How the games industry franchised creativity
By Adam Tatelman, Staff Writer
Remember when Assassin’s Creed (AC) first released in 2007? Eight years is a dog’s age for the video game industry, simply because sequelization and franchising move at such a blinding speed nowadays. Nearly 20 sequels later—no, I’m not kidding—on various platforms, the series is still Ubisoft’s hottest property. How did this happen?
It should be known that AC’s director, Quebecois game designer Patrice Desilets, never intended to produce more than one AC title. Ubisoft refused to publish the game if Desilets didn’t agree to a franchise deal, resulting in the game’s slick historical narrative being marred by the third-generation Dan Brown Illuminati conspiracy shlock as a framing device to allow for sequels ad infinitum.
Desilets left Ubisoft in 2010 after AC: Brotherhood was completed, signing on with THQ in 2011 to work on another project. This new IP never saw the light of day because Ubisoft then purchased THQ in an auction. As Desilets continued working on his project (tentatively known as 1666), he was unceremoniously shit-canned by Ubisoft for unspecified reasons. Ubisoft has retained the rights to 1666.
This pattern has recurred throughout gaming’s history. EA Games forced expansions to Ultima Online, and then withheld the rights to the IP from its creator Richard Garriott after the game failed commercially. Bethesda Softworks disputed contract terms with Human Head Studios, terminating their work on Prey 2 and withholding the rights. The game was never produced. It’s in a big developer’s interests to acquire as many third-party IPs as possible, not necessarily to develop them, but to make sure no one else does. And if the idea doesn’t jive with that studio’s shtick, it’ll sit on a shelf and rot.
It’s no coincidence that most of Ubisoft’s other franchises (Far Cry and Watch Dogs) are basically AC with guns. It’s for this same reason that Infinity Ward and Treyarch made Call of Duty at a similarly furious pace. Once you find a successful formula, there is no reason not to promulgate it until it ceases to be profitable. This is why we’re seeing Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End being revived for the next console generation after years of silence. The setpiece-platformer-shooter formula has regained media attention (Tomb Raider reboot, anyone?), and is therefore profitable again.
Before you regale me with tales of the rags-to-rags rebirth of indie gaming, consider that the most successful indie titles are Metroid/Castlevania-style platformers, Minecraft-esque survival/crafting simulators, or ambiguous point-and-click art-house weirdness like Dear Esther or Gone Home. Indie games are just as formulaic as any big franchise, and the niche market is profitable enough for their means as long as they keep that audience feeding upon these subgenres.
We are living in the next great video game crash. The only difference is that it’s a crash of oversaturation rather than scarcity, so there is no motivation for anyone to take a baby step outside the box. Better to wrap the box around anything new and interesting so it can be made into the next formula. Just look at Hidetaka Miyazaki’s Souls series.
If glitchy stealth-action games are replaced in the future by tough-as-nails dungeon-crawling clones of Dark Souls and Bloodborne, then certainly the formula will have changed, but the problem persists. Merely demonizing the current formula and substituting a new one perpetuates the cycle in the longterm while immediately looking like a reform. It’s the dictionary definition of slow war. Maybe there’s no solution within reach, but overlooking Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 and Assassin’s Creed Victory at your birthday video game splurge might be a good start.