When it comes to video game franchises only a trilogy can provoke both the same en-mass mutiny from fans and blank indifference from prospective new gamers as a reboot can. With a growing katamari ball of impossible-to-please fans, developers and their devil incarnate CEO execs are consistently reviving brutally sodomised franchises mere years after they have been sapped of all life and originality, only for them to repeat the same mistakes again and again. It seems that for every product the media industry gets right (The Dark Knight Trilogy) there are several excretions (The Not-So-Amazing Spider-Man) and for the more perceptive audience member the line between plain exploitation and genuine care for a multimedia brand’s worldwide sentiment has never been finer.
An important aspect in assessing the potential success of any reboot is the length of time between one game and another. It is this very facet of time that differentiates it from the annual, and whilst shorter time lapses risk treading the oversaturated familiar, longer passes promote uncultivable expectation. Earlier this year the gaming community scored an important win over publisher Capcom regarding a franchise that popularised the survival-action genre on the PS2. What was most surprising is that the publisher had already seemed to have lost their bid to successfully reboot the series before the game was even released. Here is the story of the Reckless Reboot.
DMC: Developers May Cry
An impatiently refreshed browser. Idle thumb twiddling. A nervous silence. Then a strained sigh. It seemed like an awfully long five-year wait, thought the gamer as he glanced at the peeling Devil May Cry 3 poster that clung to the wall in all its sun-stained and corner torn glory… Today marked the day of the Ninja Theory DMC reboot reveal… Capcom had done the series proud, barring a few difficulty issues… I’ll just hit F5 again… and… wait… something’s happening… it’s loaded… it’s… it’s… No… There must be some mistake… What… What is that? Dante? Dante what have they done to you? FML you’re a westernised, swaggering, metrosexual, One Direction reject, nudist, super-douche? Ugh… Too many negative superlatives to consider… Brain overloading… Must go to the forums to voice this aesthetic betrayal!
The reboot is the most precocious part of franchise ideology. Its rules and reasons for change are not always as clear-cut as a developer simply wishing to renew flagging sales. Devil May Cry 4 for example shifted a respectable number of units, pleased fans despite being a step down from its predecessor, but still managed a tidy profit on release. Thus for a sequel it had not even reached amber on the franchise-needs-resuscitating scale.
For Capcom, the revenue was inconsequential. However, who would know that handing over the reigns to British developers Ninja Theory would lead to such mass forum ridicule and a cruel meta-score that would lambast Capcom for its entrepreneurial greed? Well, I sort of did. As with annualist franchises, the very notion of a reboot provokes a level of back-and-forth psychological turmoil and agonising anticipation within any video-game fan. Reboot by all definitions of the word undergoes a significant lexical change within the gamer’s mind. The very mutter of the word signals perpetual change, and irrevocable change equates to a negative scepticism and immeasurable fear that every beloved element will be replaced, smoothed out and desecrated to make room for a wider audience.
Such scepticism is sadly not unfounded.
Fundamentally the majority of gamers would like their reboots to arrive in time capsules where the only difference between the game and its predecessor are minor graphical and gameplay tweaks. Aspects of gaming that are routinely shoved forward by console corporations if developers wish to see their franchise continue on anything but an orphanage’s Dreamcast in Romania. This, of course, is a rarity but it does not deter fans from revisiting the franchise’s previous title in preparation to gauge its rebooted successor. Time and again we see this in the video game charts, most recently with GTAIV, which jumped up the bestseller list before Amazon swiftly raised the price to capitalise and punish our ravenous impatience for GTAV. For developers this spells doom (FFVI style) from the offset, because fans are already re-establishing a comparison piece to what ‘should’ be a fresh take on a series (it’s a reboot not a sequel). Naturally the reboot quite often fails to bare our favoured fruit before it is even played, as we see the wrong elements take centre-stage and the finer details supportive of a new concept that only the developers are pushing for with their dazzling trailers. On last weeks episode I spoke about the internet providing gamers with a very loud voice, but what I didn’t get into was the double-edged Soul Calibur that comes with that.
