There’s been debate over the validity of annual game releases. Long before Call of Duty took the front of the gaming field by releasing a title every year (starting in 2006 with Call of Duty 2) games like Madden NFL have been consistently releasing a new title every single year. In fact, the aforementioned Madden has been steadily releasing new titles since 1991; that’s well over 20 games in the series, not including spin-offs.
We keep asking, “When is enough, enough?”, but what about the converse, “When is it too little, too late?” In a recent discussion with some fellow gamers on the topic of Call of Duty, it was asked of me whether there is a similar feeling towards games with extended release delays between titles. The example brought to me was Max Payne 3, which is being released nearly a decade after Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne. The question was: is it possible to enjoy or care about a game so far after the last iteration was released? And is it any different than the excessive releasing done by Activision (COD) and EA (Madden)?
Admittedly, I felt a bit of pensiveness about Max Payne 3. For starters: it has been almost a decade since Max’s story was told. On top of that, the game will no longer take place on the dark, gritty streets of New York. Max Payne is getting modernized—a tactic many game companies are using for reboots/sequels lately. MP3 is slated to take place on the hot streets of São Paulo, Brazil, and takes place some years after MP2’s biting conclusion. Rockstar have also shifted development teams, and Sam Lake was not brought on to write the third installment. The issue that arises from this is that not only has it been a long time since the last story concluded, but the entire setting has changed. Can an American crime-noire hold up in another country? Will São Paulo be a brand new and cohesive setting, or will it inevitably be New York reskinned?
Can a game really be relevant after such a long time between releases? And is it really any different than the ennui we’re developing seeing the same title cranked out every year with only a few minor tweaks to the engine, or arbitrary changes to game mechanics—e.g. adding more multiplayer content, but not fixing the bugs/issues of previous installments; just adding a new roster; now you can use both analogue sticks?
Typically, if a game was mediocre when it came out, a sequel might be regarded with disdain and scorn; most hoping the title would be forgotten to history. Or perhaps it would incite rage that something so mediocre would be getting a sequel treatment above something they feel deserves it more. Alternatively, if the game was good—or even great—fans and critics may feel that far too much time has elapsed to consider the new addition to the series relevant, or even a good idea (e.g. my previous comments on Max Payne 3). And to an extent they would be right.
The reason I say that is because some games just belong in a particular time period. A major reason why Duke Nukem Forever failed to deliver was that the game itself had outlived its relevancy. Duke as a character embodied everything that was cheesy and fun about 90’s action stars (film and game). It can and will be argued that DNF ultimately failed due to the poor implementation of the different game mechanics, and yes, they contributed to the debacle. However, his misogynistic exploits and demeanor eschews the poignant, grand-scaled, and tight-formed stories that most major companies are trying to release today.
As such, his character would feel entirely out of place unless he was given new characteristics, or even an overarching development from pissed off “bad boy”, to a wiser, deeper man. But such a change would ruin everything that made Duke what he truly was, and more than likely would have alienated even more people who were approaching the product.
A logical decision Gearbox would make with any future Duke Nukem iterations (Randy Pitchford has already hinted that they will release a new Duke title) is to design Duke as a washed up hero who is called in as a last ditch effort to save the galaxy. This could serve as a parody of the waning of the same movies/games Duke was originally a parody of, thus adding a level of complexity not only to his character—while not stripping away his persona and what made him a driving force to begin with—but to the jokes presented to us throughout the title.
There is a fine line that needs to be drawn as to how and where—or even if—a product can be released decades after it was first popular. Titles like Mass Effect and Halo can span that gap because they’re not rooted in any form of our reality, past or immediate. They take place in either an alternate universe, or the future, but don’t directly tie in current issues as metaphors or allegories. The same can be held for games like Resistance, or even Uncharted/Tomb Raider.
Instead, these games offer alternative viewpoints of reality, creating a universe of their own that can subsist off of their own rules and regulations; thus allowing them to be relevant regardless of what time they are released. What comes into play as a difficulty is the story. The more complex the story, the less time you can and should wait to release your next iteration. Otherwise your fan-base will have long forgotten where you had been going, or just generally losing their interest to the next big thing.
With titles like Call of Duty, where the solo campaign is pretty much second to the online experience, it seems to make more sense financially to release a new title every year. At the same time, however, it’s burning itself out by not taking a year or two off to fully refine the game. Even more so, the developers forget to focus on a strong or even lengthy campaign with decent writing. The multiplayer aspect of the game is the primary focal point—so much so that we’re essentially buying up expansion packs of previous games, but marked up to a full-game price. The same can be said for most titles that release annually without granting any real changes.
So what is the fine line between too soon or too late? It depends on the type of title; what it is offering to us, the consumer; and the reality in which the game is based/grounded. There will never be a universal definition of when a new title needs to come out soon, or when it’s too late to release it, but it will almost always be easy to individually define.