“A smashing blast from the past” – that’s the proud boast from developer Vicarious Visions during 2017’s Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy's opening logos. It’s hard to argue with that brag. The N. Sane Trilogy, which remastered the first three Crash Bandicoot games from the PlayStation One era, was met with nostalgia-fuelled commercial success when it launched on the PS4 back in June 2017. Since then the N. Sane Trilogy has been ported to Xbox One, Switch, and PC and has now sold over 10 million copies across all platforms. Not bad for Crash's first outing since 2010.
In the wake of that “blast from the past” there have been a few secondary explosions such as Spyro Reignited Trilogy, a remaster of the first three Spyro the Dragon games, and Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled, a remake of the troublesome bandicoot’s spin off kart racer. While exact sales figures for these titles haven't been released, Activision itself purred that Crash Team Racing had “strong sales, especially through digital channels” while Spyro Reignited managed to outsell Fallout 76 during their head-to-head launch week. In other words, remasters have made Activision a ludicrous amount of money in the past two years – a fact that hasn’t escaped the notice of the gaming juggernaut's higher-ups.
In a recent Q&A with investors, Activision Publishing president Rob Kostich said “the player response has been fantastic. When you look at Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy, that has sold through over 10 million copies, so they’re obviously having a big impact on our bottom line. I say what’s really important is reaffirming the enduring nature of these franchises. When we look at our IP library, we think there’s a lot of IP’s in there that fans are going to want to experience again. To that one, I say stay tuned for future announcements.” While it’s hard to argue with the business logic, that final line left me wondering: does Activision really have any important intellectual property left up its sleeve?
That might seem like a stupid question. This is Activision, the largest third-party publisher in the world. It has Call of Duty, one of the biggest gaming franchises in the world. The problem is that outside of marquee franchises like COD, Guitar Hero, and until recently Destiny, Activision’s strategy in its earliest decades was built around licensed content.
Even now it's a big part of that bottom line. The list of licensed franchises that Activision has cranked out games for, just in the last two console generations, is staggering: Spider-Man, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Transformers, Tony Hawk, SpongeBob SquarePants, Nickelodeon, Deadpool, The Fast and The Furious, The Legend of Korra, The Walking Dead, Family Guy, NASCAR, Cabela’s, The Voice, and James Bond.
That list isn’t exhaustive by any means (it would get silly, trust me) but, out of all of Activision’s licenced content, the only franchises with an Activision game still available are Tony Hawk and Nickelodeon. Everything else has been delisted due to licenses expiring which means that, unless Activision wants to renegotiate, none of these games are viable remaster targets.
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater is a little more complicated. While Activision hold the Tony Hawk Pro Skater IP, the skating legend has stated that he’s “no longer working with them”. This wouldn’t stop Activision from digging around in its closet and reviving some of the franchises’ high points, but it already had a crack at that last generation with Tony Hawk's Pro Skater HD, which didn’t exactly set the world on fire. Also, there’s the slight issue that Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 5 was a horrendous mess that lost what little credibility the franchise had left.
So, what else does Papa Activision have in the war chest? Well there’s Guitar Hero, a one-time behemoth of the gaming industry. It’s certainly a huge IP in some senses, but after Activision had squeezed every last drop out of the 'standard' Guitar Hero games, the high-concept Guitar Hero Live reboot failed to sell enough to justifiy its continuation. Even if you ignored the substantial cost involved with reacquiring the music licenses, Rock Band’s failed revival attempt with Rock Band 4 in 2015 has shown that the plastic guitar fantasy market just isn’t there anymore. And surely everyone's learned the lesson about buying all those controllers again.
Okay, this is getting ridiculous. I mean, Activision must have developed some original IPs, right? Well yes... there was Prototype, the open-world superhero game with the emo-est protagonist. While the original Prototype sold and reviewed well, the sequel failed to live up to Activision’s expectations. As a result, developers Radical Entertainment were all but closed down, with Activision releasing a statement saying that “although we made a substantial investment in the Prototype IP, it did not find a broad commercial audience.” Despite this Activision did remaster both Prototype and Prototype 2 for the Xbox One and PS4 in 2015. Unfortunately, these rereleases were little more than ports, which at times managed to run worse than the originals.
