Is the act of annualizing games destroying the industry?
I don’t believe anything pulls on my heartstrings more than the first experience with a new intellectual property. No one forgets the first goomba they smashed, the first eidolon they summoned, or their first successful escape from a pack of deathclaws. Part of the awe, whether you were aware of it or not, was never knowing if you would experience something like this again. But what happens when the monetary realities of business come to terms with creative freedom? It seems natural for any business to extract every bit of value they can from a lucrative product, but should new IP’s be treated with more care?
Several video game companies have become widely associated with the annualization of their flagship franchises. Electronic Arts has its many studios working on the newest Madden, NBA, NHL, and so on. Ubisoft also has no qualms about churning out new Assassin’s Creed games as gamers have received a new title every year since 2009’s Assassin’s Creed II. Other franchises such as Far Cry are also headed in the same direction. While many fans love shelling out the cash for their favorite series year after year, others are far more skeptical of product quality when produced at such an alarming rate. Is it possible for developers to maximize profit off their IP’s while still satisfying their audiences? My first instinct – absolutely not. However, the answer proves to be more complicated than that.
For starters, while many of these franchises see yearly entries, the developers have alternating studios producing the various titles. Ubisoft, for example, switches off between Ubisoft Montreal and Ubisoft Quebec, whom is the primary developer for 2015’s Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate. The developer actually possesses many other subsidiaries throughout the world which also contribute. This means that each Assassin’s Creed title is typically two years in the making. EA, on the other hand, places its various teams under severe time constraints, aiming to produce new sports titles every single year with the same teams. This alone produces a myriad of results. I will be the first to say on behalf of many disappointed hockey fans, NHL 15 was one of the worst iterations of the game ever. The title shipped with almost no game modes, and most criminally excluding the fan-favorite EA Sports Hockey League. This ultimately came down to EA Canada’s inability to successfully transition to current generation consoles within the time limit. Other titles are not out of the doghouse either, with FIFA 16 looking to be nearly identical to last year’s incarnation, with various changes that don’t seem to justify yet another $59.99 purchase. Surely this means that EA’s developers simply cannot produce under the time constraints. This is all seems true until titles like Madden 16 come along to meet high praise from critics and gamers for its massive improvements to the franchise. The evidence seems inconclusive, and the examination continues.
Let’s extend our development window to the two years provided by Ubisoft for Assassin’s Creed. Last fall, we saw one of the most dreadful game launches in recent memory with Assassin’s Creed: Unity. The game shipped with an unbearable frame-rate, a host of game-breaking bugs, and an all but unusable online cooperative mode which was to be the title’s big selling point. Ubisoft worked hard to fix the issues after the fact, even acknowledging its blunders at E3 2015. But the reality is that the game should never have been shipped in this state. Ubisoft-Montreal undoubtedly knew this, but the realities of set release dates by publishers inevitably lead to these types of outcomes.
Despite the horrid launch of Unity, and the often lack of innovation in EA sports franchises, neither seem to see a drop in sales, boasting favorable numbers for all of the previously mentioned titles. These annualized games seem guaranteed to draw in players despite their obvious shortcomings. Do gamers just love the developers so much that they don’t care? Let’s take a look at one more series.
The most often accused offender, sometimes unfairly so, is the Call of Duty franchise. Have a look at this list:
- Modern Warfare (2007) Infinity Ward
- World at War (2008) Treyarch
- Modern Warfare 2 (2009) Infinity Ward
- Black Ops (2010) Treyarch
- Modern Warfare 3 (2011) Infinity Ward
- Black Ops 2 (2012) Treyarch
- Ghosts (2013) Infinity Ward
- Advanced Warfare (2014) Sledgehammer Games
- Black Ops 3 (2015) Treyarch
The Black Ops 3 beta was held the weekend of writing this piece and I described it in one word – uninspired. I was a bit perplexed by the game’s vision, because if I wanted to play a game that was seemingly trying to be Destiny or Halo I would just play either one of those games. It was a far cry from the special feeling I had when first discovering Modern Warfare; that special feeling I described of the first time. That particular title had heart, gripping gameplay, and served as a shooter based in realism in a hail of sci-fi shooters. Now, we see a Call of Duty that is the result of reactivity rather than proactivity. The franchise has long been stale and it shows. Numerous fiscal reports demonstrate that the series has peaked and is beginning to decline. Advanced Warfare experienced a 27% dip in sales compared to the prior year’s Ghosts.
The Call of Duty teams seem to know a changeup is needed. As we can see, Sledgehammer Games was added to the rotation, giving each studio a new three-year development window as opposed to two. However, with Black Ops 3 proving to be more of the same, it’s hard to remain optimistic that Infinity Ward will improve either. Nevertheless, even with the decline in sales, the profits of the series are nothing to scoff at.
So what does it all mean? I believe a lot of it comes down to franchise loyalty. Assassin’s Creed, for example, is not a bad series. Assassin’s Creed II is an absolutely stellar game, and its subsequent sequels were also fun in their own ways. In the same right, EA’s sports titles are not necessarily devoid of improvements in every incarnation. I personally find it right to purchase new sports titles every few years, or when major changes prove themselves prior to release. But what we can take away for certain is that strict release windows handicap these very talented game developers. Some of my best writing has come when conceived and produced of my own volition with my own set schedule. However, when placed on a strict regimen of conceive – create – publish, it is not only inevitable, but expected to see quality occasionally dip. Given the same technology, how often can EA reinvent the wheel with new sports titles? On the same note, how can a developer be expected to understand a brand new console’s infrastructure and program for it in such a small amount of time? The anger toward annualized games is not falsely founded, but ultimately misdirected. I believe that these game developer’s care greatly about the franchises they produce and long to create a memorable experience that they themselves would like to play. In business, however, those with the financial means are often the ones pulling the strings and making decisions, rather than those with talent and creativity.
What’s most frustrating of all is that there are numerous examples of top tier developers who do not milk their franchises to the point of oversaturation. Just look at what Bethesda did at this year’s E3. Fallout 4 isn’t just the next game in their franchise – it’s a global event. EVERYONE is talking about Fallout, and even those who aren’t fans know it’s coming. It will easily make back the funds spent in the five to six years of development based on Bethesda’s established history of quality video games. Rockstar is another example, having now sold fifty-four million copies of Grand Theft Auto V. That title released in 2013, five years after the release of Grand Theft Auto IV. These are developers who are not only incredibly successful as a business, but incredibly respectful of the franchises who allow them to make a living. Maybe if Call of Duty took some time to rest while developers worked long and hard at making something original and new, fans would recognize it in the same way – an event that we as gamers should care about. Instead, we see an oversaturated market with the usual, churned-out suspects.
Annualizing, in and of itself doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Any one of these franchises at any point and time can and has produced innovation from one year to the next. But the reality is that by placing constraints upon developer ability and creativity, one of the upcoming titles will eventually fall on its face. If the franchise doesn’t wear itself out like Call of Duty, then it may release in an unplayable state like Assassin’s Creed: Unity. I simply believe that the ones making these games need to be the ones to decide if a game is ready. The only thing a game developer has going for it in terms of success are its intellectual properties. Perhaps if all developers treated their franchises with the same care, gamers and publishers could equally benefit, and gaming itself would flourish.