The concept of a developer annualizing a popular video game franchise might initially sound rather enticing. After all, it’s no secret that games take a long time to develop, and it’s often several years before players get the chance to play the next installment in a given series. It’s also not uncommon for big budget titles to get delayed (often for the better), resulting in an even longer waiting period. Therefore, receiving a sequel to a series you love every year sounds like a pretty good deal, that is, until you realize what that means for the quality of the product. Video game annualization isn’t driven by creative desires; it’s purely business. Why put out one fantastic Call of Duty game every couple of years when you can put out one decent-to-mediocre game every year and make the big bucks quicker?
Despite what developers like Ubisoft might say, fans don’t want more Assassin’s Creed sequels, they want better Assassin’s Creed sequels. Just because they can afford to push out a new game every year, doesn’t mean that they should, and it certainly doesn’t benefit fans in the long run.
The reason major franchises like Grand Theft Auto and The Legend of Zelda are so successful commercially and critically is because these developers take the time to carefully craft the next experience. With ample time to reflect on the previous works they’ve created, they’re able to take what they’ve learned and apply it to the next game. How do studios that have three or more different developers churning out sequels simultaneously manage this? The short answer is; they don’t.
There’s a reason the tides have turned on franchises like Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty in recent years. Once beloved series, these games have had major ups and downs with their respective sequels. Assassin’s Creed Unity was a buggy mess, and the sad part is, even if it wasn’t, it still wouldn’t have been all that compelling. Even if these franchises have a good year, that doesn’t guarantee that next year’s game is going to be on par. After all, in many cases such as Call of Duty, it’s not even from the same team as the previous iteration, meaning there is no continuity in design. These franchises become uneven, some sequels improving the formula, while others ignore the previous team’s additions and go in a different direction.
I really enjoyed Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. After the disappointments of Revelations and Assassin’s Creed III, I thought I was done with the series, but that fourth game shook things up in a major way. With its naval combat and exploration, I felt like I was playing a real evolution of the franchise. I was genuinely excited for what would come next. Boy was I naive…
A year after the success of Black Flag, the aforementioned Unity released and disappointed even the most forgiving fans. Unfortunately, the upcoming launch of Syndicate looks equally as unimpressive. Neither of these are pushing the franchise forward in a meaningful way, and neither seem to have learned anything from the success of Black Flag. How could they when everyone is too busy working on their own take at the same time? It’s not a natural progression; it’s a machine.
Fatigue is finally starting to set in. Even if these games sell relatively well, gamers aren’t nearly as excited or enthusiastic about these properties as they once were, and it’s steadily getting worse. Now this doesn’t mean that the teams behind these games aren’t talented, and I’m sure they’d be making much better experiences if they weren’t tied to this system. It’s hard to get invested when we know that we’re guaranteed to only get a slightly different sequel every year.
Think about it for a second; there are three main development teams – with help from others – working on Call of Duty. Three studios that could be off making new, creative IP. This was Activision’s so-called solution to making the games stronger, by taking the pressure off of their development studios. The developers might have more time to make each sequel, but that’s not addressing the actual problem here. Same goes for Ubisoft’s multi-team methods.
Just last year Neversoft – the developer behind the original Tony Hawk Pro Skater franchise – was merged into Infinity Ward (the original Call of Duty team) by Activision. They not only dismantled the team, but absorbed them into the Call of Duty-making machine. For a lot of these major publishers, it’s not about what makes the best video game, it’s all about how to make the most profit in the shortest amount of time.
This is a trend that has become way too prevalent in the industry. Even Warner Brothers released the underwhelming prequel Batman: Arkham Origins; a game meant to act as the stopgap until original developer Rocksteady would be ready to release the proper sequel, Arkham Knight. It sure felt like a stopgap when we received a game that felt almost identical to the first two. This hurt the franchise brand, even if it wasn’t in a major way, and it caused some gamers to loose enthusiasm for the true upcoming sequel. When lesser sequels flood the market, it lessens the opinion of the IP, and potentially its value.
There are many other franchises guilty of annualization. You’ve seen them clogging up the barging bins at GameStop, the games everyone skips over when shopping for retro titles. Sports games went the annualized route long ago, and they suffer from similar issues. I’m betting GameStop burns the hundreds of outdated copies of these games during the cold winters to keep warm. No one wants a sports game that isn’t up to date.
Instead of starting from scratch every year with games like NBA 2K, FIFA and Madden, things like roster updates – the reason a lot of dedicated sports fans pick up a copy every year – could easily be updated via downloadable content in this day and age. Instead of rushing out a yearly release with minor alterations, these developers could focus on making a single experience better and better, and when they finally do feel like it’s time for major changes to be made, they could produce a polished sequel somewhere down the line.
There simply is no excuse for annual franchises. Developers need the freedom to take a breather and really decide what the next best step is for their creative property. Video games, like every art form, shouldn’t be manufactured artificially. This industry shouldn’t be about pleasing investors or making annual profits look good, this industry deserves better than that, and we as consumers deserve better than that. It should be quality over quantity, not the other way around.