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The Uncertain Future of Crash Bandicoot

One of the mixed announcements coming out of E3 2016 was that Crash Bandicoot series was making the comeback in the form of a remaster of the original trilogy and a PS4 exclusive character in Skylanders: Imaginators. Seeing Crash Bandicoot, Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back and Crash Bandicoot: Warped again will be fun after the series has been dormant for a while, but this had the potential to be viewed as the major return of a beloved franchise, a blast from the PSOne’s past that broke the internet in the same way Final Fantasy VII Remake did last year.

It wasn’t. Why? Because neither Sony nor Activision did enough to sell people on Crash’s return.

It’s very easy to see why there’s so much scepticism. While there are reasons to rejoice over Crash coming back, I wouldn’t get too hyped just yet. And that’s not just because of the lackluster presentation of Crash’s return, but the content that built up to it. So the real question to those who’ve been waiting for way too long for this is: should you be worried? Let’s look at each of the elements.

History

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Crash Bandicoot was essentially the mascot for Sony when Naughty Dog’s trilogy, and their kart spinoff Crash Team Racing, became some of the best family-friendly games on the original PlayStation, selling millions of copies and consoles. But then the Bandicoot fell to the background after that. Unfortunately, Naughty Dog had signed a deal at the time with Universal Studios (back when they were publishing games), and while Sony Crash exclusively to its console, Universal kept the rights. Once that contract expired, Universal gave Crash to several other developers, which released often very poorly received entries to the franchise and moved very far away from the original games’ style.

A few company buyouts and mergers later, and Activision swallowed up the rights. Activision decided to do next to nothing with the Crash franchise. Meanwhile, Sony began the PlayStation 2 era with no real mascot character to rival Nintendo’s Mario and Microsoft’s Master Chief. In the years that followed characters took the mascot spot, such as Kratos from God of War, Sackboy from LittleBigPlanet, and other platformers like Ratchet & Clank and Jak and Daxter. The thing is, while each of these franchises achieved commercial success, none became synonymous with the PlayStation brand, perhaps because each has their own faults. Kratos leaves out the family friendly audience PlayStation wants to attract, Sackboy is more of an avatar than a character, and it’s hard for a duo to be the mascot. Internationally, Sony didn’t seem to pursue the idea of ever having one true mascot, until it seemed that they wanted Crash back.

A few hints popped up that it was returning. At PlayStation Experience in 2014, Sony’s Shawn Layden walked on-stage with a Crash Bandicoot t-shirt. After expressing desire in an interview to include a Crash Bandicoot level within Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End but scrapping it because they lacked the rights to the game, a Crash Bandicoot level appeared within Uncharted 4 regardless. Some other hints dropped, often a few references within trailers, but nothing truly substantia.

And then we got the announcement at this year’s E3. But the problem is, it’s been two decades since the series began on the PlayStation, through which Crash has seen rough years and Sony hasn’t really seemed to commit to any one franchise. This is in spite of LittleBigPlanet and Ratchet & Clank both having family friendly spinoffs in an attempt to branch both series out, and Ratchet & Clank even had its own movie, Sony didn’t try hard enough to commit. And meanwhile, no Crash game released since Naughty Dog’s departure from the series has really excited players or been received exceptionally well. So in that sense, it’s difficult to trust Crash’s return given the bad history and the question of who even controls Bandicoot’s destiny. While the fact that they seem to finally be bringing back their most iconic character could be a good sign, it’s really not a convincing message.

Presentation

When we got the announcement at the E3 2016 presentation, it was honestly one of the weakest sections of an exceptional conference. All we got was someone walking on stage to a Crash Bandicoot theme tune, Shawn Layden’s announcement of the trilogy’s remaster without a single moment of gameplay shown from the remaster. The trailer we got was for Skylanders, which went over like a fart in church.

The problem is, playing on nostalgia like that just isn’t enough to excite most people. And while they called it a remaster, they described it as being created “from the ground up.” Those are two almost contradictory statements. Is this a remake with better graphics that’s incorrectly being called a remaster, or are they just re-releasing the games that look the same but are made from scratch for the PS4? Would it be like the level seen in Uncharted 4, just as three full games? Who’s developing it? Naughty Dog?

