Friday, April 13, 2012

Annualization of Games

     It seems like one of the hot new trends in games these days the tendency to make sequel installments an annual affair. I lose track of all the sequels that are churned out of the fun factory every holiday season, and one can quickly become cynical in regards to glut of incremental sequels every year. So, let's do an autopsy on a few examples of franchises (alive and dead) with annual installations, and see what we can learn.

Case One: Guitar Hero

     There's no arguing that the influence Guitar Hero was a very important event in this cycle of consoles. What started out as a novel party game where the player pretended to be good at music became a shambling corpse of its former glory with each new iteration. Not counting the mobile versions of the game, between 2005 and 2010 there were twelve installments in the main series of the game.
Open your eyes! You're not even on the buttons!
     Naturally, people got fatigued of drinking the stale milk from one of Activision's many cash cows, and eventually critical opinion and sales numbers began to favor the fledgling Rock Band series, until people stopped caring about plastic instruments almost altogether. So what spelled the death knell for the most successful rhythm-action games ever?
     In my interpretation of events, the reason that people started to drift over to Rock Band was because of Guitar Hero's failure to innovate. Rock Band brought a unique social element to the rhythm-action genre that Guitar Hero could never quite catch up to. No matter how many technically demanding, face-melting, steel-shredding guitar solos the game could muster up, Rock Band would eventually prevail as the leader in the Great Plastic Instruments Race for one reason: playing with toy instruments is a lot more entertaining in a group setting than trying to memorize the intro to Cliffs of Dover on a Fisher-Price toy in solitude and sadness.

Case Two: Call of Duty

     Don't get me wrong: Call of Duty games are fun. They are the best approximation to a Hollywood blockbuster thrill-ride that video games can accomplish. They have big, dumb characters, big, dumb cinematic setpieces, and big, dumb guns and explosions. And at the end of the day, like any Transformers or superhero movie, it's all about turning off your brain for a few hours and having fun by watching gratuitous amounts of violence.

     So why all the hate? Again, like Guitar Hero, it all comes down to the fact that there isn't enough innovation to keep many hardcore gamers satisfied. I played Modern Warfare and thoroughly enjoyed it. I also played World of Warcraft for two years and enjoyed it. But will I ever go back to them?
     In a word, no. I played both games to death, and while I enjoyed my experiences with them, I played them to death. From what I see, new iterations on Activision's swollen, gushing cash cow aren't different enough from one another to generate interest to me and many others. The series enjoys incredible sales numbers to be sure, but it comes from the same people that only buy the yearly installments of Madden and Call of Duty every year.
     But this doesn't explain the extreme backlash that the series feels. There are plenty of franchises that iterate on an annual basis, like every Madden, FIFA or MLB. So why do gamers erect the Modern Warfare games as their lightning rod of hate?
     Because it's popular, of course. You can't escape the marketing assault that surrounds each game. It's everywhere from your Mountain Dew bottles, to your TV commercials, and to your YouTube ads. Call of Duty's success and criticisms both come from the prevalence of advertisements that are experienced around the games, rather than the merits of the game's quality (or lack thereof).

Case Three: Assassin's Creed

     Assassin's Creed has been an annual series since 2009, and has garnered equal amounts of praise and criticism for doing so. On one hand, people soon get fatigued from Ubisoft's largest revenue generator. In contrast, many gamers (including myself) look forward to every year's chapter in the epic conspiracy story that Ubisoft has created.
Pictured: History
     The reason Assassin's Creed holds a special place in my heart is because of its originality.  The setting uses times and places no other games come near to exploring, and the gameplay combines an open-world philosophy to conventional stealth, action, and platforming.
     If this was all the games offered, however, they would not scratch the itch of the gaming community. They blend the emergent gameplay opportunities with a story arc that spans centuries and pulls on strings that don't go unappreciated by history nerds like me.
     Everything in world history is a complex conspiracy that traces its history back to Templars, Assassins, and aliens. Normally this kind of pseudoscientific drivel belongs on Ancient Aliens, but Ubisoft blends these themes with the interpersonal character stories that we associate with more often. In this way, Ubisoft makes me look forward to the annual installation in the series, rather than dread hearing about it every fall.

The Verdict

     So, what have we learned? In my opinion, annual games need to do a few things to make me care about them. They need to iterate on the core gameplay each game, rather than let the games spiral into monotony and repetition. They need to make the different games easily recognizable from one another, and take risks with each franchise instead of rehashing the same tired story, skeletons, and gimmicks.
     At the end of the day, if you are against these annual games, vote with your dollar and simply don't buy them. It's more productive than making petitions or complaining on message boards.

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  1. Ugh Assassin's Creed is the PERFECT example for this. I still routinely get the new COD every year just because the multiplayer is extremely addictive and all my friends are playing it at the time of it's release.
    Assassin's Creed is a single player game, one that I've played since the first one, and enjoyed thuroughly. Until Revelations came out that is. I didnt get very far in the game until I realized that it was almost the EXACT same thing as Brotherhood. Almost. And the tweaks were not enough to make me continue playing it. Close. But not enough.
    I can't help but be excited for AC3, but its an apprehensive excitement.

  2. In regards to Assassin's Creed as an "annual" series, I think it transcends the Maddens or the Calls of Duty. And that is because AC deals with a plot, a story, an evolution. It's not just an update, it's the next installment. I think there's a big distinction, and I think that's why the annual nature of Ubisoft's climb-historical-buildings-em-up doesn't bother me.