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.

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13 Comments on Market Leaders Lead, They Don’t Follow

John

On July 23, 2012 at 7:58 am

Jim Sterling is a ing idiot who hates videogames and deserves to suck .

Mr Glassback

On July 23, 2012 at 8:16 am

We even have Ubisofts Yves Guillemot trying to say that the long cycle of these console’s is the reason no new IPs are created. Apparently, we gamers are open to new IPs at the start of a console cycle but we only buy sequels toward the end of a cycle. So it’s our fault that devs don’t come up with new idea’s.
With folk like this like this in charge, I am amazed the entire industry hasn’t died.
How in God’s name did we get into this position where the people in charge are so detached from their customers?
Personally, I believe that most industries today suffer from promoting the wrong people to power. It’s the back stabbers and the ar*e lickers that get the top jobs these day’s and not the most talented.
And it is only gonna get worse.

ZephyrTuvai

On July 23, 2012 at 9:02 am

I remember as a child two IPs that I loved but also show another side to this. When a series starts well and is unique, even surpassing itself in its sequel, but finds itself incorporating elements from other IPs in an attempt to keep itself afloat.

When i was a child, back in the Playstation days, I was an avid RPG fan, having bought the system for FFVII. Looking for more to play, I ran across both the Wild Arms series and Suikoden. Both were different and unique. While Wild Arms had its own take on the popular Anime-ish story, Suikoden was much more of a political story, but not so much it was boring. Well balanced between front line and the devious behind the scenes actions of those in power.

Both had gameplay elements that were unique to their IPs, and in their sequels they took everything that made them great and unique, and disruptive, as you put it, and improved them. The story escalated, the mechanics were refined, and both WA2 and Suikoden 2 are in my top 10 games of all time.

However, in an attempt to keep them around, both series became more and more “mainstream”, slowly losing out what made them… them. Suikoden became less of a political story and more of a grind fest as the series went on, and the wild arms series became hollow with its world environment, so far as its last few installments were more tactics games then true RPGs.

While not an enthusiast of the series, I have to give COD credit. When they first broke the bubble, they created something that worked. Both for fans and their wallets. And to the dismay of many gamers, they haven’t really messed with that formula at all. But how would people feel if suddenly Activision decided “this isn’t good enough, we have to implement the ideas of other mainstream games”? What if cod become a cover shooter series, in an attempt to pull people from, say, the Gears of War player base? Yeah its the same every year. But it works, and they haven’t messed it up yet.

TL:DR
I wish developers would take more risks. Alot of my childhood favorites are actually improved sequels to unique takes on several genres, such as Wild Arms 2, Suikoden 2, and even Super Metroid, which i still own and play to this day.

Eddie

On July 23, 2012 at 9:36 am

great article, couldn’t agree more, and another great example to back you up was E3 this year, most of the stuff was related to sequels and while I will admit to being very excited over AC3 and halo 4 in particular, the two things that got me and a lot of people much more excited was what little new IP or new ideas there were. First thing would be the new tomb raider, which while technically speaking is a sequel, is completely changing up the idea of what a tomb raider game is, and secondly is watch dogs, which was the big surprise of the show and something I think me and a lot of other people are very excited for, and it was one of the few new IPs shown, I can tell you know I’ll probably be preordering it which I cant say for most of the sequels that are coming out in the next year

Luther

On July 23, 2012 at 9:50 am

I’m not so sure I agree with you on this one, Battlefield 3 and COD are completely different, you can’t even compare the two at all.

I think what makes CoD more popular is because it caters to the individual player in a competitive way, that really seems to be where gamers have been going in the past 12 years, even you admitted that people that use creative new ideas in gaming tend to bomb and its a huge risk, plus I’m not sure every gamer out there really cares.

At the end of the day most if not all gamers are competitive and that In my Opinion is what will rule the market, keep pooping out video games that rank you’re skills vs others and do it right with a AAA title and you’ll make millions, like cod.

Samuel Newkirk

On July 23, 2012 at 10:35 am

I wonder if some level of genre fatigue is necessary to motivate and inform innovation? I agree that innovation can sell a lot better than iteration, but maybe most people are happy with their second-place millions? I think that it is rare to have someone who has the talent and opportunity to innovate at the level of a Halo or CoD 4, while most others can only copy and tweak.

