Are Slumping Sequels A Symptom Of Platform Migration Or Franchise Fatigue?

by Matt Bertz on Dec 17, 2013 at 10:50 AM

Over the last few years we've heard a repeated cry from free-to-play and mobile gaming evangelists - console platforms are dying, and future growth will come from emerging platforms and new economic models. While both of these have experienced undeniable growth, the impressive opening sales numbers for both the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One prove that no matter what kind of prosperity is happening on PCs, tablets, and phones, some people simply enjoy playing games from their couches looking at high definition displays and soaking in surround sound. Reports of their deaths have been greatly exaggerated.

But while console sales are surging, sales numbers paint a much different picture for the major franchises that have dominated the last generation. Industry sources tell us that Call of Duty: Ghosts sales were down 19 percent compared to last year's sales of Black Ops 2 in the same month. The same goes for Need For Speed (down 55 percent year over year), Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag (down 39 percent year over year), Madden NFL 25 (down 24 percent year over year), FIFA 14 (down 12 percent year over year), and Battlefield 4 (down 21 percent compared to Battlefield 3). These aren't exactly rosy numbers for franchises that publishers rely on for consistent profitability.

Pinpointing a clear reason for these slumps isn't easy, but theories abound. Some consumers may be holding off purchasing games until they buy a next-gen system. If that's the case, sales could pick up in December as more consoles become available. Consumers may also be purchasing fewer games this holiday season since so much money is going into the purchase of a new system. Given that this is a year of transition, publishers can likely sell this story to investors with little to no pushback. 

But simply dismissing the sales drops as a result of a shifting playing field could be a mistake. Console generations are typically dominated by a core group of franchises, but crossing over that dominance to a new generation has often proven difficult. For every Final Fantasy and Gran Turismo, there are huge brands that have fallen off the map like Crash Bandicoot, Tekken, Spyro, and Kingdom Hearts. Some of these drops were self-inflicted due to a lack of consistent releases, and others lost their standing to changing public tastes or genre competition.

Two exceptions to these rules seem to be sports games and Grand Theft Auto. Sports games continue to sell because the fans demand new versions that reflect the free agency moves and draft signings their favorite teams make each offseason. For GTA, Rockstar Games has an uncompromising and unwavering custodianship over its flagship franchise. It doesn't inundate the market with yearly iterations; rather allowing anticipation to build while it makes sure the next game meets the development team's lofty expectations. By the time the game is ready to launch, fan demand is at a fever pitch.

The same can't always be said for franchises like Call of Duty and Assassin's Creed. While these games sometimes receive unwarranted criticism due to their persistent presence in the marketplace rather than for the actual quality of the games, the fact remains that consumer tastes are fickle, and once something new comes along, which it inevitably will, those fans could leave in droves. Given the sizeable investment publishers make for annualized franchises - some of which have multiple games being developed concurrently - this danger is amplified. No one wants to be the next Tony Hawk or Guitar Hero, and losing a yearly breadwinner can put a publisher in a precarious position.

Given this stark reality, the publishers of these types of titles would be wise to peer inward at the creative process rather than flippantly dismiss the dwindling (but still formidable) sales as a transitional hiccup. Don't be afraid of empowering the creators that made these franchises a success in the first place. Allow them to take risks without suits and marketing departments armed with focus group data constantly second guessing their every move, because appealing to the lower common denominator or making slight changes to the core formula is not what is going to help these franchises maintain their great standing over the long haul.

To follow this approach, publishers need to re-energize the teams working on the titles by giving them some creative breathing room. This type of environment can inspire new innovation, which can in turn reinvigorate their fan bases and even draw in new customers. One shining example of this approach is Spyro, which all but disappeared from the gaming conscience until Toys For Bob boldly reimagined it as Skylanders.

Sure, it's risky. The potential of alienating your core fan base is great. But doubling down on the creative minds that helped turn these concepts into annual cash cows is a more viable position than standing pat during a period where new game franchises like Destiny and Titanfall are being born. As history proves, players won't hesitate to migrate to an alluring new experience.