My schedule over at the IGDA has been a complete mystery. I used to stick very rigidly to a next-month’s-column-is-due-by-the-30th-of-the-previous-and-earlier-if-possible approach, but in the last year it’s been getting harder to do that. Responsibilities pile up and I’m not good at fulfilling them. So it’s nearly the end of April (and entirely my fault), that the April installment of the series is now online. As promised in the previous one, I skip morbid subjects and go for something a little more easy to stomach.
Fun with Franchising
By Matthew Sakey
April 25, 2011
Originally published by the International Game Developers Association
Back when it seemed the Harry Potter movies were switching directors with every installment, I harbored the odd but very genuine hope that Antoine Fuqua would be tapped to helm one. By all accounts he would be an unusual choice but I really felt he’d be able to do something excellent with a Harry Potter movie. Fuqua is an extraordinary talent, and a criminally underrated director. And, really, would he be any stranger a choice than the Four Weddings and a Funeral guy, or the Y Tu Mama Tambien guy? Those two are responsible for far and away the best movies in the series. I think the director of Training Day would have been profoundly right for it.
But directors came and went with no Fuqua in sight until the overlords of the Harry Potter films finally settled on the well-meaning and talented but ultimately unremarkable David Yates. What’s interesting is that despite the fact that each director is hugely different, they all managed to contribute to the whole without losing the thread of stylistic continuity between them. None of the films were truly bad. But some of the Potter directors were better than others, and those who made the best ones were the riskiest choices.
If you want to talk cultural exchange in video games, consider the recent growth of franchise loaning – that is, a studio or publisher with a known franchise handing responsibility for a sequel, expansion, or spinoff to some other developer. In some cases it’s done for actual cultural reasons. With the Japanese market flagging, letting western developers touch traditionally Japanese titles may make them more accessible to western audiences. ENN even invented a delightful term for it: Westwashing.
We talk a lot about the stagnation inherent in over-franchisation of games – you know, Final Fantasy A Million, Call of Guitar Hero 14, what have you. Of course, publishers don’t exist in a vacuum. They over-franchise because gamers buy franchises, and historically new IP is riskier. Recognizing, then, that franchisation is likely to continue, challenging established traditions with new perspectives is a great idea. Let’s hire Antoine Fuqua to direct a Harry Potter film.
So far the results have generally been less than stellar. But I submit that this is more the result of poor collaborator choices rather than being a bad idea to begin with. Metroid: Other M could have – should have – been a masterpiece, and would have been had it not been for Team Ninja, a remarkably inept choice on Nintendo’s part. You don’t give the opportunity for grand feminist character exploration to a T&A factory. GRIN was never the right studio for Bionic Commando, and Slant Six doesn’t seem right for Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City. I have serious doubts about the handling of the new X-COM by 2K Australia, though in that one I really hope I’m wrong.
Collaboration is the future of all industry, including video games. Cultural exchange (and not just human culture – corporate culture, artistic culture, technical culture, that sort of thing) prevents inbreeding and enhances the likelihood of innovation. Of course, you have to choose your collaborators carefully. Because while the above examples represent really bad collaborative decisions, there have also been really good ones. Bethesda chose well when they gave Fallout: New Vegas to Obsidian. Heck, I prefer New Vegas to Bethesda’s own Fallout 3. Irrational did a nice job with SWAT 4 and Tribes Vengeance. Nival delivered us an outstanding Heroes of Might & Magic. Crystal Dynamics temporarily saved Tomb Raider. Blue Castle did well with Dead Rising 2.
The fact is some of the biggest franchises are stuck in deep ruts. Final Fantasy XIII was not a fantastic game. It did not tell a fantastic story. What it did do was stay so slavishly loyal to certain mores of Final Fantasy (while abandoning others) that it got lost in itself. In the wake of that and the disastrous Final Fantasy XIV, I applaud Square for taking the huge risk of letting someone else develop a Final Fantasy game. Had GRIN stayed in business maybe its contribution would have been a much-needed shot in the arm, even possibly forcing Square to reevaluate its approach to the series. I doubt it, because I doubt Square gave GRIN that much leeway, but you never know. And as with Bionic Commando I don’t really see GRIN as the right studio for the job, though I think if Starbreeze or 4A got a crack at the franchise we might see something special.
New angles and viewpoints, while risky, can breathe life into things that have long since stagnated. They can challenge creators to expand beyond their normal boundaries. Moreover, letting someone else take over a project can stave off disaster if the original creators are too close or too careless to be trusted with the franchise. George Lucas had no business having anything to do with the second Star Wars trilogy. If he had done the right thing and challenged, say, Kevin Smith or Catherine Hardwicke (or Antoine Fuqua) to do it, it might have actually been good. The second trilogy needed to be done by someone who had grown up with Star Wars, someone who loved it much more than Lucas ever did. By keeping it to himself he ruined his own work.
You know, JK Rowling wanted Terry Gilliam to direct the Harry Potter movies. Now that would have been an awesome take on the franchise. It probably wouldn’t have been a good move on Warner Bros’ part (Gilliam’s visual genius is eclipsed only by his consistent inability to produce a film on time or within budget), but the movies would have been feasts. Sometimes you can find brilliant collaborators in unexpected places. Double Fine, for example, is the perfect choice for a Sesame Street game. When you think about it, it’s so obvious and so right. Since franchisation is not going anywhere, it seems only logical that franchise owners do what they can to keep things fresh.
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