Platform-exclusive games have been a mainstay of the hardware marketing strategy for some time now. Each company dangles them in front of gamers like a worm on a hook, waiting for us to bite. Technology mega-giant Microsoft is no stranger to this practice and has always been willing to unload the buckets of cash necessary to keep specific titles solely on their Xbox 360. Fortunately for us as gamers, near-infinite amounts of funding and development resources can often translate into some pretty damn good games. In Microsoft’s stable alone, franchises like Halo, Gears of War, and Forza Motorsports stand as some of the most well-received titles in their respective genres. However, not all titles exclusive to the Xbox 360 have managed to stay in the limelight and, as a result, seem to have been all but forgotten. Somewhere, in a back office in Redmond, Washington, some tragically under-appreciated franchises are sitting on a shelf collecting dust.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at three games that Microsoft needs to revive, not just because we love them, but also in order to position itself for a more stable venture into the next generation of consoles. While the aforementioned “Big Three” Xbox exclusives are all great games franchises, they appeal to only a small portion of the gaming public as a whole. Expanding their selection of exclusives in order to attract a broader range of gamers is nothing short of a no-brainer for Microsoft. In addition, doing so will breathe new life into some franchises that sorely deserve it. With the next generation of consoles inevitably on the horizon, there could be a real window of opportunity for some of these to see new life.
The Fable franchise and developer Lionhead Studios have been with Microsoft since the original Xbox, dating all the way back to 2004. Across three major installments in the series, players explored the fictional land of Albion and watched it develop over the course of the 500 years that passed. That lengthy span of time allowed for various technological, cultural, and political changes to play into the overall plot of the series. Each title provided a large open world to explore and enough narrative content to make every nook and cranny of the map interesting. Some of Fable’s most notable features were its ever-persistent brand of humor and the fact that choices made during the course of the storyline made an impact on the overall narrative. Whether it was the ability to greet townsfolks with a bit of flatulence or the fact that unprotected sex could lead to contracting a STD, Fable had far more surprises than RPG tropes – a rare quality indeed.
While all of the standard RPG elements existed throughout the series, its aforementioned comedic nature and stylized visuals helped Fable to appeal to newcomers and hardcore gamers alike. The ability to draw a new audience without alienating your core customer is invaluable, especially in today’s game market. This is an important business factor for Microsoft, as well as any other major player in the industry, to consider. In addition, bringing Fable back to the forefront of their exclusivity showcase would add a respected RPG franchise to stand alongside the shooters and racers that they already have in the fold, thus expanding their appeal to fans of other genres.
Of any of the other titles on the remainder of this list, Fable IV probably has the most realistic chance of actually seeing the light of day. The franchise is still alive, as 2012 saw the release of a XBLA game, Fable Heroes, and a spin-off retail release, Fable: The Journey. However, those titles were a far cry from the deep and engaging experience of a true Fable game. Rumors of a proper follow-up to Fable III have made their way around the web, but doubts arose when Peter Molyneux, creative director of the Fable series, parted ways with Lionhead Studios.
Considering the franchise’s focus on the development of the gaming world with the passing of time, it would be interesting to see where the next installment lands. Fable III took place during the Industrial Revolution and as a result, there is a much larger focus on firearms and technology than in the first two games. A sequel could focus on later stages of the Industrial Revolution. Albion could be a very different looking place with the introduction of railroads, steam-powered ships, and factories. While the world of Fable IV may look different, it would be one that I would be no less eager to explore.
Project Gotham Racing
I know what you’re thinking. If we’re talking about reviving franchises that will help Microsoft provide a more varied selection of exclusives, then why offer up another racer when Forza Motorsports is such a well-established franchise? While it is true that the Forza franchise has been a resounding success for Microsoft, it is widely recognized as a racing simulator, featuring realistic driving physics, tracks, and upgrades. That perception amongst the general public narrows the potential appeal of the franchise as many gamers are not interested in that level of realism in a racer. Attempts to broaden Forza’s potential audience have been made, including adding various “assists” that players can select from and, more recently, the release of Forza Horizon, a title that moved the action onto the open road and away from the controlled track environment.
