While discussing the future fate of the Fallout franchise with a colleague, we came across a topic that became more interesting to me the more I thought about it: Bethesda purchasing the Fallout license. Licenses for old games are sold quite often these days, usually being thought of as an easy way to cash in without having to roll the dice with a new intellectual property and (gasp) being forced to apply creativity. Sadly (as far as the advancement of creative thought goes), most of the time the “cash in” aspect holds true and they do end up being at least marginally successful. Fallout was no exception here as Bethesda experienced great sales and brought the franchise into the digital age with it’s own slew of downloadable content (DLC).
While this never really surprised me – Fallout experiencing success in the distant past, now being ripe for picking up as a new-generation game – after pondering it more, I have to ask… was purchasing the license really necessary?
Of course, as said, the Fallout series had a very successful past, and there are still quite a lot of fans around dedicated to these old games and who even still play them today. The game distributor Good Old Games (established to re-package and sell older games that typically had trouble working on newer hard/software) arguably owes it’s explosive launch solely to having the Fallout series in their catalog.
So, the original games definitely had some sort of fan-base. However, we are talking about a vastly different age here: an age where the computer was seen as a primary vessel for playing games, and CRPG’s (when such an acronym even existed) were adored for their complexity and challenge. What would become of this franchise coming out of a coma, awakening in the day of the console dominating the gaming market and casual-friendly design being considered more important than brutal learning curves and endless depth?
Fallout 3 was changed considerably from the past games to the future incarnation. Going from a very strategy heavy turn-based role-playing game to an action packed first person shooter, Bethesda arguably didn’t even really attempt to please said existing Fallout fan-base (and really, they couldn’t have even if they wanted to). Sure, the fans may have bought the game anyway – being starved of the franchise name for so long, and it did have little nods to the past – but it had to of resulted in at least some percentage of potential sales lost. However, the sum of these potential sales doesn’t even come close to comparing to the amount of sales from people who have probably never heard of the name Fallout before. Given this fact, it is curious to think of what the sum total reaction would have been had it been Fallout 3 by any other name.
While the old games do certainly have a considerable fanbase, the genre that Fallout finds itself in is anything but unique. You can only spin the apocalypse so many ways. Compare Fallout 3′s setting and theme to that of STALKER‘s and you will find a great number of major similarities (of course, I am not talking about overall quality here):
- Post-apocalyptic landscape – check
- Mutants, both human and animal – check
- Superpowers granted via radiation – check
- Dark, abandoned subterranean locations – check
- Main character emerging into a world unknown to them – check
- Semi-nonlinear gameplay – check
- Quasi RPG character and plot advancement – check
About the only thing I can really think of that is truly special or solely unique to the Fallout universe is the Pip Boy and the 1950′s theme in general. This isn’t a slight to Bethesda or claiming that they ripped off STALKER, it’s just a testament to how generic the post-apocalyptic genre is – it’s basically self-descriptive.
So, what stopped Bethesda from just… making STALKER? Or furthermore, just creating Fallout with a different name? Would publishers not been as pleasant, ever-unwilling to invest in new intellectual properties? Perhaps (and this may be giving the industry more credit than it’s due) it’s simply a case of… shame?
Let’s take a look at a similar scenario involving the System Shock games and Bioshock. Presumably, 2K Games either didn’t want to or couldn’t develop a new System Shock game (the original games being made by Through The Looking Glass). In either case, they instead take to the blackboard and come up with Bioshock, a very similar game mechanically to System Shock 2 (much more so than Fallout 2 to Fallout 3) but with it’s own completely unique and independent style, setting, plot and characters; not to mention they are set over a century apart from one another. In a nutshell, there is nothing aside from raw gameplay that ties System Shock 2 to Bioshock, and thus Bioshock is considered a “spiritual successor” of it – a term often used to describe a game that does more than just pay homage to a past title, but seeks to replicate the feeling of playing the original.
Bioshock was another game that met critical success. This time to all parties involved – past fans were (more or less) happy that the game resembled their beloved System Shock 2, and the much bigger portion of the gaming populace who had of course never heard of the past games greeted the fresh artistic style and setting with open arms. 2K had managed to successfully bring up the past and pay tribute to it while simultaneously creating a brand new intellectual property that has no thematic similarities to the game it pays homage to.
After all that is said and done, what is the true value of a license that is doomed to be unknown by the vast, vast majority of gamers; and to be considered sullied by the few remaining who actually remember what the old games the licenses were ripped from were like? Obviously, if the license is big enough, there’s no question here. If the license to the old Ultima series were to go up for sale, there is no doubt that it would be quickly snatched up and used to carry a great amount of weight behind a new title.
However, those old games that fell into obscurity but still have that ever-persistent base of hardcore fans, who only grow stronger (but generally not larger) in their fandom as time passes and their nostalgia grows; is it really necessary or even worth it to use these licenses to promote a new game? Which of course, any new game using an old license – even one being booked as a “sequel” – is going to be just that, a new game. You cannot resurrect a decades-old title and hope to replicate the same exact gameplay, and once you realize that, you put the very license you bought in jeopardy and risk losing the fans who are the sole reason the license even had any value in the first place.
As well, how will this apply to the future? Will the number of gamers eventually stagnate to the point where the amount of older gamers reminiscent about a past title is of significant size to make a sequel or re-licensing of a game marketed specifically to them? Or when Halo eventually turns into a “timeless classic”, Master Chief becoming comparable to an 8-bit Mario, will it be difficult to pay homage to it due to the ever-changing climate of game design? Only time can answer this one, but I think one thing is clear: licenses to classic games will always have a hefty value, because all gamers are fans of something; and as time goes on, so does our nostalgia grow – getting to a point where we can fool ourselves into wanting something that can never exist – to re-experience the past.