by Aaron Hobbs IGN
How many times have you had the disheartening realisation that something you once thought was awesome just isn’t very good anymore? Gamers have to contend with this all the time – from Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater to the peaks and troughs of Sonic the Hedgehog – when series’ that they love fall from grace.
Even attempts to re-invent a series can fail spectacularly.
Why does this happen? Why don’t developers pull the plug before the rot sets in? The simple answer is that games are a business, and businesses exist to make money. In an ideal world, developers would be free to come up with an original franchise that takes the world by storm, to release a handful of sequels (each more impressive than the last) until the series has run its course, then make a clean break and start the cycle all over again. Easy. Simple. Logical. Everybody’s happy and creative integrity comes out on top.
This, of course, is not how things work for developers making big budget games. (Unless you’re Blizzard, Valve or one of a handful of companies with true control over their destiny.) Despite a notable rise in the success of indie development in recent years, the majority of the world’s game development still relies on a relationship between two parties: the developer and the publisher.
At the risk of massively oversimplifying that relationship, it boils down to this: the publisher agrees to finance the development of a game, in exchange for a sizable chunk of the profits upon its release. Happy days for the developer, as the team gets to live their dream and have a shot at making a mark on the gaming landscape. To keep the finances coming in, a number of milestones have to be met along the way, just to prove the studio can, you know, actually finish the game.
There’s mutual risk on both sides. The publisher risks not seeing a return on its investment, while the developer risks… well, third party developers risk pretty much everything, because a failed project has devastating implications for the future of the company.
Bizarre Creations, a studio many considered a permanent fixture on the gaming landscape, was closed after Blur and 007: Blood Stone underperformed.
Now put yourself in the shoes of a CEO at any major games publisher. First of all, congratulate yourself, because those shoes probably cost more than my car. In fact, they definitely did; I don’t even have a car.
Now imagine that your company has taken a risk by agreeing to finance the development of an original title, and that risk has paid off incredibly well. Reviews are universally positive, gamers everywhere have flocked to its multiplayer servers and sales figures are through the roof. At this point, when you factor in the interests of your company and your shareholders, making the decision not to greenlight a sequel probably wouldn’t be the wisest career move.
The sequel hits shelves a year or two later and the sales figures are even better than last time. The reviews are still amazing too. Good thing we deliberately left the ending open for a third game. Looks like we’re doing the trilogy thing. Everybody loves trilogies.
Game number three is released and the crowds are still eating it up and okay, sure, the critical response may not be as impressive as it was with the first two games but even still, the release of this game totally smashed all the records for sales or pre-orders or post-orders or something, I dunno, who cares? This franchise is effectively a license to print money, so let’s make as much as we possibly can, but let’s not actually start printing money because people go to prison for that.
…Okay so I got a little carried away there, but you see my point. When you’ve got the rights to a franchise that’s virtually guaranteed to bring in profits, it makes perfect sense from a business perspective to keep it going for as long as possible.
But what if the developer has had enough of the series? If a publisher is financing the development and distribution of the games, should it be entitled to choose when a series should be put to bed? Or should that decision be left to the vision and instincts of the developer?
It could be argued that the studio’s inherent attachment to something it has worked so hard on might cloud its judgment. On the other hand, you could also argue that a publisher’s judgment might be impeded by the glare of massive commercial success; remaining fixated on one franchise could cause it to miss potential opportunities for success in new ventures.
Super Monkey Ball isn’t exactly a license to print money, but there’s no doubt that it lost its vitality years ago. Another game? Really?
To bring up a current(ish) example, will Mass Effect 3 really be the end of the franchise? Despite all the controversy surrounding the ending, there’s still a tonne of love for that franchise, so will EA really let this be the end for it? What about Halo 4? Halo 3 was a fitting end to a trilogy, so what are the chances that a new game won’t just be retreading old ground? How will Bungie feel about the legacy of the series if 343 Industries’ effort falls short? Maybe a break before returning to Halo would be a better option? It definitely worked for Deus Ex, Fallout and Diablo. Max Payne has benefited from some time away too. (The series, that is, not so much Max himself.)
Of course, I’m not saying that all franchises get stale. There are plenty of series that turn in stellar titles year after year, and there are a number of juggernauts that have been consistently excellent for decades; Street Fighter, Mario, Zelda, Metal Gear and GTA, to name a few. They’re all still going strong and have managed to maintain their legacy of innovation with each new instalment. What is it about the development teams or publishing mentality that keeps them fresh?
Ultimately, the question I wanted to pose is: whose decision should it be on where to draw the line with a series? The publisher or the developer? The free market or the artists? Should the fans have more of a say? I’m keen to hear your thoughts on the matter, along with your ideas on which franchises would be better off resigned to the annals of gaming history.