Late Wednesday afternoon a panel session, 'Franchise power: Understanding the DNA of the industry's greatest games' was held at this year's E3 to discuss successful franchises, and how to keep sustain interest after so many iterations.
An intriguing line-up of panelists included Grant Collier, President of Infinity Ward, and discussing the Call of Duty series, Soren Johnson, Designer and Programmer at Firaxis Games discussing the Civilization series, Hanno Lemke, Vice President, General Manager from Electronic Arts Black Box discussing the Need for Speed series and Yannis Mallat, Chief Executive Officer from Ubisoft Montreal to discuss the Prince of Persia series. Ed Boon, the Creative Director of Midway Games was scheduled to appear as well to discuss the Mortal Kombat series, but unfortunately was a no show. The panel was moderated by Jeff Green, Editor-in-Chief of Computer Gaming World.
Mr. Green began by asking how the panelists felt working on a continuous franchise, "Is it a blessing or a curse?" Hanno Lemke started by discussing his Need For Speed franchise, the one with the most iterations of all the series discussed, at 16 published games: "There [are] key ingredients for a lasting franchise. [One of the more important ones is] something with timeless appeal. Car culture has been around since the '50s. There's a lot of access points to it - there are the gear heads who love to tinker under the hood and shave points off the lap, there are those who just enjoy the sensation of driving in good looking environments..."
He then continued by discussing another important factor: "A consistent creative center. It has to have a very focused center... [also] cultural awareness... and consistent quality. Those are the ingredients that let us last, we've been around 12 years. We've done maybe three or four re-inventions." Jeff Green commented that the obvious limitation is that the games can't stray too far from the established formula: Need for Speed has to be a racing game.
Soren Johnson considered the same question and answered "For Civilization, is it a game mechanic or is it a topic? Really every time we moved away from the board game mechanic, it just felt wrong." Moderator Green then asked the hypothetical question "If Civ 2 is the greatest game ever, then why make a part 3 and 4?" Without much of a pause, Mr. Johnson answered that: "I came to Firaxis to work on Civ specifically, so that was never an issue for me. There are always things to add to make things more interesting. But will we run out of ideas? Is there an end to Civilization? Flight sims used to be one of the most popular genres, but the games became more and more complicated and the manuals got bigger and bigger. So we actually have to cut things when we introduce new things. Functionally it's just what you have to do."
Turning to Yannis Mallet, moderator Green pointed out that Prince of Persia was an interesting case of franchise revival, but then specifically asked about audience alienation when it came to the second installment in the newest Prince of Persia series, Warrior Within, and whether or not he felt that the franchise was damaged because of that.
Mallat counters: "It was done on purpose. We wanted a game that was very polarizing, we want to surprise the player. They say it's easier to keep a customer than to get a new one, but that has it's limits. We want people to talk about the game, in a mean way or a good way, just talk about it! Did we hurt the franchise? I don't think so. The gameplay was still there. Two Thrones was meant to unify the people who hated Warrior Within and those who liked it. We first had to revitalize the brand, so we had to make sure that Sands of Time was a very quality game... to finally answer your question; no."
The Ubisoft exec later added that the series was true to its source because: "The DNA of these games lie in three things: clever level design, intense fighting, and storyline. That's what we brought over, and we wanted to prove that what worked fifteen years ago will work today. The rest is just packaging. We chose to use the DNA of the brand itself."
Call of Duty was discussed next, and moderator Green pointed out that before working on the Call of Duty series, Grant Collier had worked on the Medal of Honor series: "WWII is a big topic, but when do you get tired of that? Could Call Of Duty VIII be set in Iraq?" Mr. Collier responded that: "We've been working on these games for seven years, so we've actually outlasted the war itself. So what are the elements that really drive Call Of Duty? We decided it was really the sort of Band of Brothers comradery and the sense of duty. It could have been in other genres. It was just something that we had volumes and volumes of knowledge on."
One of the recurring discussions at most of the panels at this year's E3 was on the pursuit of mainstream gamers, as opposed to the traditional hardcore consumer base, and whether one is being ignored in lieu of another. Moderator Green also pointed out that: "Really ,what you stand to lose with franchises is the press. We get bored very easily after so many games if they only change a few things. We won't put Call Of Duty 1 on the cover because it's an unproven game, but we'll put 2 on... maybe even parts 4 or 5, but eventually we'll just stop caring."
Later in the session, Lemke tried to explain how they treated their franchise: "We try to think of it as a brand. We have different players who attach themselves to different versions... We have the people who love the older games, newer players in love with the Underground [iteration of the series]. So the consumer base moves around. And with new platforms it changes again. Franchise comes to an end when you sort of run out of that magic."
Soren Johnson bounced off that by saying: "The truth is if you make a great game people will buy it. What you worry about is maybe becoming background noise. How often do you release a new version? It's different for [different] franchises. We were actually worried that Civ IV might have been too soon after III. We feel having a long time between each iteration is important... I think it's two strikes and you're out - you have two bad or mediocre games in a row, and it's time to take a break."
Asking his final question, Moderator Green asked that given no limitations on time, money would the panelists be working on franchises still? Mr. Mallet answered first with: "I would go with a new IP. PoP is very close to my heart because of all the time we spent..." He continued: "New IPs will always help developers manage franchises better. There will be no PoP in 2006 - it needs to breathe. The team needs to refresh their mind. It's only when we have enough brands that we can manage them well."
For Soren Johnson the answer was: "I'm working on a new IP right now. But I really had to rip myself away from Civilization without trying to look over my back and keep my eye on the new guys."
Finally, Mr. Collier said: "Doing a new IP is really sexy, but we still want to work on Call of Duty and keep besting the previous one... When you start adding stuff at the end of the development cycle you always end up breaking things. So that's a strong motivation for sequels."