It felt extremely rushed. It could’ve been a huge reveal, but we barely got any information before they plugged Skylanders and never showed us any gameplay  With a complete lack of information or footage, Sony has left people scratching their heads when they should’ve left people excited. This could just turn out to be a botched idea on Sony’s part, and has little to do with the quality of future games starring Crash, but it’s really hard to deny that a lack of information is not much to get hyped for.

Sony and Activision

3064740-crash So we know that the rights are still with Activision. But the fact that Crash is a PS4 exclusive character to Skylanders and that the trilogy is PS4 exclusive suggests that there’s a deal between the two companies. The details about this deal are uncertain, but the fact that Crash is with Activision still is worrying.

Activision’s business model as a publisher is typically to only create games that they can sell on an annual basis, each loaded with additional content that they can sell piecemeal to maximise investment on IPs. It’s a profitable choice, but Crash is simply from a different era of gaming. He’s from the era before online gaming was a big deal, when buying a game meant buying the whole package, and that’s incompatible with the types of games Activision favors. How do they expect to sell more content for Crash games? Lock certain levels behind a paywall?

However, it’s also entirely possible that this deal is basically Activision letting Sony do whatever it wants with the character as long as Activision gets a cut of the money, a similar scenario for when Crash was with Naughty Dog and Universal. Universal owned the rights, but Sony published the game, marketed it, and pushed it as their big franchise. Under this partnership, Crash may as well have been first party anyway. And first party console exclusives are often developed with more investment in a focus on quality. This is because first party games are meant to sell consoles as much as the game itself, returning on investment by creating an additional reason to buy that console and a freshdemographic to sell it to, whereas third party games are meant to return on the publisher’s investment just in revenue from that title alone.

So really, this one could go either way, and we know very little about it. If it turns out to be more weighted in favor of Sony’s control, much like the Universal deal, then that could be great news for old fans of Crash and potentially new ones as well. If it is more weighted in Activision’s, then a brand new Crash Bandicoot game featuring tons of DLC packs is not out of the realm of possibility.

Skylanderscrash-bandicoot-skylanders

This to me is the most baffling part. Using Crash Bandicoot to sell Skylanders: Imaginators strikes me as a bad idea, for the simple reason that the demographics are nothing alike.

Crash Bandicoot is a two decade old franchise. It’s fairly reasonable to suggest that the demographics who are interested in the new Crash releases are not the young gamers playing their first ever videogame anymore. The thing with family friendly platformers like Crash, however, is that they can be very easily enjoyed by all ages, as even if they’re aimed more towards a younger audience, they can still be embraced by older gamers as well. With Skylanders, that demographic is squarely locked in for younger players thanks to the focus on toys. Skylanders and other toys-to-life games are much more of an investment with a desire to collect extra toys and content as well as to play the game. Because of that money and time investment, it can’t really broaden its demographic beyond that and loses its casual appeal. So Skylanders, locked into the demographic of much younger gamers, is trying to use a character from a series of much older gamers to sell more toys? I really don’t buy that strategy.

What I imagine Activision are aiming for here is the other aspect of the old Crash Bandicoot demographic: the ones who are now parents and buying the trilogy for their kids. It’s highly possible that they plan on exciting a new generation with Crash all over again and directing them straight to Skylanders to end up making a big investment into that game, but I cannot imagine it working. Crash’s demographic may never branch out into a younger generation of gamers or the casual gamers, who can simply play tablet app games and may not even own a console.

Where does this leave Crash?

Ultimately, only time will tell the tale of Crash’s future. Maybe decisions like these will pay off, and maybe part of the deal was for Sony to really push for younger gamers and casual gamers to pick up console games. Definitely Sony have shown success in this demographic with Ratchet & Clank (even if I think it could’ve done even better had Sony marketed it more) and attempted new all-ages franchise with Knack, in which case directing those gamers to Skylanders will really make this deal between the companies pay off. But as it is, deals like this fail to excite the core fanbase of Crash and the core fanbase of Skylanders and therefore don’t seem to make much sense for anyone. Sony have definitely botched this reveal, which doesn’t inspire much confidence in the future of the brand, but there are still things to be excited about. Of course, as has been said about other retro franchises making lackluster returns lately, “it’s better than nothing.”


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