Franchises are a now natural part of the game industry, of this there can certainly be no doubt. No game is released without someone having made the decision that this could be a marketable property with merchandise, possible movie rights and, of course, plenty of sequels, prequels, or re-imaginings. During this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo (of which we’ve already had a few discussions), this fact has never been more obvious, what with every big presentation being made up almost entirely of titles ending in a number (or a somewhat clever turn of phrase representing a negative integer, as the case may be).
Of course, there comes a point at which we must ask: Where are the new games? Though constant franchising has become not only the norm but the very heart of the game industry in the last decade, why is it that we only appear to be playing the same game over and over with only minor improvements? At what point are we no longer beating the dead horse, but frolicking amid the gory giblets of its long-obliterated corpse? This year’s E3 had me raising this question more than once, and I can’t help but feel the danger such a precedent holds for the future of gaming.
This, of course, isn’t to say that every sequel is destined to be a terrible, destructive force on the industry; some manage to both improve of the original while pushing the barrier on design as a whole. On occasion, a game was either so unfathomably entertaining that we truly needed another or the story they’re trying to tell required more than one game, so sequels and/or prequels were planned. There are simply times where one’s vision is so vast, so unimaginably gargantuan in scope and proportion that a sequel is fully justified.
Problem is, this doesn’t apply to most of today’s franchises.
All too often do we find ourselves presented with badly-written, badly-produced sequels to games whose plot ended beautifully as is, solely to cash in on the success of the original title. Too frequently do we find ourselves spending hard-earned cash on the same game with nigh-unnoticeable cosmetic changes. Needless to say, considering the sheer overwhelming amount of sequels released on average, over the next decade we’ll all probably be playing the exact same game every time.
I’m loathe to lay blame at the feet of developers, they are only able to give us what we ask for and we speak with our wallets, but what we’ve been telling producers and developers for the last decade is “No, we don’t want anything new, original, or innovative! Give us more of the same!” Well, I’m sorry to say it, but they listened and they listened well. Gamers, all of us, have let new and creative properties (e.g. Psychonauts, Bayonetta, Mirror’s Edge) fall by the wayside, choosing instead to throw ever-increasing wads of cash towards samey, repetitive sequels (e.g. Most of the Call of Duty franchise, the continuous Guitar Hero sequels, etc).
The saddest part here, unfortunately, is that by not supporting amazing original IP in an already sequel-saturated world, we may have actually saved the integrity of those games. Doubtless, had any of those wonderful diamond-in-the-rough titles managed to attain financial success, we’d be playing Psychonauts 3 and Bayonetta: Jiggle Time Overdrive. The unfortunate reality is that we’ve started a vicious cycle in allowing developers and publishers alike to believe that, in supporting a new and exciting intellectual property, what we’re saying is we want more of this exact property, rather than more new properties.
The last bastion of true innovative game design would seem to be, ironically enough, among the casual game market. How likely would it be to come across an Angry Birds or Plants vs Zombies title announced as an AA release? If you just said “Well, about as likely as Jay ever being capable of making a point without dragging it on for an extended period of time” then congratulations, you understand all too well how improbable such a situation truly is! Though long mocked by the traditional gamer (often inaccurately and ludicrously referred to as “hardcore” gamers), myself included, the casual/portable game market has shown itself to be a breeding ground for creative, often whimsically fun design. Their constraints, both financially and technologically, infuse a sort of charming greatness to the games released that is a much needed change to the industry as a whole.
When all is said and done, there’s little we can now do to save ourselves from a never-ending cycle of sequels. We long ago made our much-used bed, and we have no one but ourselves to blame for the buffet of sloppy seconds our short-sightedness has led us to. We simply convince ourselves that loose, disappointing feeling that envelopes our souls is how joy really feels as we play Call of Duty 23 and sob for what we’ve lost.
Anguish builds character, after all.