Debate Club: I Like Annualized Franchises

A few days ago the trailer for Assassin’s Creed: Unity was released. Showcasing the 5th installment of the franchise, this time set during the French revolution, it got a lot of people buzzing, and it got me thinking…  Are annualized franchises like Assassin’s Creed a good thing?  Obviously it’s impossible to say with certainty whether or not they are, after all there are really only two franchises currently in the annualized release business; Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed.  I like the idea of annualized franchises though, and I think there is a lot of merit to what they can bring to a series.

First off, annualized franchises are published by the same company but usually developed by different studios, or different teams within studios.  In the case of the Call of Duty franchise for example, Activision publishes the games, Infinity Ward and Treyarch develop them.  One year, the COD game you get is by Infinity Ward, the next it’s from Treyarch.  This gives developers a chance to move the franchise in different directions almost simultaneously.   Sure, COD tends to always feel like COD, but you can definitely find some differences in the Infinity Ward games vs. the Treyarch games.  This is a good thing.  It helps COD to stay fresh (although many would argue, not fresh enough) and it gives each game a different feel while staying within the established framework of the series.  Honestly, I think franchises like Final Fantasy would benefit greatly from this type of development cycle.  Two or three teams, working independently on Final Fantasy games, incorporating new ideas, mechanics, etc… could help push that series forward, help it grow, and prune the good ideas from the bad.

Annualized franchises allow developers to take more chances while keeping the stakes a bit lower for each release.  Assassin’s Creed 3 for instance, wasn’t so great.  Assassin’s Creed 4, though, was fantastic.  It was easy to let go of the mistakes of AC3 when the trailers for AC4 were already wetting our appetites for swashbuckling on the high seas.  There are a lot of big titles in development for years upon years, and those titles tend to have huge expectations attached to them.  What if Half-Life 3 – the end-all-be-all of games that will never seem to come out – comes out and it’s kind of crappy?  At this point, the expectations for Half-Life 3 are so high that if the game doesn’t utterly shatter your notions of what a video game can be, then someone is going to be disappointed.  Annualized franchises diversify the risk by decreasing the value of any one specific title in the franchise.  AC3 was bad?  So what, AC4 is around the corner.  If Half-Life 3 is bad, the world is going to end.

Furthermore, annualizing a franchise means faster feedback on things that worked, and things that didn’t.  To use Assassin’s Creed again, one of the few things people like about AC3 were the ship battles.  AC4, in turn, featured them heavily.  To be fair, I’m sure that the developers knew before AC3 was even released that the subsequent title would feature ships.  That said, I believe that AC3 provided a perfect testing ground for that feature.  Had it gone over poorly, AC4’s gameplay would have probably featured much less in terms of naval warfare.

Perhaps I’m wrong.  Perhaps annualized franchises devalue their series’, making the games feel less like important releases and more like extraneous reasons to syphon another $60 out of your pocket.  The thing is, there are reviews of these games.  Unless you’re such a die-hard fan of a franchise that you must own every game the day it comes out, there’s no reason not to wait for the review and make a decision then.  Plus, if it turns out that the game is bad, you can skip it knowing that you’ll get another offering next year, instead of 5+ years from now.