You can’t often accuse game franchises of innovation. Sure, a quality first game pushes the possibilities of graphics, storytelling or gameplay, but once that franchise becomes, say, three games old, they become more of the same, pandering harder and harder to a dwindling group of core fans. Look at The Sims 3, Uncharted 3 or particularly Dead Space 3.
Thankfully, we’re seeing more instances where this isn’t the case.
Once a franchise passes a certain point of market saturation, I believe it has this opportunity to switch things up a bit, to subvert the expectations of the general gaming community and experiment with new ideas. It may be risky to deviate slightly from past norms, but a skilled studio could introduce a breath of fresh air to its franchise while maintaining a tangible link with the past.
Just look at the Persona series. The first two (three if you have to be that guy) games didn’t stray too far from its Shin Megami Tensei roots. And then there was Persona 3, which had some of the familiar SMT tropes while completely breaking from the previous games in its gameplay, tone, style and narrative. As a result, it was a much more interesting game than if Atlus had stayed the course. It also laid the foundations for the immaculate Persona 4.
Gaijin Games’ BIT.TRIP series is a more extreme and interesting example of this. In the space of six games, the franchise became a pong-like, a platformer, a shmup and a couple of games that escape conventional definition; they all played very differently while still maintaining the series’ identity. Some were more effective than others (see: Bit.Trip Presents…Runner 2), but they were all at the very least interesting, all worth consideration. It’s certainly a lot better than seeing six pong-like games differentiated with more explosions, fan-service moments and new hat or something.
The Bit.Trip series is a fine example of experimentation, but I reckon we can dream a little bigger. Allow me to outline my fantasy scenario.
Imagine a property with an established — not to mention interesting — universe. Maybe include a running narrative or set of core characters in there, as well. You then give this playground to any and every willing developer out there to make their own, to re-imagine or to merely add their own signature to, all the while maintaining a common thread in this pre-established universe. There’s so much potential for side stories based in this world told in so many varied styles, from RPG to fighting game to text adventure to who know what else.
Thanks to the growing decentralisation and outsourcing of modern-day games, we’re part way there.
We are currently in a world where Ninja Theory have released a Devil May Cry game, where Rockstar Games made a Max Payne title. These titles have been ostensibly divorced from their original creators (Capcom and Remedy, respectively) and have been imbued with — and benefited from — the character and trademarks of their new studios. Who would have thought a Devil May Cry game would have well-acted performances, especially compared to the bad old days? And now we know that Max Payne was destined to be one of the most well produced games of the generation.
No more is this benefit more evident than with Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, which was originally developed within Kojima Productions before being outsourced to Platinum Games. Here is a game that still carries many of the things we immediately associate with Metal Gear Solid — the long and winding codec conversations, the PMCs and all the talk of the nature of war that comes with them, the elaborate and lengthy cutscenes — but on the gameplay front, it’s unmistakably a Platinum product. This combination of Metal Gear’s wacky-yet-fascinating universe and Platinum’s best-practice brawling has resulted in one of the better games in a period filled with quality releases.
As the industry heads down a path of extreme conservatism and annualised franchise, it’s heartening to see that there are still some experimentation taking place, even with pre-established titles. These changes, whether in mechanics, style or even developer, are crucial to keeping a series relevant and interesting. And although my dream scenario will never come true, if publishers keep on pushing this great experiment, it might not have to.
Come back on Thursdays for more thoughts and views from the NG+ cast and crew.