What's In a Name? An opinion on the power of videogame brands
- Starbreeze Studios
- Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City
- Resident Evil
- 2K Games
The term "videogame franchise" is something of a misnomer. I mean it's not as if Resident Evil is a business front and Operation: Raccoon City is a store that just opened up three streets away, but as a phrase to accurately describe the phenomenon of the videogame "brand", it seems to fit – and has been adopted in recent years by the harried foot-soldiers of modern games journalism as a convenient buzzword.
It's also a phrase with a great deal of power. A new stealth game generates much less hype than a new game in the Splinter Cell franchise; a new open world RPG makes less of a boom on announcement than a new RPG in the Elder Scrolls franchise, and so on and so forth. In fact, the recent announcement of The Elder Scrolls Online is a case in point. Is an MMO based on a series so legendarily single-player-oriented as The Elder Scrolls a worthy use of the name – or does it merely save Bethesda having to try to sell something new and far more risky? The jury is out on that one. It could be argued that the biggest reason behind creating The Elder Scrolls Online is that Bethesda want a piece of the tasty MMO pie that CCP Games, NCSoft and Blizzard have been chewing on for years, and this way they can convince us gamers that they're giving us "what we want".
At least when an ongoing movie series uses the name of a franchise, it will stay faithful to the universe or characters of said franchise – and in fact, the continuation of core themes is less important in movies than simply maintaining established characters and story arcs, whereas in games it’s often, though perhaps not always, the opposite: the central theme of a game is apparently more vital in a developer’s eyes when perpetuating a franchise than actually developing – furthering – a story, regardless that nowadays it’s the story and the characters and the worlds that often hook gamers. Maintaining the core gameplay does not a sequel make – especially in an industry where everyone borrows ideas from everyone else anyway.
Franchise is also a word juggled with dissimilar terms twisted to suit purpose such as "series" and "saga", but where it differs from those descriptors is that to be considered part of a "franchise" a game needs nothing but a well-known name stamped above its title. A brand new indie game entitled Bog Rolls of Horror might raise a few quiet chortles, but Silent Hill: Bog Rolls of Horror will generate a shitload of search engine hits and get the collective gaming press talking for ages before the game's release, despite sounding no less pointless and inane.
The power of the videogame franchise is legendary. Look at Final Fantasy, for example. Hardly a "series", FF is essentially a collection of games with completely separate storylines but similar themes, which would stand no different to the multitude of JRPG doppelgangers out there if not for the inclusion of the Final Fantasy branding.
And it really is only the branding that matters. Characters, themes, genres, styles, developers, publishers, all are completely, utterly, interchangeable. Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City was almost universally panned on release – but why? Because it's a bad game, or because it's a bad Resident Evil game? Is it a Resident Evil game at all? Had it been set in Chicago, starring a company other than Umbrella, it might just have been regarded as another middle-of-the-road zombie shooter. Expectations would have been lower and therefore critical scores would likely have been slightly higher – but would it have sold anywhere near 2 million copies? Not likely. That Resident Evil branding served its purpose well.
Of course, there are times when the effect is reversed: Starbreeze's Syndicate was mauled by fans of Bullfrog's original for even daring to borrow the title – and the end product was so completely and totally different to the original that many wondered how Starbreeze had the balls to bastardise such a hallowed name. Had the game been more than the soulless corridor shooter it turned out to be, Starbreeze might have been forgiven to an extent. As it is, they'll have to work hard to interest people in their next venture.
Snowblind Studios' Lord of the Rings-themed misadventure, War in the North, also fell victim to its own selling point, plonking a sub-par action-RPG into a world based on a ten-year-old film trilogy and expecting us to care about characters we knew were completely and totally superfluous to the established canon. The very use of the Lord of the Rings name stole focus from what might have been considered a worthy, if largely flawed, first stab at RPG development, and ensured that while we never considered War in the North to be a terrible game, any merits were eclipsed by what we saw as a massive waste of a great license. We simply saw a bad Lord of the Rings game. Snowblind shot themselves right through both feet.
But is marketing what is essentially a new IP under an established brand in order to boost interest and sales a harmless practice – or is it a fairly serious crime of false advertising? Worse, is it simply pulling the wool over the consumer's eyes? Changing the character and place names is all it would have taken to completely separate Syndicate 2012 from Syndicate '93 – so surely even using the brand name was an obvious marketing ploy. For Starbreeze to say they were attracted by the themes and conflicts of the original is poppycock – the themes were moulded and muted where appropriate in the “remake” to create a standardised FPS with irritating boss fights and gimmicky special skills. It's a simple fact.
The practice continues as Bioshock Infinite heads towards its recently-delayed release date. Why is it a Bioshock game at all? Is it a direct sequel to the last two? Set in the same world? The same universe? No, it simply shares similar themes of dystopia out of technology. A new property from the creators of Bioshock would have caused stir enough, but without that all-important header would it have generated so much hype? Nope. And everyone knows, hype is so much better for sales than honest-to-goodness excitement. Of course, people may well argue that because the themes are so similar not calling it “Bioshock: Something or Other” would have incited negativity, but the actuality is that it's called Bioshock Infinite because Bioshock is Irrational’s most successful brand.
The big question is whether or not it's entirely ethical to use an existing brand name purely to increase sales – to trick the unwitting gamer (and there are plenty of gamers who know nothing about an upcoming release until it hits shelves) into buying a game based on the name. I know I would have been pissed off had I bought Raccoon City expecting something close to the core Resident Evil experience and got a run-of-the-mill squad shooter instead.
So what's in a name? Well in the case of the videogame "franchise", a mix of high expectations, impending disappointment, a healthy dose of outright dishonesty and an awful lot of easy sales. To me, it's plain wrong. If a game is to be considered part of an existing franchise it needs to maintain something substantial of the parent canon, whether that's continuing or preceding the story or using the same characters or universe to a genuinely worthy effect – cherry-picking themes (or indeed place names and aesthetics to pay fan service) is simply not enough, and slapping the name of an existing franchise over a subtitle just because you're proud of the last game that bore it is downright cheeky.
Prequels, sequels and canonical spinoffs are fine, developers, but please stop trying to fool us by dangling the promise of something we love over your latest risky new IP. Ta.
Words by Mick Fraser (Twitter: @Jedi_Beats_Tank)
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