How Triple A Gaming Franchises Can Return to Greatness
I’m not sure whether it’s nostalgia talking, but it feels like every major gaming franchise is going through the mill. Yearly releases, such as FIFA and Call of Duty, are failing to capture the imaginations of fans, hitting a rut of unimaginative releases and trying to secure the biggest profits, rather than innovating. Even games which have attempted to reinvent the wheel, such as Assassins Creed, have moved away from its stealth-orientated routes, and now plays as a Witcher-style RPG, losing its core foundation. An interesting question is how can these once great gaming franchises return to their former glory, and this is what I will be attempting to answer.
Call of Duty
Problem — Too much focus on multiplayer and new yearly title
Call of Duty is very hit and miss at present. It seems the studios involved are struggling for ideas, and are relying on brand recognition to sell copies. For every Modern Warfare 2019, which was the best Call of Duty in almost a decade, there is a Black Ops 4, where it seems they only care about money. That is not to say that the games without a single player element are entirely cash-grabbing, but fans came to the series due to the highest highs of the Modern Warfare and Black Ops campaigns, and are now left with online-only sweatfests. Whilst I have always enjoyed the multiplayer side of COD, it is the campaign storytelling which to me sets one game aside from another. When most fans think of the greatest games in the series, they’ll think of characters like Captain Price, Commander Shepherd and Mason over other aspects of the game.
The problem Call of Duty has is that they are unsure what the fans want. Following the success of Titanfall, they moved to futuristic warfare, which people maligned almost instantly. Then, they tried to go back to basics with WW2, which was considered “safe”. Now, they’re hopping all over the place, and it is unclear whether the next few years will see past, present or future warfare. This year’s version is said to be a train wreck and unable to be released, so this perfectly shows the issues plaguing the franchise.
Solution — Focus more on story and go bi-annually
The way forward to Activision would be to double down on the story. The best example, as previously mentioned, would be following the 2019 Modern Warfare route, which brought characters back whilst telling a completely original and compelling story. Even if some of the levels were very controversial, they were necessary to highlight the atrocities of war, and the level design was varied and innovative. Fans would not likely want to see a reboot to the Black Ops story, which is considered arguably the best in the franchise, but focusing on the single player storytelling and level design more than monetary modes like Warzone and Zombies would bring some of the lost fans back.
Another method to improve the franchise would potentially be moving the series bi-annually. It is well documented that Activision keeps the series releasing every year by having 3 separate developers on 3 year cycles to create games, but this cycle is now broken. Sledgehammer Games, who were in line to release the 2020 Call of Duty, needed help from Treyarch to release their game, and now Call of Duty 2021 is being called “unfinished” and “in trouble”. Maybe this is the push Activision needed to slow the process down. Warzone is the most popular Call of Duty property currently, and Modern Warfare 2019 still has a large fan base, so Activision should focus on creating new content for these properties, rather than rush a mediocre instalment. If this is not enough, they could also finally develop Modern Warfare 2’s remastered multiplayer, which clearly has an audience since the campaign remaster was so popular, and after the huge success of Modern Warfare remastered. The pieces are there for Activision — they just need to put them together.
Problem — Too much focus on making money and lack of innovation
It has become a meme of sorts now to clown EA Sports for hardly changing their games each year, particularly FIFA. The biggest sporting game in the UK, way ahead of PES for popularity, the problem the game has is the focus on the game mode which makes the most money for the company — Ultimate Team. They will point to the slight changes to Career Mode, and The Journey, to “prove” they have continued to develop single player modes, but it is so obvious where their priorities are. Every year, Ultimate Team gets the works, and the updates always benefit FUT players most. Meanwhile, people who enjoy Pro Clubs and Career Mode, such as myself, are left wanting. The potential for Pro Clubs particularly to be the best mode is there, but the poor CPU and lack of changes in years is disrespectful to their fans.
