Alright, I haven’t written on video games in a while, so we’re going to do that for a change. Today I want to talk about a phenomenon that’s invaded video games, Hollywood, media in general, really. I’m talking about the concept of a tentpole franchise—that is to say, the tendency to prioritize sequels over new intellectual property.
First, let me start by saying that I understand the mindset: New IP is a gamble 100% of the time. Even if something is exactly the same as another successful video game, there’s no guarantee that fans will latch onto your version in the same way that they’ve latched onto the original. Look at how many games started using chest-high cover mechanics in the wake of Gears of War. Look at how many games still to this day use regenerating health in the wake of the first Halo. But I digress.
With video game budgets increasingly ballooning and the economy in the shitter it becomes increasingly necessary to be able to present certain guarantees on investment return. Put simply, if you’re going to ask me for fifty million dollars, I want someone to be able to tell me, with proof, that they’ll be able to pay me sixty million dollars later. It’s much easier to provide that proof if you can point to, say, the Halo franchise and say, “Halo 5 sold five million copies in the first three months of release, so we’re likely going to see similar numbers if we release Halo 6.” It feels much safer to invest in that; we also see this behavior in Hollywood with the success of sequels, remakes, and the Marvel franchise.
On the other hand, convincing someone to invest in new IP is frightening; there’s no guarantee that your thing is going to take off even if certain valuable elements are there: A trusted studio, a popular director, or a successful genre are all “probablys” as opposed to guarantees. There is basically no director, no studio, no publisher, that hasn’t thrown the odd stinker out into the world. And that’s not even the only reason not to trust new IP!
Look at Scalebound, for example, which took too long and got too expensive, so now it doesn’t exist. Or look at whatever the fuck Hideo Kojima is doing right now. And before you get pissy at me, I fully support Death Stranding, and I’m super excited for it, but I would probably be less excited if I threw forty million dollars at the guy and he came back with Mads Mikkelsen, a baby, and a tank made out of intestines. Like, shit’s a little weird, guys.
The real problem here, as I see it, is the growing disparity between triple-A titles and indie stuff. Indie games are really where most of the really creative ideas are going, and that’s partly because they’re either self-funded or the investment is so low that it’s not really a big deal if they fail. On the other hand, when you’re throwing six or seven zeroes around on a cheque it’s pretty difficult to justify deviating from the norm. What’s more, there’s not really such a thing as a “middle of the road” developer anymore, or at least that title is increasingly diminishing. It seems like the only options are like, two guys in a basement who trip over their own asses and end up with Minecraft, or you’re working for Microsoft Studios.
The problem here is that I don’t really have a solution. As an investor I’d want a guaranteed return. I would fund Halo 6 way before I funded Death Stranding. As a creator I support the idea of new IP though, and as a gamer I definitely support the creation of new IP.
When it comes down to it, I think the entertainment industry is stagnating…but I also can’t blame ‘em.