If you look at the most popular games on any mainstream gaming site today, you will see a heavily skewed distribution towards franchise games. I discussed the driving force behind that in my earlier post, which is namely the ease of marketing a known franchise compared to marketing a new IP with zero brand equity. I will take my argument one step further now, and try to explain why the common franchise strategy is something you want to leave behind.
Creativity vs Risk
To the innovative and creative mind, the explanation is pretty obvious. A new IP brings greater creative freedom. Franchises, on the other hand, have the habit of building up over past iterations, forming rigid skeletons over time. Therefore franchises are not really part of the artistic freedom paradise.
The argument on the flipside is that franchises reduce risk of consumer rejection, which is abundant in any new IP. This does make sense and that is why it seems to be the dominant strategy in the industry among big publishers. But at what cost?
The invention of video game genres brought a similar benefit to the industry; it made the product more easily definable and the marketing message more easily communicable. The downside, as we all know, is that the classification did not only shape the minds of the customers, but of the designers as well. The cost was deadlocking the industry into churning out title after title with the same core game mechanics, which you can do for only so long before your customers start taking their leave for new experiences. Hence the rise of independent games.
The cost is similar with franchising, yet far greater. Not only does it keep the experience limited to a single genre in most cases, but it also keeps things limited to a very predictable and same-old version of one particular interpretation. Two things will eventually happen this way:
- You will limit your growth: There are only so many hockey fans looking to buy NHL games. There are only so many mainstream sports you can make a game about. There are only so many wars to build a game around (I'm betting the next Total War title will be "Medieval III", and the next Call of Duty will be... "Marginally Further Modernized Warfare with Tanks This Time")
- Your customers will start realizing they are buying the same games over and over again.
Risk vs Evolution
Here is my main argument:
Most franchises are so focused on refining their specific brand of gameplay experience, that they expose themselves to the threat of extinction by the way of becoming evolutionary dead-ends.
A good example to this is found in the animal kingdom. A cheetah is a highly specialized hunter, built for speed. Yet its high level of specialization comes at the cost of adaptability. So much that its fate is deeply tied with that of its prey and its habitat; should anything happen to the species it preys on, or should any parameters of the habitat change by even a small bit, the cheetah faces the risk of extinction because it has long lost its adaptability. It is an evolutionary dead-end. Same thing applies to brands.
Therefore the key to building a long lasting brand is leaving yourself room to grow, by choosing values that can transcend your most immediate time and habitat if needed. Failure to do that means losing a brand more often that you would like, and having to start from scratch again. You want to avoid that because it is costly and it draws the scorn of your customers for limiting creativity and variety.
The Solution: Brands built around experience, not genre
I have one name for you as an example to this alternative strategy: Tom Clancy.
Over the years we have seen a number of games with the Tom Clancy name: Ghost Recon, EndWar, HAWX and others. Although the series shows an inclination towards a first person perspective, we have recently been given a strategy game and a flight simulator game as well.
There you have an example of a brand equity that can communicate an idea beyond the limitations of a single genre. The name of Tom Clancy immediately makes one recall the experiences of military operations, what-if conflicts, special forces, political tension, etc. If they announced a submarine simulation game tomorrow, you would know what to expect. Can you say the same if the next Call of Duty game was announced to be a flight simulator? How about a strategy game with the Far Cry title? Any idea?
The vast variety of Star Wars games is another example. Simulators, strategy games, first person shooters, RPGs, all branded with the Star Wars experience. A more recent adaptation of this branding strategy is seen in Halo Wars. With the Warcraft franchise, it took a hybrid step to make the transition from RTS to RPG. Looking at the result, it has obviously paid off.
Perhaps "Experience Franchising" does not have infinite flexibility either, but it is a vastly more adaptable branding strategy compared to most other franchises obsessed with particular genres. Such flexibility is more suited to an industry built around the art of design, as opposed to a focus on genres and features, which are characteristics of ugly commoditization.
Save your game from that fate. Start thinking what your brand should stand for today and tomorrow.