Words: 1938 Approximate Reading Time: 15-20 minutes
Sometimes there are things that happen which are impossible to change. The pressures that make them happen are too strong, and a single person’s voice, or even the combined voices of numerous people, will not be enough to counteract those pressures. Nevertheless, it can still be both useful and important to point out these problems. Even if we are shouting into the void, we must nevertheless shout.
And so my shout into the void here is going to be a criticism of longrunning franchises in video games.
I will not say that things like sequels should never be done. I will not argue that there should be some arbitrary number of sequels that are allowed before a game series is “done.” I will not argue that franchises are inherently bad.
But what I do want to argue is that there are a lot of pressures to create longrunning franchises. And those pressures are bad for a few reasons, and often lead to bad – or at least less good – games being made. If we could magically remove these pressures entirely, the outcomes of game development would be markedly better.
The argument here will be fairly brief, but nevertheless still useful to make. I’ll begin by laying out the basic pressures that exist for producing these franchises and sticking with them, rather than trying to branch out and create new properties. Then I will explain why these franchises cause so many problems from a developmental standpoint and often (though not always) lead to worse games.
So why would there be such a strong incentive to make these big franchises and tons of sequels? Wouldn’t developers want to have a large degree of creative freedom, which would be hindered by working with a sequel?
But it is always important to remember that making games, particularly big games, is a project that takes a huge amount of time and money. And video games can be something of a gamble, sometimes – a huge investment that might turn into a major flop.
But if a game is successful, it sets out a basic set of expectations. Players will generally expect that if they liked a previous game, they will like a sequel. And so franchises can be a way of maintaining a relatively consistent player base, as fans stick with or join into the franchise with succeeding entries.
The result is that players will tend to use the existence of a sequel as a shortcut for deciding whether they will buy a game. Because many players cannot buy every game, or if they can certainly don’t have the time to play every game. They must be selective. A new property is thus a mystery. Will I like it? How long will it take? Is it worth my time?
But a sequel will be able to answer many of those questions, or at least create those expectations. If I liked the previous game, then I’ll buy the sequel. My decision becomes much easier to make. And thus many players gravitate towards sequels and franchises because they help solve a major problem of decision-making.
Based on that expectation from players, studios can start to develop expectations about making sequels. After all, if game #1 was a success, then game #2 is likely to be a success. So when making the decision of continuing with a game series – even if it feels like the first game was “finished” and doesn’t need to be continued – a studio needs to weigh the potential that a brand new game will be successful compared to the more likely success of a sequel. And since a studio, to a large extent, needs to prioritize keeping itself afloat and being able to pay its employees, the calculus can often tend towards building successful franchises that are more likely to be relatively consistent winners.
Now add on top of this that many studios are owned by larger publishing companies. And those companies largely want to maximize their profits. Whether you think that’s good or bad, it is important, because it affects what games the studios under their ownership will make. Some publishers will give their studios more free rein than others. But some companies will put more pressure on what is profitable, and as already discussed, that will often mean sequels. Because sequels are going to be easier to market: they have a large amount of name recognition that doesn’t need to be built up as much. So publishing companies can sometimes essentially demand that a studio spend much or all of its time focusing on existing franchises, because those are likely to lead to higher profits.
So all three of these things are going to be different pressures. Some of them will be stronger than others. Some of them will be present and not present at different times. But what is key is that when we’re talking about developers building up franchises, it’s more than just “do we want to make a sequel or not?” Sometimes a studio can feel compelled to build up franchises because of these pressures. And even if we don’t like the outcomes, we cannot change those outcomes without removing those pressures first.
So why do franchises cause such problems?
Usually if a game is planned around having sequels, those sequels are fairly contained. There is generally going to be some kind of anticipated story structure, an idea of how original games will fit with later entries, and an overall sense of what the team is doing. Some plans are obviously going to change as time goes on. But some kind of edifice will remain for the sequels as they progress to help guide a development team.