Developers in this era of gaming are listening to too many people – more often than not, the wrong crowd – and this democratic gaming séance approach results in bizarre concoctions like DMC where the publisher supervised its developers to make sure their reboot was different. Just not so different that it would call the very branding of the project into question. This cowardly one foot in the door approach simply exasperated the self-fulfilling prophecy that it is impossible for developers to appease all existing fans whilst attracting a new audience. Such a feat remains in contention because involving gamers (and existing fans) only heightens their sense of ownership as well as including a false sense of involvement in the development process. Disappointment is inevitable (we still miss Team Silent terribly). With such consumer participation welcomed by publishers, there are no real quality control barriers, and developers are more likely to become overzealous with already half-baked design ideas if a gamer mentions anything relatively similar. Consequently the fallout from DMC was all too predictable.
IGN: Incurable Gamer Nostalgia
Indeed over-informing gamers creates a cyclone of negative internet press which makes all discussions of whether a game is any good or not completely void. And although critics manage to present the merits of the reboot through respectable analysis and scoring, the damage to reputation has already been done, and the results more unsalvageable than an EA conference defending micro transactions. The upfront nature of Capcom certified that DMC wasn’t our franchise anymore. It wasn’t theirs (a new audience). It wasn’t anybodies. Somewhere between the Capcom dictatorship, the talented (yet overeager) development team, and the market research group whose mantra is that all 14 year old boys want is a-typical frat philosophy, the project lost focus: crashing into an internet-age iceberg from fans simply being too involved and knowing too much. About the badly coordinated project The root of all of this DMC gamer anarchy and hate is actually rather plain and simple when you establish the origins that repeatedly gauge its reception. Nostalgia.
Nostalgia is the biggest threat to developers and modern franchises. Nostalgia in gamers breeds rapidly, stewing inside of the franchise fans cranium, causing over analysis and picks away at reboot hope with romanticized sentiment and excuses cherish the bygone days of dodgy controls. We first imagine the great possibilities: where previous game designer involvement is automatically a cause to sigh with relief. Phew, ‘the franchise change is at least in good hands’ we say, but this is often followed with doubt and true scepticism when other details surface like when development teams exponentially expand and outsource. Consequently the reboot stew gradually boils over, and the more information there is revealed through social media and audience interaction the more it is unintentionally added to the nostalgic gamers noggin. This only proceeds to leave an increasingly sour taste in ones mouth, and not often helped when CEO execs speak for the developers themselves in lengthy corporate babble. We know the video game industry is there to make money, and this reminding every five seconds through interviews and more often than not poor choices of words to describe the consumer is highly disconcerting for gamers worldwide. Bizarrely, developers are yet to cotton on to this aspect of gamer psychology, and instead medicate self-diagnosed nostalgic and new brand of retro gamers with large doses of HD Collections and Definitive Editions from their franchises.
Definitive HD Limited Greatest Hits Collectors Edition
Indeed the forthcoming Final Fantasy X (and its unwanted birth entrail X-2) HD remake will only proceed to rub more salt in to the JRPG franchise fans wounds because it serves only to remind of what once was. That players are generally more excited about reliving the past (with merely the addition of trophy updates and slight graphical tweaks over the brand new FFXV) should be setting off alarm bells and vicious random encounters all over the video game industry. But money is an all too distracting scent from the bigger picture. Sony has been the worst culprit in this reselling. They have pounded their back catalogue of Ratchet and Clank, Jak and Daxter, Zone of the Enders and the numerous Metal Gear Solid collections down our unprepared throats in such a haphazard and reckless manner (the Silent Hill HD abominations) that we have become bloated and sore from all the greedy franchise fan service foreplay. The consequence of this is that some gamers are less inclined to fork out for over-expensive AAA titles that overplay their hand through impressive marketing (Dead Island) and visuals (Final Fantasy XIII), but religiously fail to excite with gameplay or as original IPs when eventually released. Our faith and trust in the industry has evaporated, and the gaming community is now a shepherd-less flock, no longer chasing the fresh pastures laid out by developers. Pastures which always turn out to hold the same dull textures and tastes as the last.
