Context is a subtle cornerstone to every situation. Most people give it little notice, but it can affect us in deceptively profound ways.
Take, for instance, a little game known as DmC: Devil May Cry. When you think about this game, what is the first thing that comes to mind? Is it, perhaps, the fast-paced gameplay? The sense of humor? Or could it possibly be the rabid, vitriolic reaction from fans that remained constant from the game’s debut through to today?
Listen, I get it. We’re geeks. A little anger comes with the territory–and, to be perfectly honest, I don’t trust people who claim not to hate anything. But sometimes it seems like a lot of us are just looking for things to hate.
This gives birth to what I like to call the “franchise effect”.
You see it in almost every long-running game franchise, and a fair few short-running ones as well. Final Fantasy, Pokémon, Ratchet & Clank, even the Mario games aren’t immune. The franchise effect occurs when fans of a series bash on a specific entry, comparing it to previous titles rather than judging it on its own merits.
A rather infamous example is Final Fantasy XIII. On its own, FFXIII is gorgeous, has an incredibly creative battle system, and sports some of the best voice acting in the series to date. However, thanks to various factors such as its linear nature and confusing storyline, it’s widely considered by fans to be one of the lowest points in the main Final Fantasy series.
But what about its quality as a standalone game? Well, thanks to the franchise effect, that doesn’t matter. To the fans, there is no distinction.
Next we have Pokémon. Every generation, the detractors come out, pointing out how whoever designs the monsters has clearly run out of creativity. Clearly the idea of a “key ring” pokémon is positively laughable compared to the immensely imaginative “ball” pokémon from the first generation. Forget the fact that the games are more immersive than ever and include ways to actually bond with your team–there is a pokémon shaped like a sword, therefore it the franchise effect strikes again.
How about Ratchet & Clank? A lot of fans don’t consider Ratchet: Deadlocked to be a true entry in the series simply because it deviated from the standard formula of the previous three games. Instead of exploring different planets, you were fighting hordes of killer robots on different planets, and instead of a witty little robot companion, you got two vaguely funny little robot companions.
Other than that, the gameplay was the same, the actors were the same, the overall design was the same, and it even fit nicely in the overall continuity of the Ratchet & Clank universe.
Obviously, that wasn’t enough.
It’s certainly understandable that game series with dedicated fanbases could elicit the franchise effect. It may even be flattering to some developers to know their fans are so passionate.
But part of being a fan involves acceptance.
Now, I’m not saying you should gleefully lap up everything your favorite developer throws at you, regardless of quality. Constructive criticism from fans is absolutely essential, but remember that the operative word here is “constructive”. The creators need to know they can trust their fans to point out legitimate concerns rather than simply barking about how the absence of a world map somehow compromises the series’ integrity.
If they can’t trust the players in this regard, then they’ll stop listening altogether and only rely on their own ideas. Suddenly, gaming is no longer a democracy.
I once met a guy who insisted that Batman: Arkham City was mediocre at best because it, “didn’t have the atmosphere of Arkham Asylum.” As I attempted to remove my pencil from his forehead, I calmly informed him that this is not healthy behavior. If you start judging games completely based on such trivial matters, eventually you will develop astronomical standards, to which nothing will measure up.
If you find that any of these examples sound like something you’d do (or have done), I’ve got some homework for you. Learn to think outside the box. If you regularly call a game “crap” even though you absolutely adore its predecessor, give it another shot. This time, however, play through with this mindset: “What if I’d never played the first game?”
If you want to get really extreme, find a game series that you’ve been meaning to try, but don’t play the first game. Instead, find out which entry gets the most flak from fans and play that one first. It’s important though, that you don’t read the actual complaints, as that can alter your predisposition towards the game, even unconsciously. Play it with a clean slate, and there’s a very good chance you’ll be surprised. It may even end up being your favorite in the series.
Just don’t use this method with the Assassin’s Creed games. Unity is pretty much as bad as everyone says.