To have videogames as a hobby is very expensive. Not only due to the entry level equipment, but for games’ price tags as well. So, it`s natural we will try to spend our money the best way we can. This is the core idea explored by franchises.
Franchises are games directly linked to one another by name. For instance: Super Mario Bros. and Mario Kart are part of the same franchise. Even if not the same genre you have both name and characters that link both games. That is a very broad definition, and it’s not a consensus. Still, I’ll work with this definition unless I otherwise.
The importance of games sharing names is very easy to grasp. Videogames, being so expensive to consume, warrant special research about the quality of what we are buying. And we know, at least implicitly, that games must be played to really pass judgement on the quality of the product. Simply looking at the genre is not good enough. There are good and bad games in every single genre. Looking at past work from the team is not really conclusive, because people get better at their jobs, and this specific game may be rushed out and not properly polished. Reviews are, in the best circumstances , slightly biased by the writer, since no one can ignore their deepest preferences and tastes, and when they don`t expose those tastes it’s even worse for people that is reading. Conclusion: Picking up games is not easy.
But let’s talk about the franchise installment. If you did not play a previous installment of that franchise you can buy it for cheap and see what that franchise is all about. If you have already played then you already have your own opinion. How well informed you will be depends on how that particular franchise iteration works. You can’t learn much about Command and Conquer Renegade playing only Command and Conquer. Media in general is important to gauge how close those games are in their design philosophy, and knowing that one is a RTS and another is a FPS helps a lot to control expectations.
Those covers are so similar, and the games so different.
But if the games are iterations of the same genre, base set of mechanics and share plot links, then it’s even easier to grasp if you are going to like a game playing a previous installment. It’s very easy to see how positive that is, for the great number of people that have one or more franchises that can properly deliver a game crafted to their tastes. But there are times when you just want something different from what is around. Self-contained ideas that, even if not extensively explored, properly executed with no second intentions, or installments, if you allow me this pun, on the designer’s mind.
After all this, there is only one conclusion:: Franchises become a symbol of all investment companies already did, that would be wasted if you do not explore how many people already know the product, the millions or billions of dollars spent on marketing to increase the awareness of past games on that franchise, convert the past games in marketing material.
Some players just want to see new ideas. And even if indies can do an incredible job sometimes, and I, as an Indie, understand the hurdles of small scale production, we can never produce the sheer amount of high quality assets that a 200+ team can. We work smarter because there is no way we can work harder than AAA developers’ teams. Both approaches are important for games, but Indies cannot be as shiny or big as AAA. And the AAA industry moves too slow due to the restriction of only working inside franchises, even if building a few new ones.
Franchises have other problems too. They usually tend to get less and less innovative at every new version of the game. New mechanics get rare to nonexistent, and plot developments get restricted by the sheer fear of doing something that will not appeal to the already fervorous audience. More than warranted fear, I might add. People gets very angry and vocal about their entertainment nowadays. And finally, rising production costs are counteracted by broadening the “target” audience, and when that broadening fails to bring home fat profits because the old fans of the franchise are not interested anymore due to the dilution of what they liked on the first place, people gets orphaned, and the franchise goes to the fridge for years, or directly to the morgue depending on how dry it may be.
My fear is that the industry can only see franchises, that then have new ideas to create only new franchises, and the first game becomes a paid, glorified demonstration copy, unable to stand by itself as a fine work. Not every game will sell millions of copies or get known by anyone, because this is the nature of the entertainment industry. We are not at the point of intellectual vivisection that enables business to mechanically create entertainment that will properly work all the time. But a game can be a good, respectable work by itself, even if not life-changing or a best seller.
Franchises are a symbol and the crux of our industry. With rare exceptions, we are the industry that most explore franchises in any way imaginable. We have at least one Assassin’s Creed game every year for the last five years, not including mobile and portable devices. We have a new Call of Duty every year for at least four years as far as I can tell. Maybe, due to the way mechanic development works our development process is more prone to sequels and franchise development. I know for a fact that when you finish a game you never have your TODO list empty. So you keep wondering how the game would be if you could work on that list once again. And most designers will jump the opportunity to completely empty that TODO list. Most of them don’t ever get that chance. A lesson I have to learn myself: sometimes it is good to let your game go.