There isn't a secret formula to creating a blockbuster video game franchise, but game developers like Bungie and BioWare know a thing or two about creating commercially successful games.
At GDC on Wednesday, BioWare general manager and CEO Ray Muzyka said that today, developers should be thinking in the long term, and more broadly when creating intellectual properties. “We think of our games now in our group as franchises, we really do. Franchises include a lot more than just games, for that matter."
That means bringing the game's world to books, TV, film and other mediums. And all of this needs to be coordinated carefully so that all representations of an IP are consistent and true to the original idea. BioWare thinks far ahead into the future, even as far as a decade, although ideas slated for nine years from now are certainly subject to fleshing out.
Joseph Staten, design director at Halo house Bungie said that his studio "absolutely [did] not” have a 10-year plan when they originally released Halo for Xbox in 2001. They made games because they were fun and they created a world that people wanted to revisit, he said. Bungie is currently working on Halo Reach for Xbox 360.
Staten said that today Bungie plans further ahead. "We didn't have a lot of time for looking forward, but now we do," he said.
Creating a franchise also typically means creating sequels, but sequel development should be approached carefully in order to avoid franchise fatigue or general developer burnout. Halo, Staten said, avoided this pitfall by focusing more on creating a world that players want to keep on revisiting.
"If you think about building a franchise around a character, that's a problem," said Staten, whose Halo franchise is home to one of the more iconic video game characters around. But the studio proved that Halo isn't all about Master Chief with Halo 3 ODST, which introduced new characters.
"... If you focus on building worlds where you'd like to spend time, no matter who you are [in the game]... we can tell whatever story you want. ... When franchises don't succeed is because the focus is too narrow from the outset, too singular," Staten said. “...I think Halo from the very beginning was an IP where you could tell any story you wanted.”
"To be fair, developers want to see sequels too," he added. "For us it's not that we have to make sequels every year. We enjoy making them. ... It doesn't matter if it has a two or three at the end."
Muzyka also stressed that innovating from game to game is crucial. For instance, there were major changes from Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2, driven by fan feedback. “If you're not going to take the innovate risks that you need to... then yeah, you're setting yourself up to be in a death spiral, and that's a bad thing. ... You have to invest and innovate. ... That what's keeps sequels selling more."
He added, “You gotta listen to fans. That's the most important thing you can do."