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Successful game franchises are doomed to be run into the ground

Say, old Buttercup had been a reliable race stallion through the years. He had his uses, he was always there when you needed him, and he probably made you a good amount of money at the track. But with success comes pressure, and the good times can't last forever. When your stallion starts to slow down, trip up, and stop winning as many races, you don't keep sending him in to underperform and disappoint. It's just that time to send old Buttercup to retire in that big glue factory in the sky, then saddle up a new colt. But that doesn't seem to be the developer/publisher's mentality for many of today's long-standing franchises. Instead, a successful game series is just doomed to be run into the ground, then beaten to death with a stick until money stops coming out.

In an interview with Edge Magazine, Darby McDevitt, the lead writer on Assassin's Creed Revelations and Black Flag, said that the Assassin's Creed series doesn't have an overall ending planned. "Because all of history is open to us we see the universe as a Doctor Who type thing," said McDevitt. "There are so many possibilities we don't want to definitively end the universe, but we can have storylines that have endings." Essentially, that means that as long as there is a moment in history Ubisoft can use as the basis for another game, there will be another Assassin's Creed.

I'm not saying AC is on its last legs; I actually thought ACIV was one of the best games in the series. The Assassin's Creed series (or any game franchise) having a long life isn't a bad thing, but when a developer's plan for a story is just to let it go on as long as it possibly can, that brings up concerns about the quality of that series' future plotlines. As long as the developers can create meaningful stories within the universe, develop entertaining game mechanics, and maintain a high-quality production, hey, keep it going. But if a series won't ever end in a preconceived plotline, there seems to be only one result for that successful property: That cash cow will be milked dry until all gamers, fans, and developers have had it up to here (my neck) with anything franchise-related. After all, the end of a story is often one of the most memorable parts.

All good things must end eventually--so is it best to leave on a high note, when we still hold a series like AC in high regard? Historically with games, the answer has been, no. Developers have been sticking with their known franchises for decades now; just look at how many Mega Man, Mario, and Sonic the Hedgehog games there are. It isn't really a new thing to see half a dozen (or more) games come out of a single series. It's just a shame that some of these beloved franchises never get the conclusion they deserve. They'll just fizzle out when they can't pull the money cart up the profit hill.

With so many of the last decade's blockbuster franchises coming up on 10 or more games, with no signs of slowing, it seems like having an unending game series will be an all-too-common theme. The problem is that when developers are popping iterations out so fast, players get burnt out on them even faster (Call of Duty, anyone?). And with games being so story-heavy, at what point do the plots just become utter nonsense (Kingdom Hearts being a prime example). So, the question becomes: When is the right time to end a dynasty? When the time comes, will developers give their games the send off they deserve?

30 comments

  • henderson - February 24, 2014 3:57 a.m.

    Maybe it's a problem with people, I've heard too many times the 'I like pokemon, but only the ORIGINAL 150' Don't know where I'm going with that one, but it factors into my thinking, like how red/blue got so much right with fans, and just adding more mons hasn't been enough to overcome that nostalgia or I don't know what to call it, it's the sound of a franchise that didn't evolve. I love pokemon, and I'll buy the next one and the next one and so on, but how long until then, and how many spinoffs between each of them. Time is the last thing any series has, however good a game may be it is hard to overcome a 'I would have liked this ____ years ago when I still cared'. I cannot be mad at Call of Duty for being punctual. I said momentum, and while pokemon isn't obscure by any means, I say relevancy too. A well oiled machine cranking out a game, year after year, throw in maps during down time and you stay in the conversation.
  • TheWebSwinger - January 30, 2014 3:18 p.m.

    Lovin the B Buttercup reference....somewhere, somehow, Tyler Nagata just giggled.
  • TanookiMan - January 31, 2014 6:41 a.m.

    I think that opening paragraph explains why B. Buttercup hasn't had a story in some time....
  • james-myhre - January 30, 2014 1:14 p.m.

    what needs to be finished is the 3rd kingdom hearts and end it there thats what every fan was waiting for and all the extra was the developers being to lazy to actually succumb a thought on how the series should end now I'm just hoping the expectations i have are made reality or it'll fall like duke nukem
  • Manguy17 - January 30, 2014 9:08 a.m.

    I suppose the handy thing for UBI with AC is that they can concievably just jump from one story to the next on a game by game basis. I doubt many people are concerned with the modern day story. However it would be nice if they could begin to update the mechanics a touch, although with the games as popular as they are that seems unlikely. Really the brand name "Assasins creed" does limit them somewhat, as it means they have to stick fairly rigidly to the Assasins vs Templar setup (although from what I've played of Black Flag they seem to have placed less emphasis on that this time round)
  • g1rldraco7 - January 30, 2014 7:11 a.m.

