I’ve previously compared gamers that choose a favorite video game platform, developer, or franchise to sports fans that pick a team and become psychologically invested in that team’s victories. After mulling it over a bit more, I have to say that it was a poor comparison: Gamers are far more justified in “picking a team” than sports fans are, because they receive a benefit more tangible than the sense of pride that comes from people they admire being really good at handling balls.
In the video game industry, gamers can no longer get the games they like if their team loses. There are various different types and levels of competition and losses too. Platforms compete to get sales and better third party support. Developers compete to stay alive and make the games they want. Games themselves compete against everything that releases in their window, as well as the performance of their sequels, spin-offs, and potential successors.
The Wii U is a great example of a platform that lost, and illustrates how losing affected fans of the Nintendo brand. The platform was outperformed by the competition and garnered paltry sales. Third parties bailed out, preferring to focus on the platforms that actually made them money, which left Nintendo fans with huge droughts, unless they bought a new platform. Even then, people who were only interested in Nintendo games had their enjoyment impaired too.
The rushed Mario Tennis Ultra Smash was put into the Black Friday slot over the amazing Xenoblade Chronicles X (above), because the Wii U was failing and Mario had a more recognizable name.
After it was clear the Wii U was failing, development focused on big names and trusted IPs over new creations. When those big names, like 3D Mario, Mario Kart, and Smash, were unable to right the ship, development moved to new platforms. The console games began to shift to the Nintendo Switch, and more emphasis was placed on supporting the money making 3DS than the dying Wii U. The remaining Wii U projects were rushed to a conclusion and left to die with no support, as seen with the terrible Animal Crossing amiibo Festival, and the stellar Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE.
Once the Wii U ship started to list, there was never a chance fans would get F-Zero or Metroid level IPs on the platform. Splatoon was an exception, because it was a small scale, budget project with a great concept. The Wii U release would act like a testfire to gauge interest and provide feedback. It performed incredibly well, and even earned a Nintendo Switch sequel over an enhanced port of the original.
A step lower on the totem pole, developers have to compete in sales to stay alive, and nowhere is that more easily seen than in developers consumed by the bloated mega-publisher, EA. Once a developer gets tied up with the Grim Reaper of Talent, the countdown begins. If one of the developer’s flagship games performs below expectations, which can happen when shoddy monetization and “mass appeal” elements are forced onto the development team, the studio is eviscerated. All fans are left with are memories and an empty husk of something that once made wonderful games. Even if a game franchise survives its developer’s talent drain, or death, it’s never the same.
“I’m only human after all, don’t put the blame on me!” RIP BioWare.
Another good example is Platinum Games, the last bastion of pure action in video games. With the cancellation of Scalebound, and Platinum’s reputation as the king of awesome games that under-perform, people began to worry: Their only known upcoming project was a sequel to a niche spin-off of an incredibly niche franchise. Fortunately, Nier: Automata went on to be a critical and financial success, while Platinum’s amazing backlog is gradually being ported to PC, providing a much needed source of income.
If Platinum Games were to fall, an entire subgenre of video games, the character action game, would die with them. Sure there’s still DMC, but Capcom hasn’t delivered a completely new DMC in over a decade and Ninja Theory’s efforts didn’t quite grasp the point of the genre. This is why Platnum’s fans are constantly trying to proselytize others: Platinum Games feels like a mercenary game developer teetering on the brink of collapse. None of their games take off and become multi-millions sellers. Just one more Wonderful 101 sales bomb and they’re done, no more stylish action, no more Bayonetta, no more Platinum flair.
Things get even more treacherous when you become a fan of a certain video game series. At this level, competition comes in many forms, from all sides. Titanfall 2 was the best FPS of 2016 by a long shot, but it was torn to shreds by the competition. Call of Duty and Battlefield completely overshadowed it. Titanfall 2’s own publisher, EA, left it to die in favor of their darling Battlefield 1, but at least it wasn’t as bad as the bloodbath that was Overwatch’s vicious murder of Battleborn.
In-house competition between franchises isn’t all that uncommon either. Remember Prince of Persia? It was unceremoniously dropped for Assassin’s Creed, because a single entry of the yearly franchise is a much better investment of Ubisoft’s money than the entire Prince of Persia franchise combined. In today’s AAA scene, large developer publishers are handsomely rewarded for milking annual sequels from their biggest franchise, as opposed to supporting multiple franchises in the same genre.
This is the winning Paper Mario formula as far as Nintendo’s concerned, and sales back it up.
More insidious still, is when an established franchise takes a new direction or picks up new elements, which then become so successful that the franchise is forever altered. The Paper Mario RPGs were killed by the success of the adventure-styled Super Paper Mario and Paper Mario: Sticker Star. Fire Emblem was almost canceled, but it was saved by appealing to the internet’s shipping community with Awakening’s dating sim elements. Now, every new Fire Emblem will have the feature tacked on. Nobody’s going to hate on the immaculate Resident Evil 4, but there’s no denying that it killed the traditional Resident Evil survival horror formula, to the point that I’m expecting Leon to have a knife fight with Bio-Birkin and suplex at least one enemy type in the upcoming Resident Evil 2 Remake.
There will always be knob-ish fans that complain when a third party exclusive series goes multi-platform, but not every fan that gets into the competitive aspect of the “console wars,” or celebrates their team’s sales, are mindless corporate shills. All too often people forget video games are actually a serious business, and making money is the name of the game for publishers’ higher ups, not making video games. That’s why fans can get so excitable at times: If their favorite gaming product fails to perform well, or simply gets outperformed, there’s a very real possibility that the things they like will disappear.