What's The Future For The Last Generation's Big Franchises?
As this past generation of home consoles prepares to ride off into the sunset, we thought it was an appropriate time to look back at new franchises that defined the past nine years in console gaming – and predict how likely it is they will continue in the future.
[Note: this list is in alphabetical order]
[Note: This feature is limited to games that not only spawned sequels but met with both critical acclaim and large-scale commercial success in the console space.]
While it has become one of the most commercially successful franchises of recent years, a massively expansive open-world game involving time-travel, virtual reality, science fiction, and obscure Crusades-era religious sects was hardly the safest bet back in 2007 when the original Assassin's Creed released. Nonetheless, the series quickly struck a nerve with gamers who became entranced not only by the gorgeous, open-world assassination action, but the game's complex lore.
Later entries, especially Assassin's Creed II and Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, made big improvements in terms of gameplay and design, while letting gamers explore new time periods like Renaissance Italy and colonial America. While Ubisoft Montreal seems to have lost the plot in terms of the overarching storyline, last year's Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag still managed to deliver big thrills and unique gameplay.
Assassin's Creed continues to garner strong review scores and sell by the millions. It's now the pillar of Ubisoft's stable of franchises, and will definitely continue on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Its ability to place itself in new, unique settings and time periods also gives it a better ability to keep things fresh than many of its competitors.
Batman Arkham series
While Batman is hardly a new character, his struggles in the realm of video games have been well documented. Despite the fact that this gadget-wielding, thug-pummeling Dark Knight seemed tailor made for gaming, no one could seem to get it right - until Rocksteady Games made Batman: Arkham Asylum. The game got nearly everything right. It reached out to longtime fans with great references and characters from the comic's past while having the dark tone that fans of the Dark Knight films expected.
More importantly, Rocksteady understood how to make great gameplay with Batman. As a silent bird of prey, you used gadgets and and guile to stalk your enemies - and then delivered brutal beatdowns with an easy-to-use, free flowing combat system. These traits were only emphasized when Rocksteady moved into an open-world environment with Batman: Arkham City.
While reviews of Batman: Arkham Origins (developed by Warner Bros. Montreal) were mixed, Rocksteady is back in the driver's seat of the franchise. In fact, its new Batman: Arkham Knight actually graces the cover of the new issue of Game Informer, so we'd say the future of this franchise is looking good indeed.
BioShock, which we revealed to the world on the cover of Game Informer back in 2006, was universally hailed as one of the most creative, well-written games ever. Creator Ken Levine and Irrational Games created the unforgettable sunken city of Rapture, Andrew Ryan's grand experiment in biotech libertarianism. The decayed, Art Deco beauty of the city belied the horrors that had been created, and played backdrop to an adventure that none of us will forget.
While the follow-up, BioShock 2 (developed by 2K Marin) didn't reach the same narrative heights, Levine returned to the series to create his masterpiece, BioShock Infinite. This new game rose from the ocean into the sky, letting players explore the early 1900s-inspired floating city of Columbia. The game dazzled, combining amazing set piece moments with serious themes of racism, jingoism, and the existence of other dimensions.
Sadly, despite the triumph of Infinite, the future of the franchise looks shaky right now. Ken Levine recently shuttered Irrational Games, laying off all but a handful of employees and is said to be working on a new, smaller scale project. 2K Games has said that BioShock will continue, but without the guiding hand of Levine, will it be the same?
Gearbox's Borderlands originally appeared as a gritty, Mad Max-inspired open world title. Somewhere along the line, it went through a transformation into a cel-shaded, broadly comic action/RPG focused on collection and a cornucopia of wild, highly customizable weapons. This proved to be a great decision, and the game quickly became loved for its humor, explosive gameplay, and variety. In particular, the acerbic robot Claptrap became a fan favorite.
