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What Happens When New Developers Take Over Established Franchises?
Earlier this week, Epic Games officially revealed a new Gears of War title. Dubbed Gears of War: Judgement Day, the game was teased to us by way of a Game Informer cover leak.
Since then, speculation and interest has spiked, lighting the internet ablaze with ideas of what the next game might offer to Gears fans.
One of the most interesting things we learned about the game, however, is that it will not be developed by Epic themselves, but rather the Polish development studio of Bulletstorm fame People Can Fly.
Other than delaying games, it seems that 2012 is beginning to see a trend: popular franchises are being handed over to new game development studios and being re-imagined by a completely new team separate from the ones who originally pioneered the franchise.
Most notably, we’ve seen this with the likes of upcoming games Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time, and the highly-anticipated Halo 4.
Sly Cooper has been passed down to Sanzaru Games from original developer Suckerpunch, and Bungie has handed the beloved Halo franchise over to newcomer 343 Industries.
Of course, this isn’t the first time a phenomenon like this has taken place; many games have had development team swaps or have been shipped off to completely new studios.
But it begs the question: is this a good thing?
The tricky thing about franchises is that they’re familiar; once they become successful, they build a solid fan base, and a certain level of continuity must exist within the game in order for people to embrace it. If you make a Halo game, it has to “feel” like a Halo game, with all the title’s original conventions intact and untouched.
This leaves little room for experimentation or even creativity on the new developer’s part. If they begin to depart from the game’s familiar feel, they risk being accused of killing the franchise and end up having a negative black spot marked on their resume. Gamers are passionate people, and threatening anything they feel strongly about can be a dangerous business.
But can new developers take a game and make it just as fresh and “right” as the original creators?
A franchise we’ve seen suffer from this is the Silent Hill series. Originally released for the PSX in 1999, Silent Hill was the game that made survival horror a viable genre with its innovative use of atmosphere, storytelling, and design. Since then, it’s been a beloved series with a dedicated fan base, but its recent installments have come under heavy fire for breaking away from the characteristics unique to the Silent Hill series and making a more sub-par horror game.
The two that have been the most heavily accused of this in recent history are Silent Hill: Homecoming, and Silent Hill: Downpour, both of which were passed from Konami to new development studios.
Silent Hill: Homecoming was handed over to Double Helix Games and released in 2008. It had a mediocre reception, with game scores falling just down the middle in the “meh” category. The biggest complaint about the game was that, although solid, it simply did not deliver with the scares fans were so desperately wanting. It wasn’t hated; but it sure wasn’t loved by the majority of fans, either.
2011’s release of Silent Hill: Downpour, however, has been called one of the series’ low points. It received poor reviews, and complaints of the game ranged from poor graphical performance to a lousy story and more lack of scares. It’s been said that the game had some high points when the fright was there, but the moments were few and far between, filled in with mediocrity the rest of the way.
On the other side, Metroid: Other M was part of a well-established franchise dating back to the early days of Nintendo that received the same developer swap treatment. Team Ninja, the studio of Ninja Gaiden creator Tomonobu Itagaki, was the team that developed Other M. While not nearly as beloved as the rest of the games in the franchise, the game received reviews on the better end of the spectrum and it was said to have one of the better storylines in the Metroid franchise history.
So, who can be trusted here?
One way to look at this is the way bands cover other artist’s music. Sure, the basic elements of the original will be there, but it will have some difference to it, simply because it’s being crafted by a new hand. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it’s just the way art works.
Games are no different. Whenever they are traded to new development teams, change is inevitable, be it in gameplay or otherwise. But when the developer can find the sweet spot between producing what fans are so familiar with while applying their own unique ideas to it, things have the possibility of working out for the better.
Now, whether or not Sly Cooper, Gears, and Halo will be a success or mutually hated is not yet known, as the games have not yet been released. But with a strong following and presence in the industry, you can bet the heat is on for the developers working on the game. It’s easy to get negative about it and try to write it off before getting your hands on the game, but hopefully the developers have kept in mind that it’s a gamble to depart too far from what we’re used to.
But, like with so many other unknowns in life, only time will tell.