Axetwin

On July 23, 2012 at 12:32 pm

@Luther Im sorry but please dont try to play the “BF and CoD are two very different games that dont even come close to being similar to each other”. In reality the differences between the two franchises is really a matter of semantics.

Out of the more modern titles you named, the only one that started with this generation was CoD and look at what has become of that franchise. Its a mockery of itself with the Activision completely terrified to try something new in fear their core fanbase might not like it, and it drives them away. Yeah MW might have been revolutionary, but MW2, BO, and MW3 havent been.

GTA might have been a PS1 era game but lets face it, it didnt become a mainstream game until GTA3 which was a last generation game. Im not going to say it has suffered the same fate as COD because they did try to be innovative with San Andreas. However for all the leaps forward SA took GTA4 took it backwards just as much. Among the community, GTA4 has a mixed reaction. Some say it was brilliant while others felt it was lackluster while others felt they wasted their money..

It is virtually impossible to point to a (non-indie developed) game that has come out within the past couple years and say “now there was a new idea and it worked”. New idea doesnt necessarily mean new lp. FF13 utilized a bunch of new ideas but it failed mainly because people didnt like the linearity of the level design. Too Human was another game that had alot of new ideas but failed because Crystal Dynamics doesnt know how to build a RPG.

So I say it IS impossible to sell a new idea. Either to a company like Capcom or EA or to the gaming community as a whole. Even IF the company and the community do come together in agreement then the game gets milked for everything its worth without allowance for growth and innovation.

Luther

On July 23, 2012 at 1:00 pm

” In reality the differences between the two franchises is really a matter of semantics.”

@Axetwin
I think the main point is CoD is a solo competitive game where BF3 is Team Based, sure you might run around solo if you don’t have friends but people don’t look at your K/D in bf its about the team play plus your semantics with driving / flying and the huge open maps, that is why its completely unfair to compare the two and I think its because of that vary reason CoD sells more units.

I think we’ll have to see how Counter Strike 2 does vs CoD, will it flop because only the graphics been improved? most likely not since it boasts a huge following of pro and competitive players.

Look at league of legends sure there are a lot of Dota Spin offs but LoL seems to be the one that does it right and its the premier game to play now.

Still that is why I feel this artical missed the ball, competitive sport is a much bigger impact of sales at this time then anything else on the market.

Zach

On July 23, 2012 at 3:02 pm

@Luther CoD and BattleField are basically brothers in the gaming family.

They appear and play so similar that if you showed a minute long clip of the two it would be difficult for anyone who isn’t a huge fan of one or the other to distinguish between them. Hell I would wager money on the idea that most fans of either one couldn’t tell the difference between them after a full minute of viewing.

BattlField tried to explicitly copy Call of Duty because it popular, their motto in the promotionals is “Go Beyond The Call!!” for Chr!st Sake.

Why would you even say that if you weren’t trying to draw allusion to your competitors franchise?

Luther

On July 23, 2012 at 7:36 pm

Well I don’t agree with you but here you go, vote for yourself!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QEtN43bmP18

R.J.

On July 25, 2012 at 8:20 pm

Sadly, the publishers don’t understand the reasoning that is in this article. If your game looks like another, more popular game, why would I want to play it? Why not just stick with the thing I already like? Doing something unique is what makes people take a second look. I’m not surprised that Battlefield 3 probably lost money if you consider the advertising. It wen after an already established leader by offering the same things.

This is why I have so little interest in Dead Space 3. It’s truly a shame because I loved the first two games, and now it’s just following trends because EA demands that it sells a certain number of copies. It’s why I was saddened to see that RE6 is a continuation of RE5, which didn’t feel like a Resident Evil game. Why is it so hard to let your franchise do its own thing? EA couldn’t be satisfied with the gobs of copies that ME3 would have sold with its loyal fanbase. Instead, they pushed for more and admitted to targeting the COD crowd, even though this was part 3 of a trilogy. It’s OK to admit that your game isn’t going to sell COD numbers. It’s called being realistic.

Tiagonal

On July 26, 2012 at 7:15 am

In my opinion I hate Axetwin and Sterling. Even if my opinion is sub-par with any other. I just want to play. As my grandpa says ‘recently milked milk can’t be rotten.. may taste bad, but not rotten’.

S

On July 29, 2012 at 5:06 pm

Tiagonal: Recently milked can be diseased or infected, though. So there’s that.