Most publishers have locked down very specific ways of expanding their franchises. One of the most common is through sequels and multimedia aspirations, the combination of which is enough to keep the brand in the public spotlight while introducing it to audiences that may not have had access to it in the first place. Ubisoft is, perhaps, the most vociferous practitioner of this approach with Assassin’s Creed having fingers in a whole lot of pies and a similar tactic already being lined up for the next flagship series Watch_Dogs. It’s good for the brand, and potentially lucrative to the industry as it can bring new fans into the fold of gaming.
I wrote about that last week, as well as a rarer, more gamer-focussed method: shifting an entry in a series to another genre. Doing this hasn’t been regarded nearly as well as It generally does away with everything that the series stood for in the first place, but things are changing with the likes of The Bureau: XCOM Declassified and Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance.
These aren’t the only ways for developers to go about maximising their potential profits. One more method that has become prevalent is DLC. More often than not, this revolves around multiplayer, offering additional skins and maps, but a few developers have realised that there can be more. When it is applied to single player, we get what amount effectively to expansion packs. For RPGs like Skyrim and Mass Effect, this results in an all new series of challenges that can bolster the core playtime significantly. In more linear affairs, like DmC: Devil may Cry and Dead Space 3, the developers expand the story and gameplay in ways that the original game simply could not incorporate, by following secondary characters. With Assassin’s Creed III, Ubisoft subverted the series’ approach; instead of incorporating history, The Tyranny of King Washington altered it.
Provided the content is compelling and worthwhile, fans will buy into it and it will help to keep the series relevant between the major releases, but developers can do better. One thing that we haven’t seen very often is bridging DLC. Storytellers usually provide a period between the ending of one iteration of a series and the beginning of another. This can be days, months or years and fans are often left wondering what the character was up to in that period. While novels and films can easily incorporate flashbacks to those periods, games aren’t nearly as capable of the use of analepsis. This gives rise to the stories set between the games, and this is reportedly exactly what The Walking Dead: 400 Days will be and what DmC: Vergil’s Downfall was supposed to be.
Although DLC has been around for years, it seems that developers are reluctant to use it to its fullest effect by expanding the lore of their games with it. With the next generation becoming even more multiplayer focussed, with seemingly every game adopting MMO principles, it looks unlikely that it ever will.
The final method that I would propose is one that many independent studios attempt, but major publishers ignore. Not the branding of a series, but that of a developer. It isn’t nearly as simple as just leaping into this, however. The studio must first prove itself as worthy of praise and continued attention by creating a game that puts them on the map, and then follow it up with titles of increasingly quality. Few developers can hope to achieve that, but perhaps the most successful is Rockstar Games. While true that they are not independent, Take-Two allows it to seem as though they are, by effectively removing their own brand from any advertising.
Rockstar is the house that Grand Theft Auto built. It rocketed them into the spotlight and they followed up this success with the creation of several other games that cemented them into the public consciousness. Midnight Club, Red Dead, Max Payne, L.A. Noire: these titles constitute the developer’s output this generation and each has been highly regarded by critics and fans alike. Of course the quality plays a role in this, but would Team Bondi’s debut have seen over five million sales had Rockstar not been attached to it? I doubt it.
Other studios that have adopted this principle include Quantic Dream, Insomniac, Ninja Theory, Platinum Games and Bungie. It works by allowing them to diversify their portfolio and retaining the acclaim that they had in the first place. And to think that the major publishers aren’t aware of this is mistaken. Many of them appear to be trying to build the awareness of their individual studios. EA is pushing DICE and Visceral, the creators of Battlefield and Dead Space respectively. Square-Enix has thrown a clear divide between their Japanese studios and Eidos. And Sony are building up Naughty Dog as a premier brand. It can only be a good thing.
The philosophies that have driven the industry to date can’t last with the auteur ideas that are being brought forward thanks to the indie explosion. Shifts are required in the Triple-A space if it wants to retain its foothold and they will come, sooner or later.