When does a franchise fall victim to its own success? Nick D. looks at the rising wave of franchise fatigue in the Call of Duty series, and how Activision’s latest attempt to stem the tide isn’t enough.
Franchise fatigue – it happens when people grow tired of being given the same experience in rapid succession. Many series have experienced franchise fatigue, and many will in the future. Today, I’d like to talk about the franchise fatigue that is starting to show its head in the Call of Duty series, and how Activision’s addition of a third studio to the franchise is unlikely to stem this tide.
Do note, franchise fatigue has little to do with quality. Developers can release an excellent game that is met with lukewarm reception if consumers are tired of the greater concept or genre. That being said, franchise fatigue is often associated with lack of widespread innovation over a long series of releases, which is why yearly scheduled games such as Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed are so vulnerable.
The Call of Duty franchise is one of the biggest in gaming. Ever since the release of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare last generation, which dragged the flagging series out of the muck of Normandy, Call of Duty has set the pace of the first person shooter market. The series runs on a yearly release schedule, and, since the release of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare in 2008, there have been six games released in the series and countless imitators. The profits for these modern military shooters are still high, but public opinion of them has started to shift.
It’s easy to say that people are simply trying to hate on the big guy, and, assuredly, some of them are. But even some stringent Call of Duty fans are starting to feel like the series isn’t adding anything with each subsequent outing. This has led many fans to jump ship to the rival Battlefield series.
New, upcoming games such as Destiny and Titanfall are garnering buzz that Call of Duty hasn’t gotten since Modern Warfare 2, and it’s beginning to look like the modern military shooter genre might begin to decline. Even some analysts are starting to worry based on Call of Duty: Ghosts sales numbers. Due to Call of Duty’s yearly release schedule, and the host of imitators, I can’t help but point at franchise fatigue as a looming problem right now.
Franchise fatigue is a very real and very dangerous phenomenon. Video games, like most media, rely on wowing their audiences continuously in order to maintain a user base. Like a horror movie monster, the more you show of the game, the less people are captivated. Over exposure can reduce interest in the series and can even destroy whole genres.
The Guitar Hero and Rock Band series were destroyed by constant releases, flooding the market with very similar products. Consumers had no interest in buying the expensive games at the level of frequency that the producers would prefer, and the fanbase was getting tired of the same product being shelved over and over again.
Between 2005 and when the series completely disappeared in 2010, Activision released 24 games in the Guitar Hero franchise including three spinoffs. Guitar Hero‘s biggest competitor, Rock Band, released 11 games between 2007 and 2012. It got to the point where each individual game was unable to make back their development costs. What is scary is that it wasn’t only these series that were wiped out by the crash, but the entire genre itself. Today, you’d be hard pressed to find a game quite like either of them.
The crash and dissolution of this particular subgenre of the rhythm and action genre acts as a warning for all publishers. By constantly releasing more of the same product and milking gamers for all they are worth, they run the risk of killing the cow entirely.
Of course, entering the franchise fatigue state is almost enviable for many publishers. Creating new IPs is a risky and, often, untenably expensive endeavor. When a company like Activision hits upon something that sells the way that Call of Duty does, it is no surprise that they want to get as much out of it as possible. With each subsequent game that sells record numbers, the company is encouraged to press the series more.
Sometimes, companies can see trends coming and going, and are encouraged to jump on the bandwagon before the collapse. This can be seen frequently in the movie industry, which works on similar principles. The quick rise of slashers after the success of the original Halloween and the subsequent collapse of the genre after being stuffed with exploitative sequels is a good example.
Competition plays a large role in franchise fatigue, and the monopoly that many games hold over certain genres has allowed the video game industry to weather the phenomenon better than most. Some series like the Madden series have a stranglehold on the market. Therefore, the yearly release schedule isn’t nearly as dangerous. But for other genres where competition is fierce, such as the platformer genre, constant releases can lead to unenthused gamers who are perfectly able to get their fix somewhere else.
It is important to remember that it hasn’t been that long since Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. At that time, the Battlefield series was mostly unknown to console gamers and major console first person shooters such as Halo, Resistance, and Killzone were less common, and often less ambitious. Nowadays, it is hard to go a month before another attempt is made to take the first person shooter crown from Call of Duty, and these attempts are getting increasingly innovative.
While released on a yearly schedule, each Call of Duty game takes two years to create. Activision manages that feat by hiring two rotating studios to develop each game, Treyarch and Infinity Ward. Activision seems to be aware of the flagging interest for their flagship series and they have added another studio, Sledgehammer Games, to keep things fresh. This means that each Call of Duty game will get three years worth of development time. A seemingly great idea, which allows Activision to ramp up quality and increase the amount of DLC each development team can work on, adding a third studio does very little against franchise fatigue.
Even with a third development team, Call of Duty will remain a yearly franchise, and its competitors are continuing to eat into the market. One might argue that the increased quality may add some excitement into the mix. However, Call of Duty, for all of the naysayers, is an extremely high quality series. A huge amount of money time, and some great ideas go into the series, and the production values have never waned since the series became the blockbuster that it currently is. However, unless one of the studios is willing to reinvent the wheel, franchise fatigue is unlikely to be abated.
Reinvention is the best way of combating franchise fatigue. However, it is unreasonable to expect companies with hit franchises to change the working formula. It is usually only when the series begins faltering that the company is willing to change to a massive extent. Capcom only made Resident Evil 4 when Resident Evil: Code Veronica underperformed. Call of Duty is still very popular and sells very well. Even with the specter of franchise fatigue haunting the venerable series, it is unlikely that Activision will allow one of the studios to shake the boat.
A three year development cycle may actually be making the series more stagnant. In a genre as fast-paced and competitive as first person shooters, especially the modern military subgenre, keeping fresh is very important. With two games being released during development time, each studio will have very little time to adapt to feedback from the fanbase. This means ideas will still be used a few years past their expiration date if the development studios aren’t careful.
Fan feedback can lead to more focused and better utilized ideas. It isn’t impossible to create a yearly franchise while having teams communicate effectively between themselves. That was the case between the Assassin’s Creed III and Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag developers. However, it is difficult, especially when a game is far along in development and you learn that an aspect of the core gameplay doesn’t resonate with gamers. This is the risk that Activision runs with having longer development, while still maintaining a yearly release schedule.
I don’t think there is any question that Sledgehammer Games will make excellent games that will entertain millions. However, without stepping up the level of innovation present in the series, Call of Duty could begin to decline. Even the greatest series can fall to franchise fatigue, and Activision has been pushing Call of Duty hard for six years now with no signs of slowing down.
Whether Sledgehammer Games, Infinity Ward, and Treyarch will take the series into new and exciting directions remains to be seen. The status quo is dangerous in terms of future viability for the series, but it is simultaneously, and potentially infuriatingly, the safest option in the short term. The industry doesn’t need another Guitar Hero crash, and I hope franchise fatigue is high on the minds of Activision executives as they guide the series along.