Market Leaders Lead, They Don’t Follow
(This is another edition of /RANT, a weekly opinion piece column on GameFront. Check back every week for more. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not reflect those of GameFront.)
Let’s look at some really popular franchises, and see what they did that made them so popular.
Call of Duty — currently the biggest interactive entertainment franchise in the industry, COD was always popular but catapulted itself into unquestionable blockbuster territory when Infinity Ward shook up the series and introduced us to Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. As gamers were getting sick to death of World War II shooters, Infinity Ward shook things up with a modern setting, and it led to a critical and commercial triumph. While one can argue that the franchise has outstayed its welcome, there’s no denying its continued success. It spawned many pretenders to the throne, none of which stole its crown.
Halo — Possibly the next biggest thing in gaming, Microsoft’s Halo franchise has been compared to Star Wars by some fans, and the obsessiveness with which some enthusiasts follow the universe is comparable. While not the first multiplayer shooter to feature space marines, its status as the first major Xbox exclusive franchise, not to mention its innovations in the online space, ensured its place as a market leader. The success of Halo spawned many pretenders to the throne, none of which stole its crown.
Super Mario Bros. — An icon of entertainment that has permeated more than just videogame culture, Mario and his videogames are unmistakable. Super Mario Bros. on the NES laid the groundwork for future platformer games, becoming the defacto archetype for the genre and one of the most influential titles ever made. It spawned many pretenders to the throne, none of which stole its crown.
You won’t have to look very hard to see the common thread in these three examples, mostly due to the fact that I was about as subtle as a clown with a neon penis. The common thread is that three games were disruptive and innovative in some way, did something different to stand out from the crowd, and any game that tried to duplicate the success failed to match or better the results. In every genre, the games that stand out the most, that become blockbuster franchises, almost always started with something a little different. Something they did, that others weren’t doing, that catapulted them into the limelight. Resident Evil, for instance, was not the first survival horror game, but it reached a far wider audience than Alone in the Dark ever did, and it introduced classic horror movie elements and iconic scares that cemented its place as the survival horror champion. No other game that followed — and many forgotten attempts did — came close to beating it. The only other survival horror game that threatened to topple Capcom’s franchise was Silent Hill which, again, provided its own disruptive and unique take on the genre by focusing on psychological terror as opposed to schlocky jump scares.
Let’s look at Grand Theft Auto for another fine example. Grand Theft Auto is a name known to non-gamers as well as hardcore players. Its notoriety and worldwide fame is unquestionable. GTA3 was also revolutionary, giving the world its first 3D open-world crime game, and ensuring that every new release would be more anticipated, more culturally impacting, than the last. With Grand Theft Auto III, games had something they’d never seen before. Something that felt original and unique, even though it wasn’t the first open-world game. Rockstar still found a way to the make the game look, sound, play, and feel like something we’d never seen. It was exciting. It was successful.
I’m going to say something that gamers don’t usually say — the belief that new ideas don’t sell is fucking wrong. New ideas sell plenty. In fact, every major success in videogames had, at one point, to start with a new idea. A new idea that people loved, and bought, and thus kickstarted a franchise. The belief that sequels or rehashed concepts perform while fresh IP fails only works in a world where Halo 2 was never preceded by a Halo, or that BioShock Infinite just sprang up out of thin air one day. It is certainly easy to believe that new ideas don’t sell because, well, a lot of new ideas don’t sell. Some intellectual property, no matter how critically acclaimed, no matter how deserving of success, lack something that excites the mainstream market. Okami, Killer7, and Psychonauts, these are beloved games that bombed, and we as a community took their bombing to heart. We then stared with resentment at Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 or Resident Evil 5, lamenting how they’re only big hits because they’re massive sequels. We forget, all too easily, that even those massive sequels were once no more proven to the market than our cherished failures.
All this is leading up to the big problem facing “AAA” development today — the belief that in order to have the biggest games in the industry, you need to copy the biggest games in the industry. Knowing what we know about the most popular titles around — how they excited gamers by trying new things, by being daring, and by being disruptive — one can very easily see how pathetically wrong today’s prevailing attitudes are. Just look at everybody’s favorite fall guy, Electronic Arts. Its pride wounded by slipping into second place, EA has spent years attempting to replace Activision as the biggest third party publisher in town. It’s tried to do this not by providing something new and interesting, but by duplicating Activision’s products in the hope that it can duplicate the same amount of money.
Every years it tries to fight Call of Duty with Medal of Honor and Battlefield games, even introducing COD-like systems to Crysis 2 and throwing that into the ring.
More than once has it gunned for World of Warcraft, with MMOs such as Warhammer Online and Star Wars: The Old Republic.
It tried to usurp Guitar Hero with Rock Band.
Sometimes it has tried to be bigger than the games it’s competing against. EA’s tried to add more explosions or instruments, toss in prettier graphics and outspend the marketing budget. However, it’s never once actually won. It’s never won because it won’t — or perhaps can’t — do what Activision’s studios have managed to do. Get in first with the disruptive idea that everybody wanted to copy.
The way Electronic Arts is handling Dead Space 3 typifies the publisher’s problem, and the problem with AAA development’s overall attitude. Recently, the publisher has admitted that it wants to give Dead Space 3 a “broader appeal,” and it’s attempted this by doing exactly what this article criticizes — copying other peoples’ ideas, rather than exciting the public with something they haven’t seen. Demos have shown Isaac Clarke getting into cover-based ranged firefights against human opponents, cooperating with another player, and engaging in “cinematic” climbing sequences that look ripped right out of Uncharted. Far from doing what the world’s most popular games have done — try new things — Dead Space 3 is relying on old tricks that we’ve seen a dozen times before, because of the fallacy that to be popular, you have to look like another face in the crowd. The trouble is, it’s a huge fucking crowd out there, and the more you look like everybody else, the harder it becomes to pick you out.
I do understand why this has happened. EA, like most major publishers, is really quite frightened. Who wouldn’t be, working in an industry rife with such bloated development costs that you need to sell ludicrous amounts of games to survive? Thanks to the industry-wide perception that new IP and exotic ideas bomb, it’s considered a gamble to step out of line with the rest of the market, and in a market where the wrong foot forward can cost millions of dollars, you can be sure that publishers like EA and their ilk will refuse to take anything they consider a risk.
In reality, however, what they’re doing right now is the riskier decision. It’s a risk pointed out by Free Radical co-founder Steve Ellis, who said that FPS games make no money unless they’re called Call of Duty. Then you look at how Syndicate failed to sell well, how RAGE never got anywhere, how even Battlefield 3 is suggested to not have earned enough to make up for its extreme advertising budget, and you can see the truth in his suggestion, as well as the overarching message — what comes first sticks around longest. What disrupts, what captures our imaginations, is what becomes the franchise. What revolutionizes eventually becomes the game everybody wants to copy. And those copies can never hope to clone the same level of influence.
The current cannibalization of the industry can only keep companies afloat for so long. One day, they’ll run out of meat to chew on.