An (Admittedly Futile) Cry for Less Annualization And More Breathing Room
It is something we see far more often than many of us would like: A game hits it big and the publisher responsible for it proceeds to annualize it or, at the very least, provide each subsequent release with little breathing room before yet another follow-up is released. The short-term rewards for doing so promote a temptation to exploit series in a way that can be harmful to the quality of the games in question and the series as a whole. Not only that, the interest in backing games with this sort of potential can make it more difficult for certain games to be released — just look at the way Activision dumped games like Brutal Legend and Ghostbusters because they didn’t “have the potential to be exploited every year on every platform with clear sequel potential and have the potential to become $100 million dollar franchises.”
Ignoring sports games, the franchises that likely come to mind first when thinking of this sort of thing include Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed. The last time we went a year without a Call of Duty game was 2004, and the last year we didn’t see a new Assassin’s Creed game on consoles was 2008. (It’s no coincidence that, in both cases, that year was the gap in between the first and second entries of the series.) Although it probably doesn’t jump to the top of your list, Prince of Persia is another series to fall victim to this sort of treatment. Though not as extreme an example as CoD or AC, the Sands of Time reboot for Prince of Persia began a six-and-a-half-year stretch that saw five games released, not counting those released for handhelds or the remake of the original. No matter how you slice it, that’s a lot of games for one series to see in a relatively short span of time.
More recently, the series has gone quiet. Since The Forgotten Sands’ release in May 2010, Prince of Persia hasn’t been heard from, save for an alleged screenshot from a new game that surfaced last year but was never confirmed as being real. The lack of news on the PoP front is apparently the result of a conscious decision on the part of Ubisoft, which has said the franchise is, refreshingly enough, on hold for the time being.
“Brand management is a tricky thing,” Ubisoft Montreal CEO Yannis Mallat told IGN. “It needs people’s attention a lot. I think it is fair to say that, right now, Prince of Persia is being paused. But we said the same thing for some other brands that suddenly popped up because a team is willing to do it.”
That qualification makes it seem as if it’s not fixated on keeping PoP on the bench for too long, but what’s important is it’s also not forcing another one out the door. Worrisome as this may be for fans, Mallat said this isn’t something that should trouble them (not that you’d expect him to say otherwise).
“I’m not scared at all for Prince of Persia fans,” he continued. “We’ll find something to entertain them with in the future. Prince of Persia is part of Ubisoft’s portfolio. As a matter of fact, we sometimes iterate on franchises and sometimes we give them time to breathe and time to grow, or time to rest. Prince of Persia is as important as any other franchise for Ubisoft. As soon as we have something to show, we will.”
It would be nice to think this move comes purely as a result of Ubisoft wanting to prevent further fatigue of the series, but in reality it’s difficult to imagine anything playing a larger factor in this than The Forgotten Sands’ lackluster sales. It would seem many publishers are unwilling to give a strong-selling series a breather until it’s too late, as was the case with something like Guitar Hero. It remains unknown whether, say, Microsoft would be willing to let Halo sit for long. The games have remained strong, but the pace of new releases in the series has picked up in recent years (as compared with its first six years, during which time only three games were released), and it’s not inconceivable that gamers will need a break at some point.
Regardless of the particulars of what will happen with Halo, Assassin’s Creed, or Call of Duty moving forward, publishers voluntarily increasing the amount of time in between sequels is something I would love to see. There’s no arguing that, in the near-term, getting a game out every year is an easy way to make a lot of money. Looking at the big picture, less frequent releases would help to prevent gamers from becoming fatigued and the series from becoming worn out. Guitar Hero may not be the best example because of the way it was tied to physical accessories, but it does illustrate what can happen even to a sales-chart-topping series if publishers are not thoughtful with the way they order sequels. There have been signs that even Call of Duty might be slowly beginning to face such a scenario despite its increasingly larger launches, and it will be especially interesting to see what ultimately happens to it in light of just how dominant it has been for the last half decade.
A decrease in the frequency franchise’s see sequels churned out wouldn’t even have to mean sacrificing all of the money these series could generate. Downloadable content allows for the life of a game to be extended and, if handled properly, would, in my mind, make for a more acceptable form of monetizing a series than frequent $60 game releases. More than that, what I’m primarily interested in is seeing the release of games and new IPs that could be developed with the time and money that’s not entirely devoted to bringing out the latest game in such a series for the Nth year in a row. The developers of these series had to come up with something great for their respective series to take off in the first place, and seeing them try their hands at something new would be wonderful. That’s part of what makes something like Bungie divorcing itself from Halo and creating something original so exciting.
Of course, this happening on any significant scale seems unlikely. Valve can essentially do what it likes because it has a huge security blanket in Steam, but also because it’s a privately held company. Publishers such as EA, Activision, and Ubisoft all have shareholders to answer to, and ensuring short-term success at the expense of long-term fatigue is sometimes deemed acceptable, particularly when the alternative — taking a chance on new, unproven games and properties — is so risky. Until that changes, something that is highly improbable, this is all wishful thinking, but that doesn’t make the idea of a world with less annualization and more originality sounds any less desirable.