Are Yearly Releases Worth It? An Analysis of a Growing Practice

Yearly franchise releases are nothing new – sports games have been releasing a new entry every year since 1990 and John Madden Football. However, more and more developers are taking part in this trend than ever before. Developers such as Activision-Blizzard with Call of Duty, Ubisoft with Assassin’s Creed, and even lesser known developers like Gust and the Atelier series have all hopped on the bandwagon. But is that bandwagon bringing them to a good place? Let’s take a look at the positives and negatives of the practice, and get a better understanding of why some companies take part in yearly franchise releases.

The Negative

One of the noticeable downsides to yearly releases by critics is sales. Sales of new yearly franchise entries are sometimes lower than their predecessors for multiple reasons: brand fatigue, poor production value, and a market flooded by the franchise are just some of these reasons. There are plenty of gamers out there that are fans of yearly franchises, but don’t have the time to keep up with yearly releases – for instance, after playing Assassin’s Creed III and Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation at launch in 2012, I didn’t touch the next entry, Black Flag, until just last month. Some people who fall behind choose to wait to purchase newer entries until they catch up or when the price drops – inevitably hurting sales numbers.

Companies such as Activision-Blizzard and Ubisoft have seen a decline in the sales of their franchises’ yearly releases. Assassin’s Creed Unity, one of Ubisoft’s 2014 major titles for the franchise, sold slightly over 6.5 million copies globally according to VGChartz.com. In comparison, Assassin’s Creed II has sold over 11 million copies worldwide. New Call of Duty titles have been underselling their previous installments for the past few years, and franchises like Rock Band and Guitar Hero are now releasing new installments after years of hiatus, possibly due to brand fatigue.

However, this trend may not be all its hyped up to be from the community. Looking at the sales of the Assassin’s Creed franchise, it’s hard to find a correlation between yearly releases and negative sales. In fact, sales had increased yearly for the franchise between 2010 and 2012, and 2013’s Black Flag had sold almost as much as its predecessor (albeit on 5 consoles versus 3). Even when new entries perform worse than the previous one, games like Assassin’s Creed Unity and Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare still sell enough titles to be considered financial blockbusters.

Another massively cited downside to yearly releases is production value. When Assassin’s Creed Unity launched last year, it was marred by frame rate issues, fatal errors, and graphical glitches that had caused players to become vocally distressed. It has been an increasing trend for video games to launch with bugs and errors that require Day 1 patches. Instead of taking more time to test and produce a game, some companies are pushing games out to meet their release windows. Incidents like this have long lasting repercussions...or at least long enough for the next installment to release. According to Ubisoft executive Alain Martinez, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate’s sales have been affected by Unity’s poor reception, as seen in Syndicate’s opening week sales being some of the lowest that the franchise has seen, only higher than Assassin’s Creed: Rogue which released alongside Unity to little marketing fanfare.

Some developers have taken the downfalls of yearly releases to heart, and have taken steps to break the cycle. Gust, the developer behind the JRPG Atelier franchise, recently delayed their next title to “further enhance the game’s quality.” During a Q&A session at this year’s Blizzcon, Blizzard Entertainment employees answered a question about Blizzard’s claim last year that they would aim to release new expansions yearly. “Faster launch is still the goal, we don't know if we'll get to one a year,” they said on stage. “Our overriding commitment is to quality.”

The Positive

Yearly releases aren’t all negative, though. For developers and publishers, these yearly releases generally give them a reliable source of revenue that allows them to continue making new games, both in the franchise and out. The more money a developer makes off of their established franchises, the more they have to put into a new IP. When it comes to using franchise funds to create new IPs, Blizzard Entertainment is a great example. World of Warcraft brings in large amounts of revenue for the company, along with new entries in their established franchises like Diablo and StarCraft. In recent years, Blizzard has used that revenue to create new, exciting games like Hearthstone, Heroes of the Storm, and Overwatch.

There are plenty of gamers who are happy with yearly releases, too. New versions of Just Dance offer new songs for you and your friends to dance to, and Call of Duty offers new maps and weapons to play around with. If sales numbers are any indication, there are still millions of people who enjoy running around new historical locations as assassins, playing sports with the latest rosters, or shooting against online opponents for hours on new maps. If people didn't enjoy these franchises that release yearly entries, then we wouldn't be talking about them in the first place!

How do you feel about yearly franchises? Do you think they’ve had a positive or negative affect on series that you like? Let us know in the comments section below!

Written by Thorrash on November 28, 2015 @ 10:52 am

Comments


November 29, 2015 @ 3:58 pm Hydric
I can't really decide if they are more positive or negative because I have had good and bad things come out of it. I do however find myself blaming things on yearly releases saying things like "Well this bug wouldn't be here if they didnt push out this new one so fast!!" Sure that might not be true at all but I do think it haha!

November 30, 2015 @ 10:13 pm BroRocker
Great post! I have mostly negative feelings towards annual releases now for multiple reasons, and I'll site a couple of franchises in doing so. First off, I have been a huge Assassin's Creed fan since the first game, I have played almost every major release in the series except Syndicate. The thing that drew me into those games the most, outside of the gameplay, was the story in the modern world with Desmond. I believe that when the series started, Ubisoft had an idea of where they wanted to take that story and had more of an ending in site with Desmond; however, once they realized they could annualize the series they started to make that overall plot more convoluted to the point where they mutilated a brilliant and exciting overarching plot. In the process, the gameplay went from innovated to copy/paste. In the first couple of Assassin's Creed, the series felt fresh and the stakes felt high in the story. While I still enjoy this franchise, I believe releasing a new version year after year has hurt the overall legacy of the series. On another note, I would say another example of how annualized franchises are bad is Call of Duty. This is also more of a reflection on the fps genre, in general, but when you have so many new fps games coming out constantly, it makes all of them have short lifespans and less and less player bases. Shooters rely on a strong, diverse, and populated multiplayer base in order to thrive. With more and more of these series coming out annually or even every other year, the lifespans of these games is shorter and shorter as people continuously move from one new title to the next, leaving only the best players after a couple of months and making those titles less new-user friendly. I think this all reflects on an over-saturated market that, when it comes to a lot of AAA companies, makes the gaming industry feel less innovative.

December 02, 2015 @ 1:03 pm BroRocker
I wanted to chime in on another point you made about how yearly releases can sometimes be a bit overwhelming to keep up with, namely with Assassin's Creed. Another point I wanted to make was how, because AC is not really a multiplayer series, it doesn't give incentive to pick up the title at launch. One thing that bugged me this past year was how quickly Assassin'c Creed Unity's price dropped. I bought the game on PC upon release and had to deal with all the bugs. When I bought my Xbox One in March of this year, the game was down to $15.00 in most stores. It was at that point I decided I am never buying another AC game on release knowing that I can get it a few short months later for a fraction of the cost - not to mention that it will be patched by that point.

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