These sequels are the video game industry's safe bets. Just as Hollywood increasingly fills the summer months with new (and usually dismal) instalments of past box-office winners, the big video game studios need proven best-sellers. In an age when the average big-budget game takes years and hundreds of millions of dollars to make, the industry is becoming more risk-averse.
To get a sense of what a modern game development cycle looks like, consider Rayman, the hugely popular platformer game developed by Ubisoft. For those unfamiliar with the game, imagine a brightly coloured children's animated show filtered through the lens of an acid-user's daydreams.
The Rayman franchise is almost 20 years old. The original titular character didn't have any arms or legs because the designers wanted to save on animation.
That was then. The newest Rayman game, unveiled at E3, is the product of two years' work by a team that started out with 15 engineers and eventually ballooned to 80. Rather than shy away from animation, Ubisoft went to one of the most prestigious art schools in Paris and got artists to design level scenery. Then the engineers went to work designing software that essentially lets characters run through the artists' creations. This latest instalment of Rayman comes with full HD at 60 frames per second, 4-person multiplayer and a brand new game engine running the action (indeed, Ubisoft may well end up making more money later on by licensing that engine to other game developers).
All of this costs money. That's why Ubisoft, like many other major developers, tends to shovel cash into existing franchises that have a pre-existing audience. But the increasing cost of big-name games is having another, more significant effect.
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Yves Guillemot tells us Ubisoft is working on tools that let the company "reuse assets." The top executive at the company is soft-spoken and shrewd. You get the sense that if Ubisoft switched gears from video games to plumbing supplies tomorrow, he'd still figure out a way to make money in the new business.
His reasoning is this: the quality of video games is getting to the point where it's difficult to distinguish them from movies in theatres or on DVDs. Given that Ubisoft's most important asset is its intellectual property - the various characters and worlds it has created for its games - it makes sense to spend time figuring out where else that intellectual property may find a home. That's why the company had teams develop short movies based on the Assassin's Creed franchise. It wasn't a one-off project, either - this company wants to go into the movie business. So when Mr. Guillemot talks about reusing assets, he's talking about tools that let developers pull a character out of one medium and drop it in another.
It's not too hard to guess where this is headed. Perhaps the biggest announcement at E3 this year was Nintendo's newest home gaming console, the Wii U. The new machine means it's only a matter of time before Sony and Microsoft follow suit with brawnier, brainier consoles of their own. Game developers, in turn, will rush to make use of that new gaming power, spending more money on bigger, richer games. Eventually (and in some cases, even now) those games become something more, spilling out into the worlds of movies, books and anywhere else their creators think there's money to be made.
And that's what this is about, ultimately - not the somewhat headache-inducing experience of trying to play Sonic the Hedgehog in 3D, or the impending release of a Duke Nukem title that has seemingly been in development for half a century and (to editorialize momentarily) is almost certainly going to suck. The big news out of E3 is that an industry with some of the most important intellectual property and innovative business models anywhere is about to flex its muscles. The rest of the media world should probably take note.