R P G A M E R . C O M   -   E D I T O R I A L S

How to Kill a Franchise

Trent Seely

Established series rake in big money for publishers. Unlike most new IPs, the future releases of well known franchises are more likely to be anticipated and pre-ordered well before any copies actually hit shelves. The name brand alone is enough to make numerous RPGamers fork out cash on good faith alone. It's the reason why the Final Fantasy series has seen fourteen numbered entries, countless spin offs and remakes, two feature-length movies, and managed to sell over 85 million units to date. Not all good things under the sun are capable of lasting forever though, and every now and then a once-prolific series meets its demise at the hands of a single poor release. In a recent interview with Kotaku, Square Enix's Naoki Yoshida reflected on this topic while discussing why the initial release of Final Fantasy XIV failed. It's his assertion that by only aiming to create an MMORPG that felt different from Final Fantasy XI, instead of understanding what worked and could be improved, the original production team ended up with not much of anything at all. He even went as far as to state that another release like Final Fantasy XIV could have destroyed both the franchise and Square Enix. Many series that kick the bucket do so because of poor sales, but could it be that the real culprit is change for the sake of change?

Named after the books of Friedrich Nietzsche, Xenosaga exists almost solely because Namco was impressed with how well Xenogears performed commercially. After near universal critical praise and sales of over 1.19 million copies worldwide, the basic premise of this PlayStation classic was allowed to continue in the hands of Monolith Soft. Xenosaga Episode I: Der Wille zur Macht received a respectable amount of praise and strong sales, but fans and critics alike acknowledged the heavy weight of pretension attached to an otherwise plodding and slow narrative. Hopes were high for improvements with the sequel, but Episode II saw these expectations crash and burn. Not only was this game significantly shorter, but its music, sound design, battle system, character models, and character progression systems were all lambasted by critics. This sequel managed to sell less than a third of what its predecessor was able to accomplish. In September 2005, Namco officially announced that Episode III would mark the premature end of the Xenosaga series, which was originally planned to span six titles. Episode III fixed many of the broken elements that were implemented in the series' second entry, but the damage was already done and even fewer gamers came back to play the series finale. Namco would soon sell their entire 96% stake in the Monolith Soft.

Long before the Monster Hunter series was a gleam in Capcom's eye, the company maintained one flagship RPG series known among gamers for its recurring characters and perplexing continuity: Breath of Fire. Originating on the Super NES in 1993, entries in this long running series usually followed an adventurer named Ryu who had the uncanny ability to turn into various dragons. The series was interesting for its premise, art style, and unique themes, but it was never a mega seller like Final Fantasy or Kingdom Hearts. The release that served as the final nail in the franchise's coffin was Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter. Director Makoto Ikehara was determined to make a drastically different Breath of Fire title, and was tremendously successful as the game's playtime was shortened to roughly ten hours, traditional gameplay was scrapped, the difficulty was amped up, dragons now spoke Russian, and protagonist Ryu had become just an average joe. Dragon Quarters reception was mixed. On the one hand, Dragon Quarter looked, sounded, and played well, but many critics found that it was also too brisk in its delivery to provide a meaningful narrative and were let down by the repetitive nature of the Scenario Overlay system. Sales were anything but impressive as the series hit its all-time low. Capcom responded by putting the franchise on indefinite hiatus, only returning to make two cheap action RPG spin offs for Japanese mobile phones.

The SaGa series isn't everyone's cup of tea, but it has always maintained a dedicated fanbase. In essence, this can be attributed to the franchise's unique approach. SaGa titles are designed to be antithetical to linearity; many entries feature nonlinear gameplay, open-ended plot scenarios, unobstructed world exploration, and a free approach to character development. While these elements definitely set the franchise apart from its contemporaries, not even fans were prepared for further changes. Unlimited Saga is notable both for being the ninth entry in the SaGa series and the first to use a lower cased G in the title. Following the exploits of seven adventurers in search of ancient artifacts, Unlimited Saga took a departure from previous franchise entries by abandoning many RPG elements in favour of something more akin to tabletop gaming. Like a board game, the player would move from zone to zone, have to barter for inventory, face hidden traps, lose progress for almost no reason, and utilize features which were largely based on chance. Despite being initially embraced by Japanese gamers and prematurely declared a financial success by Square Enix, Unlimited Saga was not a well received title. The sequel was widely criticised for its painful difficulty, obtuse gameplay mechanics, absence of freedom, and unpleasant mission structure, with worldwide sales immediately nosediving as a result. Many critics and fans would claim that it had ruined the SaGa franchise and we even named it the Biggest Letdown of 2003 in our annual RPGamer Awards. Square Enix would eventually mothball the development of new, full installments in the series, only returning recently to teabag the SaGa name with a Japan-only GREE card game.

In all of these cases, otherwise strong RPG franchises were silenced by the drastic changes their creative teams made for the sake of change. Even the mighty Final Fantasy franchise was crippled enough by its most recent entry that Square Enix CEO Yoichi Wada publicly acknowledged the brand damage. This isn't to say that change is always a bad thing, but developers should understand what aspects of their franchise already work and where audience expectations lay before going head-first into an abundance of alterations.

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