There is one category of this critical conundrum however that promotes a level of dread and polarised controversy wherever it drips. Yes, it’s the episodic natured annual video game series that often sandwiches itself between our yearly TV license and credit card bill. Socially, video game franchises are huge billowing provocation factories that form both devout gaming brotherhoods and legions of trolls, flamers and winos. Whilst the former internalises their gaming delight with peers, the latter embarks on their own personal vendettas and crusades on ‘behalf of gamers worldwide.’ But when it comes to tracking the commercial and critical patterns of these collective and often annual entities, analysts, gamers and the developers themselves are quite often stumped.
There is no definitive formula for franchise success despite what industry CEOs at EA and Ubisoft tell themselves as they unleash overindulgent publicity nukes to see what numbers stick to their latest multi-media product sap (a Watch Dogs movie…already?). Hollywood models aren’t hegemonic blocks of concrete to be pushed by gamer-ants to create some Neolithic god-like pinnacle that catches all potential players of its franchise under some gaudy beam like a Square-Enix tech demo. So why do we obsessively deride the notion of franchise? Why do those who curse the annual visual ration tin that is Call of Duty do so with such dramatic and often disproportionately disillusioned disdain, yet generally seem receptive or no worse than indifferent when the annual decorators turn up to give Assassin’s Creed a new lick of paint?
Remember 80’s excess? An era where the foolhardy, migraine-inducing bad hair business approach ruled much more than a homogenized film industry with its iron synth-tastic power-pop fist. Where heavy-handed media campaigns and commercialisation had more strength in their shoulder pads alone than an entire generation’s willpower to resist its suffocating charms. That’s over. It ended. We all know what followed, and sparing the odd dose of masculinity in crisis and corporately aimed angst, the excess eventually wound down (although not before the entire 70s inspired middle finger to capitalism sector got hijacked in every entertainment suite). So why do we pretend it’s still continuing in the megalomaniac manner that it once was? It may have brought us a whole new era of corporate corruption, but the internet saved us.
The internet distorted all the marketing rules that had ever come before it by giving corporate letches nowhere to hide, and those mere numerical figures that represented each of us and our purchases could now speak and spit corrosive chemicals. No longer would we be all herded into Friday the 13th Pt. 14 or be trapped in the linear radio corridor of pop music under the guise of ‘we didn’t know any better.’ We were given a fresh start. More choices, options and the freedom to deride what we wished as the critic inside us all found its ‘mother knows best’ pitch and a sturdy, thick rimmed pair of nostalgia glasses.
For annual video game instalments it meant that he who screamed the loudest could now be acknowledged by a developer. Yes, the information age has frightened franchises with so many cries of boycott and negative web traffic that their level of future success is being routinely held at gun point until each of our self-righteous nerdy demands are met. And for the most part this is a good development. It has blown apart the very landscape in which our annual franchises are developed and consumed, which when compared to its prior marketing ideology is now a much more satisfying change of scenery.
Our story begins in 1996 with the release of an adventure game called Tomb Raider, a self-confessed carbon copy of the Indiana Jones aesthetic, nailed with the unsubtle sledgehammer force of false branded feminism: the ‘girl power’ packaging that was being mass produced and exported to everything from the stomach churning Spice Girls to violent final girls in Scream. Despite quickly losing its tech prestige of forward-thinking 3D level design, the series soon became a familiar circle in the Christmas catalogue for many young gamers who valued the detailed atmospheric environments and accuracy requiring puzzles, regardless of the quite literal pitfalls in gameplay and self-Lara flagellation that would ensue. This fanaticism continued for four more years until the PlayStation ship sailed.