But when a series of games is developed not because the plan was to make sequels originally, but to continue a successful franchise, that structure has to be mostly created from scratch. Not just that, but if a sequel wasn’t originally intended, certain elements of the game’s narrative may have to be retrofitted or even abandoned entirely to make a sequel possible. In a sense, it’s working without a fully fleshed plan going into the project. This can sometimes happen when a sequel is made, or it can happen later in the process, once an original multi-part story is completed and then carried on through additional games.
That kind of alteration can lead to stories getting garbled and to some extent ruined. A game with a narrative that feels complete and satisfying because of its completeness can suddenly be dragged out beyond what we might call a “natural” breaking point. A game that might have felt interesting because of its mystery might have that fascination destroyed by exploring that mystery. A game whose premise was built on complex worldbuilding might be undone by mismanaged lore that ends up contradicting other elements of the worldbuilding, causing much of the structure to collapse on itself.
So there are quite a few perils of franchises. I will note that these are not perils that are isolated to what we might call “unintentional” franchises. Even a series that is built out intentionally can still run into these problems. But the hurdles are bigger when the team is not originally trying to create a cohesive longrunning franchise.
In addition to these narrative components, franchises can often fall into gameplay ruts. Players can often have competing demands for what they expect for a sequel: we often want something that gives us a similar experience to the original game (assuming we liked it), but better. And better, of course, means it has to be improved, and naturally improvement means making changes. But changes aren’t always met with applause, because they also change that original experience. So there’s an awkward tightrope for a developer to walk in figuring out how to make sequels.
Now take that basic pressure, and compound it as you get more and more games that are built off of the same basic premise. The longer a franchise goes on, the harder it is to deviate from the formula. Not that it is impossible to do so: there is a decent number of examples of longrunning franchises that have made big changes to a resounding success. But making those changes is often going to be a gamble, much like making a new property altogether. And one of the key reasons we are getting these franchises in the first place is to avoid those gambles.
So creating franchises can force developers to work with constraints they would not be saddled with working on a new game that does not have any expectations behind it. Constraints, of course, are not inherently bad. But having too many constraints, particularly arbitrary restraints, can create serious problems for creativity.
For example, certain systems that were present in older games might feel required in newer entries, even if those systems would not make sense, or lack any real narrative connection to the older games. And if too many of those vestigial systems exist, then they can clash and mess with one another, leading to problems like clunky controls, redundant systems, or just plain boring or confusing gameplay.
Again, these are not problems that exist only for unintentional sequels. Even if you were to set out to create a video game franchise that would span 100 different releases, you would still run into these same problems.
So the problem that franchises cause is that they often become stale, either in terms of storytelling or gameplay. And as changes are made, those changes run the risk of either ruining the game, or improving the game but being met with backlash for ruining the expected feel of the game.
There are certainly ways to build franchises to avoid these problems. But the most effective way to avoid these problems would be to think about game franchises as having a sort of expiration date on them. That is, a given idea can only last so long before it starts to spoil, and any additional attempt to expand on its story or alter its gameplay actually makes things worse.
Insofar as we might imagine this to be true, there is no specific number for all games. Sometimes a single game works best. Sometimes a longrunning series is possible. Sometimes a game is planned as a trilogy, but can be extended beyond the original three games. Sometimes it needs to stop once the trilogy is complete. And sometimes it needs to be stopped before the trilogy is complete. So there is no one-size-fits-all understanding of the problem. It requires instead for a developer to step back and carefully assess whether a given game really should have a sequel.
I do not believe anything I have said here will have any impact on the pressures that lead to franchises. And as a consequence, I don’t think there will be any change to how many games get released as part of these franchises.
If we ever truly wanted to make this a reality, we would all – as players, as developers, and as owners – need to collectively agree to prioritize newness over familiarity. We would need to spend our money and spend our time and devote our resources to making and buying new game properties, rather than going for games that are more recognizable because they were successful.
But that request is too large. A few people doing it will not change these pressures, and convincing enough people to change their behavior so that these pressures can be removed is not really feasible. So we – players and developers – must play with the hand we are dealt.