    You have a good point sir, sometimes it's best to end something when it's reached the peak of it's performance. People will still buy, but I know it runs the risk of being tarnished by a bad move.
  • Shigeruken - January 30, 2014 6:53 a.m.

    I think that as long as there are enough passionate people working on a project who are willing to bring new ideas to the table a franchise can continue indefinitely. We see that in other media all the time, Doctor Who has off seasons but on the whole the show is as good as it's ever been. The Wheel of Time series changed writers after the creator passed away, and it's just as popular as ever. Gundam has off seasons but still produces brilliant anime more often than not. Laser Time is better than ever too :D
  • SolidEye - January 30, 2014 2:14 a.m.

    Assassins Creed to me has already been run into the ground. Yes, Black Flag was an improvement but take away the ships and you still have the same game with the same problems. Ubisoft seems to be so hellbent on rushing out a yearly AC they fail to improve the game design in anyway whatsoever. Heaven forbid if they move this franchise to Japan involving ninja. Walking through a crowd was visually appealing once, it's old now. So are stalking zones (rather than allow the player to hide and crouch at will) The non-existent stealth mechanics are something that needs to improve considering this is a game about ASSASSINS.
  • GamesRadarCollanderCooper - January 30, 2014 5:26 a.m.

    But they can't do that because they insist on keeping it within Desmond's ancestry, which is already questionable (Altair was Syrian, Ezio was Italian, Connor was Native American, Edward was Welsh). In my opinion I think they should abandon the entire Animus storyline. It serves no purpose and adds nothing to the game. The Abstergo interludes were the worst parts of Black Flag.
  • Meleedragon27 - January 30, 2014 12:08 p.m.

    The Desmond and Abstergo sections are probably the worst parts of every AC game.
  • Aquasol - January 29, 2014 11:39 p.m.

    I think the trick is to branch subtly, and being willing to make it less about the story, and more about the experience. Why does Mario have so many different successful branches? Because Nintendo took steps away from the core series without being radically different, and then expanded beyond that. For example, there was GameBoy Donkey Kong, which added a bunch of moves and expanded well past the arcade/NES original, then Mario vs. DK, which was a stronger focus on what was introduced in GBDK, then the sequel introduced mini-Mario toys to the gameplay, which then turned into controlling just the mini-Marios. Of course, changing things up can also be for the better. Experiment. The only two games in the AC series that had social stealth were the first game and Liberation, partially because you actually blended in, rather than just being the lone person with a hood and several weapons strapped to them. An Assassin's Creed game where you act like Lucy and infiltrate a place without running around and climbing trees would be great-- the stress would be in snooping around and collecting information while still doing your fake job. Another AC branch could directly have you playing as a ninja, having you sneak around towns and gathering information without necessarily having you build up an army. You wouldn't be sneaking around in the daytime unless you were dressed as a civilian, because it's pretty brutally obvious something's up when there's a dood jumping off rooftops or dressing weird while running through a town.
  • BladedFalcon - January 29, 2014 10:26 p.m.

    The more I've seen so many games games and franchises evolve or decay in such different ways, the more I've come to realize that there's no simple formula for this kind of thing. It's easy to look at series like Call of Duty or the now defunct Guitar hero or Tony hawk series and go "See!? continuing a franchise to no end only brings eventual ruin!" But as many have pointed out, we then have Nintendo franchises. Which, love it or hate it, have endured for decades and don't show any sign of dying any time soon despite the fact that the core formula for these games is rarely altered too much. I think it all depends on what your focus is, and also how over-saturated the kind of game you're making is. I think the reason people never seem to be tired of getting more Zelda or Pokemon games is because frankly, both series have a gameplay and style unique to them, and how many long running direct competition do we know of them? They also seem to have a good idea of how to refine the formula each time enough that it will justify it's existence, and not feel entirely more of the same. And it also definitely helps that neither franchise is story heavy. That way, you have no risk of ever burning that out because the story is always a thin veil to drive the gameplay forward. But when it comes to games that have a defined and complex plot? I definitely think you should have a set vision, which includes a finite ending. Otherwise- Yes, you risk becoming like Kingdom hearts, that at this point it has become a monstrous ouroborous of a plot that keeps devouring on itself and having less and less of a point to make the longer it drags out. Look at it in TV shows. Breaking Bad was a series that always had a set ending in mind, and it ended when the story made sense to end, despite that the series was more popular in it's last two years than in the other 4 first years combined. The result? an universally acclaimed show that most people that like it remember it fondly and without regrets. On the other hand, you have Dexter, a show which was loved by many at first, but as it dragged out, it became worse and worse, to the point that by the time it ended, most people were sick to death of it, and nowadays you don't hear many talk about the show anymore, and those who do tend to do it in a negative or derisive way. It may not be the most popular decision among corporations, but it really is respectable to know when to end a series EVEN when it doesn't even start to feel like it's wearing out it's welcome. The Lords of Shadow franchise for example, it's third game is only about to be released, and it's poised to be fantastic, and potentially sell more than it's predecessor, but ever since it was announced back in 2014, the developer and producer of the series made it clear that the story and the series would end here, no matter what. They had a set story to tell, they feel this is the adequate length it needs to be, so they'll end it regardless of how popular it becomes. I respect that kind of attitude way more than those who just don't know when to quit. (Looks over to the God of War franchise, and shakes his head in disappointment.)
  • universaltofu - January 30, 2014 12:07 a.m.