In essence every successful annual franchise leaves its signature ‘gameplay’ element untouched and intact to appease its fan base. To alter this would be to play Russian roulette with the very reasons it attracted a base of any kind to begin with. This element obviously fluctuates wildly depending upon each entity’s genre and usually these signature dishes are the genre themselves – FPS, Platformer, Sport. This basic yet fundamental aspect attracts huge criticism for a number of reasonable and related reasons (apologies for the alliteration overkill). Unlike the reboot (a franchise matter that I will divulge in the future), the annual instalment is as much self-serving to the consumer as it is to the developers bank account. Without either one, the other could not exist. As much as we deny it, we positively deplore change of any significance in our lives and gameplay is no exception. That constant in gameplay sits above any minor graphical improvement – it is indeed the very bread and butter of annualism; an old faithful slip-on-and-off comfort product whose frequent maintenance in the public eye draws equal waves of excitement and scepticism.
We often forget upon a projects completion the possibilities that a subsequent new instalment can bring. Now the development time is spent, the ‘annual’ can flesh out, improve upon and add to the aspect(s) that gamers found lacking or more often than not frustrating without a controversial and potentially devastating overhaul. Whether it be improved crowd blending in Assassin’s Creed, or being able to traverse around corners in Tomb Raider IV, these elements heighten an annuals gameplay without sacrificing the very reason why we flung it in the shopping trolley to begin with.
Such tweaks and improvements have been readily condemned as illusions of improvement by critics for the very empowering subtlety in gameplay change that they were engineered to make. Precise engineering to aid rather than hinder the current experience. Similar criticisms are also commonly levelled at the seemingly gimmicky introductions of new content. But adding guns to Lara’s house in Tomb Raider III or even a quad bike track was never about developers hiding a lack of franchise freshness under this illusion of improvement, but merely bringing home that inconvenient truth to our community that gameplay should not have to be torn from its multi-texture packed foundations and welded in a revolutionary way because it can be, only if it needs to be.
The cyclical nature of the annual franchise usually co-exists with the lifespan of its hardware and demand of its audience. This lifespan accumulates as the franchise grows to birth a mythological status where all those game feature tweaks brew together in a teary eyed nostalgic vacuum. It is for this very reason that the collectionist mentality exists. For an annual video game fan each yearly instalment is added to the personal psychological canon which serves to recall the most favoured aspects of the franchise experience with scatological precision. We recall and compare levels, characters, guns, vehicles and just about anything with peers in hive-minded forums that spark heated debates and inner-franchise turmoil. It is in these elements of adoration that only an annual franchise can deliver. Evolution provokes only fallible and inescapable nostalgia, whilst an annualist has an abundance and wealth of positivity about their small tweaks that can only be understood by other devout and practicing annualists. For those looking through a biased and bewildered tint, success breeds derision, and this build ’em up and knock ’em down is a genetically imbued outlook we all secretly relish to anything that isn’t ethnically ours. Call of Duty is the latest victim of these obnoxious ‘us and them’ tirades because it has managed to extend its annual franchise lifespan to levels never previously reached before.
Whether this is in part down to its genre – the immovable FPS – or simply being the publicity equivalent of a battering ram on a pane of glass, Call of Duty continues to attract a level of genre snobbery and hatred (like a moth to the flame) for its annualism and audience that hasn’t been seen for some time. A battle that remains as entrenched, bloody and virile as ever. The fact that some of the franchises detractors would still consider putting GTAV on pause to take to their forums in all of their hipster royalty to mock Call of Duty: Ghosts when released is nothing short of fascinating. Call of Duty stifles creativity. Call of Duty fans are just frazzled frat boys and sweary kids from broken homes. Call of Duty is just developers being greedy. Call of Duty..warble warble warble…*sigh*
As an annual series Call of Duty should be politely applauded. Its baby steps approach, and failure to substantially evolve is precisely what has made it so successful as well as the fans so reasonably content (no mean feat considering their numbers). The evolution of the annual as a method of development itself requires much more consideration and care than Eidos had for our Lara. We are in an era where Activision is being held hostage by fans, so much in fact, that decisions committing to the tweaking of a weapon often have the power to break the internet.
Annualism promotes a level of ownership and adoration from fans that usurps all others and bins all one-dimensional arguments regarding stifled creativity. It isn’t Activision’s Treyarch or Infinity Ward that are having to greedily ankle snap the genre for a green bill, but every other major AAA developer that seeks blindly to replicate its success. Like the aforementioned Tomb Raider before it, similarly genre targeted ventures result in only attaching annualists to their franchise even more. As a developer Activision have done nothing extraordinarily venomous that other companies haven’t already attempted to dupe their consumers with (will anyone ever forgive Square-Enix for All The Bravest?). These aren’t sickening DRM business practices or micro-transactions, this is green-eyed envy in its purest HD form.
