Editorial: Are developers killing their franchises?

Can you ever have too many?

It seems a simple enough question. When related to gaming, can too many ever become a bad thing? What I mean is, how long does it take before a series runs dry? How long can these developers keep our interest piqued? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? Instantly, one fairly simple question has become four questions of increasing complexity. There is more however. If certain long running series are surviving, while others crash and burn out of sight, well why is that? What was it about them that we as consumers did not enjoy, or just grew bored of? Let’s have a look at some examples.

I think what would be fitting to start with is Pokemon. Obviously the monopoly is enormous, but we are focusing purely on the videogames that have dominated the handheld market ever since the originals, Blue and Red (or Red and Green in its home country of Japan) in 1996. Ever since 1996, the series continues to grow and continues to dominate even today. The games however, all use exactly the same formula. Why is it then that this series continues to hit the number one spot in the charts, almost guaranteed, with each new release. Why have consumers not grown tired of the formulaic gameplay, that is in fact so overused, gamers who have experienced even just one Pokemon game beforehand know what is coming around the corner.

With Pokemon, it certainly seems to be a case of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ mentality. The games are good, people do still buy them and hence the formula is not messed with. I think the developers feel it would be an enormous risk to the popularity of the games if they drastically changed the formula and therefore remain in a safe, money-making zone. Not only this, but the generations of Pokemon are relatively spread out. The first generation of games was released in Japan in 1996 and the Western world in 1998, while it then took two years for the second generation, Gold and Silver, to be released and then a further three for Sapphire and Ruby. It continues on like this. Although there are stopgap games in between, what people really anticipate are the new generations and I believe the developers leave enough time in between releases to allow the hype to generate, unlike another game series which has since died out.

This series is the once popular Guitar Hero franchise, wherein you used a guitar shaped peripheral to rock out to licensed tracks in a similar format to dance games, where you matched timed reactions on the screen to your peripheral. An extremely good idea proved to be an extremely popular idea by the release of Guitar Hero II in 2006, the first game being released in 2005, and the popularity only went up. However, as the sales increased, so did the number of games being released in a year. It went from a fairly sparse, but still annual, release schedule, to seven, yes that’s right, seven titles being released for the series in 2010. The music game industry hit a sharp decline with consumers arguing that Activision, who distributed the series, were simply milking it for all it was worth. The market for rhythm games was $1.4 billion in 2008, dropping nastily to $700 million in 2009.

Another example of a game series quickly becoming oversaturated in a short space of time is the Assassin’s Creed franchise and, although they are still met with rave reviews and sales, this writer thinks the series should end fairly soon, so they avoid the same fate as Guitar Hero. The reviews clearly point out that the mechanics of the series are already beginning to feel stale and many fans of the game series believe it peaked with the second game, this particular gamer included.

The last major series I want to look at is the Final Fantasy series of RPG games that were previously exclusive to the Playstation but have since expanded to multi-platform formats. Starting in 1987 with the eponymous Final Fantasy, the series has continued to expand and change, but managing to stay within the role-playing game formula. It is Square Enix’s greatest selling video game series, perhaps helped by the sheer number of games in its personal library, perhaps due to the quality of the experiences to be had. The difference with the Final Fantasy series, I believe, is that they have successfully managed to branch out to different genres, such as Massively Multiplayer Online games, which still retain the role-playing aspect that they were born with. Admittedly, the series will forever have the games that they are most well known for, in this instance I would argue it is Final Fantasy 7, but it continues to sell to this day even with its colossal backlog of games, people are still interested in the series, with Final Fantasy 13-2 being recently released.

So why are people consistently interested in these huge franchises, both of which are Japanese, while other games die out if they try to introduce too many games? Perhaps it is the sheer quality that a lot of the Pokemon and Final Fantasy games are renowned for. This writer however thinks it is a little more than that. They space out their games and have been running for a very long time, Final Fantasy nearly ten years longer than Pokemon but both of them long all the same. To this day, that has allowed both the franchises time to build up great fanbases consisting of gamers from multiple generations. Not only that, but the series have expanded into empires almost, both Pokemon and Final Fantasy having films and other media unrelated to gaming dedicated to them. This then allows their fanbase to expand even more and we begin to see a domination of a multitude of markets.

So, to summarise, that is why I feel certain game series manage to survive in the long run. It is down a lot to distribution, with some developers and distributors getting greedy and attempting to capitalise on the great and sometimes unexpected successes of their first title by shoving copious sequels down consumer’s throats in a very short elapsed time. With Guitar Hero, this also included highly expensive peripherals that changed with every iteration and the boredom seeps in quicker than it would if it were panned out over a greater period of time. Meanwhile, Pokemon and Final Fantasy have built numerous media empires over longer periods, usually starting out small and then expanding, allowing them to dominate the market for years to come with an ever exponentially increasing number of fans.