Are Sequels, Publishers Or a Crowded Calendar to Blame for 2016’s Video Game Disappointments?
2016 will no doubt be remembered as an historic, if disconcerting year. Over the past 12 months, we’ve had Trump, we’ve had Brexit; we’ve seen underdogs triumph in the face of adversary and the unimaginable come to pass, quite frankly. Narrow that focus down to the video game industry and you’ll find a similarly peculiar mix of record-breaking highs and disappointing lows; of indie developers overcoming the sophomore slump with aplomb (here’s looking at you, Playdead), and AAA tentpoles struggling to meet expectations — be they commercial, financial, or simply those placed upon ‘game X’ by wanting fans.
Yes, if 2016 was a novel — a nervy page-turner, if you will — December stands as the introspective epilogue, an opportunity to cast one’s mind back on the past 12 months to identify Game of the Year candidates, the biggest of all let-downs, and those titles that will inevitably wind up on that monstrous backlog.
But arguably the one trend to spark conversation across the four corners of the industry revolves around that one, scathing word: disappointment. For in 2016, disappointments came in all shapes and sizes. We had No Man’s Sky, a budding new IP hyped up beyond measure, only to be met with underwhelming reviews and a community that was almost unforgiving in its U-turn. Crestfallen after launch, No Man’s Sky has since weathered the storm (to an extent), but it’s fair to say the industry at large — from PR executives right down to the end user — won’t forget about those wildly overblown expectations and unfulfilled promises in a hurry.
Too Many Games?
On a purely financial level, video game sequels generally failed to make much of a dent over the past 12 months, when Titanfall 2, Dishonored 2, Watch Dogs 2 — that’s a whole lotta’ twos — struggled to bring in the big bucks and meet internal targets. Ditto for Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, Mirror’s Edge Catalyst and Homefront: The Revolution, though it should be noted the latter endured a trying dev cycle involving multiple studios and allegations of internal strife.
They’re inherently less risky than original fare given their built-in awareness — the players know what they’re getting in for, generally speaking, while creators face the somewhat tricky task of balancing the old with the new, fanning the flames of franchise potential as they go. At least, that’s the idea.
But with so many video game sequels underwhelming — critically in some cases, commercially in others — where does the blame fall? Can 2016’s misfires simply be chalked up to a crammed calendar? Or is there more at play? It’s not always easy to pinpoint exactly why one sequel succeeds when another fails. Content is king, of course, but this year stands as a pointed reminder that timing is often just as important — if not more so — than the actual quality of the video game itself. Mafia 3, for instance, became 2K’s fastest-selling title back in October in spite of mixed reviews, shipping upwards of 4.5 million copies during its first week alone. The opposite was true for Titanfall 2. Respawn’s sequel may have received high praise at launch, but underwhelming sales now mean that the future of the series is precarious at best.
Sandwiched in between Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare and Battlefield 1, for many, the writing was on the wall long before release. Two years ago, Titanfall stormed onto the scene with its blistering multiplayer and hulking mechs, only for a handful of Xbox and PC players to bemoan the lack of single-player. Respawn took much, if not all of that feedback on board to engineer a multi-platform sequel replete with a story campaign and yet, due to lowly sales, Titanfall 3 is by no means a sure-thing.
Regardless of quality, we’ve seen that stiff competition and strategic errors on the publisher’s end can clip a game’s wings before it can really take flight, which is all the more disheartening considering how much we loved Respawn’s intoxicating sequel — heck, it even laid claim to the Best Shooter accolade in our Best of 2016 awards.
By the same token, choosing to release a title during a relatively slack corridor can often result in ‘Game X’ exceeding expectations altogether. In 2015, an early January launch ensured Dying Light became a bona fide sleeper hit, while the same can be said for this year’s Stone Age adventure Far Cry Primal, after delivering “the best performance ever for a game released in the month of February.” And that represents a record for the entire industry, not just Ubisoft.
A Question of Timing
Much like the film industry, there’s no question that studio executives and the ensuing red tape hold the power to influence your typical release window, and more often than not a game’s launch will be determined by said company’s fiscal year. There are exceptions to the rule, of course. The Last Guardian and Final Fantasy XV, two long-gestating projects labelled as vapourware for the longest time, touched down late in the year after both enduring a last-minute delay. The former performed overly well among critics, but the string of post-launch updates for FFXV suggest that at the very least, the development team was forced into some form of compromise as 2016 drew to a close. A ten-year development cycle is a lifetime in the industry, and the thought of pushing Final Fantasy XV — or indeed The Last Guardian — into 2017 almost doesn’t bear thinking about.
And then there’s Call of Duty. What’s a yearly retrospective without touching base on Activision’s first-person juggernaut? As per the publisher’s three-tier dev cycle, Infinity Ward took point at the helm for Infinite Warfare, a far-future shooter that failed to reach the dizzying heights of its predecessor, Black Ops 3. According to Activision, Infinite Warfare still stands as the #1 console video game in the US — it’s Call of Duty, for crying out loud — but 2017 will need to herald a return to form for the blockbuster series, one that doesn’t involve remastered games bundled in with premium editions so as to drive sales.
2016 wasn’t all doom and gloom, however; Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End and Dark Souls 3, two landmark sequels, took their respective franchises to a whole new level sales-wise, while Doom stands as a shining example of rebooting a dormant icon. In a crammed fall, Battlefield 1 enjoyed the biggest launch in DICE’s history — based on the number of Daily Active Users, that is — after circling back to The Great War, a creative decision deemed somewhat risky when it was first announced.
Similarly to Doom, Insomniac’s Ratchet & Clank proved to be one of this year’s more welcome surprises — a title one can also extend to Hitman. It’s a different beast altogether, of course, and Square’s stealthy reboot has enjoyed perhaps the longest tail of any 2016 title thanks to its episodic structure.
The Power of Brand Equity
So don’t let the naysayers fool you, there were triumphant highs peppered across the past 12 months. As for that burning question of who’s to blame for 2016’s let-downs, it’s arguably better to treat each disappointment on a case-by-case basis. Some, like Homefront: The Revolution, endured a rocky development that resulted in a half-cooked open world shooter — one that will now unfortunately be dismissed as a sequel we never needed in the first place. It’s a cutthroat outlook, but more than anything it reminds us that AAA video games are costly endeavours, resulting in a margin for error that is practically indiscernible. One misstep — one unforced error — can be calamitous for the end product, and we can only hope that developers, publishers and PR firms alike learn from 2016’s biggest blunders.
All in all, 2016 will be remembered as one of the most varied and downright bizarre years in recent memory — and all of this without a new Assassin’s Creed to peruse. It’s now time to dust ourselves down and prepare for another whirlwind year. Do your worst, 2017. We’re ready…at least, we think we are.
This article expresses the opinion of the author and does not necessarily represent views of PSLS as a whole.