    Call of Duty was on an upward trend though, Ghosts while having a weaker start is poised to pick up steam as more people get new consoles. Pokémon however has been on a downward trend. As much flak as Call of Duty gets, they at least know how to keep momentum going with new maps every so often. Pokémon however can't dilute itself fast enough with spin-offs, remakes, and the onus of sometimes having to get a new handheld system to even play the newest main game. Keeping the ball rolling and delivering nine installments of a popular well received shooter within the course of a single console generation is hardly decay, that's life, that's thriving in their element. Pokémon has 14 objects with googly eyes.
  • BladedFalcon - January 30, 2014 9:17 a.m.

    Have you actually looked at how much Pokemon X & Y have actually sold? You're mental if you really think they are selling less. Also, sure, pokemon releases a ton of spinoffs, but they ARE different from the core games, and the target audience knows this, the spinoffs may be selling less and less, but the core games sell like hot pancakes every time. Also, even though we don't know yet if Ghosts is marking the decline of the call of duty franchise, you can't really claim that the franchise is on the rise either, at least, not until the next installment comes out. And while I agree CoD has done a good job in preserving the momentum, you have to know that it has to stop sooner or later.
  • universaltofu - January 30, 2014 1:02 p.m.

    I'm saying game to game, from Red/Blue to Gold/Silver and so on, none surpass the first, I know X and Y had record first day/week sales for (insert reason ex: fastest selling 3ds game), but I may have overstated things, the series has been more consistent than not, but overall on a slight decline. I know the spinoffs are different, but each one plays a part in shaping the perception of the series. I'm not claiming a huge negative impact, but rather a subtle possibility. As for Call of Duty, their decline may have already started, but from 2 and 3, to 4, to black ops, to modern warfare 2 and 3, they were going up. To do that on a yearly basis impresses me. Maybe it's a problem with people, I've heard too many times the 'I like pokemon, but only the ORIGINAL 150' Don't know where I'm going with that one, but it factors into my thinking, like how red/blue got so much right with fans, and just adding more mons hasn't been enough to overcome that nostalgia or I don't know what to call it, it's the sound of a franchise that didn't evolve. I love pokemon, and I'll buy the next one and the next one and so on, but how long until then, and how many spinoffs between each of them. Time is the last thing any series has, however good a game may be it is hard to overcome a 'I would have liked this ____ years ago when I still cared'. I cannot be mad at Call of Duty for being punctual. I said momentum, and while pokemon isn't obscure by any means, I say relevancy too. A well oiled machine cranking out a game, year after year, throw in maps during down time and you stay in the conversation.
  • Doctalen - January 30, 2014 4:33 p.m.

