The year's first surprise hit has just arrived. Transformers: War for Cybertron has received modest amounts of hype from the franchise's hardcore fans, but it has hardly displaced future blockbusters such as Call of Duty: Black Ops in the the mainstream consciousness. With a 9.0 from IGN and a respectable B+ from 1UP, Cybertron is looking like this year's Arkham Asylum.
It is really shocking how infrequently a truly remarkable franchised game comes along. For every Batman: Arkham Asylum, we have a dozen Iron Men, Harry Potters, and Terminator games ready and eager to disappoint us. This should be no surprise, however. While Arkham Asylum has proven quite successful, moving around 3.5 million copies and garnering a sequel, the doggedly mediocre Star Wars: The Force Unleashed easily doubled those sales figures.
The fate of established franchises is a case study in rational actor economics. When game developers have no incentive to make good titles -- to put it bluntly, when the final product will sell well no matter what trash they shovel onto shelves -- we find that, most of the time, they won't. This is the sad fact about games sporting premiere licenses, games to which we often attach our greatest hopes. Whenever these titles are developed, someone confronts a fundamental choice: are they in it for love -- or for money?
As expected, the same principle applies in reverse: when movies get the call up to the "big leagues," so to speak, and become film franchises, they almost universally bomb. The Resident Evil franchise has treated its fans to movies that scored 34%, 20%, and 23%. Incredibly, the series is getting its fourth film -- perhaps the studio has become enamored of its Razzie awards. In that same time period, the game series has produced one of the greatest titles of the 21st century, Resident Evil 4 (96 Metascore), and the well-received Resident Evil 5.
Above: The undeniably pretty but unfortunately putrid Resident Evil (2002), the film that begat one of the worst series of all time.
Will this paradigm ever change? Ironically, two almost universally reviled factors will play a big role in producing better games (both franchise-based and original) in the future: the economic recession, and the rising cost of video game production.
For a long time, we've lived in the era of the quick money grab. It was only too easy for a studio to turn out an unacceptable title and find it accepted by droves, presumably picking a game up for their kid on the way back from seeing the movie (how else do you explain Iron Man selling millions of copies?). In the future, however, this will only become more and more difficult. Games cost tens of millions of dollars to make, and that figure could increase to $50-100M in the next generation. When the investment grows larger, and the sales figures needed to recoup get higher, development will become a more cautious process. This certainly has its disadvantages -- the reluctance to launch new IPs, for one -- but one positive impact it may have is enhanced quality across the board.
I sincerely hope that Transformers sells like hotcakes (even without a movie out this summer to bolster its Q-score). Only when good games receive their just rewards, and poor titles find themselves in the bargain bins, will developers learn: the choice isn't between love and money -- it's between love and bankruptcy.