These reheated/microwave meal classics may demonstrate to gamers how far we have technically progressed, but they are simultaneously striking the dangerous nostalgic chord of what we have lost from that era where franchises were not all produced with mass appeal (I’m looking at you Mass Effect 2 *spit*). The publishers mindset is that we’ll prefer the graphical and aesthetical improvements of a reboot over its predecessors before we’ve played it, but this is merely a high risk strategy just to see what fans will bite and pre-order an unfinished product. Franchise reboots of late are completely failing to serve a niche market for this reason. A market that would grant them instant profit (the recent Payday 2 is a great recent example) if for one second they stopped chasing every unintelligently conceived notion of what is making Call of Duty successful (its not wall cover I’ll tell you that now).
However, time is not the only factor in the nostalgia market. Impossible expectations may have been the downfall of the franchise at the beginning of the 7th console generation but it is the iOS and indie era that have the potential to bring back a new depth to the gaming industries target marketing through a string of short, low-budget yet interesting titles (Limbo, The Room etc). That, and the tempting of casual gamers who have decided they’d rather play Broken Sword on their iPads than have to leave the sofa to flail around on Wii Fit. Such nostalgic success on new tech has resulted in the series being rebooted through Kickstarter with very strong support from fans. Fans whose point-and-click niche market has struggled since the early 2000s and with decent releases being few and far between as genre support dwindled.
For being a decidedly low-budget yet visually striking game the 2011 Rayman Origins reboot performed moderately well, with publishers Ubisoft turning their backs on its 3D progression and taking note of what actually made the original platforming adventure such a charming classic. For Rayman, nostalgia was tapped into in moderation to deepen the reboots depth rather than emulate the original in its entirety. Ubisoft Montpellier respected the franchises niche enough to focus its resources on ingenious level design and creativity after the series had spent the best part of the last decade making those god-awful and never-ending rabbit defecations on the Wii. It is a lesson that many more developers could learn if only they were prepared to revisit the dusty business models that saw spending less as actually being beneficial to the profit margins. These reboots provide hope to the genre fans that are tearing their hair out in anticipation for a game from their franchise which doesn’t sellout through the unnecessary shoe-horning of deformed content stolen from other genres. The consequence of stretching yourself too thin (the recent Tomb Raider’s rather crumbly gameplay features) to provide patchy mass appeal may gain generally positive opinions, but it will never make a game a mainstay on the Bestsellers list. Rayman Origins demonstrated the positives to multi platform gaming for smaller development teams by making a profit on tech without having to push its boundaries or break the bank for its development. Retro gaming interest has if anything only continued to rise with the current console generation, and would be a great market for more developers to engage with.
Above all the reboot is a franchise minefield. Developers dare not stray too far from what once was, but displacement and/or similarity succumbs to nostalgia. Nostalgia means fan disappointment which in turn translates to failure to meet sale projections, and a small profit thus cremates the franchise for a few years before its corpse is dug up again. It is with increased expectation through fan involvement, the westernisation of video games, new tech changes, over staffed and outsourcing development teams and a lack of communication, focus and patience that has more likely than not pulverized one of your favourite franchises. Getting out of this gaming rut will be arduous and require numerous success stories for developers to even begin noticing new patterns, let alone changing their business models. Until then, lap up those HD collections, buy those PSOne classics and XBLA games that cater exclusively to you, the gamer, and try to distance yourself from developers the next time you’re asked a question regarding the future of your franchise. The AAA results at present will only misconstrue your answer by being an overproduced and psychologically demeaning mess that will cloud your enjoyment of the result, and prevent you from enjoying anything positive that it does offer.
In personal retrospect of DMC, unwarranted mass appeal walked hand in hand with greed to produce a reasonable title, but the acronym alone allegorically signalled the amount you’d actually find of the original series through its pretty yet ultimately unwanted aesthetic.
The reboot mutiny has only just begun. Join the revolution, and for gods sake buy Rayman Legends.