    From a mechanics point of view I'll argue that X/Y are vastly superior to Red or Blue. X/Y have had close to two decade of refinement now and its shown. Whether it be the type chart being changed to entirely new mechanics such as abilities, or even revisions of old mechanics such as sleep turns or paralyzing. The absolute biggest boon to the Red and Blue fandom is nostalgia. I would say that the vast majority of people on the internet complaining about the new games don't play online and thus only play the "storyline" which is barely there and most won't discover the new strategies required to play online. Red and Blue are being looked at through rose tinted glasses. Hell even gen 3 hasn't had the time needed to experience the nostalgia Red and Blue have. It is arguably the largest and most important mechanic shift in the series. Call of Duty just seems to be a special case in the milking it dry argument. Guitar Hero and Tony Hawk games, if I recall correctly received a good amount of advertisement, but no where near the level Call of Duty has/will had/have. Like you said the fact that it has tons of map packs and huge marketing campaigns means that this year's iteration of Call of Duty will always be the topic of news. Since Assassin's Creed hasn't been touched up in this minithread, I'll go over it a bit. Assassin's Creed wishes it could be COD. Ubisoft wishes it was COD. But they made the mistake of actually putting in a storyline into the games and made most of them amazing (compared to other games not books or movies and such). But their novelty is wearing off fast. It was really cool to actually see a historical fiction game in the sci-fi day and age and that was a huge factor in its success. But that success doomed it to receive "oh I've seen that before" and that's only from its own iterations not even competition. But like COD as long as it makes money there'll be another. To counter the milk em' dry business model the first thought would be to create artistry/edgy/story driven games. But the reason those games are almost exclusive indie games is that they don't sell well enough to warrant their production to consoles with few exceptions. At this point what you said about the people being the problem is both accurate and the solution to the problem itself. Companies like Bethesda and Gamefreak are good examples. Both create games that for the most part are exactly the same with some tweaks. But since they aren't released once a year, they make millions upon hundreds of millions. The yearly iterations of games can be stopped as soon as the internet stops hyping/hating the holy living shit out of each new game. Even bad press is good press.
  • rxb - January 30, 2014 7:44 a.m.

    Totally agree with this. I think it sums up the situation perfectly.
  • Spider3PO - January 29, 2014 7:38 p.m.

    I wouldn't lump C-list story games (Sonic the Hedgehog, Megaman, etc.) with A-list story games. No offense, I love Sonic the Hedgehog. I think Megaman is awesome. But lets be realistic, who plays these for the stories? They're fun games (aside from the odd iteration). Now on the flip side, Megaman Legends is a A-list (or B-list to some) story for it's time. I won't deny that. But the other iterations of Megaman emphasize gameplay, in which the story is kinda a throwaway. On Nes, I beat Kirby. In french. I can't read a single word of french! I don't care, cause the stories in those games are C-list throwaways. They're fun to play. But storywise, I'd get just as much out of Sharknado the movie in terms of content. But, I will agree. If games that specialize in A or even B-list stories, shouldn't try to extend a story arc too far. It works horribly for some TV shows and movie series. So I would expect the same for some games. It builds up the ending. And if it doesn't or never delivers a decent payoff, it will piss off the fan base. AC is not like Doctor Who. Doctor Who ends it's big arcs within a season or three. That's within 2-5 years (keep in mind split seasons). Doctor Who works for that reason, because it has an endgame for every arc. The Doctor is immortal, but his companions, his story arcs, his enemies, wife, family, and friends are not. So the AC devs can claim what they want, but it just doesn't compare. At some point, AC will just become Lost in video game form. I believe that. People want to know how it all ends. What it's building to. Or maybe that's just me. I don't know.
  • Bansheebot - January 29, 2014 7:36 p.m.

    This is kind of why I think the best sequels are not direct sequels for the most part. Zelda certainly has a ridiculous number of entries in the franchise and rarely ever makes significant evolutions in the game mechanics or items, yet while I can't speak for everyone, I'm certainly not feeling burnt out on the games. I think this is because some game elements are just always fun for certain people and all we really need is a new environment and a new story. Imagine if Resident Evil 2 went back to an old mansion laboratory instead of taking things to the City and surrounding Industrial areas and if Jill/Chris were the heroes again. For some reason I don't think it would've been nearly as good a sequel, even with all the other improvements to the graphics, enemies, puzzles, and replayability.
  • universaltofu - January 29, 2014 7:26 p.m.

    My friend has the belief that things of this sort should bow out on a high note, make their best work and leave it at that, since it can't get any better. While it would be interesting to see that realized with no one being besmirched for having 'fell off', but I can't help but feel that despite running so many things into the ground, I wouldn't want to live in a world that stopped short of giving me more of the things that I like simply because they weren't as good the second or third time around. Diminishing returns are unfortunate, but I prefer getting burnt out by series I like over seeing something cool put on ice. You mention Call of Duty, which I hold in high respect for being able to be so good despite it's annualized nature, so I can't hold anyone in contempt for having the damn sense to strike while the iron is hot, you may being hurting the future of the franchise by milking it in the present, but you are also delivering the goods while anyone still cares. I mean, revivals can be cool, but wait too long to follow up and you wind up irrelevant. Look at Earthbound, would it be considered as good if there were new installments every year? Would it matter though, would preserving a game's good reputation make up for the potential loss of some decent games before fatigue set in. It's Dark Knight mentality, you either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.

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