The game was a hit, eventually selling over 4.5 million units worldwide. It spawned a sequel, Borderlands 2, which was also praised by critics and consumers. It was a massive success, selling over 8.5 million copies and becoming the best-selling 2K Games title ever (not counting those of its subsidiary Rockstar Games).
The sales of Borderlands 2 suggest that the franchise will continue in some form. However, Gearbox head Randy Pitchford says that Borderlands 3 is not currently in development, in favor of another project set in the Borderlands universe. We'll have to wait and see what these comments mean.
Capcom's Dead Rising was atypical of the company at the time. As an exclusive for Microsoft's Xbox 360 (which never made a dent in the Japanese market), it was a clear case of the company making a game specifically for Western audiences. The game used the power of the 360 to push then-startling numbers of characters onscreen, resulting in some crazed zombie battles. However, unlike many games in the zombie genre, Dead Rising's tongue was firmly in cheek, emphasizing gonzo humor and ridiculous weapons. By releasing early in the 360's lifecycle, it gained a foothold with gamers and spawned two downloadable episodes (Case Zero and Case West) as well as a full-fledged sequel. In a difficult generation for Capcom, Dead Rising proved that it could still create compelling new IP.
Once again striking early in the console generation, Capcom had Dead Rising 3 ready for the Xbox One launch as a console exclusive. As one of the most technically ambitious titles of either system launch, the game's sales exceeded the company's expectations, selling over one million units in a month. This seems to point towards a bright future for the franchise.
Electronic Arts doesn't have the best reputation among gamers, but it absolutely did it right with Dead Space. Instead of investing in a licensed IP, it let an internal team (led by Glen Schofield, who later left to form Sledgehammer Games at Activision) have the freedom to create a new franchise from the ground up. Its creation was Dead Space, a gripping sci-fi survival horror game inspired by classic films like Alien and The Thing. It provided gamers with some of the tense action that many felt Resident Evil had eschewed, and a great new universe centered around disturbed lead character Isaac Clarke. The laser-powered plasma cutter weapon in the game was inspired, leading to tense combat in which the player brutally dismembered grotesque aliens.
The game didn't do blockbuster numbers, but it sold strongly enough for EA to approve a sequel, Dead Space 2, which was also well-received due to its mind-bending plotline. Sadly, the third Dead Space title - despite a glowing review from GI's Tim Turi - was perceived as a dud by many and did not sell up to expectations.
Though it was clearly a standout franchise for EA in this past generation, the outlook for Dead Space appears dim. In June 2013, EA executive VP Patrick Söderlund said that - although the franchise is "close to EA's heart" - ""Is that team working on a Dead Space game today? No they're not. They're working on something else very exciting. You have to think of it from that perspective. Is it better to put them on the fourth version of a game they've done three previous versions of before? Or is it better to put them on something new that they want to build, that they have passion for?"
Demon's Souls/Dark Souls
With no marketable hero or story, mediocre graphics, and a game design that was slightly archaic and punishingly difficult, From Software's Demon's Souls was the unlikeliest of hits. Still, its stern challenge resonated with core gamers reared on the difficult Japanese games of yesterday, and it quickly became one of the cult phenomenons in the last decade of gaming.
Its unique, asynchronous merging of single and multiplayer was innovative, and while it was unforgiving, it never felt unfair. The original Demon's Souls was brought to America by Atlus, a small company which specializes in localization of hardcore Japanese games. However, it success meant that Atlus was eventually outbid for its follow-up, Dark Souls, a sequel in all but name.
Dark Souls II, which released this week, is earning extraordinarily high review scores. Game Informer's Dan Tack gave it a 9.75, and he's not alone; the game currently has a Metacritic score of 91, which will likely make it one of the best-reviewed games of the year. Right now, the Souls franchise looks to be in robust health.
While BioWare's signature IP of this generation is Mass Effect (more on that later in the list), it didn't forget its roots in high fantasy. Dragon Age might not have had a spotless track record, but it did deliver fans an epic, single-player fantasy RPG that balanced contemporary game design with traditional elements.
