Check any gaming related message board, and chances are, you will find at least one topic slamming the most recent Call of Duty release for being exactly the same as the last game, accusing Activision of milking its most productive cash cow, and blaming gamers' lack of imagination for stifling creativity. Despite this, the Call of Duty series consistently scores highly on reviews, sells an absolute ton of copies and is played for hours upon hours by some of the most dedicated gamers. So why the backlash? Aside from Activision’s questionable business practices (which is the subject of another discussion entirely), one of the main reasons you find for the hatred of the Call of Duty series is due to the fact that the games are released frequently (by gaming standards), with the second or third week of November of each year seeing the release of another game in the series.
While Call of Duty may be the most prominent example of the ‘frequent releases’ stable, outside of sports games, it is far from the only title or franchise that operates on this system. It is also far from unique in being lambasted for this practice, with franchises such as Assassin’s Creed and Guitar Hero also in the firing line for gamers’ ire. With millions of sales each year, countless numbers of fans, and loads of money pumping into the companies that release them, are yearly releases really such a bad thing for the industry?
On one hand, you have those who love a particular franchise and can never get enough of it. They eagerly snap up each new release, regardless of the length of time between each title. On the other hand, you have those who argue that this practice is ruining gaming by stifling creativity amongst developers and publishers, merely serving as a vehicle for publishers to make an easy buck.
Perhaps the best comparison that can be made to the topic is that of a television series. A season of a typical TV series is 10-20 hours in length, similar to the amount of time spent with most games. If successful, the series will be renewed each year, with a premiere in September, shows aired once a week though until March or April, and then a hiatus until the following September, when the cycle starts again. Yearly game releases follow a similar schedule. Using Call of Duty as an example, the game is released in November, gets played to death for a number of months, and sometimes has a selection of extra content released in order to keep the game fresh until the release of the next game in the series. The difference here, however, is that a television series does not experience complaints of ‘milking the franchise’, cookie cutter storylines and being exactly the same as the last season but in a different setting...unless it’s Heroes.
Even movies get in on the practice, and have been for years. Back to the Future parts two and three were released a year apart, as were the second and third Pirates of the Caribbean movies. No one complained that this was over-exposure to a franchise, and both were successful at the box office. If you have a story to tell, people don’t want to be waiting years for some form of resolution. Take Half Life 2: Episode 3/Half Life 3 as an example, a missing entry in a series that left people on a cliff-hanger back in 2007. For a high concept narrative like Assassin’s Creed, the ability to keep people interested in a story and not have them waiting too long for the next entry is crucial. Hell, people got mad when baseball playoffs interrupted the flow of Fringe or Lost for a couple of weeks. Could you expect viewers to cope with a gap of a few years?!
The strongest argument in support of yearly releases comes when we start getting down to the meat and bones of the gaming industry: review scores and sales figures. The most recent releases in the Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty franchises, and even FIFA 12, NHL 12 and Madden 12 all have a Metacritic average of 79 or above, hardly poor scores for games which supposedly haven’t changed since previous iterations. What’s more, Modern Warfare 3 currently holds the record for most successful entertainment launch of all time, selling 6.5 million copies in the US and the UK in its first 24 hours of sale. Assassin’s Creed: Revelations has become the most successful title (sales-wise) in Ubisoft’s history, and the EA Sports series of 2012 games have sold almost 10 million copies between them. These are some of the strongest sales and review figures in the industry, which shows that yearly releases can be a viable business model if handled correctly.
However, when a game is being released as frequently as once a year, you run the risk of boring your target market, alienating them from your product with overfamiliarity and the rising cost of keeping up with the release schedule. The highest-profile failure of this strategy is without a doubt the Guitar Hero franchise (ironically, another Activision franchise), although it can be argued that Guitar Hero operated over and above even yearly releases. The first Guitar Hero title launched in 2005, with a yearly release schedule operating until 2008, when FOUR Guitar Hero games were released. Four Guitar Hero games were again released in 2009 to much outcry. Falling sales saw 2010 hosting the final release in the series (to date). Following this, the franchise, as well as its spin-offs, DJ Hero and Band Hero, was placed on hiatus. Guitar Hero is a prime example of the dangers of operating a yearly release schedule: oversaturation of the market which brews apathy from consumers and plummets review scores due to a lack of originality. Although marketed as an entry in the ‘casual gaming’ genre, Guitar Hero simply didn’t offer up enough changes with each entry to maintain a viable sales base.
It is this last point that worries gamers so much when it comes to yearly releases and their continued successes. Take a look at the campaign modes from the recent Call of Duty releases, for example. If you were to take any game in the Modern Warfare series, pick a level at random (ignoring the story), you would have difficulty in telling which game the level came from, as the gameplay and atmosphere are incredibly similar throughout. Sure, it’s the same trilogy, so some similarity in atmosphere is expected, and when it comes to FPS’s, gameplay is pretty much written in stone, but it’s not difficult to see why the accusations of ‘cookie-cutter’ gameplay originate. As for Assassin’s Creed, the addition of a well-received and unique multiplayer component ensured that players were kept on their toes, but with minimal changes in evidence from Brotherhood to Revelations in both single- and multi-player, Ubisoft will have to stay one step ahead of the game to avoid similar accusations to those currently being levelled at Activision.
Whilst gaming is becoming increasingly mainstream, there is still an evident divide between those who play games ‘casually’ and those who play ‘seriously’. What is interesting is that these yearly releases seem geared more towards those who play casually than those who play seriously. I know plenty of people who label themselves gamers, yet play only Call of Duty and sports games, the two main examples of yearly releases. In the case of these players, Call of Duty and say, FIFA or NHL may be the only two games that they buy all year, whereas for a more ‘serious’ gamer, an average year may see a purchase record of 15+ games over a variety of genres, offering a variety of experiences. Through their eyes, playing a repeat of the same game from a year ago is pointless, because creativity and innovation drive the industry, rather than simply sales and review scores. For the more casual gamer, however, as long as they can play online with their friends, enjoy an experience they feel comfortable with, and blow shit up, the gaming industry, in their eyes, is exactly where they want it.
This last comparison drives the insecurity surrounding yearly releases. We already see more sequels than fresh IPs, and the number of ‘HD’ or ‘Remastered’ remakes of last generation games is growing at a worrying rate. Sure, it’s nice to be able to replay a game you enjoyed when you were younger on your current console, but wouldn’t you prefer a fresh experience? I guess what I’m most worried about is that gaming will head the way of Hollywood, with constant re-releases or remakes of old movies, and that the traditionally strong fall season of gaming with begin to mirror the summer season of movies, with a series of cloned experiences offering similar storylines, just with slightly different characters and environments. Gaming needs to be kept fresh and innovative, or it will stagnate as an industry. If those offering yearly releases can keep an experience varied and exciting year-on-year, then I will happily buy their games as regular as clockwork. But if they start repackaging the same game in a fancy new box, then I fear for the future of our passion. We just need to try and figure out a way to tell the guys who sign the cheques that sales aren’t everything and that innovation matters. That shouldn’t be too hard, right?