Part of the world in which the video games industry inhabits now is one in which AAA studios have gotten into the business of releasing yearly installments of franchises. This has been par for the course for certain titles, namely sports games produced by EA with Madden as the sort of ubermodel for this kind of yearly release structure. I hope to go into more detail about this phenomenon in a future post if I have time, namely focusing on how this kind of cycle of pre-release hype into release day hysteria to finally obsolescence has created an environment for a kind of “disposable” game that is released then easily cast aside when the next one comes out. But, again, that’s going to be for another time.
For the moment, I will examine the kind of cycle in which games in franchises with yearly releases–i.e. Madden, the recently-announced Assassin’s Creed 3, and to a certain extent Mass Effect–inhabit. It may surprise you that even though each new title is shiny and new for a little while that their life cycles remain pretty consistent.
The way I see it, the standard cycle for a game in a franchise that releases at least one new game a year goes something like this:
Phase 1: The Pre-Announcement Hype – It has been roughly six months to a year since the previous installment has come out and fans begin to get restless; in the case of sports games, the realtime season has come to an end and the offseason brings the promise of a new installment of the series. Rumors then begin to circulate about a potential sequel and what that may entail. This may be followed then by an unintended leak of information through a slip of the tongue from a member of the development team (or a massive internal error), a listing on an online store like Amazon, or possibly in accidentally leaked promotional material from a news source. Official denials or non denials (where the information is repudiated but the announcement of the game itself is not) may ensue followed by wild speculation from fans and pundits.
Phase 2: The Official Announcement and Pre-Release Hype – Following the fervor caused by the pre-announcement speculation, the company officially announces the release of the new game to much fanfare and excitement. Thus begins the marketing hype machine as the publisher works the fanbase up into a frenzy with a succession of teasers, promotional art, and trailers. Developers will go over new and returning features in interviews and at conventions like E3 (this will also be a venue for more promotional material). The hype is turned up to eleven in the coming weeks before the game’s release date as the publisher whips its consumer base into a riled-up frenzy.
Phase 3: The Release – The game comes out with much fanfare. Reviewers praise or criticize the new game, comparing it to the experience of playing the previous edition. Players devote hours upon hours to it. They flood forums with gameplay tips and tricks and regale others with their experiences and conquests. Internet memes rise and fall. Tribute videos abound on YouTube along with complaints over specific features or eccentricities of the game. DLC occasionally comes out to extend gameplay life and draw more money out of players (although this can also happen on launch day), followed inevitably by a “complete edition” of the game with all DLC to date included. The gameplay phase can last anywhere from six months to a year.
Phase 4: Renewal – Time passes and players begin to get restless again, anticipating the release of the next installment of the series. Phase 1 and 2 begin for the latest game and the frenzy begins anew. The current game may get more gameplay as players anticipate the new game’s release, especially in the week prior to the release date. Following the release of the next annual installment players trade in their old copies to capitalize on pre-order bonus or to free up room on their shelf for the newest edition. Used game stores rapidly find themselves inundated with old copies with increasingly dwindling chances of resale (however, this seldom stops them from marking up the prices anyway).
Phase 5: Afterlife – What happens when a game dies? The company officially closes down the online servers, officially cutting ties with the game and not so subtly telling its players to buy the latest edition. Games with online-based content (such as the Teambuilder feature for NCAA 10) become unusable, left as faded memories of a time when the game was still popular. The games then spend the rest of their existence occupying bargain bins and thrift stores, unplayed and unloved. This is especially true of sports games like Madden as previous editions rapidly occupy bargain bins where players could not be paid to take them off the store’s hands. (If you don’t believe me, go into a Gamestop where they are trying to get rid of PlayStation 2 games; you could probably wallpaper your house with all the used copies of Madden 09 and earlier).
So there you have it. The life cycle of a game like Madden or Call of Duty. These games aren’t necessarily bad, they’re just caught up in a ongoing tide of hype and marketing that is fueled by hype. Just something to be aware of while we all look forward to tomahawking our way through American history.