Sequels in Quick Succession: The Ups and Downs of Annualized Franchises
On August 8th, 2014, an indie survival-horror game hit the internet, and with the help of some of the most influential YouTube “Let’s Play” channels, it instantly became a fan favorite. This horror-based point-and-click was not graphically spectacular or deeply narrative, but it bucked major gaming norms. The game limits player movement, and essentially leaves players helpless to the waves of animatronics that plague the halls of Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza.
The game, of course, is Five Nights at Freddy’s, which glued PC gamers and horror fans to their mouse and keyboard for terrifying hours on end. Created by one man, Scott Cawthon, the game quickly became a cult favorite, inspiring fan fiction and creepypastas alike. Scott Cawthon had always been a PC game creator, but only hit commercial success with Five Nights. Following this success, Cawthon released Five Nights at Freddy’s 2 on November 10th of the same year. Subsequently, the third installment was released on March 2nd of 2015, and The Final Installment has been set to release October 31st, 2015. Even with this incredibly quick turn around, each Five Nights game only seems to garner more and more popularity for the series, even leading to Warner Bros. Pictures to acquire the rights to make a film based on the game.
Five Nights proved to be the exception to the gaming rule, that the quicker a game series releases, the poorer the quality of each iteration. Each game, besides the typical and expected bugs, runs and plays as players expect, and playing on release date is just as fun as playing months later. So how did Five Nights buck the system? What makes an annualized franchise, or a series with quick succession successful, and what makes a similar release strategy fall short of gaming glory?
What makes an annualized franchise successful?
A Strong Self Awareness
The average rating of games in the Call of Duty franchise is 8.9 on IGN, and the series has made over 10 billion dollars since its first installment in 2003. Call of Duty has always been an annualized franchise, releasing 14 games in the past 12 years. However, the success of the series has not been diminishing, but rather only continues to grow. Call of Duty has become synonymous with the gaming industry as one of its biggest sellers and most secure franchises. While many critics suspect that the series may be plateauing, and growing stale, many players would beg to differ. Much like popular sport-themed games, Call of Duty has learned to provide players with a similar-yet-different experience time and time again. By keeping the main mechanics and objectives of the game similar from game to game, and only adding enough new content to make each iteration feel fresh, Call of Duty will continue to see its players return to each release.
What the development teams behind Call of Duty have mastered is strong self-awareness. They know exactly what their audiences are expecting, and know how much they can add without alienating any of their potential player base. None of the Call of Duty games are revolutionary, or have proven to be works of art like some games, but they don’t have to be. Call of Duty has already established itself as a low-entry, quick and dirty, first-person shooter. The games can be played by almost any level of gamer, and is in fact incredibly popular amongst younger gamers, so their success is almost guaranteed.
But what truly ensures the success of each game, is the quality control behind them. One of the most important aspects of a video game is how immersed a player can become in the game. Anything that makes the player realize that they are playing a game is largely considered to be detrimental to the overall quality of the game itself. The biggest offenders of anti-immersion are glitches. Glitches, in gaming, are broken pieces of code, textures, or commands that do not perform the way they are intended. This can include a wall not stopping a character, a non-playable character whose dialogue doesn’t fit the on-screen mouth movement, or even an enemy whose health is immune to all damage. These glitches pull the player away from the experience and can often be frustrating, or even make the game impossible to play.
While all games are expected to have some glitches, the fewer and less noticeable they are, the better. Call of Duty has consistently been a franchise that has been consistently free of game-breaking glitches. Players can expect a working game on release night, and always be sure that they aren’t buying a Call of Duty that is largely different from its predecessors. This makes the franchises viable for an annualized release, exactly like most sport-themed video games. The games will never be revolutionary, or game of the year, but they will be consistent, and will have a large fan base that ensures hours of game play, making them a wise-choice for a frugal gamer.
A Strong Sense of Audience
As it was already mentioned, Five Nights at Freddy’s, is not an annualized franchise, but has certainly been releasing a large number of games over a short period of time. While not as large in scope as Call of Duty, Five Nights, has certainly reached its own level of success. Five Nights has the same clear sense of self, and general lack of game-breaking glitches that Call of Duty does, but also has something more. While, Call of Duty certianly has a large audience, they don’t have a set audience, and attract a large variety of players. Five Nights on the other hand has a very clear sense of its audience, and knows how to craft a game that will suit the needs and wishes of that audience. Each game brings new scares and more story to ensure that the players will continue to buy and play the franchise.
