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GDC 10: Building a blockbuster franchise

8:30 PM on 03.10.2010 // Ben Perlee

It is the dream of every game designer. You know, not only creating a game, but to create a game franchise. Like Mario, Halo, Final Fantasy, these are games that not only stand as one amazing experience, but a plurality of games that revolutionize how we are entertained. For every ten or twenty garbage title, there is one amazing experience that will be coming back with sequels and more. It is a very difficult thing to create.

So one such lecture for up and coming developers at GDC is “Building a Blockbuster Franchise”, a round table between Geoff Keighley from Spike TV, Joseph Staten, the Design Director from Bungie, and Dr. Ray Muzyka, GM and Chief Executive of Bioware. With many major titles between these two men, Halo and Mass Effect, among other things, they were more than happy to share some of their wisdom with up and coming designers. Hit the jump for more.

What was clear, however, when it comes to a franchise, is that a game franchise must have an open world to be built upon. Looking at Halo, for example, the game has been successful over numerous titles, as well as a spin off, like Halo Wars, it is clear that they have plenty to work with. With a strong, capable IP bible, which both Halo and Mass Effect live off of, strong gameplay basics, a great team that have stayed with a franchise, and capable marketing, there is a lot to balance. A new team brought into an IP, for example, can be problematic, as they do not know all the problems that previous teams had dealt with. Bad marketing, or releasing a title at a bad time, or not keeping fans integrated and listening to their feedback, well, that can kill a franchise.

Muzyka was clear, there is an idea of “constraints provide creativity,” and when you know that you can't do in a universe, teams can be creative and expand upon ideas elsewhere. With specific rules comes specific responsibilities, and when you know where a game is going to go and not going to go, well, that's when the best is done.

One thing a good franchise has to be aware of is over-saturation. Keighley brought up 2009 and the “jumping the shark” of the music game genre, specifically with Guitar Hero, and the current internal problems of Activision and Infinity Ward. While neither man would not offer much commentary on either issue, one thing was clear that a lack of focus on what makes a franchise originally good is paramount.

Says Staten, “As long as we get the world right, get the boundaries right, we succeed,” while Muzyka was clear that “teams have to be humble”. Feedback is a super important area for a successful franchise, and not listening to fans can be problematic.

Finally, Keighly mentioned the lengthened console cycle, and how this can impact a franchise. This bought the oddest comments from the designers. Staten was adamant, a “stable hardware is really good for creative people”, as developing for a very established hardware brings the best and most creative elements to a franchise.

They also agreed that games look pretty good right now, and while a boost in graphics would be nice, there is some good still to come from the Xbox 360 and PS3. Muzyka also pointed out to new user interface controls and 3D technology like with Sony that is hyping will really take things in a new direction. “The longer this generation lasts,” he says “the more creative people will be”.

It really seems that the basis of a successful franchise really lies with the teams, and the people that make up those teams. By allowing good games to blossom under certain constraints, the best can come, and keep coming for a long time to come.

Ben Perlee,
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