Just last week, I was discussing the state of the video game industry with my roommate. The conversation was soon monopolized by the publishing juggernaut that is Activision. This discussion quickly turned sour due to Activision’s sometimes questionable business tactics. In recent years, Activision has had a habit of flooding the market with endless sequels of increasingly tired franchises, a phenomenon my aforementioned friend described as “The Activision Effect.”
It should be noted that Activision is by no means the only company doing this, but they are one of the most visible publishers, and thus their business model is always going be under close scrutiny. Other publishers that have also been rapidly putting out sequels as of late are Electronic Arts and Ubisoft.
These companies take well-established franchises and continue cranking out sequel after sequel, knowing series fans will continue to buy them, even if the games bring few improvements over their previous iterations.
When “Guitar Hero” was first published and released by Activision in late 2005, it was a new and exciting original property in the Western market. Approximately one year later, the sequel was released. This is a relatively quick development cycle for a video game, but the sequel refined the original formula with a better engine and slew of new features.
Half a year later, the half-sequel “Rocks the ’80s” was released, and by the end of 2007 we had “Guitar Hero III.” This installment saw much less improvement over its predecessor and was less well received among critics. And then again in 2008 we saw the release of four entries in the ever-bloating franchise: “Guitar Hero: Aerosmith,” “World Tour,” and two handheld versions for the Nintendo DS.
Seven more titles came out in the next two years. The series offshoot “DJ Hero” had its first two entries released in 2009 and 2010 to generally positive reviews, but its parent franchise wasn’t as lucky. Apart from “5,” the entries of the “Guitar Hero” series were met with gradually declining review scores, due in part to decreasing quality and lack of originality.
The sales for the latest installment in the franchise finally caught up to the plummeting review scores, selling less than 100,000 copies in its first month. Activision has also drawn out the once popular “Tony Hawk” franchise, now nearly forgotten in the video game world, and the extremely popular “Call of Duty” franchise, which releases a game annually to slowly dwindling review scores.
Annual releases also plague sports games such as EA Sports’ “Madden” franchise, which has seen a dip in quality since gaining control over the market. Ubisoft has also begun to produce yearly entries in their popular “Assassin’s Creed” series and has released dozens of entries under its “Tom Clancy” franchises in the past decade.
It should be noted that sequels are not bad in and of themselves. The popular “Halo” series has seen only five Bungie-helmed entries in its nine years, six with Ensemble Studios’ real-time strategy spin-off “Halo Wars.” Another example is Square-Enix’s handling of both the “Kingdom Hearts” and “Final Fantasy” series. “Final Fantasy” has had 15 entries in 23 years, and “Kingdom Hearts” has produced six games in eight. Though this may seem comparable to the output of Activision and Ubisoft, Square-Enix practically reinvents its series entirely in each entry with completely new gameplay, multiplayer additions and new storylines.
This boils down to essentially rehashing the same game repeatedly, changing only the bare minimum necessary to qualify as a sequel. The problem with the sequel-focused business model that some publishers practice lies not necessarily with the quality of these sequels, but in the effect that it has on the development of original properties.
When nearly all the biggest games of the holiday season are sequels, it is a scary prospect, both for the developer and the publisher, to take a chance on a brand new intellectual property. The consumer is much more likely to spend his or her hard-earned cash on a game with an established lineage than one they have never heard of. This fear of taking risks has become a lazy epidemic in the video game industry, and it’s a real issue that must be dealt with before it cripples the industry with a fatal blow it’ll never recover from.
Only through innovation and creativity can the industry move forward, but these essential components are unfortunately being stifled by the publishing giants cranking out sequel after sequel, opting for a safe, quick buck. Taking intelligent chances is the basis of a good business model. It’s in the best interest of the industry and the gamer for publishers to figure that out.
Regen McCracken ([email protected]) is a sophomore intending to major in journalism.