Solution — Focus on non-monetary modes and potential bi-annually release
For a solution, one method cannot realistically happen without the other — really developing other aspects of the game would mean they would need to go bi-annually, similarly to what PES have done this year. Recently, the rival footballing game designer decided to not release a new version of their game, instead offering an update to the fans who had purchased the previous game, including slight improvements on gameplay and changing the kits and players. This would be the best way for FIFA to go, as this model would mean they could focus on single player modes, such as Career Mode, and underappreciated multi-player modes, such as Pro Clubs. Developing Pro Clubs would mean the game is more appealing, and means the player base will remain for longer, whilst also meaning they would potentially save on manufacturing new copies of the game.
Problem — Loss of identity, potentially due to burnout
Having recently finished AC Valhalla, this is the freshest area for me to discuss. Although the game was thoroughly enjoyable, it is not Assassins Creed to me — this is a Viking game with the name attached to it. The franchise’s identity is being lost more every game that passes. Whilst I can agree that the series needed a re-freshening after multiple entries which bled into each other, the last 3 games are nothing to do with why fans love the series. The early draw for people was the historical settings, the lore of Assassins vs Templars and the interesting modern day narrative. Now, 2 of these 3 main areas are gone, and replaced by derivative orders and mundane modern day shenanigans. The only main features of the game that have stayed, bar some good aspects like eagle sense and synchronisation points , are some of the overplayed tropes and boring plot threads from the series.
Caution — Spoilers for AC Valhalla
For example, virtually every game sees the protagonist losing somebody, which then justifies them to murder everyone even slightly involved, including guards. AC Valhalla continues this trend, with the Wolf Kissed losing his parents at the beginning of the game. This has happened in AC2, AC Brotherhood, AC3, AC Unity, AC Origins and now AC Valhalla — 6 games out of 12 main games, half of them. Conveniently, since the Ezio trilogy, the best storylines are found in the games without this plot point, as they are far more engaging. AC Rogue arguably has the best premise, with Shay turning Templar and hunting down his former Assassin peers.
Speaking of which, what is wrong with a simple Assassin v Templar storyline? The whole “the world is ending” modern day plot in every game is so lazy, and needs to go. The series has moved from embracing Sci-fi elements to just getting ridiculous for ridiculous sake, a reason why the DLC for Odyssey was such a slog for me. I can accept powerful objects which can enslave man, I can even to a lesser extent accept Gods talking to the human race, but I am fed up of things like the Minotaur and Cerberus appearing, it just makes it so contrived and boring. The series needs another reboot.
Solution — Return to franchise roots, potentially go bi-annual
To me, the franchise needs to embrace old and new. It can certainly embrace some of the good improvements to the series, such as greater character customisation and offering players a choice of sex for the main character, which has been a welcome addition. However, the wide open world, RPG elements need to be put to a new series of games, which could launch off the ‘historical trilogy’ that Assassins Creed just released. Tell an original modern day story, which does not involve ending the world, but the conflict of Assassins and the Templars, and build it from there. Historically, return to realism mixed with fantasy, and follow the original style of revolving missions around historical events. Finally, if you want to include assassinations of high level figures, look at the Hitman series. Create ways for players to assassinate their target, something which, if my memory serves me, was dabbled with in Unity. Overall, tell an engaging story, with likeable characters, that lives in a place between realism and fantasy, that differs from previous entries.
Oh, and just to add, bi-annual release would be the best option. I have said this every time so far, but it makes so much more sense. The reason people got fed up of the original run of games was because they were released every November, and unlike Call of Duty, there is not a developer cycle, leading to reused assets and glitches. Take two years, build it from the ground up, and if you need to delay it, do it. We have already saw the complete overhaul performed in 2 years for AC Origins, so don’t tell me this is improbable. Ubisoft has other games — alternate between them.
Problem — Very similar consecutive releases, EA’s priorities
While Activision can afford to have a developer cycle, Battlefield cannot. Therefore, the games they release in the franchise take a lot longer, usually around 3 years. This longer development time has made sure that the Battlefield series has never overstayed its welcome, and makes for a more polished game on a massive scale. However, having recently downloaded the PS Plus game of the month, Battlefield V, it is not distinctive enough from the more beloved Battlefield I. It feels largely like the same game, bar a graphical overhaul and some small cosmetics changes due to the new period. In terms of historical accuracy, the game is far superior to Call of Duty — gameplay wise, the game largely feels the same. That’s not to say I did not love Battlefield I and am currently loving Battlefield V, but for a game which has taken 3 years to produce, it does not live up to its name as a “COD killer”, even when Call of Duty has stuttered with Cold War and this year’s potential release.
