Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” In today’s multi-platform reality, foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small game franchises.

Fifteen years ago, when I was a producer at Ubisoft building the game that would become Assassin’s Creed, we spent a full year crafting a franchise framework that would serve as the ongoing narrative engine for future games and platforms. We were determined that the professional creative teams that would eventually work on subsequent games, movies, books, and comics would have room to adapt the Assassin’s Creed mythos and universe to their own specific platforms, taking ownership over their creative output. As long as professional developers picked a pivotal moment in history and told the “real story” about the Assassin and Templar involvement with events, then their work would fit within the franchise. That approach worked: Assassin’s Creed became one of the fastest-selling IPs of the past 20 years. 

Today, however, that “fastest-selling” metric is largely irrelevant. Many of the tactics we used to propel the original Assassin’s Creed brand  — carefully orchestrating the game’s “X factor,” building hype around launch day — no longer guarantee success. The fact is, players today are wired fundamentally differently than the gamers of the aughts: they’re savvier, more creative, more social. Most importantly, their identity is tied to a multitude of micro-tribes with whom they are in constant communication. That’s what games are about today, first and foremost: they’re a place to hang out with the micro-tribe of your choosing in a world of your creation.

The goal of a game is no longer to be the most buzzworthy topic of conversation at launch; it’s to become the context for buzzworthy conversations. In other words: if the original Assassin’s Creed was gearing up to be the opening night of Hamilton, we want future IPs to be a neighborhood bar where people talk about whatever the latest Hamilton is: the place that is perennially cool, comfortable, and welcoming — because the patrons are driving the conversation and, in fact, are the stars of the show. 

We are at a turning point in IP development. It’s no longer enough to simply turn the keys to a franchise over to professionals in other media so that game studios closely control the character arc and narrative. Hit franchises of the future need to be designed to ensure quality and canon even when — especially when — we hand over ownership to the fans. Fans will have the creative power to steer the story, shape the game universe, and spur virality from the inside out.

Fan ownership goes beyond fan service

In 2021, the mark of a successful blockbuster franchise is not one that produces a ton of sequels. Nor is it when a game successfully goes transmedia, generating best-sellers across media categories. Today, a franchise is truly successful when fans start writing fiction … and making art depicting your two hetero male lead characters kissing. For fans, that imagined liplock is a sign of personal investment — there’s a deep appreciation that goes hand in hand with this type of fan interpretation.

Source: Bryce Milburn, Newgrounds

When fans fall in love with characters or a certain narrative, the franchise becomes part of their identities. Over the years, the film and game industries have both been slow to come to this realization, closely guarding the creative process and narrative. (Meanwhile, music has understood this phenomenon since at least the invention of the blues.)

Many franchises fell into or evolved into fan ownership, largely unintentionally. Star Wars, for example, was taken over by the fans long before George Lucas made peace with its fandom. In a misguided attempt to protect the brand, in fact, he and Lucasfilm went to significant lengths to discourage and tamp down on fan fiction. But fans loved Star Wars so much that they were going to “own” the story, regardless of Lucas’s constraints. Of course, Star Wars eventually became one of the most fan-friendly franchises ever.

While maintaining the integrity of a franchise is still critical, today slavish continuity — an unwillingness to adapt or respond to fans — is your enemy. In this age of mobile, social mechanics, and games as pop culture, franchise holders are quickly learning what can happen when you embrace the audience as the true owners of your IP. 

The first time I observed the magic that can happen when fans take over an IP was when I was working on The Sims in the early 2000s. Whether it’s middle-aged Sims players acting out the perfect suburban life they wish they had or core gamers creating a twisted frat scenario, tens of millions of Sims players use the game to construct and share their own original stories and expand upon those hinted at in the game. In some ways, it’s the lack of a narrative in the Sims that makes the IP so strong. Fans are able to make up their own stories behind Bella Goth’s disappearance — this creates a richness in the brand from the bottom up that no creative team can match or plan from the top down.  

When players form their own communities, evolve a game’s mythology, and eventually develop their own language and codes of conduct, that’s when you know you have fan ownership. Creating a roller skating TikTok may signify one’s membership in an in-group, but recreating your wedding lehenga for Animal Crossing — where a vibrant community has grown around fashion design and influencers—truly grows a shared personal history and culture. Thanks to the many modes of interactivity in games and the modding tradition, fan ownership can extend to new forms that are not possible in other media.   

Developers today know that allowing fans to own their IP is mutually beneficial. The question is how to foster that level of engagement with intention, from inception. 

Why now? Continuous partial engagement

The steady proliferation of screens and content streams over the past 20 years means that we’ve shifted from a world of undivided attention to one of relentless multitasking. Even in the early days, we acknowledged and designed for screen proliferation when building Assassin’s Creed — we knew that the key to succeeding across screens was to have games and narratives optimized to their different platforms, not ports or licenses.

Since then, we’ve rapidly transitioned from a world of multitasking and continuous partial attention to continuous partial engagement. (Most readers likely have at least four other windows open at this very moment, popping back and forth between this post and other tasks. I’m not even offended.) 

This new way of life isn’t just about the fracturing of the cognitive process. Everyone connected, all the time, means that infinite amounts of computing power and data are available ubiquitously. While smartphones currently serve as thin-clients to the infinitely powerful cloud, we’ve yet to truly understand their implications as a rich, real-time sensor platform blanketing the earth. And most importantly for game makers, all of these connected devices have only just begun to show the rudiments of their role as personal, social beacons. 

