Why don't game companies create more new IPs?
When it comes to the world of AAA games, totally new intellectual properties seem rarer than ever these days. Generally, new IPs are a risky venture, and because of that, some companies steer clear of them for years (or even decades) at a time.
Blizzard Entertainment is a perfect example of this risk-averse business practice. Overwatch is of course their most recent IP, and that was released in May of 2016. Before that, they released numerous new games over the last decade: Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, Heroes of the Storm, World of Warcraft, and StarCraft 2. All of these games were built off of Blizzard’s already established IPs.
And look at how Blizzard birthed Overwatch. The game started development as the next generation MMO just three years after World of Warcraft was released, and was under development for six years as Project Titan before being canceled. Blizzard had a reported 140 team members on the project. That’s a lot of people and money to dedicate to a new IP for six years only to see it canceled and eventually repurposed.
Industry Wide Complacency
Electronics Arts, as a whole, has been making essentially the same games for decades. They’ve supported the FIFA series since 1993, Madden NFL since 1989, Need for Speed since 1994, The Sims since 2000, Battlefield since 2002, and Medal of Honor saw a 13-year run. Not to mention the numerous other series that they continue to support that haven’t quite hit that long of a tenure. To give you some perspective, the combined lifetime revenue (approx.) for Need for Speed, Madden, and The Sims is at least $9 billion dollars, and we’re missing the last few years of revenues.
Over at Microsoft, they have capitalized on the success of the Halo franchise that was birthed back in 2001 by Bungie studios. Since then we’ve had Halo 2, Halo 3, Halo 4, Halo 5, Halo: Reach, Halo: ODST, Halo Wars, Halo Wars 2, Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary, Halo: The Master Chief Collection, and in the future we’ll see Halo 6. The estimated revenues for the franchise are around $5 billion.
And let’s start beating the dead horse early and take a look at Nintendo, though it’d probably be easier to tell you the games that are actually new. Mario, Zelda, and Pokémon have been staples of their money making games forever, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. Pokémon by itself has raked in $46.2 billion across all forms of entertainment, and Mario is at an impressive $7 billion as of 2002, meaning it’s probably much higher by now.
So in an age when we have the amazing power to create, write, render, and distribute any game, anywhere, at anytime, why do we keep seeing the same subjects over and over from companies like Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony? Are the companies just catering to what the audience wants? Or is it because they don’t want to take risks once they’ve found a winning formula in this day and age where companies, regardless of business, can rise and fall on a whim? If you know you can make the same game next year with very little effort, and make substantial money, why bother taking the risk on a new IP?
And as consumers, do we care?
Let’s talk about Microsoft’s flagship franchise, Halo. Over the course of the Halo franchise they have been able to draw in the gaming community and create a great series. It was, by all accounts, a risk to go for a futuristic console FPS space opera in 2001. The world wasn’t as ready for sci-fi as a whole back then like we are now. First-person shooters were still stuck in the World War rut that had and continued to be prevalent for years to come.
So why would Microsoft take the risk? In hindsight we can see why, but hindsight is always 20/20. Perhaps Microsoft saw in their pitch meetings that they were setting out to create something truly unique for the time. Something that could last, and possibly something that they would be able to milk for the next decade, which they have.
But you start to see a trend with new IPs in relation to consoles. They often show up whenever the new consoles are released. Halo was an exclusive launch title for the Xbox and was needed to draw in the customers. The other games launched with the Xbox were mostly updated sports games, or copies of other franchises, something we could get on the PlayStation 2. And without the draw of a game like Halo the Xbox may have faltered and failed to grab the share of the market that it did. Microsoft could have been looking at a piece of hardware that would only collect dust in their customer’s homes.
We also need to look at something like the Forza series that Microsoft produced. While it was technically a new IP, it was in essence, a copy of other racing games. In fairness, it’s pretty hard to be innovative with realistic racing games, and Gran Turismo had been dominating the market for eight years when Forza hit the scene. And with Gran Turismo bringing in $2.5 billion dollars it’s no wonder Microsoft wanted a piece of the pie. The game would be relatively easy to create and required little innovation to be successful. So in this case Microsoft created a new IP to keep their customers on their console exclusively.
By the time of the Xbox 360 time Microsoft had established themselves as a feasible choice in the console wars. At launch in North America, one of biggest draws was Perfect Dark Zero, and while it wasn’t a new IP, it was a fresh game. By most accounts that wasn't a very good game, but it was exclusive to the 360, and probably drew people in due to the success of its predecessor on the N64.
The biggest new IP for the Xbox 360 was Gears of War, which came a little less than a year later, and Halo 3 wouldn’t be released until September 2007, two years after the Xbox 360 was released. Both these releases were timed for the holiday season as incentive to get customers to buy the Xbox 360. So while there wasn’t a big initial draw for the 360, Microsoft used a new Gears of War IP to keep their customers happy while Halo 3 was being finished.
