In videogames we all have our favourite franchises. As much as we crave the new and different IP, there's something reassuring and fulfilling that comes from a franchise. Previous instalments have allowed us to form a love affair with characters, mechanics, plot and gameplay that have created a melting pot of an experience that appeals to us as an individual gamer. From Angry Birds to Zork, there's a franchise out there for everyone.
But it's perhaps easy to forget when we clamber over the latest Mario or FIFA game that franchises themselves are a poisoned chalice, that hang on a knife-edge (or indeed insert over-used metaphor here) for developers, because they present a bit of a headache. And it's not a headache that simple painkillers can cure. Because franchise development is a bit of a paradox. Fans love your franchise for what it is, so you need to stick to that formula. But heaven forbid of course if developers don't progress the idea in future instalments. Because as fans, we always demand more, and never more so than when we are talking about our beloved franchises.
But how did we create this problem in the first place?
A lot of it comes from where gaming has come from and to. Those of us slightly longer in the tooth when it comes to playing videogames, will have witnessed the remarkable progression in the industry, from text-based gaming of the 1980s up to the myriad different experiences available nowadays. We've travelled through the key milestones, be it Pong, to arcade Pac-Man, the rise of Mario & Sonic, the PS2 era, the rise of online and the FPS, right up to tablet and iOS play. And let's not forget other handheld advances, and PC gaming - two other significant branches on the gaming family tree.
And at every step of the way, there has always been this push for progress. The push for the bigger and the better and the USP against the current rival. Graphical prowess has been the main yard stick for progress, certainly for console gaming of the last 20 odd years, and is arguably still going on in the latest generation. But its not just how things look, the size of a game, or indeed unique functionality / extras have all been additional measurements. GTA V being a recent example of pushing the boundaries in terms of the size of its game world and options in-game. Proof that we're not done yet with asking for more.
This numbers game of what constitutes "bigger" and therefore "better" has thus been ingrained on us since the dawn of gaming. The price of fantastic progress in the medium has caused us to be accustomed to the bigger and brighter spectacle as proof of improvement. This mentality affects franchises more than any other sections of gaming - purely because of the paradox mentioned earlier.
To prove the point, think about your most hotly anticipated game from a franchise that is yet to be released. When you think about what this new game could contain, where does your mind first go? If you're honest, it's how can we make it bigger or better. We're all guilty of it. I remember thinking when I was younger how awesome a sequel to Ocarina of Time would be - it'd would have a multiplayer co-op mode and additional FPS type arena battling in Hyrule Field and Gerudo Valley. I'm glad Nintendo paid no attention to my ramblings at the time, because it would have been god-awful and have killed the soul of what makes Zelda, well Zelda.
But this yearning for more, is prevalent across the gaming spectrum. When a new Pokemon game gets announced, we want more Pokemon than we've ever had before. Fighters like Smash Bros or Street Fighter need to have bigger rosters, more movesets, more stages than all previous installments. Call of Duty needs more weapons, bigger battlefields, more perks and killstreaks and so on.
Let's be clear though, it's not unhealthy to demand more as gamers, and indeed as an industry. It's that pressure of progress which can breed the inspirational changes that move our medium forward at the rate it has been enjoying for the last three decades. But as customers, sometimes we just need to be a bit more mindful. It's a tough balancing act for any developer to maintain interest in a franchise whilst moving with the times. We can sometimes be naive and underestimate the difficulty of this juggling act, and downplay the achievements of developers of what we would consider our greatest and favourite franchises. Being able to keep franchises relevant and popular is incredibly difficult. Us as consumers are constantly asking for the near-impossible. And it is that mentality that puts enormous pressure on franchises.
Franchises by their very nature are packed full of history and experience. It's fair to say the developers know what they're doing, but that familiarity spreads to us as consumers. We come to expect more and more - the next instalment has to be a progression upon previous titles. And so we end up with this weird system of rating franchises based on that particular franchise history. Good games can be viewed negatively because of what has gone before, what precedent has been set, and where our expectations have soared to.
This imbalance affects us as reviewers too because it's our job to remain balanced and impartial wherever possible. But at the same time, as reviewers we are highly likely to have formed plenty of bonds - and therefore expectations - with lots of gaming franchises. And we can be left with a feeling of mixed emotions when reviewing games. Like when I reviewed Link Between Worlds - it was a surreal feeling, because separating the hype, the expectation, the nostalgia away from the black and white quality can be difficult. It's why I gave the game a very high score but still left feeling a tad disappointed after playing it - it didn't 100% meet my expectations despite being an excellent game.
And the thing to remember is, I'm not alone in this way of thinking, it's what we all do. So is it any surprise that developers choose to give us what we say we want - more. Give us that bigger game world, give us that new item or gameplay mechanic or mode, give us more characters, more options, a longer single-player campaign and damn well make it look prettier.
But there has to come a point where this begins to either get ridiculous or downright impossible. How far do you keep increasing a fighter's roster before it becomes overkill? How long does a single-player campaign have to be before it is too long / repetitive? How many guns does one FPS actually need? How much prettier can you make that zombie-strewn post-apocalyptic landscape before you really stop noticing? The developers are always aware of these tipping points in every new game that they make, but it's fair to say that us as gamers aren't. We want more, more, more!
And there in lies the biggest curse of the video game franchise.
So how do we get around this? Well the only real way is to think differently about what progress means. It doesn't always have to be more, it just needs to be different - a new way to play, a new gaming experience. Sure for every Metroid Prime, you'll get a Metroid: Other M, but we need to take those on the chin, as the developers do.
It will be tough, it will feel weird, it may even feel counter-intuitive, but it's the only way that we'll really see our franchises grow. With our current mindsets, we will always cheer louder for Twilight Princess than we will for Wind Waker, despite both games deserving praise for different reasons. We need to scream less on forums about how many drivers the next Mario Kart will have, or how pretty DriveClub could be, and think about the new and different racing experiences those titles could really offer us. And then rightly criticise and praise where appropriate.
Because all franchises will have to go the way of the stalwarts of the industry, like the infamous Nintendo mascots, the FIFAs, and the Call of Dutys - they need to try and not get bigger but be different. To try and create a familiar and desirable yet different experience to what has gone before. And for such beloved franchises, that is never easy.
So spare a thought the next time a new iteration in your favourite franchise is released. A thought for those developers who have the unenviable task of quite literally making it new and different, whilst keeping hold of everything you and everyone holds dear to that franchise. And maybe think twice about what you really want from that next installment too.
Bigger doesn't always mean better.