The game cast you as a member of the Greywardens, a group that is tasked with battling an evil that threatens to engulf the land. Sound familiar? From this rather clichéd plot, sprang an engaging adventure with deep RPG gameplay influenced heavily by the classic Knights of the Old Republic series. While the game didn't match Mass Effect in storytelling, it did spawn some memorable characters, particularly the femme fatale Morrigan. While the sequel, Dragon Age II drew a mixed response, with a sub-par storytelling and a more action-oriented combat system.
Despite the relative failure of Dragon Age II, BioWare, and EA have kept faith in the series, and are currently working on Dragon Age: Inquisition, a new-gen title slated for release by the end of this year. So far, the game has looked quite impressive, and could represent a new birth for the franchise.
Gears of War
Microsoft's Halo franchise has always been the staple of its Xbox platforms, but it also created a defining new franchise for Xbox 360 with the help of developer Epic Games. Gears of War, a gritty third-person shooter set on the post-apocalyptic planet Sera. The game pitted COG soldiers against the vicious Locust alien race. Conceived by Unreal creator Cliff Bleszinski, the game brought Epic's signature shooting into the third-person, with a slower, more methodical feel than its previous shooters.
While people were divided on the series' overly macho storytelling and characters, Gears of War contributed cover mechanics and an "active reload" system that were widely imitated. Gears of War 2's endless co-op Horde mode might be the most widely copied multiplayer mode of the past few years. With three sequels all on Xbox 360, it was definitely a standout for Microsoft.
The last couple years have been difficult for Gears of War. The latest in the series, Gears of War: Judgment, received a mixed critical and commercial reaction. Internal shakeups at Epic Games saw series creator Cliff Bleszinski leave the company. For awhile, it looked as though there might not be a future for Gears of War. However, in early 2014 news surfaced that longtime Gears producer Rod Fergusson, who had left Epic for Irrational Games, was returning to make a new Gears of War title with new Microsoft internal studio Black Tusk.
Sony has always maintained a strong stable of internally developed franchises, and in 2009 it added another with Sucker Punch's Infamous. Sucker Punch, previously known for the cartoonish Sly Cooper franchise, took a risk with Infamous, a dark open world superhero saga which revolved around antihero Cole McGrath. McGrath's flexible electrical powers, and the game's detailed New York-inspired setting touched a nerve with PS3 owners, making it a hit. The game garnered a sequel, 2011's Infamous 2, which went south to a virtual doppelganger of New Orleans, New Marais. Both games proved Sucker Punch's ability to deliver great open-world gameplay, and provided gamers with a superhero-like experience that wasn't based on familiar DC or Marvel properties.
For Infamous, the future is now. Once slated as a PlayStation 4 launch title, Infamous: Second Son will be one of Sony's most high-profile early PlayStation 4 titles when it launches on March 21. The game is now set in a real-world Seattle, and features a new protagonist, the rebellious Delsin Rowe. For more, check out our Infamous: Second Son hub.
Left 4 Dead
Valve and Turtle Rock's Left 4 Dead, published in partnership with EA in 2008, is a testament to the power of a simple, beautiful game design. While many developers chased increasing complexity, Left 4 Dead has a perfectly done premise: pitting four survivors together against hordes of horrific zombies. There wasn't a need for fancy game modes or complicated storytelling; the simple act of banding together and working towards a common goal (survival) was enough to make this a classic cooperative multiplayer game.
Left 4 Dead instantly struck a chord with gamers, and was supported by post-release DLC and a sequel, Left 4 Dead 2, which some felt was too similar to the first game, but was great nonetheless. Today, we see the influence on Left 4 Dead on games like Payday 2 and Turtle Rock's upcoming Evolve.
While Turtle Rock has moved on, recent leaks indicate that Left 4 Dead 3 could be a possibility. Early this year, design documents and images of a supposed third sequel to the game (running on Valve's Source 2 engine) have surfaced, and some feel that they are legitimate.
