Hollywood could learn from videogame franchise strategy

Videogame Insiders Report 2013

Halo 4” allayed fears that the franchise would suffer after a developer change.

The videogame industry takes its franchises even more seriously than Hollywood.

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New games — or at least digitally downloadable content — are expected every year by a voracious audience, with billions in grosses potentially at stake. One misstep can turn a popular game’s most ardent evangelists into its loudest critics.

To ensure blue-chip franchises such as “Call of Duty,” “Halo” and “Grand Theft Auto” stay on top, publishers take different approaches. Some use rotating teams of developers. Others take extra pains to nurture their community. And some ignore the rules altogether.

Activision-Blizzard, for example, has two rotating teams of developers working on “Call of Duty,” with one floater team helping out as needed. The strategy has paid off handsomely: For each of the past four years, the November release of a “Call of Duty” game has set an entertainment industry revenue record. Last year’s installment — “Call of Duty: Black Ops II” — made $500 million in its first 24 hours, crossing the $1 billion sales mark in just 15 days, one day earlier than the previous installment.

After “Halo” creator Bungie exited the franchise, Microsoft formed an internal team called 343 Industries to focus exclusively on the franchise, testing the waters in 2011 with a graphically updated version of the original game and really spreading its wings in 2012 with “Halo 4,” the first game to feature iconic hero Master Chief in five years.

“Halo 4” was a commercial hit, taking in $220 million on its first day. It was also a critical smash, allaying fears that 343 wouldn’t be able to live up to Bungie’s track record.

Frank O’Connor, franchise development director for the Halo series at 343 Industries, credits the game’s rich universe for the successful transition, saying it “has given us so much material that we’re able to make impactful decisions rather than recycle the same ideas between games.”

Major installments in the “Halo” series tend to come every two years, giving fans a little more playing room (and developers time to catch their breath). Over at Rockstar Games, though, developers take a lot longer.

Grand Theft Auto” is one of the biggest and most iconic franchises around. But developers don’t adhere to a set schedule as to when they plan the next version. Instead, they wait until they feel they have a story to tell.

That can mean long gaps — this year’s “Grand Theft Auto V” will come a full five years after “Grand Theft Auto IV.”

“We see our role as to make good stuff,” says Dan Houser, co-founder and vice president of creative for Rockstar Games, the franchise’s developer. “With any property or new property, it takes as long as it takes. You have to make the right game before you release it.”

“Our approach is similar to what is done in the film industry with the James Bond franchise — several years between releases, highly differentiated and innovative, and benefitting from heightened consumer fervor to have that signature entertainment experience,” says Strauss Zelnick, chairman and CEO of Rockstar parent company Take-Two Interactive Software, who suggests that games have an innate advantage over movies when it comes to sustaining franchises.

“Interactive entertainment is very different from cinema in that it is not a passive, linear experience, and it benefits from continual advances in gameplay that reinvigorate existing franchises,” he says. “Many of our titles, such as ‘NBA 2K13’ or ‘Borderlands 2,’ offer robust online features that allow players to engage with large communities around the world and share experiences for long periods of time well after the title’s initial launch.”

And never underestimate the ability to incorporate fan feedback — at a much faster pace than Hollywood is able to do.

Emergiing gaming biz upends playbook

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