Franchise is not a dirty word
‘Where are all the new IPs?’ It’s a phrase that’s all too familiar to us. Every year the same tired titles are trotted out, with a new feature or two and minor graphical upgrades that seek to obscure the facts its more of the same. The shelves of game stores (both real and digital) are overrun with sequels, HD remakes and series reboots, and if a large publisher does take a chance on a new IP, any success will mean a sequel is right around the corner . But is the practice of forming franchises really why there are so many sub par sequels out there, or is there something else at work?
It’s easy to think that this lack of originality is a thoroughly modern problem. Looking back at the ‘good old days’ of gaming, which I’m going to say is the 80’s or early 90’s, which makes me feel a little old, everything felt shiny and new. Every month magazines like Nintendo Power were filled with tantalizing previews and every game was doing buzzing with creativity. But if we take off the rose tinted glasses and have a closer look we can see an awfully familiar pattern. Out of the top ten best selling games of the 80’s, four are sequels, and three of those are Mario sequels. The 90’s was even worse as eight of the ten best selling games of the decade were sequels: Pokemon Gold/Silver and Yellow, Super Mario World, Super Mario 64, Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins, Super Mario Allstars (a compilation!), Super Mario 64 and Final Fantasy VII. The two original games on the list are Pokemon Red/Blue and Gran Turismo, both of which spawned large franchises that continue to this day.
So clearly franchises are nothing new. The big difference between those sequels, and the ones that we see today, is that those two top ten lists contain sequels that are arguably some of the greatest games of all time. Just because you’ve released a dozen games with a platforming plumber or a grizzled war veteran doesn’t mean that there has to be a drop in the quality of the games released. For every Mario Party or Battlefield that has lost its way there’s a Saints Row IV or Super Mario 3D world that shows you whether it’s the fourth or the fortieth game in the series there’s always something you can do to create a new and engaging title.
The real problem with franchises is when they stagnate. It can be hard to keep coming back to the same core ideas without becoming stale and repetitive, especially for bigger publishers who are under constant pressure from both their shareholders and accountants to release the next blockbuster hit. And as the budgets for AAA titles balloon outwards the development choices they make will become more and more conservative, making it even harder to experiment with the known formulas. Luckily these days we have Kickstarter and a blossoming indie scene that’s bringing all kinds of innovation to gaming. But for the series we all know and love, all we can do is hope.
When it comes time to begin work on the next game in the franchise, it’s tempting to play it safe and release a game that’s more of the same. But with a little bit of care and creativity a franchise can be home to great games.