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Gaming's obsession with franchise growth is smothering new games

Video game branding is a weird thing. The general thinking, of course, is that recognisable names shift boxes faster than scary, unknown, new IP does. It’s as if games buyers operate on some purchasing equivalent of stranger-danger thinking. Don’t trust the bad man at the school gates with his big bag of shiny, sugar-coated screenshots. Stick to games you know and trust, kids. 

And a lot of the time, that business philosophy holds true. Human beings are, after all, creatures of habit. They find security in familiarity, If they find enjoyment in a particular experience, then the promise of more of that experience is an enticing prospect indeed. But somewhere along the line, the games industry’s eagerness to furnish us with the familiar seems to have lost the run of itself. Because increasingly, it feels like the very familiarity that said returning brands and characters are supposed to guarantee is betrayed by inappropriate use.

I’m not endorsing cookie-cutter sequels and the selling of glorified yearly expansion packs as whole new games. But over-reliance on recognisable IP often seems to work in reverse these days, tying unrelated, very different products to a paper-thin guise of familiarity for fear of scaring away the potential audience of an often otherwise decent new game.

In some cases, vague-branding is done right. Franchises like Far Cry 3 and BioShock do a great job of guaranteeing a certain approach to gameplay and narrative themes while also providing quite different games. But the BioShocks and Far Crys of the world are the minority good examples; games under the same (or similar) banner which deliver an undeniably related set of values with each and every installment. At the opposite end of the scale though, there are a hell of a lot of franchises doing, well, the opposite.

Look at almost any major video game IP and you’ll see it. A franchise starts with a core game that people loved, and but then spreads out, diluting as it goes, until the original game experience exists as little more than the memories stirred up by a recognisable logo stamped on the box of an unrelated game. It’s the same method by which film studios and burger chains team up to sell fried junk food by sticking a picture of a popular cartoon robot on the bag. There’s zero real association (Hell, robots don’t even eat food), but the branding lures people in anyway. 

But the really frustrating thing is that a lot of these games are nothing like those cheaply made patties of greying despair, flipped joylessly by the various underpaid students of the world. They’re often really good in their own right, which makes tying them to a successful but unrelated franchise a bit of a disservice.

Rightly or wrongly, seeing this kind of flagrant franchise-stapling always gives me the immediate impression that the game in question is a cheap cash-in. Think about it. Whenever you see one of those greasy paper bags adorned with the crumple-distorted face of a once cheery animated automaton, what’s your first thought? If you’re an adult and culinarily discerning with it, that thought is probably “Look at the cynical crap they’re doing to sell crap to idiot kids”. And that’s exactly what happens whenever I see a Dance Dance Revolution: Assassin's Creed Edition or Halo Galactic Poker Tournament. We’ve been trained for decades to recognise that that licensed games are crap, and there’s no reason that our responses should be any different now that we’re effectively getting licensed games based on other games.

And that’s a shame, because like I said, a lot of these games would be excellent with or without the big-name license. Perfect example: Ghost Recon Shadow Wars. Appearing during the 3DS’ launch window, it had all the classic signs of a quickie cash-in, being a supposed Ghost Recon game on a new console that bore no resemblance at all to the gameplay conventions of the core series. 

But what none of that told us was that Shadow Wars was an excellent turn-based strategy game from Julian Gollop, creator of the original X-Com games, and legitimate TBS godfather. Those latter points are the important ones. They’re the reasons to get excited about Shadow Wars. But instead of screaming them from the hilltops, Ubisoft masked them within the long shadows of a AAA franchise bearing only passing resemblance to the 3DS game. Ditto Assassin’s Creed: Recollection. Fine iOS card game, unfortunately stuck with the image of being a cheap spin-off from a bigger, more ‘legitimate’ game.

Sometimes it’s questionable just how much value a franchise association has anyway. Did the Spec Ops name (forgotten, as it was, for a decade, and tied to a completely different style of game) really do 2012’s The Line any good? Or did it just confuse old-time fans and preclude the game from having a more dynamic, less generic title which might have better communicated its powerful, uniquely uncompromising narrative intelligence? Surely tying a needless, archaic association to a very different 'sequel' muddies those old brand values anyway, creating a Catch 22 which ultimately renders any recognition value worthless as perceptions of the series change overnight. 

So what's the solution? The simple (but also complicated) answer would be for publishers to shake the assumption that a new game needs an old name in order to succeed. Because it just isn't true. Dishonored is a great example, coming as it did from a ‘new’ studio yet striking a very loud chord with an audience probably completely unfamiliar with the names Harvey Smith and Ricardo Bare. It struck that chord simply by being good, and being sold by publisher Bethesda based on its own unique qualities. Ditto The Last of Us, which arrived at a time in the PS3’s life when sequels and DLC were becoming the norm, yet stood alone, making very little attempt to play even on Naughty Dog’s Uncharted heritage.

But for that to happen, gamers need to play along too. So don’t just stick to safe bets. Acknowledge that a lot of the time you don’t really want a repeat of a previous experience anyway, but rather a fresh one that makes you feel just as excited. And those don’t come from retreads. Shop around, stay open to new ideas, and research anything that even slightly interests you, without making snap decisions. Established AAA franchises can be great long-term experiences, but they all started somewhere. You never know where your next favourite one is going to come from. 

