At the beginning of 2010, the future was looking great for racing games. There were some great titles on the horizon, mostly on the arcade side of things. In addition to the usual yearly titles like MotoGP, F1, and Need for Speed, there were some exciting original properties coming out. Specifically, Blur, Split Second, and ModNation Racers were all set to come out in the first half of the year.
In May of that year, all three of those fresh new titles came out, and lo and behold, they were all good! Bizarre Creations’ Blur felt like a crazy hybrid of Ridge Racer and Mario Kart, offering all manner of powerups and weaponry while providing some realistic looking car designs and environments. Black Rock Studio’s Split Second turned the collision-heavy formula of the Burnout series up to eleven, with the inclusion of player-activated environment changes which could wreck other racers or change the circuit route entirely. Both games received good reviews, aggregating in the low eighties on Metacritic.
For whatever reason, though, the enthusiasm of consumers didn’t quite match the enthusiasm of reviewers. Blur and Split Second both sold fairly poorly, and their publishers were not pleased. Part of this was due to the fact that both games, along with the aforementioned United Front Games title ModNation Racers, all came out within a week of each other. They undoubtedly cannibalized each others sales, and would have been better off staggering their release dates.
More importantly, however, there’s the fact that both games were the first entries in their respective franchises. It’s always a tougher sell to get people to take the plunge on a game they’ve never heard of, instead of just waiting for the new Need For Speed (which for 2010 was the reboot of Hot Pursuit, leading to even more hype for the franchise than usual). This is an unfortunate reality of all games, and extends far beyond just racing games.
Whatever the reason for the commercial failure of Blur and Split Second, the creators of both games faced similar fates. After both studios hinted at plans for sequels, and Split Second even left the campaign ending open for some narrative continuity, they were both shut down before any such sequels could be made. Bizarre Creations had been bought be Activision three years earlier, and despite a long and successful history of developing great games like the Project Gotham Racing series, Activision chose to shut the studio’s doors after Blur failed to make significant amounts of money. Similarly, Black Rock Studios suffered the same fate at the hands of their owners, Disney Interactive.
What could have been the beginning of two great new racing series, and even a great rivalry between the two if they continued releasing games at close to the same time every year or two, was snuffed out before they even became series. We’ve seen countless examples of franchises with rough first outings, but significantly improved sales of the second title once the series has been established. Apparently the future prospects of a Blur or Split Second ongoing series weren’t good enough for Activision or Disney, however.
The fact that we’ll never see sequels to either of these great arcade racers can be attributed almost entirely to one main issue: publisher impatience. The fact that both studios were owned by big publishing companies, who in turn are owned by a variety of quarterly-report-hungry shareholders, has had awful consequences for both the creators of these games and the people who enjoyed them.
While the almost perfectly parallel timelines of both Blur and Split Second, and the subsequent closure of their respective creators, demonstrates this impatience from big publishers, the problem extends far wider than these two arcade racing games. It’s a problem endemic in modern videogames, and it’s killed or impaired countless other franchises. Even in cases where the studio doesn’t get shut down altogether, the commercial mediocrity of an original, non-sequel title can lead to other negative consequences for publisher-owned studios. This is why we’ve seen twenty million sequels and expansions to the Battlefield series from its EA-owned creators DICE, while their more recent original concept has languished without being revisited since 2008; I speak, of course, of Mirror’s Edge, a game that’s been mentioned many times on this blog.
The cause of these woes isn’t hard to discern: videogames cost orders of magnitude more money to create than they have in previous hardware generations, and publishers have naturally become more risk-averse to cover their own bottom line. There’s also a greater consumer appetite for annual sequel farms like Call of Duty or EA’s yearly sports titles than there ever has been before, making for safe bets for publishers. All this leads to less publishers taking risks on new IPs, and on the rare occasion they do take that leap of faith, an expectation that the new franchise better return on their investment on the double, or else.
This is the part where I should probably talk about the solution to this problem, but in this case, it’s too little too late for Black Rock and Bizarre Creations. Other studios might be saved from the same fate if publisher habits changed, but how will that happen? We can’t convince publishers to become less risk-averse until they stop having to live up to shareholders’ expectations every quarter, which is never going to happen.
Perhaps Kickstarter can lead the way in allowing developers to take their time establishing new franchises. Perhaps large independent studios like Valve or Epic Games could step up to the plate and publish some games that break the mold a little bit, and subsidize their potential for failure with their own blockbuster mega-hits. As much as I wish I knew the answer, I simply don’t know how to save future developers from the same woes as today’s publisher-owned studios are facing. Staying independent doesn’t always help either, since if your first game fails, you might not even have enough money to make a sequel.
All we can really do as consumers is try to support promising-looking new properties whenever possible, and continue enjoying the one-off classics of bygone studios like Blur and Split Second.