On Franchise Identity In Video Games

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[Originally posted on Gather Your Party 21.05.2013]

We wanted to take the Planescape franchise into a different direction and present the players and fans with a different, more direct experience than before. Planescape: TormentZ, a visceral cinematic first person shooter, takes place in a fantastic world where The Nameless One….

Your throat becomes dry, a clot forms in your stomach and tears stream down your swollen red cheeks.


Why do we react this way?

Franchises are a great way for rights holders to create a packaged product with a set identity. In a way it is comparable to a brand, it distinguishes itself and sets customer expectation towards the product.

In other media, franchising functions mostly by having distinguishable characters or settings which then are expanded into other media. Take, for example, Star Wars as a media franchise; it was created with the original trilogy and later expanded into novels, video games, animated movies, and comics.

The “expanded universe” of the novels tells stories set in the same universe, sometimes even thousands of years before the events of the original movies. Games like The Old Republic use the familiar film-imagery and certain canonized elements to tell stories in the accepted Star Wars setting.

The Star Wars franchise is flexible because it came from the film medium, from the setting and characters of the first movies, it is not tied to a specific style or technique. As long as certain canonized elements are present, there could be a Star Wars comedy show, period drama, or musical without damaging its identity.

When talking about franchising in video games however, the situation is quite different.

Genres in older media are predominantly about subject matter and intimately tied into their setting, but with video game franchises the interactive nature and its current taxonomy by arbitrary gameplay genres do not behave like older media.

In video games the inception of a franchise is tied to its gameplay genre, and therefore intimately tied to its mechanics. The franchise identity rests on the recognizability of gameplay and mechanics, and rightfully so, since the gameplay genre decides the branding, demographic and marketing strategies employed to hit the target audience.

A change in gameplay genre, most often associated with game reboots, is often perceived as a disastrous move. After all, the current audience has built an expectation of the franchise. Instead of fostering the audience already in place, a change in franchise identity discards them and tries to capture a new one, people get upset.

Some more upset than others.

Of course setting isn’t unimportant in franchising a video game, but it is just one part of the equation when it comes to its identity.

The recent reboot of Syndicate (2012) into a first-person shooter kept most of the setting intact: the cyberpunk imagery, the corporatism, and the themes of control were still all there, but the genre changed significantly from a real-time tactical game to a first-person action-shooter.

What attracted players to Syndicate in 1993 isn’t the same that would attract them in 2012.

Sometimes the change of identity is justified as a calculated risk, especially if the change is to reel in a new audience. However, what marketeers seem to oftentimes forget is that reeling in a new audience is as hard as creating a new one out of whole cloth.

If we take Syndicate as an example, the change was largely justified from a marketing standpoint. The Syndicate IP was dead in the water since 1996, and rebooting it in a new form could have made it relevant again. With video games, sixteen years of inactivity means that at least five hardware generations have passed (in the case of PC gaming, more than that), and chances are that only a small percentage of the currently possible audience actually even remembers the IP in the first place.

The problem came with choosing the franchise’s new identity to be an FPS, where it would compete in a saturated market-space with some of the strongest and most successful IPs in existence. Syndicate was never a strong enough franchise to compete with the giants in the first place, not to mention on what could be now considered their home-turf.

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Syndicate 2012 tried to compete with the big boys on their home turf.

Conversely, Fallout could be seen as a good example of a successful franchise identity transition.

Fallout 3 changed its effective genre from isometric turn-based tactical RPG, to a first-person real-time action-pause RPG. In the case of Fallout, the genres were still very similar and did not impact the perception of the audience (enough) to warrant significant push-back from the established audience.

Furthermore, in the realm of first-person RPGs, it was unique enough to establish its own identity clearly without competing with the top-dogs of the industry.

Unfortunately successful does not necessarily mean good in design and gameplay context.

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Fallout made a successful transition of franchise identity.

Franchising is a process for creating repeat customers through branding. The purpose of a franchise or brand is to standardize expectations from your customers or audience. Apple has a certain image attached to its brand, and if this identity is changed it might lead to reduced sales. The manipulation of perception is a powerful thing in marketing and branding.

For the customer, franchising (just like branding) is useful as well. We get a set of attributes packaged and tied up neatly with a bow, a convenient shortcut for our tastes, and can set our expectations rightly for experience and content. We know what to expect, and the marketing knows they can expect our dollars.

When these expectations are not fulfilled, our reaction is often emotional because we feel like we have been tricked to invest into something that didn’t follow the rules. We feel like our expectations, our trust, has been betrayed.

A franchise’s identity can be changed, it can even be changed successfully, but more often than not the process involves diminishing returns on a long term basis. What certainly doesn’t help is rejecting the franchise’s original audience by principle, as a recent example involving a haircut has shown.

A change in identity can create more harm than good in a myriad of different ways, that can have repercussions on more than just the franchise itself. The emotional response can damage the producers or developers image, or it can lead to a person not investing into franchises anymore, forming a sort of cynical immunity to marketing.

Of course the mileage varies from person to person depending on the level of involvement by each individual.

Nevertheless, changing a franchise’s identity is a risky move, and if a company keeps repeating the same mistakes it might find itself in a spiral of diminishing trust from its audience. However, that’s not the only risk; it also reinforces an industry-wide standard of negative expectation, just like there is one with movie tie-in games.

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