Opinion: The Yearly Iteration Model This Generation Has Burnt Me Out
Written Tuesday, September 25, 2012 By Dan WebbView author's profile
FIFA, Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed, Need For Speed… What do all these franchises have in common? They’re all frickin’ huge multi-million selling franchises, for one. They also all adopt the yearly iteration model, a model that has its benefits for publishers but also has its hang-ups. Hang-ups that are usually missed by publishers because of the mountain of money that clouds their vision. Dear industry, anticipation and foresight are important tools too. Just sayin’.
The problem with the yearly iteration model is that people tend to get burnt out on a franchise and eventually lose the will to play it – especially if they play a lot of games, like myself. Even the most ardent fans of a franchise experience this. I’m sure of it. Then, when they do actually pluck up the courage to jump back in, they almost feel overwhelmed and pressured to catch up with all the titles they missed, which in itself presents a problem.
Take Call of Duty as an example. The last one I played all the way through was Modern Warfare 2. After that I just gave up on the franchise. Now though, if I want to go back and jump into the series, I feel like I have to play the previous three games I’ll have missed out on during this temporary hiatus from the franchise. That’s only going to burn me out once again and send me off into a shame spiral. Chances are if that happens I’ll be rocking back and forth in the corner of my room in nothing but my tighty-whiteys muttering profanities and twitching like a sleep-deprived mad scientist.
"Can Black Ops II bring something new to CoD this year?"
I know it’s not compulsory for me to go back through every title, but if you’d have missed an Assassin’s Creed game for example, you’d feel compelled to play through previous instalments, lest you have no notion as to what went on. I'd want to catch up on the key story beats. Sure, developers will give you recaps and whatnot to get you up to speed so you can jump in wherever, but come on, that’s just not the same. And it’s likely that a lot of the salient details will have been missed out. It’s like turning a book into a film – you can’t include every relevant piece of information otherwise you’d probably end up watching a ten hour movie! Either that or you could have a friend tell you the plot of a game you might have missed. Again, it’s just not the same.
The short-term effects are undeniable for a publisher. Game engines are expensive to make so in order to recoup a lot of that initial investment for developing said engine, releasing another title a year later using a slightly more polished version of that engine makes a lot of business sense. We get that. What a lot of publishers don’t get is the long-term implications that throwing out a new title every year might have. Sometimes the newer version will only slightly better the previous incarnation *cough* Assassin’s Creed: Revelations *cough* and this oversaturation can have damning effects on the long-term sustainability and indeed the credibility of the franchise. A perfect example of this is the infamous Guitar Hero series, a cash cow of a franchise that Activision ran – effectively taking down the entire music instrument genre with it – into the ground.
The truth is that developers and publishers are completely terrified that you’ll forget about their franchise that they almost feel obliged to put out a new iteration every year. Where this fear has come from, I don’t know, but maybe it’s a consequence of the saturation of the market. Never has a generation seen so many yearly releases. Why do you think that gaming has broken into other mediums now too? You know, comics, books, films, whatever. The other side of the industry will say it’s fan service. It might be fan service on some level, but it’s basically just good business. The business of making money. The business of making consumers become so invested in their products so that they want to buy everything associated with it. It’s a lot of effort to ingrain a franchise so deep into your psyche, but it’s all part of the bigger picture: it keeps the franchise fresh in your mind.
"Ubisoft actually sunk three years into developing ACIII."
The yearly iteration model no longer means I look forward to many titles. I used to love Call of Duty, but stopped playing years ago. I used to love Assassin’s Creed, but I’m no longer itching to get my hands on the latest iteration, even though it’s looking like the true sequel we’ve been pining after for quite some time. Instead, I find myself resonating towards newer experiences. Dishonored sits firmly on top of my most wanted list for 2012, followed closely by XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Hitman: Absolution and even Far Cry 3. Okay, so the latter two aren’t particularly fresh or original games, but they’re franchises that have been out of the limelight for so long that they almost feel like new franchises. That comparative freshness means that we’re likely to appreciate the franchise more now than ever.
It’s an approach that Rockstar and Bethesda have absolutely nailed with their major franchises. The anticipation that surrounds the likes of Grand Theft Auto V these days is unparalleled. Merely a handful of screenshots can set the internet alight with fervour. It’s mind boggling, but it makes perfect sense. I say that because if you starve people of information and releases of a title that's as culturally all-encompassing and wide-scale as GTA is, then everything that comes out is more valuable and sought after. Gamers, consumers, whatever you want to call us as an audience, are human-beings, after all, and we’re more likely to appreciate something that we consider rare, rather than something we see every bloody year.
It also means that great evolutions are made from one title to the next, so even if you didn’t particularly enjoy the previous iteration, enough has usually changed during that period of time to give you an altogether different outlook on the franchise. The same can rarely be said for other annual titles. It also means that developers can listen to user feedback from previous versions and actually have the time to implement it into their next outing, which is something fans can get behind. Will Rockstar have read the reactions to GTA IV with a magnifying glass? You can bet your bottom dollar they will. Whether they actually took those reactions on board however, is anyone's guess. But at least they’ve had the time to listen, come up with fresh ideas and better yet, actually spend the time developing them. You know what they say, right? Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
"Who can honestly say that they're not excited about GTA V?"
Plus, buying a franchise title every four years, we can all afford that, I’m sure. Even if you’re still in school and using the money from your paper round to fund it. What’s that? It’s an 18+ title? Oh, of course… Stores don’t tend to care about age ratings now, do they?
It doesn’t necessarily have to just apply to just the yearly iterative model either and can extend somewhat to the biennial model too. Whether you’re talking about Dead Space, Mass Effect or whatever, it could be argued that given more time between releases, their impact might have been greater. Mass Effect is a good example of this. By the time Mass Effect 2 came out, it was roughly 30 months after Mass Effect 1, whereas 3 was just over two years… I was more excited for Mass Effect 2 than 3, weirdly enough. Arguably, the jump from one game to the next in terms of general quality took a bigger stride forward from 1 to 2 than it did from 2 to 3 too. Use that observation how you see fit.
This whole sense of disillusion with franchises generally has nothing to do with quality though. If I ate steak every day for every meal for a year, I’d be sick of it after a while and surely want a break from it… If you take a break from steak though, you don’t generally have to catch up when you pick the steak torch back up and run with it. Take a break from a yearly or biennial released title and you could have bitten off more than you can chew when you do finally jump back on the wagon.
"Oversaturation killed Guitar Hero..."
So, is there a sweet spot? Honestly, we’d argue that three years is the ideal sweet spot. There is going to be three years between Far Cry 2 and Far Cry 3 and the differences and improvements between them look to be overwhelmingly positive. There was also three years between Borderlands 1 and Borderlands 2, and look how that turned out. Positive improvements were made, it was every bit better than its predecessor and we missed it that little bit more than a biennial title that when it finally released last week, we flocked in our millions to buy it – the official figures aren’t in yet, but every man and their dog is playing it, which is usually a good initial indication. That’s a triple-win right there, folks.
It’s also a feeling that I have to say is exclusive to this generation. Am I getting more cynical? Is this a sign of me getting older? Or do you, like me, have similar feelings about certain franchises reaching a point of saturation? Are you burnt out on certain franchises or are you content with the current model? Do you hanker after new experiences above and beyond everything else? Are you happy with the yearly iteration model? You know the score, sound off in the comments and let us know.