Another issue with EA in general is their lack of connection to their audience. They seem to solely revolve around finding ways to cash in on fan loyalty, as shown by the whole Star Wars Battlefront 2 loot box fiasco, their insistence to promote gambling to kids with FIFA’s Ultimate Team mode, and chasing the white whale of Battle Royale games following Fortnite’s huge success, especially cramming the derivative and controversial Firestorm Battle Royale mode into Battlefield V, a game with a campaign about the horrors of war. It seems the company is not doing things in the interest of fans, and cannot seem to take a hint, or criticism. This was showcased with the launch trailer for Battlefield V, which was criticised for a lack of historical accuracy, with the then EA CCO Patrick Soderland famously stating in an interview “either accept it or don’t buy the game”, leading to the game severely under-performing with commercial sales. This disconnect needs to be addressed.
Solution — Return to modern day, less focus on firestorm, less monetisation
The solution for EA is rather simple — they must stop this aggressive push for payment and following trends. Get rid of Firestorm, scrap it completely, and focus on delivering more engaging single player and multiplayer modes. Stop trying to hop on the bandwagon, and try something new. For example, whilst it may not be loved by all, I admired DICE when they created Battlefield Hardline, as it was refreshing and never done before, which is crazy considering how many popular films involve Cops and Robbers. Do something like that, take a leap of faith and create a mode never seen before. And please, for the love of God, make the store less visible. Although I do like that the purchases are cosmetic only, the fact that the store is so in your face and notifications pop up about new items is a problem for me.
Another solution to repeating the formula would be to return to the present day, with all the lessons they have learnt from the last 2 games. Their last modern day war game was 2013, so it is time to return to present day conflict with the Battlefield level of grandeur. Thankfully, it is heavily rumoured Battlefield 6, due this year, is taking this advice. With 2021’s Call of Duty seeming to be a dumpster fire, this is the perfect year for Battlefield to take COD’s crown as the year’s best war game.
Need for Speed
Problem — Becoming irrelevant, very average recent games
Whatever happened to driving games? I swear I love the feeling of driving a car in a game, being able to drive one in real life, and even if I do love the Citroen C3, the ability to race and not worry about consequences on a game like Need for Speed is heaven. The past two decades has saw a drastic decrease in the number of open world driving games on the market, and even those which have released have recieved limited fanfare. Older franchises, like Burnout and the Driver series and New IP, such as Project Cars, have not done well, and seem to have been forgotten about. Even the biggest driving franchises, such as Forza, Gran Turismo and Need for Speed have not been great for years.
For a open world driving fanatic like me, it has been hell. I am having to resort to driving around in GTA, which gets boring after a while. Need for Speed have hit a major speed bump (pun intended), and seem to be releasing mediocre games every few years. I played their latest effort, Need for Speed Heat, and even for somebody starved of a good driving game, it was so… average. The story was not engaging, and the map was not very interesting. They need to shake things up, or risk their reputation further declining.
Solution — Go the early Fast and Furious route, and make a compelling story around the cars
In my opinion, the story is a major part on why the game is memorable, much like with Call of Duty. Could anybody tell me any defining differences between NFS Heat, Hot Pursuit, Rivals, Payback, and the 2015 reboot? You can’t, because the story is not memorable. Fans may be satisfied with the driving side of the game, but they will not stick around for long if the world and story is boring. Therefore, make a story revolving around the cars, similar to the early Fast and Furious films. Create an interesting protagonist, create a rivalry, create a crew, or whatever is engaging. Do a twist, make the player choose between being a policeman chasing the drivers, or a driver escaping the law. Anything could work, but it needs to be changed and needs to draw people in.
Will these changes work?
It is unclear whether any of my ideas would be considered by the companies, or even if these changes would help. But, this is what these companies need to look at in order to restore fan confidence in their next instalments.