If I were to write a retrospective of my life as a gamer, there are a few titles that would likely be mentioned more than once: The Legend of Zelda, Super Mario Bros., Metroid, Final Fantasy, Sonic the Hedgehog, Tomb Raider, Grand Theft Auto, Halo, and Madden, just to name a few. Over the years, these titles have basically shaped my opinion on what constitutes a good game. There’s nothing I cherish more than my memories of playing the original Legend of Zelda, for example. It’s a memory of both joy and love, as my family would sit with me for hours, watching as I adventured through the land of Hyrule for the first time. My mom even helped out in the age before strategy guides by drawing maps of each dungeon — highlighting important items and writing the solutions to puzzles that my young mind had a little trouble comprehending and retaining. (I’m looking at you Lost Hills!)
These mega-franchises, many of them flagship properties for their respective developers and/or publishers, helped mold an entire generation of gamers and laid the groundwork for what mainstream gameplay mechanics and genres would be for the next couple of decades. Other than the obvious contributions these games made to the emerging art form itself, they have become absolutely essential to the big players in the industry. Games are becoming increasingly costly to produce, and therefore, must rake in more and more profit to continue their propagation. While I can see the necessity in this, I also fear it is becoming a cyclical dilemma that will eventually end in tragedy (i.e. a slow limping into irrelevance) for our beloved franchises. So, I propose an idea that will likely be anathema to most life-long gamers, but hear (read) me out — it’s time to sink these flagships.
It’s becoming increasingly apparent that “sequel-itis” is hampering innovation in the industry. Just look at the Gears of War franchise for example. While all of these titles have been successful both critically and financially, you could graph the “sameness” of each game with a fairly straight line. Assassin’s Creed is currently suffering from this plague more than almost any other series, and as a result, I hope (and suspect) that Ubisoft will try to wrap up their cash-cow fairly soon. (Maybe by finally sending Desmond on the modern-day assassin’s tale that everyone has been waiting on!). On the eve of the upcoming “next generation,” many developers could potentially transition to all-new properties (as many have in the past), but it seems that this phenomena is slowly dying in the age of the Halos and Call of Dutys, though it is nice to see games like Watchdogs, The Last of Us, and Remember Me in the pipeline.
“…we’re seeing a great surge in the indie community as it draws from both the past and present of gaming culture while stirring in an ample amount of innovative concepts.”
As mentioned before, I recognize the importance of these flagship titles in the continuing business of games, but it seems possible, even likely, that keeping the same old gamers coming back time-after-time is a losing strategy. For one, there will always be drop-off as peoples’ lives change and time for playing games is taken up by other things, but this cliff is likely to become more steep as innovation erodes. Even dedicated gamers may find other hobbies if the industry becomes too creatively bankrupt. In order for continued success, the market for games must progress in traditional ways as well as widening to include more new players. (Nice try with the Wii, Nintendo. Now, focus on nailing down foundational functions that gamers have come to expect, and we’ll talk about your innovations in a more positive way.) In this way, we’re seeing a great surge in the indie community as it draws from both the past and present of gaming culture while stirring in an ample amount of innovative concepts. Unfortunately, many indie games are hampered by a lack of funding and end up being interesting experiences only for the few days they grasp your attention. (I know there are exceptions, but it seems this way to me: an admittedly mainstream console gamer.) So there really is something to be said for high production values, especially in their ability to draw in the maximum amount of players.
Killing off its big stars seems like a simple, if difficult, decision for triple-‘A’ publishers to make. In order to entice new consumers, their games must innovate and create something new and novel in the same way that many indie games do. At the same time, they must retain the larger base of faithful gamers that appreciate a game for its story, graphics, and often, sheer fun-factor. Sending Mario and his buddies down to mingle with Davy Jones may seem like a bad idea, until you realize that at one point in the past, there was no Mario. Every franchise had to begin somewhere, and these beginnings pluck our nostalgic heart-strings (which, in turn, are directly connected to the wallet-grabbing tendons). While it may be unpalatable for some (read: fanboys) to consider, there is now a gigantic space for the “next big thing(s).” These future classics will have an easier time being born if the gaming fore-fathers get out of the delivery room (if you take my meaning).
“At this pivotal point in their history, games must not become beholden solely to the bottom-line…”
Now, I’ve talked rather extensively about why the popular franchises of the world should meet their end, both for the good of the industry and gamers, but what about the games themselves? We are finally entering into the age when some games are crossing the threshold into art, (though people continue to argue that it started long ago or has yet to even happen) and art is an ever-evolving creature — gobbling up new ideas while balancing on the successes of the past to produce new and exciting things. At this pivotal point in their history, games must not become beholden solely to the bottom-line; they must transcend to a higher significance in which they are heralded as examples of humanity’s attempt to rationalize the world, whether internal or external. It’s hard for Zelda to really speak to that when she tells the same story time-after-time. Concurrently, there should also be games-for-games’-sake. It’s hard to argue that every entry in this newly evolving art-form must communicate a high-minded meaning when some are just so damn fun. But it will be hard for games to do either if they remain stuck in the current rut of never-ending sequels.
So, put Mario in rehab for his mushroom addiction. Let Zelda finally become a real legend. Make the next fantasy truly be the final one. It’s time for gamers to expect more, the industry to produce better, and for games themselves to push beyond the trivial and predictable. It’s time to seal the franchises up, allowing them to truly become classics. It’s time to sink the flagships to make way for a newer, and hopefully, even better fleet.