Franchises have long since been a mainstay of the video game industry. They’re a good way to hook people into a series, promising long-term investment in a continued story threaded through multiple games. Importantly, it's much safer for publishers to invest in a franchise, especially when it proves to be popular and financially successful.
Since the release of the Uncharted series’ first title, Drake’s Fortune in 2007, it has risen to become one of the most prominent franchises in the industry. One that almost single-handedly turned Sony’s fortunes around, with both Uncharted and Nathan Drake becoming synonymous with the PlayStation brand. Its success has been so great that Hollywood has been trying translate it into film – even while Microsoft’s Xbox president Phil Spencer praises new releases in the series.
Such franchises often seem to continue in perpetuity. A model that’s been successfully applied to Halo, Super Mario Bros, Tomb Raider, Final Fantasy, and Assassin’s Creed, among others. Video games even have an advantage over film and television, with fewer limitations – like the aging of actors - and much more freedom to reboot and retool in response to changing tastes.
No one would’ve been surprised had Sony asked developer Naughty Dog to make Uncharted into an ongoing series; one with no apparent end, a new entry reliably released every couple of years. For a while it seemed that Nathan Drake wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
But instead, Sony and Naughty Dog veered a different course. After three blockbuster entries for the PlayStation 3, and a modestly successful outing for the PlayStation Vita, they brought the series to a definitive conclusion with A Thief’s End. And it has made all the difference.
It Didn't Need To Be A Franchise Without End
After the release of the third game, Drake’s Deception in 2011, it was anybody’s guess as to where the series might go next. Naughty Dog successfully put out one outing every couple of years, each grander than the last. Though the word “trilogy” was never outright stated, it could easily be read into those initial games. And wrapping things up after three titles – all of which work in tandem together – could very well have been the logical conclusion.
It’s a credit both to Naughty Dog and Sony that there was never pressure to make as many entries as possible and keep the market flooded with titles, as with Ubisoft's Assassin’s Creed. And with decisions like these, Naughty Dog really shows what kind of developer they are: this isn’t about making money…this is about the art. And this approach accounts for the staggering quality of the Uncharted series.
Behind-The-Scenes Changes Could Have Hurt The Franchise
This period of uncertainty was only marred further by internal fluctuations at Naughty Dog. While the developer enjoyed massive critical acclaim and financial success with the launch of The Last of Us, there was still an ongoing question of whether or not we were going to get more Uncharted. And while we finally got confirmation of its development back in 2013 the industry was rocked with the announcement of series creator Amy Hennig’s departure.
This could've easily been a body blow to the series, as Hennig was a key player from the very beginning. Bruce Straley and Neil Druckmann – both game directors for The Last of Us – stepped in after Hennig's departure, and it was even revealed later on that months of Hennig’s work had to be scrapped, and they largely started over from scratch.
For many a comparable franchise, this is where things could've gone wrong. Behind-the-scenes talent change-ups can have a massive affect on the quality of a final product. What’s more, A Thief's End could've felt like a superfluous bookend. There were even fears that enough time passed that not as many gamers would return to a series we hadn't heard from in five years.
Returning to a story or a franchise years after the original can often be disastrous – even when the original creators are in play. As Star Wars has shown us, badly-formed prequels or addendums might not only disappoint on a mass scale, but might also diminish the overall product.
Yet in spite of all of this, A Thief’s End was a success in every measurable way. It’s the top-rated and top-selling game for the PlayStation 4, and provided an emotionally satisfying conclusion to one of the industry’s most beloved franchises.
And one of the reasons for this was the choice made to make it the definitive end. The finale in Drake's Deception could have made for a satisfying resolution, but the talent at Naughty Dog decided to make one final go-around that brought things to a close with more certainty. They picked up key emotional threads from the third game and resolved them so as to leave little doubt that this was the end of Nathan Drake’s tale.
Rather than drag the series in out in perpetuity for financial gain, they prioritized the art and craft of the material. And that made all the difference.
Naughty Dog has now released a spin-off in the form of The Lost Legacy (a DLC story expansion that grew into its own standalone game) that will follow peripheral characters from the Uncharted universe. But it’s been made clear by Naughty Dog that we won’t be seeing any more of Nathan Drake.
What the developer has done here is has secured the reputation of the franchise. Because we got fewer entries – and because they were of such consistent high quality – their reputation will endure. Uncharted will be remembered as one of the very greatest franchises in the business, due in large part to Naughty Dog's satisfying finale, A Thief's End.
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