The reveal of Watch Dogs was exciting due to two factors: It was one of the first "next-gen" games shown to players, and it was a brand new title that wasn't sequel or a reboot of an existing franchise. "Finally," wrote nearly everyone that day, "something new."
The term you hear thrown around is "new IP," or intellectual property. The launch of a new franchise, or the beginnings of a series that may do new things in the world of gaming.
Watch Dogs is here, and it's time to realize that "new IP" isn't always synonymous with innovation. New games won’t always feel fresh, and games in existing franchises aren’t destined to be boring retreads of things we’ve already played.
Like so many things in life, it all comes down to marketing.
A good day to cash in
This devotion to franchise titles isn't unique to games.
The script for Die Hard with a Vengeance was originally called Simon Says and was supposed to be a star vehicle for Brandon Lee. Lee was tragically killed during the filming of The Crow, but Simon Says was nearly purchased to be adapted into a Lethal Weapon film. The script's ultimate resting place? The Die Hard series.
In fact, Die Hard as a franchise is made up almost entirely of stories, scripts, and source materials that have nothing to do with the character of John McClane. No one sits down to write a Die Hard film as much as they decide, every few years, to find a script or some source material that can be turned into a Die Hard movie.
The only script that was written for the express purpose of becoming a Die Hard film was A Good Day to Die Hard. The series has long been a way to make the best out of Hollywood leftovers. Neat, huh?
But we're talking about games. Sleeping Dogs was at one time set to be published by Activision, and the publisher decided to call the game True Crime, because True Crime was a series of open world game that did very well for Activision in the past. When Activision dropped the game and it was picked up by Square Enix, the name was returned to Sleeping Dogs, and any connection to the True Crime franchise was lost.
"What's cool about this whole thing is the core story, the characters and everything else, have remained unchanged. It’s just been called some different names," the game’s producer told me back in 2012.
The world of gaming is littered with titles that seem to have next to nothing in common with the previous games in the series. Just like Die Hard can come from any story idea with a white male hero, or a hero that can be turned into a white male, any first-person shooter with demons set in space could potentially be a Doom title.
Any game that features a white hero killing Nazis can be turned into a Wolfenstein game, and in fact the latest Wolfenstein could have easily been called nearly anything else and it wouldn’t have mattered. It assumes no prior knowledge of the series, nor does it draw from any grand tradition of Wolfenstein game play. It sure makes the game easier to sell, however.
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag may as well have been new IP that launches a pirate franchise. The framing mechanic adds very little to the overall story in the main game, and it introduces enough new ideas in terms of both story and play that it feels more like its own game than a title in the Assassin’s Creed series.
There is even meta-narrative in the game’s framing sequences that take place in a game development house talking about the need to find other violent, interesting time periods to sell to people. There is enough window dressing to make sure fans know they're playing an Assassin's Creed game, but it's not shackled by the games that came before.
New IP isn't better, it's just new
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t celebrate new ideas in games, I’m saying that new franchises and game titles aren’t any more or less likely to deliver them than games in an existing series.
Wolfenstein is one of the more refreshing first-person shooters in recent memories, and the life of a pirate in Assassin’s Creed 4 made for a great change of pace from other open-world games. These aren’t pale retreads of games that already exist, they’re the work of teams the care about pushing the genre forward.
This sort of wiggle room can also backfire, as games like have almost nothing to do with the previous games in the series to the extent that it lost much of the charm and draw of the series. 3Dead Space has devolved into a bog standard action series set in space. But that's the point: You can't judge these games by any broad strokes. There's a Beyond: Two Souls for every The Last of Us.
There is no trend to spot here, games that try new things are just as likely to come from big name series as they are from brand new titles, especially in the AAA space. Watch Dogs may be new IP, but its gravelly-voiced angry white guy lead character with a gun and an open world to explore isn't interesting, it's the default. The game does many things well, but the setting and core values of Watch Dogs are both very safe.
So let's get something straight: You don't get automatic brownie points just because we've never heard your name before.
New ideas can come from anywhere in gaming, and many of us have fallen into the trap of thinking new IP is somehow inherently preferable. As long as publishers and developers do new things with existing series, while also releasing "new" games that tend to look like everything else, we should continue to look for the good stuff anywhere we can, and having a new name isn't a meaningful distinction.
I don't care if you have to shove your game into an existing franchise to sell it, I just care that you've done or said something interesting with that game. Everything else is marketing.