With the release of Mass Effect 3, Rory Crean looks into the dos and don’ts of gaming franchise development

A cursory glance at the shelves of any game retailer should make one trend very clear; every second game is a sequel, prequel, reboot, re-imagining or re-release of another game, and it’s not difficult to see why. The third instalment of Cliff Blezinski’s Gears of War franchise not only set a record with 1.3 million pre-orders, but the trilogy grossed over the one billion dollar mark for publishers Microsoft. That kind of success, with that dedicated a fan base would be enough to make the most seasoned of game developers weep with joy and want to milk such a game for all it is worth.
The success of the Gears trilogy is owed to many factors, one of which most likely has its roots in the exclusivity of the title; Gears 1 was a huge game that was bundled with the Xbox 360 back in its infancy, introducing many gamers to the gritty new world of cover-based shooting at a mainstream level. Innovative gameplay, beautiful visuals, and a pinch of self-deprecating flippancy proved to be a successful formula for the studio; one which they would develop over the next five years to finish on an all-time high. Critically speaking, Gears 3 was the pinnacle of the series, bringing the overarching story to a conclusion and proving that a series, when done right, can really take off.
As a counterpoint, consider the Call of Duty franchise. Activision have been cranking out new titles with alarming regularity; capitalising on the current frenzy. If you thought the Gears trilogy making a billion dollars was impressive, Modern Warfare 3 pulled off such a feat all by itself in sixteen days. That’s quicker than Avatar, the highest grossing film of all time, could; James Cameron’s 3-D epic took a sluggish nineteen days to reach the billion dollar threshold.
So, why did Modern Warfare 3 sell so well? If you banner Call of Duty across the box art, you’re bound to become profitable very quickly, but if you throw Modern Warfare on there as well, breaking the billion mark is like shooting fish in a barrel. And while reviews at the time were overwhelmingly favourable toward MW3, Gamespot said that it lacked lustre and IGN, only a few weeks later, flat out stated that Activision need to change things up to prevent the franchise from going stale. With such a mild critical backlash, it could easily be argued that the title’s dizzying success was attained through the clout possessed by the CoD franchise and a sense of completism on the part of the franchise’s fan base rather than on the game’s own merits.
Infinity Ward, the main team behind the Modern Warfare series, could have produced a first-person shooter of any quality and initial sales would still be through the roof. Granted, they couldn’t pull the same trick twice, but their reputation was a bigger selling point that the millions they pumped into advertising. When a series, franchise or studio becomes that big, the content can often be overlooked, and developers know that. Just look at the complete and utter failure of Duke Nukem Forever. Duke Nukem 3D, Forever’s most immediate predecessor, was well received; praised for its environment, innovation, gunplay and humour. Fifteen years later, after battling through the developmental doldrums, 3D Realms (developers of the original) along with Gearbox, 2K and Triptych Games released “one of the most disappointing games of 2011.” This was a game that could have, inpart, helped dispel the somewhat boring trend in current first-person shooter games; drawing the focus away from gritty realism and reintroducing what formerly defined the series: fun. Not to say that games like Gears or Modern Warfare weren’t fun – they didn’t make billions for no reason – but they lacked the juvenile flair that was once at the heart of all shooters. Perhaps the hype, anticipation, and unrealistic expectations of fans who were drunk on nostalgia were just too much for any game to fulfill. Or maybe it was just a dreadful game that didn’t change with the times. It’s most likely the latter, yet the game was later revealed to have been profitable for the developers.
Duke Nukem could have heralded a new trend in gaming all by his obnoxious self, but instead the franchise fell victim to continued obsolescence, and in a panic, the developers focused too heavily upon the technical aspects of the game’s design rather than adjusting the content, humour, and gameplay. As a result, they created a game that was both stale and out of date, and unpalatable for a contemporary audience. Unless Infinity Ward decides to make a reboot of the game, it is unlikely that we’ll be hearing from Duke or witnessing any of his alien-stomping escapades any time soon.

The success of series and franchises such as Uncharted, Gears of War, and most recently, Mass Effect lies in their ability to grow and adapt with their audience, whilst never sacrificing the elements that garnered them their original fan base. As Duke Nukem proved, doing the same thing over again simply won’t slide in today’s market, unless you’re part of the right franchise.
Series do so well because, unlike film, gaming is an interactive medium. If you have a well fleshed-out gameplay mechanic that people enjoy, why not use it again? Every studio will produce a dud every now and then; that’s part of the process, but taking a mechanic, adding a new coat of paint, some fancy graphics and the odd set piece here and there will not be enough to keep fans interested while you run the series into the ground.