A sense of audience is incredibly important for any business, and can make or break a series. Having a sense of audience will guarantee that a product will always meet the needs of the consumer, and that the consumer will always have a need for the product. Knowing that it has a varied audience, Call of Duty instead has to focus on knowing what it is that brings that audience in. For Five Nights on the other hand, it is only by looking at the audience that Cawthorn, its developer, can continue to develop profitable games. In an interview with Indie Gaming Magazine Cawthorn stated that “there’s nothing more satisfying than seeing people enjoy something you’ve made (and scaring the crap out of them of course.)” Even in his interviews, it is clear that Cawthorn loves his audience, and knows exactly what they want.
What kills an annualized franchise?
A Lack of Vision or Direction
Ubisoft Montreal’s head, Yannis Mallat, told Eurogamer when asked if they worry about the Assassin’s Creed games growing tiresome “No, the players will tell us.” This interview was conducted before the release of Black Flag, officially the fourth game in the series. However, the recent fan outrage over Assassin’s Creed Unity didn’t seem to slow Ubisoft down from continuing the franchise as an annual release. Unity proved to be full of game-breaking glitches that left many players denouncing the series from then on. Ubisoft did its best to reconcile with the players by giving them free content, and promising that its next game, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, will be much better. However, most original fans of the series have given up hope ever since Ubisoft started releasing the games annually, seeing only a steady decline in a once beloved franchise.
Assassin’s Creed II is considered by most fans to be the best game in the series, as it has the perfect balance of story, meta-story, and fun game-play mechanics. What quickly became clear after II was that Ubisoft had no real concept of where the series was heading, or what their ultimate goal was for the story. Rocksteady’s Arkham franchise has a clear sense of direction that connects every game they made to the next, and with its latest release, revealed that Rocksteady knew exactly how they wanted to finish their story from the moment they first thought of Arkham Asylum. The lack of this vision is exactly what is killing the Assassin’s Creed series. Each game shows less and less interest for the actual world Ubisoft created in the first two installments by focusing more on changing mechanics, and adding new features that weren’t needed. It’s important for a gaming developer to continually add on to a gaming series so it doesn’t grow stale, but it should never be a substitute for something that players have expressly stated that they loved.
Rushing a Good Thing
What makes many game series enjoyable, and what brings players back time and time again, is simply taking the time to make the game what it’s supposed to be. Many developers take years to build their perfect game. Recently Todd Howard, lead game designer at Bethesda Studios, stated that Fallout 4 has been in production for seven years, or since the release of Fallout 3. The Critically acclaimed game The Last of Us was in development for over two years. Clearly, it takes time to make a good game, time and dedication to excellence. What Ubisoft did with Assassin’s Creed is simply looked at their numbers, realized players would buy the game every year, and then proceed to make money every year by releasing sub-par games. Gaming development is an incredibly difficult and time-consuming process, and every gaming developer knows this. Even the developer’s at Ubisoft know this, but corporations have a tendency to break their artist into money-making machines, instead of allowing them to produce content that will be loved by fans across the globe.
There was a clear passion for excellence in Assassin’s Creed I and II, but that passion was getting in the way of profits, so the process had become rushed. Call of Duty never promised to be a great and in-depth story, it promised to be a fun shooter. This simple concept is easy to deliver year after year, not to mention its publisher, Activision, spreads the series across various developer studios, and throws millions of dollars and thousands of workers at each game. While there are various studios working on different Assassin’s Creed titles, and millions are being thrown into each game, Ubisoft has shown that it clearly doesn’t care about delivering on its promise to players to create a well-thought out world, with interesting characters, sinister villains, and a passion for history. What made the first two games so special is exactly what can’t be done in a year, and it shows in the quality of each game released into the franchise.
Why Most Game Franchises Wait
Most franchises haven’t attempted annual releases, and most don’t need too. Games like Mass Effect, Bioshock, and The Elder Scrolls will consistently make lots of money, and generate a huge following without releasing a game every year, or even every other year. When a developer releases a good game, something that they poured their passion and hearts into, it shows. When a developer loves their game, and show it the care it deserves, fans tend to the same. Some of the greatest franchises never had to rely on annualized releases to constantly be on the minds of gamers across they world. Some game franchises are just great.
Bethesda Studios and Rockstar are two studios that have constantly impressed gamers with their amazing games. Neither rely on trick marketing or constant content to make gamers love them. These studios know what their audiences want and what makes their games great, and time and time again has delivered these top-quality games based on these ideas. Bethesda’s Fallout 4 has already generated a ton of buzz, and is already showing some incredible projected sales goals, but these goals aren’t unwarranted, they were earned by a company who cares about the quality of the product, and not the money in their pocket. That is the kind of philosophy that makes a gaming franchise successful, the opposite will only lead to the eventual demise of something once great.
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