Thursday, January 05, 2012

The Annual Games Cycle

With the release of Assassin's Creed: Revelations a lot of people are once again talking about how it shouldn't be an annual release. How Ubisoft are killing the franchise releasing games so close together. How only two games ago, Assassin's Creed 2 was hailed as a masterpiece and look how much it's fallen already.

What this has us asking is why is everyone in the industry so desperate to have annual releases? There's so many examples of it not working.

There is however one rather obvious example of it working, and it working so well that year on year it's the biggest release the industry has ever had. Call of Duty.

Now Activision are simultaneously the best and worst at the practice. With Guitar Hero and it's six billion iterations doing a good job of nearly killing off the entire music genre, the series became not just a cash cow, but one that had a super powered milking machine attached and drained until there was nothing but a husk left behind.

On the flip side of the coin, Activision are showing everyone how to do it properly with the Call of Duty series, alternating between two studios, giving each a two year development schedule that doesn't result in a substandard game.

EA have taken a similar tact with both their Need for Speed series and their own military shooters. The military shooter option is a little different as they don't just alternate studios but entire franchises, Battlefield and Medal of Honour, but there will always be one there to make sure CoD doesn't get a clear run. Now while I feel the difference between Battlefield and CoD is obvious (more squad based and vehicles vs Hollywood-esque indulgence) the difference between CoD and MOH is a lot less clear cut.

Meanwhile with Need for Speed, it's almost approaching Guitar Hero proportions with the number being released in a year, but at least EA are making the differences clear. Shift is trying to make in roads into the Forza/Gran Turismo arena while the other entries stick to Need for Speed's more traditional arcade racing. Black Box have finally had a two year production cycle again, moving away from the doldrums of Pro Street and Undercover with The Run. Unfortunately for Black Box, the reason they got that year off was because Criterion of Burnout fame had a go behind the wheel last year and blew everyone away.

But What About The Animus?
This all brings us to the reason this conversation has once again reared it's head. Assassin's Creed Revelations. The first hint the story of Aberstgo Industries was going annual was last year's Brotherhood. It can be argued that a lot of Brotherhood felt like a game that should have been DLC in the vein of something Rockstar or a majority of RPG developers would release. It's a stance I can agree with, to a point. Ubisoft's inclusion of a rather unique multiplayer feature puts that argument to rest for me. I did, however, see the cracks starting to form from the rushed release and hoped it wasn't going to be the norm. Then, of course, Revelations was announced, and we already know that there will be another Assassin's Creed next year.

But Revelations proves that Assassin's Creed cannot sustain this yearly release schedule. Five studios worked on Revelations. Five. You see five names on a writing credit for a film and you know you're likely about to sit through a stinker.

One will be behind the tower defence missions, which I can forgive. To a point. We may be used to Ezio jumping into crowds and dealing with it himself, but this is an older, wiser Auditore, one who brought the Italian Brotherhood back from the ashes. Thinking of him like that, it isn't hard to imagine him as a commander as well. Only one of these is forced upon you though, and to get more is a punishment for not playing the game properly seems a very odd decision. Not only that but keep playing it properly and you can cut them out of the game entirely.

However, the other obvious offender is the 'Desmond Memories'. Now these are atrocious. They feel like some mid-90s first person engine tech demo, the only tie to the game they are meant to be a part of the game they are included with is the ever present Nolan North's voice over as Desmond remembers his past.

Of course the multiplayer will be a third studio, and I'm gonna take a stab in the dark and say Altair's sections are the other. All of which take place in the exact same place. Worked well story-wise but was a bit cheap.

What can be learnt from Activision?
(Did I really just type that)
So why does Assassin's Creed fail where Call of Duty thrives? Well, first of all is the fact that CoD switches developers on a yearly basis, giving plenty of time to make a proper game. And a cohesive one as the majority is done by one studio and not cutting the development up and hoping it all fits together.

Second, and I think this is one that Ubisoft really need to realise, is that Call of Duty is a first person shooter while Assassin's is an open world game. An FPS is a lot tighter development, so much more focused and able to control what and when the players sees and does. An open world game allows the player to go and do as they please, and to make sure that works well takes time.

Please Ubisoft, let Assassin's Creed 3 (or whatever you end up calling it) be the end of the yearly releases. Take some time, give the designers the chance to have a good think about what they want to refine, change or tweak instead of giving us minor changes like the hook blade that don't really equate to much change. It didn't work for Lara Croft, it's not going to work for Desmond and his ancestors.
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