Evolution and Devolution: The Death of Franchises
But while that new reveal may bring delight and happiness, there’s always that faint voice that rings in the back of your head, questioning one important detail: “will it be good, though?”
Because, despite all the glamour of a reveal trailer, or all the promises made by an overzealous development team, sometimes, the finished product isn’t good at all. Franchises that had released nothing but solid entries in the past wind up stumbling somewhere along the line, turning the end result into something that even the most dedicated of fans may struggle to enjoy. In some instances, the game might be so terrible that it shakes an entire fandom’s faith in the company, or even performs so terribly that it kills a series outright. We’ve all seen it happen before, and we’ll no doubt see it happen again.
Hopefully, it won’t be something we see much of in this next console generation, but sadly, it is an inevitable facet of the industry. There are cases where crunch is unavoidable, where development struggles and suffers, the pressure of it all taking a toll on workers who are just trying their best, to the point where it’s impossible to turn the game into something good prior to the fateful release date.
The best example of such is Duke Nukem Forever, whose development was marred by lawsuits, layoffs, and the changing of hands between studios over the course of 14 years. The record-setting development time did nothing to better the game, overall. The overwhelming negative reception it garnered led to sales that barely amounted to half of what its publisher had hoped for, and there hasn’t been a new Duke Nukem game since. Perhaps Duke Nukem had been seen as a product of the 90’s--a franchise better left in the past--yet, publisher Gearbox is still re-releasing older games for new audiences on modern platforms, showing that there’s still a desire within the fans to experience the series. Regardless, Duke Nukem as a franchise hasn’t seen a new entry in nearly a decade now, and if the impossible happens and Gearbox does announce a new game, then people will directly compare it to Forever’s reception and infamy right from the start; the predecessor’s turbulent development will loom over the new one's production, from start to finish. At that point, is it even worth trying again?
“Bad” games don’t always kill a series, though. Following upon Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door was Super Paper Mario, which attempted to take the turn-based battle system from the previous game, and eschew it in favor of trying something new while still retaining certain elements to reflect the series’ RPG roots. Critically, this change was lamented, but it didn’t prevent other aspects of the game, such as its writing, from being thoroughly enjoyed. What didn’t happen to attain as much success was the next game, Paper Mario: Sticker Star.
Tanabe: Aside from wanting us to change the atmosphere a lot, there were two main things that Miyamoto-san said from the start of the project—"It's fine without a story, so do we really need one?" and "As much as possible, complete it with only characters from the Super Mario world.
Iwata: That's a difficult task. In some ways that would be the exact opposite direction from recent games in the series.
Where The Thousand Year Door and Super had featured lengthier, more intricate narratives, Shigeru Miyamoto believed that neither it nor the established turn-based battle system were needed when it came to the Paper Mario series going forward. As such, the following game, Sticker Star, utilized no experience points, partners, or standard attacks, and had a very traditionally “Mario” story. Not only did it go against what fans were hoping for and expecting, but many also believed that it took away the exact elements that were the core of Paper Mario. The game did sell well, surpassing both the original Paper Mario and The Thousand Year Door, though it could be argued that most of those sales were a result of the success of the formula that fans had come to enjoy from past titles, rather than the drastic changes drawing in new players to the series.
Four years later, another Paper Mario was on the way, and some fans eagerly expected a return to form--a form that hadn't been seen since 12 years at that point. Others, however, felt burned by the previous title being such a departure from the established series so far, and would not trust any marketing until the game was fully released. In trying to “freshen” the series up, or attempt to make newer games stand out from older ones, Paper Mario had lost its identity, and more importantly, lost what players had loved about the series originally. Clearly, Nintendo still sees value in the franchise, but even after the release of Paper Mario: The Origami King, and though the series is still active, rampant debate rings out as the divided fanbase argues whether or not it’s worth the effort and time to pin their hopes “on the next game” being closer to the older ones, yet again.
Another series that still sees active development, yet has completely changed from what it used to be is Fallout. Originally existing as a classic turn-based RPG, it then evolved into a first-person action RPG, and most recently, it took those elements and became a pseudo-MMORPG. Players who may have enjoyed the initial Fallout games for their story and writing first and foremost might have potentially lost interest when Bethesda took over and turned the series into something more commonly described as “Elder Scrolls, but with guns”, or even a battle royale. Even when the original developers returned to the series for Fallout: New Vegas, it was still drastically changed from what it once was. Each of the Fallout games are popular in some way, even Fallout 76, and they all have their respective fans, but with each game being somewhat of a departure from the last, you can never be sure that the next Fallout will be something that you’ll certainly enjoy. The dialogue-heavy, meticulous problem-solving days of the franchise have long since passed, and not even its IP holder seems quite sure where to take the series next.
Sometimes, it's best to simply accept the end of a franchise, too. Mass Effect was one of the most talked-about action RPGs throughout the lifespan of the Xbox 360, and later the PlayStation 3. Though the trilogy finished with Mass Effect 3, closing the book on Commander Shepard's story, developer Bioware wasn't done with Mass Effect just yet. A few short years after the release of the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, Mass Effect: Andromeda was revealed to the public; a brand new, next-generation entry into the popular series. What could possibly go wrong? Well, going by the game's launch reception, quite a lot. The experience being rife with bugs and glitches was only a small problem, when you put everything into perspective. Bioware had zombified its own creation by reviving it, despite wrapping up everything in the previous game. Though some things had been fixed post-launch, the damage was already done, as the game had reached meme-status across the internet. Something had changed, and the magic that had been previously captured could not be re-created.
At the end of the day, we, the gamers, are unable to do much but merely wait, and see what the industry has in store for us. Where we actively await the release of Metroid Prime 4 while trying to forget the confusing and disappointing missteps of Metroid Prime: Federation Force, or hope that each delay of Cyberpunk 2077 helped push the game towards its hyped-up greatness, or even dare begin to even think that the next Sonic the Hedgehog game might possibly be fun.