And then there’s the Xbox One. Like the previous generations it was filled with sports remakes, but it did have Ryse: Son of Rome as a launch title. The game, while beautiful, didn’t receive great reviews, so this time around their strategy failed. But by this time we also need to realize that Microsoft had their market share. Customers knew they would be getting the next iteration of Halo and Gears of War on the next console so they were okay with not having a huge new IP at console launch.
That was back in 2013 and the console is still around to this day with no signs of being retired, especially if the XBox One X is any indication. So four years into the Xbox One’s lifespan the customer base is becoming a little impatient with the same games year after year. And why wouldn’t they be? Which is why we see Microsoft promising to come out with new IPs this year instead of the usual Halo and Gears of War games.
I can’t talk about new IPs without bringing up Nintendo. Generation after generation, device after device: all have a Mario game, a Zelda game, and every couple of years we get a new Pokémon game.
When I look back and try to think of all the new IPs Nintendo has come out with in the past two decades, the list is pretty small. Many of their attempts were failures, and their biggest hits were always from the same franchises with few exceptions.
One of those exceptions is Pikmin. It was more or less a launch title for the GameCube, and is still pretty fresh to this day with only four games in the franchise. Like Microsoft, Nintendo needed to draw in its customers to the new console, because Sony was aiming to control the market with the PlayStation 2, and Microsoft was aiming to take a chunk from both of them.
While games like the eventual release of The Wind Waker and Metroid would draw fans to the GameCube those games weren’t around at launch. Games like Super Smash Bros. Melee were enough for me, but many fans would rather spend their money on a console with more than just Super Smash Bros. Melee. So we get games like Pikmin and Luigi’s Mansion from Nintendo to show their customers it’s still worth buying Nintendo and they can still innovate. But it’s important to remember at this point Nintendo was still fighting for the same customers that Sony and Microsoft were after, though that would soon change.
The release of the Nintendo Wii is where Nintendo had a shift in strategy. Yes, they released Red Steel with the Wii, and it was designed to draw in the consumer by using the motion technology that Microsoft and Sony had opted out of. And while the game sold well, it wasn’t actually that great by most opinions. Nintendo went on to make Red Steel 2, but that game didn’t sell well. The IP hasn’t seen any confirmed action since then, only rumors.
Another new IP I remember is Muramasa: The Demon Blade. The game was released on the Nintendo Wii on April 9th 2009, midway through the Wii’s lifespan. Out of all the games to grace the Nintendo Wii this is one of my favorites. The gameplay, the art style, and the storytelling is unique, especially in North America.
Ideally, the game would have helped the Nintendo Wii revive a bit of the enthusiasm for the console. A new, well-made IP is an easy way to boost sales and revive a flagging console, especially when you have Sony and Microsoft coming out with games like Halo, Uncharted, God of War, and numerous sandbox games. Unfortunately, Muramasa: The Demon Blade didn’t have the greatest reception. It sold well in the first month, but after that, the sales numbers faltered until it fell into obscurity.
Will things ever change?
Everything I’ve said about Microsoft can also apply to Sony. Games like Uncharted and God of War were new IPs that both birthed franchises, while games like Final Fantasy, Dynasty Warriors, and sports games shored up the bottom line.
So we have Microsoft and Sony, who used to bring out IPs to grab a share of the market, and now both have shifted to keeping their share of the market. They no longer need to fight over customers at the launch of a new console generation as they did in the past. But they are still fighting for much of the same market, which forces them to continue to create and innovate with new IPs. It’s understandable that consumers feel a bit worn out after all the games in the Halo and Final Fantasy franchises, and are demanding something new.
Then there’s Nintendo, a company which largely seems to have given up on coming out with significant new IPs. Does anyone really expect ARMS to become a cornerstone of Nintendo's gaming world into the future?
Sometimes I even think that Nintendo views new IPs as a sort of novelty item. Something worth trying, but if it doesn’t work out it’s okay, because they have Mario and Pokémon to rake in the money. However, that’s not the entire story with Nintendo. I said that they shifted directions with the Wii, and it’s true. Instead of coming out with brand new IPs they decided to change how their existing ones were played, something they’ve actually been doing for decades. That's something we don’t quite see in games like Gears of War, where we get the same waist-high cover-based combat in every game.
Look at each iteration of The Legend of Zelda. The Wind Waker brought a new type of world to the series, Twilight Princess brought motion controls, and Breath of the Wild brought open world and a much more nonlinear type of gameplay. You move further back into the timeline and you continue to see the same thing. Majora’s Mask brought urgency and time management, Four Swords brought us multiple Links, and Oracle of Seasons/Ages brought us new ways to deal with the environment.
Mario has been given the same treatment, with versions like Paper Mario, Super Mario Sunshine, and Super Mario Galaxy. Each version bringing us a fresh way to enjoy a franchise we’ve loved forever. As long as Nintendo continues to come up with fresh ways to play their games the customer will be okay with them recycling the same IP over and over.
In the end, if we keep buying the same IPs, companies will keep making them. There will always be a place for risk in the industry, but as games continue to cost more to produce, expect to see more of the same, for better or worse.