Developed for Sony by the eccentric British studio Media Molecule, LittleBigPlanet was charmingly out of step with most of the game industry. Released in 2008, the game created a world made entirely out of cloth, starring the cute ragdoll Sackboy. The core game was an expertly designed 2D platformer, proving that there was still much to be done with the genre in a world of 3D first-person shooters.
The game also sensed how important creation tools would be to gamers in the last generation. The game's creation mode allowed you to not only tweak Sackboy in myriad ways, but create everything from new platforming levels to games in whole different genres. Fans embraced the creative vibe, leading to the release of LittleBigPlanet 2 for PlayStation 3, and well as the excellent handheld games LittleBigPlanet PSP and LittleBigPlanet PS Vita and a kart racing spinoff.
Despite all the acclaim and success LittleBigPlanet has experienced, it appears as if Media Molecule has moved on from the franchise. Most recently, the company created Tearaway, a papercraft-inspired platformer that was one of last year's best games and a highlight of the Vita's software library. During a previous PlayStation 4 event, Media Molecule demonstrated a new project that involved creating and animating 3D characters and objects in real time using the Move controller. It's not clear if it was a tech demo or a new game idea. However, there doesn't seem to be much momentum in the LBP franchise right now.
BioWare's Mass Effect series will stand as one of the most ambitious, successfully realized game projects in history. From the beginning the studio aimed high; the game was conceived as a trilogy with decisions that would radiate through all three chapters. The game melded BioWare's traditional RPG gameplay with a shooter-based component, striking a marketable new hybrid in the genre.
Most importantly, it innovated on game storytelling to an amazing degree. Featuring full voiceovers and a dialogue selection wheel mechanic, Mass Effect made what had traditionally been canned cutscenes into a core part of gameplay. As space marine Commander Shepard, the player was sent on a wide-spanning adventure to save the galaxy. Along the way, you'd make decisions that affect the fate of your companions and entire planets. While some felt that the ending to Mass Effect 3 didn't deliver, causing BioWare to release a post-release update, the game stands as a monument to ambitious game design.
While it's near certain that we will get another Mass Effect game, just what form it takes is up in the air. BioWare has stated that Shepard's saga is done, and that the upcoming Mass Effect title will be a different story featuring different characters. We don't have many details regarding what form the game will take, but we do know there will be more of this franchise in the future, and that's good thing.
The video game industry is a hotbed of creativity, but some games are a bit more creative than others. Portal, and its follow-up Portal 2, is an example of a title that went off the beaten path to great success. The game began as a student project, Narbacular Drop, which was built on the simple concept of the main character walking in one "portal" and out another. The team was eventually brought into Valve and ended up creating a game of much greater quality and scope.
Portal placed a silent protagonist into a series of test chambers, coached along by a possibly murderous AI voice names GLaDOS. The player would place blue and orange portals allowing them to teleport around the ingeniously designed levels. While the puzzle-solving element was brilliant, it was the game's offbeat storytelling and dialogue that really won gamers' hearts - something that was improved upon in the sequel.
It seems unlikely that we will see another Portal anytime in the near future. While there was a European Portal 3 trademark filing, many felt it was fake, and evidence points to the fact that there is no Portal 3 development team operating within the company. You could speculate that its popularity would make a third game a no-brainer, but remember this is the company that hasn't given us a Half-Life 3 yet.
"Live fast, die young" has been the sad slogan of many rock stars, and Harmonix's Rock Band followed a similar trajectory. The developer fell out with Guitar Hero publisher Activision, and became part of MTV Games. Along with EA, they expanded their previous virtual guitar formula to include drums, bass, and vocals. The result? A pop culture phenomenon that took over living rooms and parties nationwide and was, for a time, seen as a way of breaking bands both old and new to the gamer audience.
