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A Look At Annual Releases

Call of Duty launch day brings two different types of people out of the woodwork: those who stand in line at midnight to purchase the game, and those who look on from afar and complain about franchise fatigue.

Annual video game releases – like the Call of Duty series – take heat from consumers and critics alike. While I agree with people who want to see more intellectual properties and fewer sequels, I’m also the hypocrite who is counting the days until Assassin’s Creed III hits store shelves.

I want the best of both worlds: new experiences and more of what I love to play. Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed are two series that have successfully given me both of these things, and they’re annual releases.

Even though Assassin’s Creed: Revelations was met with harsh reviews, Assassin’s Creed III is on track to become the highest preordered game in Ubisoft’s history. The reason for the sales surge is easy to identify; one of this generation’s most beloved series is returning with a new identity.

The string of yearly sequels isn’t broken, but this particular installment serves as a rebirth of sorts for the franchise. It gives new players an entry point, and adds layers to a brilliant mystery-laden story that has kept a dedicated fan-base enthralled since its inception.

Other series are bound to the same identity year in, year out. A future installment of Madden NFL won’t be set on the moon’s surface or ditch the pigskin in favor of a grenade. We know the sport. We know what to expect from it.



EA Tiburon’s task is to innovate within that familiar framework…every year. The developer has struggled with this task over the past couple of seasons. Although sales were up 10 percent last year (after being down 18 in the previous year), last year’s game is considered a flop, which should hurt this year’s game out of the gate.

2K Sports’ NBA series proves that one great idea can deliver sales spikes for sports games. NBA 2K is a consistent performer in sales each year, but the inclusion of a Michael Jordan challenge in 2011’s game sent sales soaring. The momentum carried over to 2012’s title.

Injecting new ideas into an established franchise with under a year of development time is always a risk…just ask Neversoft, developer of the Tony Hawk games. This series got so far off track that it eventually came packaged with a plastic skateboarding peripheral.

I still think this series has the chance to succeed annually. Give me Pro Skater 3’s gameplay as the foundation and new levels and challenges each year and I’ll be a happy camper.

A select few annual game series can survive without that breakthrough idea. Pinball FX keeps the Game Informer staff competing year round with the timely delivery of new tables. That game could end up being as timeless as pinball itself.

Traveller’s Tales’ Lego games show no signs of slowing, either, even with three similarly designed games releasing each year. Granted, the licenses of each Lego game – be it Batman, Star Wars, or Harry Potter – speak to different audiences, but I play them all each year, and cannot wait for the next Lego game to release.

Digital delivery could play a large role in the frequency of returning franchises. Telltale Games’ wildly successful Walking Dead series is a healthy endorsement for bi-monthly episodes. Similar to the monthly comic book format, this delivery system gives consumers smaller chunks of a game at a time. I wouldn’t mind seeing more episodic games, mostly because I know I can play through all of the new content in one sitting. The worst statistic I hear about games: Most consumers don’t finish them.

With each Call of Duty game recording gargantuan sales numbers, I doubt Activision veers off of its annual sequel strategy any time soon, but I do think EA’s approach with Battlefield 3’s downloadable multiplayer content could become a standard other developers use for their multiplayer-focused games. Rather than delivering a new game in the following year, the developer instead gives players an entire year of timed content through a subscription model.

All games can be annualized. I play every Call of Duty, obsess over Assassin’s Creed’s fiction, and wouldn’t be opposed to playing a new BioShock, Resident Evil, or Grand Theft Auto game every year. Developers and publishers just have to be smart about their approach to each franchise.

However, it’s clear that some series benefit from consumers growing hungry for a new installment. My email box is filled with Grand Theft Auto fans demanding Grand Theft Auto V details. Would this fan base still be as rabid if Grand Theft Auto were annualized? Would the franchise be bigger than it already is?

Now I'd like to turn the discussion over to you. Are you one of the people standing in line at midnight to get the sequel to your favorite series? Or are you the doomsday crier who thinks developers deliver too many sequels?

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