Dishonored

Listen to what many industry executives have to say, and you’d be led to believe original intellectual property doesn’t sell well late in a console cycle. The time to introduce a new IP supposedly comes when new consoles are launched; once those systems have been around for years, that’s when the focus shifts to existing properties. This is something that has never made a lot of sense to many people, and the performance of Dishonored isn’t about to do anything to convince those people that executives have it right.

Despite being an original IP — just the sort of game that supposedly shouldn’t be excelling at this point in time — Dishonored is doing very well. After receiving a strong critical reception prior to its release in early October, the game has gone on to sell better than publisher Bethesda anticipated.

“I can tell you that Dishonored is far exceeding our sales expectations, which is especially cool considering it’s new IP facing a host of well-established franchises this quarter,” Bethesda PR boss Pete Hines told Destructoid. “We did terrific numbers again this past weekend, both in stores and on Steam, where Dishonored was listed as the #1 selling title over the holiday weekend. And Dishonored has really sold well overseas.

“So, we’re very pleased and appreciate all the fans that have supported Dishonored and Arkane,” he continued, before adding, “We clearly have a new franchise.”

This is encouraging news. As wonderful as seeing refinements of the franchises we already know and love can be, it’s the completely original titles that are often the most exciting to see.

But considering what we’ve been led to believe, this doesn’t make much sense. This month marked seven years since the Xbox 360 was released, and six years since the PlayStation 3 and Wii debuted. With it only being available on 360, PS3, and PC, the launch of the Wii U (coming just over a month after Dishonored’s launch) can’t be used as the reason for why Dishonored has done well. If anything, it signals either the end or fast-approaching end of this generation of consoles, so surely Dishonored had no business performing the way it did.

That’s the sort of logic we’ve heard from more than one high-profile executive in the past — individuals who have bemoaned the length of the current console generation. “We need new consoles and at the end of the cycle generally the market goes down because there are less new IPs, new properties, so that damaged the industry a little bit,” Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot told Polygon recently. He noted he hoped the next round of consoles will arrive more quickly, before going on to say, “Transitions are the best times, are the best ways, to make all of our creators take more risks and do different things. When a console is out for a long time … you don’t take as much risks on totally new IPs because even if they are good, they don’t sell as well.”

Things are different when new consoles are available, according to Guillemot: “Everybody who is taking risks and innovating is welcome because there are lots of hardcore gamers and those guys want new things, where the mass market will be more interested in having the same experience and doesn’t want to take as much risks because it’s not aware as much of what is going to change its experience. So, the beginning of the machines is always a good time for innovation.”

Electronic Arts Frank Gibeau shares this overall viewpoint. “The time to launch an IP is at the front-end of the hardware cycle, and if you look historically the majority of new IPs are introduced within the first 24 months of each cycle of hardware platforms,” he said in a Games Industry interview published in September. “Right now, we’re working on 3 to 5 new IPs for the next gen, and in this cycle we’ve been directing our innovation into existing franchises.”

Gibeau doesn’t outright deny the interest in new IPs, but he claims “the market doesn’t reward new IP this late in the cycle; they end up doing okay, but not really breaking through.”

Dishonored

This flies in the face of what many people would presume even without having Dishonored to point to. Early on in the life of a new console cycle, developers are faced with figuring out the new hardware and acquainting themselves with next-generation game development. By the time we’re years into a console cycle, things are more settled down and developers are more comfortable and able to make efficient use of the hardware — a game like Halo 4 demonstrates how gorgeous visuals can still be squeezed out of increasingly dated hardware, and the same is true about performance in general. More is being done with the 360 and PS3 now than five years ago, when developers were still getting used to things.

In theory, with developers being more familiar and comfortable with engines through years of use, it should be easier to expend more resources on other aspects of development — namely those involved with the creation of original IP. Dishonored turned out to be a very well-designed game. Arkane developing it for hardware it knows — and with the use of the well-established Unreal Engine — likely resulted in a better game than if it had been making it for a new system it’s less accustomed to.

There is some degree of comfort in exploiting the same IP over and over again, as sales for many of these franchises are higher than ever. But it simply doesn’t make sense that gamers suddenly lose their willingness to purchase original games as a console cycle wears on. The fan bases of series like Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed have expanded as time goes on, partially due to the fact that console install bases have also grown. Compared with the growth of these series, it could be that these publishers are being unreasonable with their expectations. Just because the install base is larger late in a console cycle doesn’t mean a new game is going to be purchased by the same percentage of console owners as in the wake of a console launch.

Or perhaps publishers are mistaking the lack of competition early on in a cycle as a higher level of interest from gamers. Less competition no doubt makes it easier for, say, ZombiU (which we can safely consider an original IP, as 1986′s Zombi is unrelated, not to mention long-forgotten) to be noticed by being launched alongside the Wii U, but that doesn’t have anything to do with gamers’ desire to play something new and original. An unknown game released today does have the potential to get lost in the shuffle when there are so many sequels to well-known series coming out, but it then falls on the publisher to support it with a strong marketing campaign and recognize when the opportune time to release it would be: falling within the release window of a Call of Duty likely isn’t the smartest path. Publishers inability to do this doesn’t speak to disinterest on the part of fans in original games, as demonstrated by the success of Dragon’s Dogma, L.A. Noire, The Last Story, Dead Island, Skylanders (which has very little to do with Spyro), and now Dishonored. At what point do these games stop being the exception and instead serve as an indication of what can happen with an original IP regardless of when in the console cycle its release falls?

Just as importantly, the game needs to be good, and if it can tap into an underserved market, all the better. Dishonored received strong reviews for good reason, and its sales success could be attributed in part to its genre: There aren’t a ton of action games with a strong stealth component, particularly ones with open-ended gameplay and a fairly original setting that also happen to be good. There will, of course, still be good, original games that don’t enjoy the type of commercial success they deserve (Mirror’s Edge and Psychonauts come to mind), and it’s possible a game can come too late (like after new consoles have launched), but with successors to the PS3 and 360 still unannounced, let alone unreleased, we are not yet to that point.

Dishonored is not the last original IP we’ll be seeing this generation, which looks to have upwards of a year left before we begin to see new hardware from Microsoft or Sony. There is certainly a distinct lack of original IP overall, with publishers like EA, Activision, and Microsoft having very little in the way of non-sequels to shows for itself. Sony, to its credit, has both The Last of Us and Beyond: Two Souls in the works for PS3, and it’s helped to bring games like Journey, Papo & Yo, and Dyad to market this year. It’s fantastic news that Dishonored did well, and we can only hope publishers like Bethesda and Sony who are willing to invest in original IP at this point in time continue to reap the rewards of doing so. Only then will we hopefully see publishers realize original IP should not so frequently be reserved for the next generation.

By Chris Pereira