Regardless of how popular a product line becomes, eventually, there will come a time in which the formula needs to be changed. When it comes to the entertainment medium, consumers will constantly minor changes and tweaks to ensure that their product remains popular. There will be times however, where a firm will believe that their product is so popular that any real changes could deter their longtime consumer base. This is line of thinking is concerning, because every so often, a TV series, film franchise, or videogame franchise will run its course, but for whatever reason, they will persevere even through the waning popularity. This is an effective way to kill a franchise.
In gaming, it isn’t hard to point out franchises that feel like they’ve run their course; Assassins Creed, Call of Duty, Final Fantasy, and Resident Evil are notable franchises that have seen tremendous success but have required significant changes to remain popular. The Resident Evil series had strayed so far from its survival horror roots that it was practically a shell of itself. As a whole the series had become a remarkable success, but the fans were becoming critical of the change to an action horror franchise. Resident Evil 7 was the answer, a drastic shift into a survival horror tone and a new first-person perspective, it was a massive success.
Assassins Creed took the lessons from its previous entries and created an overall great game in Assassins Creed Origins. There was significant fatigue surrounding the series, but by crafting a new combat system and adopting RPG elements, Origins is easily the best in the series since Black Flag. Plus, there wasn’t as many bugs and the game actually provided a challenge for existing players. Final Fantasy XV had a long gestation period and was really the last hurrah for a franchise that had found itself struggling to remain relevant. Its time in development really paid off as the fifteenth entry featured fresh and exciting combat, interesting and diverse characters, and a surprisingly heartfelt narrative. While there were significant holes, it was easily overlooked because the developers did such an excellent job with the game.
Call of Duty is a franchise that is suffering from severe fatigue and overexposure because of the yearly releases. The crazy thing about this series and this is why I don’t criticize it as heavily as others, is that there are three separate development teams that work to create and adjust the formula of Call of Duty. While it’s a mixed bag, with standouts being Black Ops 1 and 2, World War II, and Advanced Warfare, no series can have a yearly release without there being significant questions. There is simply too much Call of Duty. Conventional wisdom states that you can have too much of a good thing. The franchise is solid, the gameplay is always tight, but because of the fatigue it’s no surprise that gamers are tired of Call of Duty. Maybe if they adjusted the release schedule to every other year, the lack of Call of Duty would be noticeable. Instead, the assumption that three year development cycles will help curtail the criticism of the series is clearly not the case. There is a difficulty in trying to make the first-person shooter genre exciting. With the reveal of Call of Duty Black Ops 4, it’s clear that Activision is going to stay the course, the only real adjustment being that instead of a traditional campaign, it will be “mission” specific.
Changing the formula so to speak is more than adding a new coat of paint or the inclusion of different modes. It’s not just about going bigger, it’s about completely changing the expectations of the consumer. To do so, developers should take view how Breath of the Wild and God of War worked to bring a different experience to their fans. Both games took their existing formulas and franchise characters and flipped them on their heads. The Legend of Zelda has always been a franchise in which the player could go anywhere and do anything but generally in the confines of the gaming environment. Breath of the Wild doesn’t hold the players hand and allows the player to fully explore from the start. I loved the freedom found in this game, the emphasis on trial and error is key as this helps create a memorable, player-crafted experience.
God of War is point-blank the best game thus far of 2018 and it was completely unexpected. Brilliant in its execution, I have yet to find anything about this title that I dislike. Developer Santa Monica Studio knocked it out of the park and this wouldn’t have been possible if God of War didn’t make significant changes to the series formula. From the combat to the camera perspective, there isn’t any real holdovers from the previous series with the exception of protagonist Kratos. Even he has developed so much that it feels like a completely new character. It was bold and it can make anyone believe that with the right amount of care and attention that a franchise can continue to be great even with the passage of time.
It may not be soon, but there will come a time where the most successful and long-standing franchises will become stagnant and their popularity will decrease. Madden, Call of Duty, NBA 2K, and Fifa will work to make small changes to deter the inevitable, but eventually they will find themselves down a path that requires a significant change. Consumers are much more aware today than they were 20 to 30 years ago. There are always new competitors to the throne and developers are always looking to create the next big thing. Look at the Battle Royale genre, Fortnite and PUBG are the current kings of the hill and Call of Duty is looking to challenge the throne. Instead of making adjustments to their franchise, the Call of Duty developers are simply looking to penetrate a different market, whether this is successful remains to be seen, but they are significantly behind which will feel different for them.
Not every franchise will be given the opportunity to reinvent themselves. It’s actually a luxury that everyone can’t afford. Nintendo, Microsoft, and Sony tend to always find a way to make their established franchises relevant regardless of the climate. These larger publishers have the funds to significantly alter their franchises for the better, even though it can be seen as a bold move to change directions. It is however, a risk worth taking. Otherwise, like all things, it will be replaced.
There’s no better time than the present to make a change.