Why alter the successful Forza template when you already have a viable second racer sitting in the garage? Project Gotham Racing, developed by now-defunct Bizarre Creations, was Microsoft’s big-name racing exclusive on both the original Xbox and the 360, at least for the first couple years of its existence. Over-the-top, arcade-style speed and handling were the trademarks of the four-game series. The “Kudos” point-system encouraged drivers to push their vehicles to the limit by awarding points based on a variety of actions including power sliding, catching air, overtaking other racers, and so on. The last entry in the series, PGR4, was released in 2007 and garnered a great deal of critical praise. Unfortunately for the franchise, Bizarre Creations was purchased by Activision and Project Gotham Racing has since been idle. They did release Blur, often considered to be the spiritual successor to PGR4, in 2010 across all major platforms.
Cranking up the engine of the PGR franchise will allow Microsoft to all but own the racing genre, as far as exclusives are concerned. Forza performs comparably, if not slightly better, than Sony’s Gran Turismo franchise. With the addition of PGR, they can cover both fans of hardcore simulations and arcade racers, thus broadening the customer-base to which they can appeal. While other popular arcade-style racing games, such as Need for Speed and GRID, exist in the market, they are multi-platform titles that don’t influence the sales of hardware. Since Sony has no real competition to pit against a potential PGR5, the impact of reviving the series could be more significant than many would anticipate.
So what would PGR5 look like? The last entry in the franchise touted the inclusion of motorcycles and real-time weather effects, both of which were fantastic elements that would need to return. To differentiate the series from Forza, less track-based races would make the most sense. A selection of street races based in cities around the world was a mainstay of PGR, so expanding on that idea and adding more variety would be welcome. Honestly, PGR was a fantastic arcade racer that saw a fair amount of critical and commercial success, so if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Just put fast cars on great looking tracks and let me put the pedal to the metal.
Don’t pretend that you didn’t play Viva Piñata. Developed by Rare, it was released for the Xbox 360 in 2006 and epitomized the term “charming”. The cute piñata characters and vivid color palette helped the game appeal to kids and casual gamers, while disguising a fairly deep gameplay system that more seasoned veterans were able to enjoy. Often compared to games like The Sims and Animal Crossing, Viva Piñata tasked players with turning an abandoned plot of land into a lush and beautiful garden. Doing so helped to attract various piñatas to the garden, adding a sort of city management element to the game. Two piñatas of the same species opened up the opportunity for breeding, at which point the game would employ a somewhat infamous “mating minigame” which, in spite of the name, was actually only a fairly simple maze-like puzzle. Sexy…
The Viva Piñata franchise, including the second game Trouble in Paradise, was, by all accounts, a resounding success. Over 2 million games were sold and a slew of awards earned, including 6 nominations from the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences. However, Viva Piñata seems to have mysteriously disappeared. Fans continue to search for any clues of a possible third entry into the series, but any hope of that seems to have dwindled as the years have passed. Considering that Rare has now been relegated to developing Kinect Sports titles, it would seem that the piñatas have been put out to pasture.
Viva Piñata seems like one of the most obvious franchises for Microsoft to revive, for a number of reasons. For one, while the clamor for luring in casual gamers may have quieted a bit over the years, they are still a valuable segment of the customer base to consider. As aforementioned, the basic elements of Viva Piñata are an immediate draw for that particular portion of the gaming population. In addition, due to its surprisingly deep gameplay, Microsoft can leverage that appeal, without alienating the core gamer. Secondly, there is an already established customer base longing for another entry in the series. A simple internet search will reveal a number of message boards and forums full of folks wondering where the beloved franchise has gone. It goes without saying that an established customer base translates to almost guaranteed sales, making the revival of the franchise a much lower risk venture.
A third Viva Piñata game could also be a viable opportunity to showcase Microsoft’s Kinect peripheral. While I’m not the most likely gamer to get caught jumping around in front of my TV, it’s hard to deny that the younger audience would appreciate the opportunity to dance with their favorite piñata or actually perform the basic movements associated with building a piñata home or planting seeds. As long as there is an option to use an actual controller for less spry gamers like myself, I wouldn’t protest. Where Microsoft’s focuses currently stand, there seems to be a real opportunity to pursue the revival of the franchise. Hell, it’s called “Viva Piñata” or “long live piñata”. Long life implies more than just two release, so let’s get crackin’ on a third!