The annual mentalities that made Eidos a household name (albeit a geeky household) and more recently with Activision cannot be found in their rivals work because they cannot provide the same chapter-like extensions of the annual. Instead they merely produce unintentional parodies, a simulacrum that attempts to throw the same ingredients together in a way that only serves to highlight the strength of the source material. Indeed your Battlefields and Homefronts have added more fuel to the fire(fight) surrounding annualism because their attentions are turned to a product they do not fully understand instead of attending to their own annual crops.
My last article on Final Fantasy highlighted everything fans of the franchise loved and lost. If given the choice I am sure they would gladly have taken a yearly iteration of the series circa 1997 than anything we’ve obtained from it, past or present. Whether it’s your Call of Duty, Dynasty Warriors, Atelier Iris or Yakuza, these franchises are commendable for listening to their audiences regardless of niche size. For not giving out toys only to snatch them back for the sake of innovation and redesign. Why then do we gleefully pollute these franchises with a radioactive level of hatred and give other annuals like FIFA and Pro Evolution a free pass?
It is also worth noting the changing judicious battlefield that franchises face from critics and gamers alike. Whereas each instalment of Tomb Raider received generally less critical acclaim (and slight diminishing financial returns), Call of Duty stands almost alone with the sport genre in maintaining high scores and immovable sales. On the other hand, when franchise flamers get hold of Metacritic there is no stopping the rallying call-to-arms to pulverize the user rating. This begs the question as to whether gamers have adapted cinematic models of judgement when approaching video games. If true, it would account for the mediums genre and franchise snobbery that sees annuals and reboots treated with the same disgust usually reserved for nauseating movie genre tropes and Smurf sequels.
We must remember with each console generation that despite getting aesthetically closer to film that we still cannot simply dump that mediums model of criticism onto another and expect it to fit. Such an application of template is both illogical and naïve, and by examining the medium under the same culturally elitist monocle that governed the barriers between low and high brow art we diminish the notion of professional gaming critics alongside the industry’s ability to form its own system of value. It is likely that striving to emulate other mediums will only push the industry further down the slippery Hollywood slope. Indeed annual franchises are not akin to film sequels but more reminiscent of chapters in a novel, provoking instances of remembrance and interstitial recollections of gameplay mechanics, character and story development that contribute to a mythological summation of the overall product.
Whilst a Call of Duty detractor seeks blood at the first sign of a five-star review, a critic is more concerned with the intricate details and developments that work with a successful formula. The online arena that pits PvP is a factor of annualism that Tomb Raider couldn’t technically engage with during its popularity. In an era where to be absent momentarily is to be completely forgotten, Call of Duty maintains its annualism impeccably, despite wearing the bullet holes of its detractors and the warts of DLC. Gamers often forget the plentiful positives that come from regularity. The annual alleviates a greater level of the anticipation and often heartbreak that befalls the reboot and the trilogy category of franchises, and goes onto to show that when taken by its own merits, predictability can be a gamers best friend.
In conclusion it is the internet who has honed the very notion of what makes an annual video game so great, but it is also starting to fray this link as we denote more cases of annual adoration spilling online and into threats of violence against developers (this year’s despicable Vonderhaar and Hepler stunts): a matter that casts a cruel sombre shadow over annual franchises and the video game industry itself. The gaming community’s bouts of selected cynicism regarding their franchise being a cash-cow and ours belonging alongside the Mona Lisa are becoming persistently more erratic and this renewed communal narcissism is leading us astray from the very escapism we sought to quench. If we wish the medium to one day be taken seriously as an art form, then we must first discontinue our engagement with the crude bastardisation of one genre over another with stolen and outdated methods of critique; for all this social upheaval attracts is negativity.
Article image by Tristan Graham.