The Unfortunate Position of AAA Titles – Ubisoft and the Need for Franchises

Throughout the years, I have heard people claiming the incoming death of AAA titles and I have always thought that such a position was fairly naive. After all, I don’t think that the demand for AAA titles is going anywhere. However, recently, I’ve come to question my belief. The awful business practices of video game publishers have recently been weighing on my mind. When Square-Enix said that the new Tomb Raider was a financial disappointment even though it sold over three million copies, I knew something was wrong. That number of sales should have made the game an unequivocal success, but it didn’t. What ungodly amount of money did Square waste in delivering that product? It isn’t just the Final Fantasy factory, however. Recently, Tony Key, of Ubisoft, announced that his company wanted Watch Dogs to be a series. This wasn’t upsetting, really. I’m sure many people would want a Watch Dogs sequel even though the first isn’t out yet. The problem is that he followed up that statement that Ubisoft wouldn’t even consider making a game that couldn’t be made into a franchise, as the cost of creating games is too high. This statement is troublesome for many reasons, and that’s what we’re looking at today.

Remember – U as in you, and not as in ew.
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Let me be clear from the get go: I love franchises. There are a whole stable of franchises that I watch intently. I intend to buy any special edition version of Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII that may be available, and that’s a series within a series. The problem with franchises, which I have already discussed at length is that they can stifle innovation and end up as nothing more than cash grabs. I like to see great games get turned into great trilogies, but it scares me that games are starting to be designed with trilogies in mind, that no AAA game can possibly stand on its own without a bunch of cheaper sequels to rush in and pick up the tab. It’s backwards to me. Publishers are deciding to make sequels and long running series of games that they don’t even know if they’re good or not, and, in many cases, they’ll spend an insane amount of money in advertising in order to convince the public at large that the game is good even though it might not be.

Why stop at an already unplanned trilogy when there’s money afoot!
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I understand that sequels are cheaper. If you go to the lengths to create a massively powerful engine, you’re going to want to use it for more than a single game. But there are problems with that mentality. Some games don’t need to be series, and some series don’t need to continue ad infinitum. Looking at Ubisoft, I point my finger directly at Assassin’s Creed as an example of a stagnant series, which they will drive into the ground until so many people hate it that they’ll end up abandoning the property. It’s a yearly franchise, one that makes so few changes to the core gameplay, and one that keeps tacking on an increasingly unhinged story to justify more games. If Assassin’s Creed is what Ubisoft means by they want to franchise every game they make, I cannot support them. Ubisoft has 14 Assassin’s Creed games  made or in development as well as a plethora of cheap novels, comics and films. The series started in 2007. This is madness. People complain about the Final Fantasy series, but at least its massive amount of games have come parsed over twenty five years, not six. Is this the future of all of Ubisoft’s games? There can’t be any more stand alone products, so we need to whore out our franchises as much as possible and ignore quality and, almost more importantly, common sense?

Why make better games when you can make the same mediocre one over and over again?
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But what if there’s truth to the assertion that they need to do this in order to fund their games? I don’t accept that, and a quick internet search will have you seeing developers speaking out against the practice. What I see is nothing more than greedy publishers, who care nothing about the industry, trying to squeeze every last drop out of game titles. Call of Duty happened, and people have been chasing that mythical best-selling dragon every since, convinced that the right elements of generic and sleaze can make them billions. You see this in companies like Capcom, who seems steadfast in its position to add microtransactions to games, not because they need it or that the game would be improved by them in anyway, but because they want to grab onto you and squeeze every last dime out of your pockets. You see it in lazy mobile phone development like the atrocity that is Final Fantasy All the Bravest, which sold enough, and cost so little, that Square-Enix has redoubled their mobile commitment, not to bring a good product to the market, but to grab more money from you with cheap gimmicks.

It tells you how much companies listen to their fans when this game is spurring development instead of spurning it.
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Going back to paragraph two: I love franchises, but there’s a limit. There are many games out there that wouldn’t be benefitted from being made into a series. Some games simply want to tell a concise, self-contained story, and to force them to franchise is perverted. What was once a very intricately planned story is now some ungodly mess of plotholes and retconning such as what we see with Assassin’s Creed, or the Kingdom Hearts series. This is one of those “die a hero or live long enough to become the villain,” situations. Most JRPG fans love Chrono Trigger, and would kill for new instalment into the quasi-series. However, if we were on Chrono Trigger 12 right now, would we be looking back so fondly on the original, or would we be in the position that the whole thing has been undermined by time travel paradoxes and poorly thought out storylines?

I’ve played every one of these games, and even I’m a little lost.
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What worries me is this belief that AAA games are unsustainable. Publishers are now spending so much money on the highest calibre of graphics, Hollywood voice actors, and constant advertisements in hope that they’ll strike it big, that it is now only a remote chance that a single game will turn a profit. This is horrifying. As many have stated, publishers and developers are spending too much. If your product can’t possibly turn a profit without years of sequels, then there is a problem. Development costs need to be scaled back, and there’s a lot of fluff that can obviously be cut. Why are publishers pushing Hollywood actors to take a turn at voice acting? Voice actors have never sold games, so why would you spend money on individuals who have no experience voice acting? Nobody cares if Angelina Jolie does a voice in a new game. People seem to think acting is universal, but voice acting is a separate skill, and there is a proud stable of talented voice actors out there, who won’t cost companies six or seven figures for a single run.

Richard Epcar – The face of a real voice actor. Not as many people know his name as compared to George Clooney, but he’s everywhere in the industry and his work is excellent.
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It is unfortunate, but AAA development as it is now, may disappear. The incredibly shortsighted business models run by people in board rooms who care nothing about the product their developers are delivering, may be the end of this era of gaming. Actually, maybe it’s a good thing that AAA development as it is now is unsustainable. I’d rather developers and publishers not go under, to learn from this obvious impasse, but instead of learning, they seem more hell bent on robbing gamers with an explosion of exploitative DLC and more damning of all – microtransactions. When Ubisoft says they won’t make a game that can’t be made into a series, I lose faith in the industry. What they are saying is that their own business model is so broken that they can’t make money. And there are those who wonder why people think independent developers will usher in the future of gaming…

– Mistranslations for the Modern Gamer

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