Oct 11, 2016
If you think of a major gaming franchise, the likelihood is that it has become an annualized product. Every year there is a new edition of most big titles, and yet we continue to buy them in huge droves. But why is this? Why has the industry become so predictable and stale? It used to be that only sport products such as Fifa or Madden were subject to yearly releases, due to roster updates that couldn’t be downloaded as an update, which is possible now. So why are we seeing every single franchise making an entry year upon year?
As consumers, should we accept this? Probably not. Will it stop us from purchasing the newest entry into our beloved franchise? Nope.
GTA V managed to sell 29 million units in a month. That’s simply unprecedented. I mean, everyone knew it was going to be colossal. But no-one predicted that. That’s more than the lifetime of GTA IV sold. So doesn’t that beg the question; why bother with annual franchises, when quality games with long development cycles can produce this amount of money?
Well, GTA is kind of an anomaly. Perhaps the biggest franchise of all time before Call of Duty became a yearly thing, every gamer on the planet was dying for the fifth installment to hit the shelves. I cannot think of another franchise which has such a wide fanbase.
Consider the fact that each Call of Duty since CoD4 has sold around 20 million copies. Nothing close to what GTA V will achieve. But altogether? That blows Rockstar’s record out of the water. 80 million combined sales of Call of Duty games, if we use the same time frame for GTA V‘s development. And of course, GTA V comes at the end of a long generation, whereby anyone who likes gaming will have the right platform. Considering GTA IV sold somewhere around 24 million, that’s not even as much as the more popular Call of Duty’s.
GTA V definitely deserves it’s praise; but it’s financial success is down to so many different factors that it will be hard to replicate for a long, long time. Especially as initial reactions to next-gen consoles are mixed, with some people waiting for better titles to release. I’m sure many gamers will be happy to stick with current generation consoles. And which games release on both? Oh yeah, annual titles such as Assassin’s Creed. Figures.
Assassin’s Creed seemed to have it right at one stage. After improving dramatically after AC2, they replicated this with Revelations and Brotherhood. Virtually an expansion, it managed to please fans with a whole games worth of fun, until AC3 came along. Now, this was an opportunity to innovate. But it kind of misfired. They updated the graphics, added in new climbing techniques, and an entirely new world different from anything we had ever seen; but it just wasn’t enough. AC:IV’s reception hasn’t been overly positive, but at least they are taking on board complaints. It will be interesting to see where this particular brand goes in the future.
Blake Jorgen, the Chief Financial Officer at EA, was asked about Battlefield becoming annualized. He replied:
“Battlefield takes us about two years to develop and so you want to make sure that you’re sharing talent across studios, so you keep [the] core talent of the product and the experience for the consumer there. You also want to be really careful that you don’t destroy the franchise along the way. You got to make it exciting and different, but at the same time you want to make sure you maintain a great franchise.”
What made Battlefield stand out from the crowd was it’s FrostBite engine; which was a huge leap forward in how the online gameplay works, as well as an FPS in general. It set a new benchmark. And if it became an annual title, then these kinds of jumps would be almost impossible to achieve, due to tight schedules. Even with two teams working in tandem, it’s an impossible feat to expect from developers.
Games are no longer about the initial release. There is a window of opportunity after the release that the studio can continue to generate money, whether that be through DLC or other services, such as Premium packages or subscriptions. Of course, if it becomes annual, you risk alienating fans who purchased DLC only a few months ago, and may also be cutting off profit you could be making from just producing more downloadable items for the coming future.Hopefully the underwhelming reception of Call of Duty: Ghosts will show Activision that it’s finally time to reinvent the franchise once more, as Cod 4: Modern Warfare once did.
If you look at sports titles such as Fifa, they progress a small amount. Not to the untrained eye but, they do tweak things. And every so often, they change a lot. But let’s be honest; a football game is hardly revolutionary year upon year. There’s very little to focus on, compared to a sprawling FPS or RPG. It’s the same mechanics every time, and as long as it’s similar to the last one, you’re not going to disappoint the fanbase. And these kinds of games don’t really tend to appeal to the more hardcore gamers, so backlash is inevitably smaller. Fifa players are quite content with a couple of upgrades and new players.
If you take a look at the WWE franchise, it still sells pretty well. But it is becoming very stale and stagnant, with challenging games like Fight Night and UFC often offering a superior experience; yet the branding continues to be all it needs. So why bother innovating? Perhaps if they took a couple years out, they could create something truly inspiring, but it’s just not possible when forced into a yearly cycle. After having to include all the new wrestlers, which gets more technical each year, there’s very little time for much else.
You have to look at the kind of games which have revolutionised their genre: Skyrim, GTA V, BioShock Infinite. All of which were worked on for upwards of five years. Does it pay off? In these cases, yes. Is it risky? Of course. You’ve only got to look at Valve for highly anticipated sequel. As soon as Half Life 3 is announced, I think the internet may implode. Alongside this we have Left for Dead 3, and Team Fortress 3, all of which fans would love to hear about. And the gap inbetween keeps demand high. Annualizing them could work, and would probably make a lot of money, but Valve’s focus on quality keeps them from doing so. Counter-Strike was the most popular online FPS before CoD, and there’s only been three main entries since 1999.
The trouble is, annual releases just generate so much money. Of course, not every franchise could manage such a feat. But if you can, why wouldn’t you? Developing games is a business, after all. AAA titles aren’t like indie titles; there’s no single guy who is worried about how the game comes out. Each member of the team is a cog in the overall production, and thus has no real control over the outlaying progression of the franchise as a whole. All they are concerned about is getting their part done on time, so the game can be released in the most profitable window. Compare this to indie developers, and they will delay a game until they find it is perfect. And this is why the industry is becoming polarized.
I liken this situation to Disney’s purchase of Star Wars. See, I’m a big fan of the franchise. The prequels were a little disappointing to many, yes. So obviously a lot of people are quite concerned over the upcoming Episode VII. But would I want them to stop making them entirely, just because of the awful scripts that plagued the prequels? Not at all. I would love to see Disney continue to produce Star Wars. As long as they stay true to what made the franchise so great in the first place. So could you say the same about your favourite gaming franchise? If you don’t like the latest installment, speak with your wallet, and do not purchase it.
TV shows go out weekly, and seasons are often released less than a year apart. And if they’re decent, we don’t see a drop in quality. If they get worse, we don’t watch, and the viewing figures indicate to the creators that the demand is not there. If each season were three or four years apart, I think many people would be annoyed. I couldn’t imagine waiting five years to find out what happens to Desmond Miles in the Assassin’s Creed franchise.
You have to ask yourself, would the reception of GTA V been as immense if it were an annual franchise? Most likely not. Would people wait five years for a Call of Duty title? I’m not so sure. Annualization certainly suits some franchises more than others, but developers need to be careful to ensure they don’t run the franchise into the ground. They run the risk of ruining everything that made the game popular in the first place. But if they can continue to innovate, giving the franchise a new lease of life when necessary, I don’t have a problem with it. And I’m sure there are many fans out there who would be equally as happy to play quality games on a regular basis.