Is there such a thing as too much risk, or too little?
This should (probably) be the last post centring around Mass Effect 3, and also sort of the most tenuous in terms of both relation and the content of what I'm writing. This once again comes from discussions on Facebook. When I was asking about the single and multiplayer crossover aspects of Mass Effect 3 the friend that I was talking to about it said what amounted to the following (I'm paraphrasing here for the sake of keeping some level of anonymity in case they want it):
The problem isn't so much the fact that they are trying new things, it's just that they're doing it with what seems poised to be the final instalment of a beloved franchise. If things like the multiplayer impact were tried with a new game then people would have probably not cared nearly as much, but they risked all that they had built up to that point on a gamble.
Even though I haven't played Mass Effect I understood where my friend was coming from perfectly. After all, one of my favourite series -- Devil May Cry -- has been subject to a lot of what I'd call gambling over the years, some of which were successful and some of which weren't. I'm mostly thinking about Devil May Cry 2 when I think of the potential negative impact that making changes can have on a franchise. The difficulty of the game was toned down, the weapon selection was bland, and Dante was barely recognizable as himself; portrayed as a stoic, mostly silent hero rather then the boisterous and affably cheesy demon slayer of the first game. The results of this were a disappointed fanbase that had come expecting more of the same as the first game, only better, and instead got something that for all intents and purposes went in the opposite direction.
It almost seems like a no-win scenario: you have to do something to set the potential sequels apart from the first game, whether it be progressing the story, altering the gameplay, adding or subtracting elements, and a great deal more. However if fans wanted 'more of the same, but better' then odds are they might not react well to what they see as drastic changes made to the overall structure of the game. Those changes could turn out to be excellent, or they could pretty much just be an even keel, no better but no worse; either way though fans will generally be less than accepting of changes, but still scornful of a product that they view as too close to the original in scope.
I guess the question I'm trying to get at here is: can there be a happy medium? I believe there can be, but that it will take a whole lot of effort and more careful treading then most companies may honestly want to bother with. I think a franchise must change from game to game, but there needs to be something there, that core of recognition that has the player saying "ah, this is a _____ game, that's for sure". I think that the Grand Theft Auto series has actually done well in this regard, as recent examples go. Each of the GTA games has gotten progressively larger, as well as more darker in tone and narrative, and yet I believe that they are still pretty much instantly recognizable as games from the franchise because they've done a good job at retaining those core elements. Other successful franchises that do this including the Mario series of platformers, the Mega Man series (at least the main ones), and the Zelda series as well.
Perhaps what it all boils down to is that sometimes companies will ask us to take a leap of faith, and like it or not we have little choice but to jump and hope it turns out for the best. It's certainly not a comforting answer, but it's probably the most honest one I can give.