What is the appeal of new IP in video games?

BY COLIN CAMPBELL

The arrival of a successful new video game Intellectual Property (IP) is welcomed much like a newborn baby – warmly embraced as both a symbol and a guarantee of a bright future. Its fresh promise delivers genuine renewal and no small measure of joy.

So it is with Elden Ring, FromSoftware’s brilliant new hit, which is widely expected to dominate Game of the Year lists for 2022. Following its launch in February, the open-world magical combat adventure sold 12 million copies around the world, becoming the biggest-selling new IP since Ubisoft’s The Division in 2016.

Elden Ring (2022) [from FromSoftware]

A few weeks after launch, Yasuo Miyakawa, head of the game’s publisher Namco Bandai said that the company will “continue our efforts in expanding the brand beyond the game itself, and into everyone’s daily life”.

Elden Ring has all the hallmarks of a brand that will morph into a blockbuster franchise, spawning decades of sequels, licensing revenues, and maybe even endless ‘Games as a Service’ income. Original hit games are much more likely to generate sequels than in other entertainments, like movies and books. But they are also rare in big-budget gaming, a market dominated by repeatable franchises.

Gaming’s dependence on repeatable IP is both its strength and its weakness. The biggest selling games of 2021 were all based on familiar brands that are at least a decade old – Call of Duty, Pokemon, Battlefield, Mario Kart and Resident Evil all enjoyed successful entries. Other big hits – as in every other year – were licenses like Madden, FIFA, and Spider-Man.

Mario Kart (2019) [from Nintendo]

Although this business model delivers stability, it also threatens entropy. As an IP ages, so it declines. Call of Duty games released a decade ago sold as many as 30 million units every year, but more recent games have failed to notch 20 million copies sold.

As franchises become older, they demand ever greater investment in order to maintain freshness and excitement. Assassin’s Creed went from a rapidly tiring annual release schedule to two-yearly, effectively doubling development costs. Tomb Raider was entirely rebooted from scratch, following a rapid decline exacerbated by poor franchise management and under-investment. Brands like Sonic the Hedgehog have enjoyed longevity, but constant reinvention is necessary to stave off the dreaded “nostalgia” tag.

New IPs are important at an industry level, as gaming competes for attention with rival industries. And although indie games are a font of innovation, individual successes are rarely sequelized. The numbers are too small to guarantee repeat fiscal success, and indie culture tends to eschew creative repetition.

FREEMIUM RUSH

For large game companies, there is no greater risk-reward gambit than the introduction of new IP. In recent years, the most successful introductions have all been spurred by the explosive growth of free-to-play games (aka ‘Freemium’), in which revenues are accrued through the sale of season passes or in-game items.

Epic launched Fortnite Battle Royale in 2017. Electronic Arts launched Apex Legends in 2019. miHoYo launched Genshin Impact in 2020.  These games have been the biggest new-IP money spinners of the last few years. But Elden Ring harks back to an earlier era of game launches – it’s a full-priced original title (aka ‘Premium’).

Lists of top-grossing premium games for the last few years reveal only a handful of new gaming IP titles that sold more than 10 million copies, amounting to fewer than an average of one per year.

Cyberpunk 2077 launched in 2020 and sold 13 million copies in its first year. (Arguably, it is not an original IP as it’s set in the extant Cyberpunk role-playing universe.)

Cyberpunk 2077 (2020) [from CD Projekt RED]

Horizon Zero Dawn was a 2017 PlayStation-exclusive game from Guerrilla Games that took two years to hit 10 million copies sold. The game spawned a successful 2022 sequel, Horizon Forbidden West.

2016 was a good year for new IP. Activision Blizzard launched Overwatch, one of the most successful franchise launches of all time, with unit sales likely in excess of 50 million to date. A long-awaited sequel is currently in late development.

No Man’s Sky from UK-based Hello Games has been a great success. Sales figures are unavailable but they’re certainly in eight figures. At a GDC presentation in 2019, creator Sean Murray said it was “one of the biggest selling new IPs of all time”.

Ubisoft’s The Division just about qualifies as a new IP, even though it makes a marketing-driven use of the Tom Clancy brand. Also launched in 2016, it recorded the highest week-one sales for a new intellectual property, breaking the previous record held by Destiny (2014).

MIXED FORTUNES

Heavy investment and risk is front loaded to new IP, because game companies know they can tap into sequels and licensing revenues. On the flip-side, this reliance on repeat revenues and games that follow a set formula means that big game companies are poorly equipped to make bold new introductions.

In 2019, Electronic Arts’ storied studio BioWare launched an ambitious shooting game called Anthem. Following a fraught seven-year development effort, Anthem‘s launch was marred by mixed reviews, and consumer ambivalence. It failed to reach the launch-window sales target of six million copies sold. In 2021, all future work on the title was canceled.

Even success stories tend to follow a hard road. Both No Man’s Sky, and Cyberpunk 2077 suffered from severe technical problems at launch, while Overwatch was created from the wreckage of a canceled project called Titan. Failed new IP launches have crushed many promising companies over the years, including 38 Studios (Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning) and Boss Key Productions (LawBreakers).

Elden Ring‘s success is partly rooted in FromSoftware’s excellent record for creating highly engaging games, like the Dark Souls series. The addition of plot writing from famed fantasy author George RR Martin added to the game’s promise. On arrival, critical acclaim and social media virality made it one of the must-play games of the year. Additional content, sequels, and spin-offs into comics, movies, toys and more are almost certain to follow.

In the meantime, other big publishers are readying their next gambits into the new IP arena, including Starfield from Bethesda Softworks, Forspoken from Square Enix, Skull & Bones from Ubisoft, Everwild from Rare / Microsoft and Pragmata from Capcom, any of which could turn out to be massive hits that generate decades worth of content and revenues, or embarrassing flops that disappear from history.

In gaming, the search for successful new IP is expensive, and risky, but the rewards are potentially immense.