Alright, let’s talk annual game franchises. It’s a prevalent practice in the industry, and they’re not going away anytime soon, so we’re just going to have to deal. Batman, Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed and EA Sports titles are dropping faster than Taco Bell induced diarrhea, with more likely on the way. How do hardcore gamers feel about this? Ask, and you’ll find yourself violated with an ambitious string of expletives. When their speech begins to resemble something you can actually understand, you’ll hear plenty of valid complaints… but one major component behind their reasoning is a tad misguided. I’ll address that in a bit, but first, my thoughts on the annual business model.
Overall, it’s not good. The worst offenders, without question, come out of the sports genre. Devs capitalize on roster updates, tweaked physics and gameplay mechanics, making each subsequent iteration a minimal improvement over the last. Oh, and don’t allow yourself to fall in love with any of the new features either, because there’s a good chance they’ll be dropped the following year. From a consumer’s standpoint, I feel these games are little more than incomplete products, Madden being a prime example. Just look at all the reviews from the last 5 years and you’ll see of variety of echoed sentiments – Hit detection isn’t what it should be, offensive AI is too strong, defensive AI too weak, yadda yadda yadda. Isn’t that great? A bunch of noticeable key features, none of which EVER come off as flawless.
How painfully obvious does it have to be that we don’t need a new Madden every year? Furthermore, why do people actually eat it up? Send EA a message – Allow the devs 2 years between each release – They’d be able to make significant changes across the board and actually perfect them, which would ultimately make the final result worth your time and money. In between those releases, just follow-up with some roster updates. It’s a win-win for everyone… except for EA I guess, since they’re used to cashing in on a yearly basis. “Well, nobody is forcing you to buy the game every year.” That’s true, and trust me, I don’t. Madden ’09 was the last I actually bit on, and that’s because my Giants had just won the Super Bowl prior. Point is, devs aren’t given the time they need to create a (nearly) perfect game. Yes, you’ll personally see a significant change if you only bite every 2-3 years, but you’re still getting a lesser quality product than you deserve.
*Interesting fact, by the way – Madden 25 only sold 1 million copies thus far… down from 1.65 mil from the year before. It’s possible that people are waiting to buy the next-gen version, but that’s a significant decrease. Hopefully the trend continues so we can space these games out a bit.
However, we all know that sports are no longer exclusive to the annual business model. No; Now anything that’s been deemed a hit is eligible, which brings us to our first major offender (outside the realm of sports) – Call of Duty… which is basically Madden all over again. Don’t get me wrong, because I was a strong Call of Duty supporter since the beginning. I never thought another franchise would come close to besting Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, but Call of Duty did just that … that is, until the release of Modern Warfare 2. The multiplayer was a marked improvement, but I’ve always considered the single player experience to be paramount. Imagine my surprise then, when I saw Modern Warfare 2’s end credits roll after a measly five hours. I know that quality trumps quantity, but seriously? Five hours? There are a couple of dev teams that trade off with the annual release schedule, so that leaves two years for a dev team to produce the final product… and I can’t fathom how they’re spending their time. Despite the gimped campaign lengths, the multiplayer practically remains the same. New maps, perhaps a new kill-streak package… but that’s it. Even more disappointing? These games have been recycling the same models for years. A main building in a multiplayer map might make its way in the next game’s full length campaign, for example. Hell, even some DLC contained a bunch of recycled maps. What a bargain! People are literally paying for the same experience each year, just with a new coat of paint.
There’s also an inherent issue with using two dev teams to work on different games in the same franchise – The gameplay changes considerably. I know some of you will pepper me with a bunch of question marks for saying that, but here’s where I’m coming from: Infinity Ward actually made you have to think about your approach to any given situation, using cover and timing your shots wisely. It was absolute chaos, making the experience of ‘war’ much more harrowing. TreyArc missed the point however, and made another series of generic war shooters that were far more forgiving. Of course, they’ve emulated Infinity Ward with Black Ops and Black Ops II… so now we truly are getting the same experience every… single… year. It’s ‘Madden’-ing. Get it? Guh-hyuck, guh-hyuck.
I don’t think that a dev has to create a new engine from scratch every year, because it’s just not necessary. However, when you have two years to develop a smash-hit with an enormous budget, devs should stop phoning it in. Just because a formula is successful, doesn’t mean you can’t do something to make the next installment a little different. Get creative and implement some new ideas, and craft a story worth telling. Have you ever connected with a character in a Call of Duty game? No? Me either. Battlefield 3 on the other hand did a MUCH better job at having me look through the eyes of a soldier.
Despite everything I said, I don’t have a problem with the annual business model. There are some good examples out there – Assassin’s Creed, for one. I know a lot of people were disappointed with AC III, and it was definitely lacking in some areas, but it was still a solid entry. Hell, Assassin’s Creed IV looks to be the best yet. Batman is another example – I’m not really ‘jazzed’ for this new Batman game, but I’m not passing judgment on it until I get the chance to play it. It looks good however, and hands on impressions have been positive more often than not (more of the same, and in a good way). I find the real problem is in bed with the publishers – “That sold like crazy! Make the exact same thing again! Don’t change!” Ugh.
Which brings me to the point I wanted to touch upon earlier – People are citing money as the primary issue, and it’s not. This is a mindset I’m sick to death of reading about, and people need to stop acting like devs making money is a bad thing. I know we ideally want them to create products for the art instead of profit, but that’s not the reality. It never will be. Devs can make a product that’s artful, but they still need to make some money. If they can’t pay for the bill and fund future efforts, their time in the industry will come to a close. The idea that profit is evil needs to cease… immediately. Take into account their salaries, health care, and the amount of time it takes to build a product. There’s also advertising costs to consider.
In short, video games do not materialize from unicorn blessed rainbow farts and wishful thinking.
As consumers, we need to be a bit more tolerant of the first rule in business, which is – duh – to make money. However, we need to hold devs, and especially publishers, accountable for the product they’re putting out there. If you’re complaining that Call of Duty or Madden never changes… speak with your wallet. Send e-mails. Tell your friends how disappointed you were. This is the only way to turn the tide. I mean, what else can we expect when Call of Duty remains the largest launch of any given year? More of the same, sadly. Don’t buy into it. I haven’t, and you shouldn’t either. If you want a truly great gaming experience, now’s a great time to re-examine all the games you may have missed. Plenty of them are dirt cheap now, meaning you can get more variety and game time with that $60.