The relationship between game developers and their audiences used to more closely resemble that of traditional media. The old model — the creative director (“author”) and the players that would consume the content or “beat the game” (“audience”) — was one to many. Over the last 20 years, most media transitioned to an engagement model: Content creators communicate with their fans and calibrate content accordingly, while the community creates content alongside each other and the OG creator. 

The pivot of many of the game industry’s biggest franchises from premium launches to the games as a service (GaaS) model — Grand Theft Auto to Grand Theft Auto Online, for example, or Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six to Siege) — was one important step toward two-way engagement, but the fully realized vision for this new generation of highly social, tech-savvy, creative multitaskers is a network model. 

To hold people’s attention now, you need the power of the network. Game content needs to matter to people at their core. How do you make content really matter to your audience? You make it all about them; you allow them to become the creators themselves. Game studios are no longer insular creative teams broadcasting to millions of faceless “consumers.” In this new world, the way to gain relevance is to flip that model upside down — to network it — so that the fans are now co-creators driving the content, building the narrative, and steering the pursuits of the creative team. 

Networks as a framework for building fan-driven IPs

If creating a great IP were easy, then every school teacher would quit their job and write the next Harry Potter series. There is no recipe for creating a blockbuster IP, but I’d argue there is a new framework emerging for how to think about it, one where creative teams are not “creating an IP,” as much as constructing the rails for fans to create. 

The best way of explaining this approach involves network theory. A network is composed of many nodes in many roles, with links of varying strength between them. In the case of entertainment, a node is a person, whether a creator, a fan, a journalist, a thought leader, or otherwise. 

There are two kinds of connections one node can have to another, strong or weak. Strong links represent close associations and high content-generating, high-investment interactions; weak links represent low content-generating, low-cost interactions. 

The depth of a franchise is largely based on the number of strong links. The power of the network is based on its size — the total number of nodes and the number of connections among them. Weak links are easier to create and maintain. That’s why you have more Twitter followers than Facebook friends, and why you have more Facebook friends than real friends. That’s why network power tends to correspond with how easy it is to form weak links — connections between existing nodes form more easily, and it’s easier to add more nodes. 

To create a blockbuster IP for an audience that has grown up in the socially networked world of continuous partial engagement, you need to enable lightweight engagement, embrace UGC, and develop strategies whereby the nodes can grow new connections across social media channels. Early Facebook games like FarmVille provided some great examples of this type of lightweight interaction; weeding your friend’s farm was the game equivalent of “liking” their latest Instagram post. 

But what’s the game equivalent of viral TikTok remixes today? Games can provide what the remix generation craves, a shared experience that is fully immersive, real-time, competitive or collaborative, and most importantly, truly personal.

Lightweight co-creation with 5,000 friends

The sandbox survival game Valheim shows us that games can hugely enhance online social interactions, not only because they can take place in immersive shared worlds, but because they create social permission: “lightweight” ways to connect and show you care without requiring the scheduling of a 30-minute video call or a four-hour raid. Building a shared shelter and filling the chests with useful items creates a substrate for social bonds that are meaningful. When it’s not possible to have people over for a barbecue in the real world, you can fire up a cooking station in Valheim.

This lightweight-ness helps drive continued engagement in games, not infinite leveling or social spamming, contrary to popular opinion. Some people refer to these lightweight engagement mechanics as “social obligation” exploits. But while it’s true that obligation does keep people playing a game, that’s no different from Guild Progression in World of Warcraft, for example. 

What is different is that you now have something to do with your 5,000 friends that is not intimidating or intense. It’s a down-tempo moment or activity that makes space for conversation or enables people to show “I’m thinking about you” in an in-group language, with added layers of meaning given the context. 

Whether it’s in Valheim, Animal Crossing, Fortnight Creative, or Minecraft, the past year of quarantine has shown us that shared creative gameplay is the glue that binds communities. By enabling lightweight engagement and self-expression, games can maintain mindshare and emotional investment with thousands of friends, even in a world of partial attention and engagement.

Micro-tribes and self-expression

Game designers used to think that features needed stats for gamers to care about them. We thought that players were mainly interested in items that would help them win, level up, and achieve better results. Recently we’ve discovered that among the new generation of players, cosmetics — without any gameplay advantage whatsoever! — can serve as an even more powerful form of social proof, meaning that they encourage fans to attempt and adopt the same behavior as others. Cosmetics and “skins” (a graphic or sound that changes the appearance of your avatar) allow players to reinforce their position in an in-group by showing their identity in language that is meaningful to members of that group. Skins have gone wild, but if we can then extend that concept to group identity and amplify unique creations via streamer endorsement, you enhance social proof to a degree that badges and stats never could.

In the early days of creating the first Assassin’s Creed, we spent a lot of time coming up with proxy reward loops to serve in the place of social permission (community acceptance) and social proof (community adoption). Games used to rely on these types of mechanics to drive engagement. Now we can actually leverage social dynamics to create variety and deliver real social permission and social proof. The new hyperconnected social world means that our audience expects to be able to express themselves and share who they are. Games can deliver social proof and social permission in a way that is immensely compelling.

Social’s gone digital. What does that mean for IP?

It’s meaningless to remark that “the pandemic has accelerated digital transformation” when the entire games industry has been digital since its inception. For someone who creates games and IP, the acceleration of digital is not novel or surprising. However, the horizontal expansion of games over the past year — to serve an ever-growing number of player needs and have a significant and meaningful role in people’s lives — is noteworthy.

As we set out to create a new brand with the ambition to span generations, our goal is to conceive of an IP that can serve as a creative sandbox for the fans, rather than just professional teams. The key feature game studios need to design for today is extensibility — the inherent ability of the IP to be malleable, to grow and adapt along with its fan base.