If a colleague of yours was working too hard, missing deadlines, being rather rude to your co-workers, and generally down in the dumps, you might think that they are gearing up for a Jerry Maguire-esque rage quit. You could be right, but it could simply be that your career-focused, usually fun colleague really needs a vacation. Three or four days off, and your colleague is back to being the coolest gal at after-hours outings and really nailing it in the conference room with slick PowerPoint presentations. The same plan for renewed focus is true for creative endeavors as well: take a break.
With games frequently fighting for market share, some developers have turned to quantity at the expense of quality to maintain high visibility, tied themselves to a fast-to-produce timeline that strains creative vision, or simply missed major opportunities to update their franchises to meet the demands of a modern market. This article isn’t a call for these developers to stop producing games in these franchises, but a suggestion that it might be time to step back and let in some metaphorical tropical air or cruise some ephemeral Route 66 to perhaps inspire a new approach. Here, in alphabetical order (the fairest order of all), are six current game franchises that could benefit from a bit of a holiday.
It may seem odd to include a franchise that just became the first mobile game to inspire a feature-length film, but Angry Birds has suffered from a serious bout of cross-franchise doldrums. The initial offerings were built on the same mechanics: pull back birds, line up shots, smash pigs dead, with the only novel difference being cosmetic changes and slightly different abilities appropriate to the Angry Birds partner-of-the-week, like the Star Wars partnership from a few years back. Birds, even birds wielding lightsabers, just don’t seem that angry after enough exposure.
Games like Angry Birds Go and Angry Birds Fight initially made attempts at exploring different genres, but they were ill-received. Angry Birds Action, the recent offering released to coincide with the movie, represents the best effort yet at a new approach that’s true to the original mechanics of the game. It’s a good start, but before releasing Angry Birds Action: Hotel Transylvania, perhaps the folks at Rovio could jaunt down to Rio (the place, not Angry Birds Rio) for some time on the beach to reflect on how to make their brand stand on its own.
The first sign that Assassin’s Creed had jumped the shark was how self-referential Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag was. You play an Abstergo entertainment research analyst tasked with using the latent memories from your piratical ancestor to develop a video game about cool feats of derring-do. It has about as much relatability to the average audience member as a book about an author or a film about a movie star, and it was a sign that the folks at Ubisoft might have lost sight of what exactly Assassin’s Creed is all about. If the only stories you can tell are stories about people like you, get out of the office more!
It’s not all stale though. Adding multiplayer in Brotherhood was a grand expansion of the series, but the initial failure to include female playable characters for the campaign showed just how out of touch Ubisoft was with its fan base. With the critical success of Syndicate, no new Assassin’s Creed game this fall, and a live action movie coming soon, now might be the ideal time for Ubisoft to step back and watch the reaction to the film as a kind of grand focus group to see just what kind of game they could make next. Come December, though, I hope to go on record as saying that Michael Fassbender is going to be the coolest thing to happen to Assassin’s Creed since Ezio.
Call of Duty
Like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, a Call of Duty release has been an annual, commercial, American tradition since time immemorial (aka 2004). Much like that parade’s Snoopy float (sponsored by MetLife), nothing much has changed with each Call of Duty release, either. You’re an average soldier, set in the middle of a large, terrifying conflict, and the threat of death is very real and very inevitable. The drastic turn to zombies starting in the first Black Ops, while a truly exciting game mode, betrayed the anxiety of the game developers that the games were too similar in each iteration.
November’s Infinite Warfare is poised to deliver a much-needed injection of new ideas to the franchise, and its future-is-now dystopian battleground is a perfect counterpoint to Battlefield’s return to the trenches, tanks and prop planes of World War I. What remains to be seen is if the changes to things like speccing out your character, campaign modes, and multiplayer gameplay are enough to revive interest in the series from beyond its dedicated core following. Perhaps Call of Duty and its ilk relate a universal truth: War is mundane, brutal, and it never ends. But the interactive stories we tell about it don’t have to be. Perhaps it’s a time for peace in the Duty-verse while we sort out who, and how, we’re going to fight next.
Master Chief’s return from a relatively long break in Halo 4 was a relative triumph, both critically and with gamers. It proved that the then-new developer 343 Industries had the chops to make a compelling game, with decent pacing and a robust multiplayer experience. The game added a host of new enemies, cool new vehicles (mechs! Oh yeah!) and built on the existing Halo lore in a way that didn’t feel terribly out of place. Unfortunately, Halo 5 has been hit hard for the shortcomings of its campaign mode, and the lack of split-screen killed the joy of running alongside a Spartan buddy in the same room as you. All those poorly received changes now leave the series in a bit of a bind with its next game.