You know that kid at parties who talks too much? Drink in hand, way too enthusiastic, ponderously well-educated in topics no one in their right mind should know about? Loud? Well, that kid’s occasionally us. GR Editorials is a semi-regular feature where we share our informed insights on the news at hand. Sharp, funny, and finger-on-the-pulse, it’s the information you need to know even when you don’t know you need it.

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12 comments

  • CitizenWolfie - August 7, 2013 4:22 a.m.

    For the most part, spin-offs notwithstanding, I feel like the big franchises now are a double edged sword. The quality seems to decline after the 2nd or 3rd game but by that point you feel the need to find out the end of the respective sagas. Sure, you have the yearly sports games which are little more than roster updates and gameplay tweaks but if you want to buy them, that's fine (although I still think releasing one big game and then subscribing to 6-monthly updates or something like that could work). But sports are sports. They don't really need to change. My issue is with the franchises such as Assassin's Creed, Dead Space, Resident Evil etc. AC is probably the best example I can think of where the quality has just declined each year. AC was an impressive debut for its time and then AC2 fixed every flaw and perfected the good points and it's one of my favourite games of the generation. However since the yearly release model it seems each game has gradually felt less like the "true" Assassin's Creed experience. AC3 for me was almost unrecognisable as a great Assassin's Creed game and more like a decent tribute. But the problem is, even after the first two entries (and the same is true for most game franchises), you've invested so much time and effort into the game world and immersed yourself in its story that you feel obligated to reach the conclusion of the series as a whole. Otherwise it's like abandoning a book you enjoy two-thirds into it. That's why I get it when people felt cheated about the Assassin's Creed series as it was originally presented as a trilogy. Then the spin-offs came along with major plot points that you couldn't really afford to miss and by the time the third game proper finished, it was painfully obvious that it wasn't really the end at all. Lo and behold AC4 is announced around six months later. I can see Watch Dogs ending up the same way in 3-4 years time.
  • pl4y4h - August 7, 2013 12:08 p.m.

    Man especially Dead space and Resi, from survival horror to gears of war-esque shooter in a couple of sequels lol
  • TheGooseinator - August 6, 2013 9:44 p.m.

    Great points. Good to see new IP's like Dishonored thriving in recent years. Also, had no idea that Spec Ops was a pre-existing brand. Thought the game just had a weird titleXD
  • Rhymenocerous - August 7, 2013 9:07 a.m.

    The old Spec Ops games were incredibly tough, tactical squad-based 3rd person shooters. You selected weapons and soldiers before each mission - similar to the old Rainbow Six games, which were around at the same time funnily enough. The stories were nothing special, but the gameplay was challenging and deep - as was the norm in those days. The total opposite of the new Spec Ops, which bears no resemblance to earlier outings in the franchise (which, as mentioned by Mr Houghton, is a reoccurring problem in the industry today).
  • g1rldraco7 - August 6, 2013 5:39 p.m.

    Very good point here. Nobody likes saturation in anything :/
  • Mr.YumYums - August 7, 2013 11:56 a.m.

    Only in my strawberry Kool-Aid, of course.
  • J-Fid - August 6, 2013 4:10 p.m.

    Your solution made me think about Capcom turing a planned Resident Evil sequel into Devil May Cry. Capcom was smart enough to realize that the new game wasn't anything like the former, so they turned it into a new franchise. I don't think DMC would have sold as well if it was labeled "Resident Evil." More companies need to think like this.
  • mafyooz - August 6, 2013 1:23 p.m.

    Absolutely right, I generally prefer to take a chance on a new IP than just the next iteration of a series, although there are exceptions. Too many games just regurgitate the same formula again and again, which is particularly jarring when most have some form of level progression. For example, I love the God of War games because I was really into Greek mythology and films like the original Clash Of The Titans when I was a kid, but it's annoying that you spend the entirety of them boosting your powers, only to have them stripped from you at the start of the next one. I don't think it helps though that as soon as people finish a game that they like they automatically start demanding a sequel, especially with heavily story based ones like The Last Of Us. I loved it but I don't think there should be a sequel, because the story Naughty Dog wanted to tell has been told and I don't see how it could be more than just a cynical cash in on the game's success.
  • garnsr - August 6, 2013 12:57 p.m.

    Isn't rebooting the same thing? I liked the new Tomb Raider, but it didn't have the same feel as earlier Tomb Raiders, so why not just call it a new IP, instead of just having a known character in an unrelated game? Why not just call the new universe in DMC something else, instead of irritating people who are already familiar with the one we had?
  • HereComesTheHypeTrainCHOOCHOO - August 6, 2013 11:25 a.m.

    Another superb article. This should be standard reading for the suits at the big, bloated so called AAA publishers. Someone give Mr. Houghton a raise!
  • Rub3z - August 6, 2013 11:09 p.m.

    I usually recommend he gets a raise for every single piece he writes. He would if this were a fair and just world. Yes, that's it... a fair and just world sees Mr. Houghton swimming in piles of gold like Scrooge McDuck. If I become wealthy at some point in my vast future, I imagine I'll personally pay Mr. Houghton every single pound he thinks he deserves. Thousands of pounds each for every single piece he wrote that I enjoyed. That is to say, almost all of them. That's a lot of money. I better get on with being rich, then...

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