Halo again! Why it's deja vu as reboots rule the roost in a risk-conscious games world
At least some of the people who lined up at GameStop locations last Monday night to buy the new Halo game the moment it came out were younger than Halo itself.
Microsoft's most popular gaming franchise turns 14 this year. And while the game released last Tuesday is called Halo 5, it is really the 13th version to have been published. Microsoft holds this as an example of the enduring appeal of the Halo story. It's also a reminder of how much major game companies rely on seemingly endless versions of a few popular franchises.
With the video game release season upon us, many of the biggest titles will be familiar, even to people who haven't played a game in years. The new Call of Duty, which comes out in November, is an update on a line of over a dozen games that is over a decade old. The Fallout series, whose new game comes out soon, dates to the mid-1990s. Star Wars: Battlefront also updates a decade-old franchise based on a movie franchise that has been around since Jimmy Carter was US President.
"The game industry lives off of sequels," said David Cole of consulting firm DFC Intelligence. "It is pretty rare to see major new franchises launched." The best time for new franchises, he said, are when a new generation of game consoles is released.
Two ambitious new franchises, Titanfall and Destiny, were created last year for the newest game consoles and have done well. But Cole said that as the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 age, publishers will become increasingly likely to focus on established titles.
The gaming industry is often compared to Hollywood, another creative industry with a well-documented case of sequelitis. In both cases, the root causes are similar. Premium video games, like Hollywood blockbusters, have become enormously expensive to create, ranging into the hundreds of millions of dollars. "These video games are getting so expensive and risky, the best thing for them to do is put their money into a known franchise," said Ed Fries, a former Xbox executive who sits on the boards of a handful of gaming companies.
Perhaps the easiest formula for success is sports. Three of the four top-selling games last month were sports games, according to market researcher NPD. But Fries said the temptation to pile on titles leads to diminishing returns. "The way you can kill a franchise is by putting out too many sequels too quickly," he said. "That annual release cycle sounds good to a publisher but, in reality, I think it's been behind hurting some of the big franchises."
Fries singles out Assassin's Creed by Ubisoft, which has published eight console games and a smartphone app in the last five years. Recent incarnations of the game have been rated lower by critics and fans than older versions were, according to Metacritic, an aggregator of entertainment reviews.
This is the first new Halo game for Xbox since 2012, although versions of some older titles have been repackaged. Fries thinks that this increases the chance that each additional title will be well-received.
343 Industries is the studio that makes Halo. More than other game franchises, it thinks that it can keep people engaged by rolling out a steady stream of books, videos, and other fiction. "If Halo fades away into the sunset, it might simply be because the stories just weren't good anymore," said Frank O'Connor, franchise development director at 343. "If you keep doing good storytelling, you keep creating interesting and compelling characters and scenarios, there's no real limit."
Microsoft marketed Halo 5 almost as a movie sequel, talking up a narrative twist in which Master Chief, the game's traditional protagonist, may have betrayed his cause and is pursued by a newer character named Spartan Locke.
Early reviews have criticised the makers for overplaying their hand. Sam Byford, a reviewer for The Verge, refers to the story as "decoration" and says it is almost impossible to follow. (To be fair, near-incoherence has been a steady attribute of the Halo narrative.)
"The sense remains that you're missing out on much of the story if you don't catch up with the litany of spin-off novels, comic books, and TV series," wrote Byford. "And the central conflict between Locke and Master Chief, highlighted so heavily in the game's marketing, turns out to be a serious letdown." The cliffhanger at the end leaves him only "somewhat interested in the inevitable Halo 6."
That doesn't mean Byford thinks people shouldn't buy the game. Halo's plot is only part of the game's appeal, and he said the design of the action in the game is a complete success. It's the best reason yet, he says, to buy an Xbox One.