Halo, like the Chief at the end of Halo 3, is caught in a kind of limbo. It isn’t yet ready to make the jump to being a social shooter and not ready to retake its former throne as the top hardline campaign-and-couch-coop stalwart that made the original games so fun to start. Maybe if Halo took a break, it could take inspiration from games like Overwatch and Destiny. Those titles quickly gained enough of a following that it’s possible to see the appeal of a social shooter game that lets players soar through the galaxy as part of the UNSC fleet and explore regions of space controlled by the Covenant and the Forerunners. I’d play that game. Put the Chief back in stasis for a while. He’ll always be ready when the time is right.
LEGO Video Games
Traveler’s Tales helped LEGO make its mark on the world of video games by showing it had the wit to lampoon famous franchises in a family-friendly way. The formula for the games is simple enough. You assume the role of a character from your favorite franchise, whether it’s Star Wars, or DC Comics, or Pirates of the Caribbean, and you play through a bricked-out recreation of famous scenes from the source material. Solving all of the puzzles requires unlocking different characters, which you have to buy using “studs” that you acquire by smashing up the scenery. Smash, rinse, repeat. Somewhere along the way, the franchise started to lose some of the original humor that made it so charming, all as more and more new LEGO series hit store shelves.
The somewhat recent addition of voice-over to the games actually detracts from the unique interpretations of the narratives, with much of the humor now relying on quotes lifted directly from the soundtrack of the film and used out of context. The games are also shipping with more and more glitches, and Warner Brothers reneged on promises to release DLC to cover the third Hobbit installment, which left many fans feeling manipulated or betrayed. The LEGO games are great family-friendly titles, and while the release of LEGO Star Wars: The Force Awakens is exciting because it marks the return of the most successful franchise to the LEGO fold, it feels like a step backward after the genius of LEGO Dimensions. Dimensions feels much closer to what made LEGOs cool in the first place; imaginative, cross-universe play. It’s what the heartwarming LEGO Movie was about, too. Using these bricks and minifigs you can have knights fighting spacemen who ride astral sharks over a fire station, and that’s the kind of games we should have from them, too. Maybe that’s the type of inspiration they’d find after taking a break to play with LEGO bricks more often.
Pro and College Sports Sim Titles (Madden, NBA, NHL, NCAA, The Show, FIFA)
Let’s be clear: as long as there are video games and organized sports, there will be sports video games. What there doesn’t need to be are physical discs that are sold every season and that depreciate in value faster than the post-Brexit British Pound Sterling. Cloud computing, VR, and “always-on” consoles have opened up possibilities for sports games that are as exciting as a buzzer-busting half-court, game-winning free throw. With the possibility to develop a new engine every few years and release roster updates in the interim, complete with historical rosters for thousands upon thousands of competitors, there’s no real gameplay need to release a brand-new, self-contained title anymore.
Consider the possibilities: You want to field a lineup that’s got Mario Lemieux, Patrick Roy, and Gordy Howe to dominate the ice in a super-powered NHL matchmaking playlist? Go ahead. You want to take the Orange Crush Broncos Defense back to the 70s and actually win a Super Bowl in a 100% historically accurate campaign? Go for it. Do you want up-to-the-minute updates about which freshman point guard at Duke is about to take the court because the senior starter just suffered a season-ending ankle sprain? Hoop, there it is. The troubling rise of pay-to-play fantasy sports sites should demonstrate more than ever that sports and technology have a promising and lucrative future together. Adding elements to their games that speak to fantasy sports players as much as to traditional gamers would be a great way to update a classic video game genre, all while breaking itself from the continuous annual release cycle.
We Should Be Grateful We Have So Much
Many different kinds of entertainment vie for our attention in this prosperous age. This is an exciting time to be a gamer, with dozens of titles releasing each month, new technology like VR, and an onslaught of ever-more-impressive graphics. Developers who take the time to master the ways that these technologies can make the best games for the future at the expense of releasing a title now can rest easy knowing that, in all likelihood, there will be a legion of gamers to whom they can appeal, and they should strive to release the best product that they can. It’s hard to imagine, for example, Half-Life 3 doing poorly, should it ever be released. A good friend of mine remarked recently that he is always disheartened to see a game canceled, even if it was one he was not interested in playing. “Video games are Art,” he said, emphasizing the capital “A”, “and the world always needs more Art.”