. All of this must be undertaken with no guarantee than the product will succeed. Disney Interactive has had some expensive mistakes, but these have not deterred it from investing an astounding $100 million on a roll of the dice with Disney Infinity, a game which is almost frighteningly broad in scope.
Although the game is certainly innovative in some ways, it still comes with a security blanket of tried and tested methods; the games mechanics of using real world toys as your in-game avatar is similar to Activision’s Skylanders and the characters you play as are the very familiar faces of the Disney movies. The game is getting positive early reviews and we will soon know if their gamble (albeit on a loaded dice) will pay off.
Gamers want good games, produced to a high standard and they want original IPs, but not even ticking these boxes is a sure fire recipe for success. Psychonauts is a high quality, original game, developed by Double Fine Productions and yet it went broadly unnoticed at the time. It has now become a video game cult classic; with more people having played the game years after release than ever played it at the time.
It is a continual refrain from gamers that they are sick to death of sequels, but the simple fact is that often they provide a good return on investment for the developers, and although ultimately they may suffer from diminishing returns a business wouldn’t be acting in its best interests if it turned down an opportunity to make money.
There are also some cases where new IP might be inappropriate: take as an example the FIFA series. These games make an almost baffling amount of money, even taking into account that football is the most popular sport in the world. FIFA 13 sold more than 14.5 million copies, with the FIFA series overall generating $350 million in total in the 2013 financial year. EA can’t invent radically innovative game mechanics or completely change the rules of football to make it more original (added-time multi-ball anyone? Or even 2002’s Red Card Football/Soccer – a middling attempt at originality) but they have played about the edges, creating new game modes including Ultimate Team, updating rosters and increasing realism.
It is also now the case that EA are expected to bring out a new version every year; imagine the outrage if they said “we’re going to give FIFA 2015 a miss to work on polishing the engine”. While many people may say that this is why each version is launched with a larger than usual amount of bugs for an AAA title, nobody can question the market’s hunger for these games.
New IP can be exciting and sexy; they are the first weeks of a new relationship. There is a lot of fun in getting to know a new game, how it works and the characters within but there is also a case for those long romances, with characters who we have shared good memories. In the end what matters most is that the gamer has a positive, memorable experience with a game; whether or not the game is a new or old IP matters less than having a good time – but let’s not forget that behind every single multi-million franchise behemoth was, at first, an original concept