The massive success of Rock Band continued with Rock Band 2. However, the market became saturated, thanks to both Rock Band's own spinoffs (like Rock Band: Green Day and Lego Rock Band) and competition from the Guitar Hero franchise. By the time the excellent Beatles: Rock Band was released in 2009, the bloom was already off the rose. Another sequel followed, as well as some mobile adaptations, but soon Harmonix moved on to Dance Central.
Rock Band seems the least likely of any of the games on this list to mount a comeback. As great as it was, the world seems to have moved on from the world of plastic instruments and descending note runways. It's a great memory for many of us, but it's unlikely to generate big sales again. Perhaps there will be more attempts to translate Rock Band to touch and mobile platforms, but it's not quite the same without that dinky fake Stratocaster, is it?
Saints Row is a testament to knowing what you're good at. The first game, clearly inspired by Rockstar's GTA series, was a funny, but cheap feeling knockoff that rode some competent gameplay to reasonable success in the window between San Andreas and GTA IV. Saints Row 2 was successful, mining a similar "darker" narrative. Brilliantly, the team at Volition took the perception that Saints Row was a "b-movie" version of GTA to heart, and came out swinging with Saints Row 3. Instead of competing with Rockstar's Hollywood pretensions, the company went the opposite direction, making Saints Row 3 a gonzo, anything-goes romp filled with adolescent humor and goofy weapons.
The move worked out brilliantly, resulting in the best game and best reviews the series had to date - and also established a real identity for the series. Saints Row IV went even farther, escaping the bounds of reality and offering players superhuman powers.
Given that publisher Deep Silver purchased the property from THQ prior to the release of Saints Row IV, it seems a given that the series will continue. There's also been unofficial confirmation of a new Saints game from Volition producer and some voice actors. However, there is word that the next game might be going in a new direction for the series.
Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure came along a late in the last generation, but it made a monumental impact at retail. Activision and developer Toys for Bob hit upon an idea that flew in the face of conventional wisdom: a game that incorporated real-life toys and was set in a new universe based on the long-irrelevant Spyro the Dragon franchise. However, the combination of the game's simple, top-down action, heavy collection elements, and figurines that could save player data and "appear" in the game via a portal base peripheral proved to be irresistible to kids the world over.
Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure was an instant sensation, with figures quickly fetching big money on eBay. The game itself sold millions, and two console sequels (Skylanders Giants and Skylanders: Swap Force) have been equally successful. To date, Activision says it's sold 175 million Skylanders figures, and the franchise's total sales including software has topped $2 billion.
Activision isn't a company that's known for walking away from a series that's making money, so Skylanders should be safe in the short term. However, a console transition could prove difficult, as new console adopters are overwhelmingly older than the mass audience of younger gamers that loves Skylanders. Activision also isn't shy about closing up shop on a fad that has come and gone (see: Guitar Hero).
Naughty Dog's franchises have always been some of the prominent public faces of Sony's consoles, from Crash Bandicoot up through the 2007 release of Uncharted: Drake's Fortune. An amalgam of Indiana Jones, Tomb Raider, and a modern-day Hollywood action flick, the game instantly became a sensation, thanks in no small part to its amazing graphics, production values, and storytelling.
Helmed by Amy Hennig, the PlayStation 3 Uncharted trilogy took gamers all across the globe in search of treasure, adventure, and - in the case of hero Nathan Drake and journalist Elena Fisher - love. It was the kind of instantly engaging, easy-to-love gaming that helped build the industry in the 8- and 16-bit era, but brought to life with cutting edge technology and game design.
A new Uncharted game (apparently with no number or subtitle) has been officially announced for PlayStation 4 and will likely be shown at this year's E3. So, the future of this franchise is fairly certain. The only dark cloud on the horizon is the recent departure of series creative director Amy Hennig from Naughty Dog, under apparently tense circumstances. How this will affect the vision and development of the next Uncharted is unknown, but Naughty Dog is a talented studio with unparalleled graphical chops.