What else? There's Blur, the 2010 arcade racer from Bizarre Creations, or Raven Software’s time-bending shooter Singularity from the same year. Decent games to be sure, but the poor sales of both resulted in the shuttering of Bizarre Creations, while Raven were downsized and converted into a Call of Duty support studio. Games that sold so poorly they ruined-stroke-kneecapped their respective studios don’t make overly tempting remaster targets.
Going back even further into the PlayStation 2 and PlayStation generations doesn’t help matters much either. They published the True Crime games – both the original True Crime: Streets of LA and the follow-up, True Crime: New York City. They were intriguing open world shooters in the vein of GTA. Sadly the third title, True Crime: Streets of Hong Kong, was cancelled due to concerns about spiralling costs. Interestingly, Square Enix later bought the game (but not the True Crime IP) from Activision and released it as 2012’s brilliant Sleeping Dogs.
Geez, I’m clutching at straws here. Oh, Tenchu!
Tenchu is a brutally difficult stealth action series developed by FromSoftware. There are just two problems with remastering it. The first is that Activision sold the rights back to FromSoftware in 2004. The second and more pressing issue is that it already tried to revive Tenchu: FromSoftware’s latest game, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, was originally a Tenchu game before development took it in a different direction. Tenchu is out of the picture, even if Activision gained one of the year’s best action titles in its place, so we'll mark this one up as some sort of win.
No matter how far back you go, the story is the same. In fact, you have to go all the way back to Activision’s original breakout game, Pitfall, to find an original Activision IP that might be worth reviving. The 1982 smash hit was one of the best-selling games on the Atari 2600, selling over four million copies, and helping to put Activision on the map. It is also largely credited for kickstarting the platforming genre: a certain dimunitive plumber had made his debut in 1981’s Donkey Kong, but wouldn’t begin his ascendancy to the platforming throne until 1985’s Super Mario Bros., a game that some might suggest was a little inspired by Pitfall’s success.
So, Pitfall is certainly an IP with a strong legacy behind it. We did it everyone, we found a potential remaster target for Activision! But Activision has tried and failed many times to recapture the original game's magic: the 8-bit and 16-bit eras were one thing, as 2D Pitfall sequels just about maintained momentum, but the series' two 3D entires proved disasters. Protagonist Harry was most recently seen in an endless runner on mobile phones, while creator David Crane attempted to fund a 'spiritual sequel' on Kickstarter: sadly he set the eye-watering target of £730,000 to do so, and the result was predictable.
OK, maybe not Pitfall.
Throughout its history Activision has published a metric tonne of licensed games, but it has failed to invest in its own IP. It’s a strategy that served it well, there’s no denying it – Activision is the largest third-party publisher in the world by revenue and it built that empire on the back of other companies’ properties. But licensed content isn’t the driving force it once was in the industry, something even Activision itself noticed a few years back.
There is one, enormous elephant in the room that I suppose needs acknowledging though. Activision doesn't have much in the way of IP that’s ripe for remastering, but the other half of its illustrious partnership does – Blizzard Entertainment. Warcraft, StarCraft, and Diablo. Most publishers would kill for any one of these franchises and Activision Blizzard own the lot. And Blizzard has been quick on the uptake, delivering Starcraft Remastered and WoW Classic in the last year, while also announcing Warcraft 3: Reforged, a complete remaster of the ludicrously popular Warcraft 3.
And of course, there’s Call of Duty. With both a remaster of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare already in our rear-view mirror and a reimagining/reboot due out later this year, it’s fair to say that this goldmine is in for some serious drilling. But none of this is in the spirit of what Kostich said when he mentioned remasters: “We think there’s a lot of IP’s in there that fans are going to want to experience again.” Those were Kostich’s words and Call of Duty has been an annual franchise since the signing of the Magna Carta: it couldn’t be fresher in our minds.
Activision Blizzard is a company of big guns, safe bets, and guaranteed money-makers. It controls some of the most successful IPs in gaming history – titans like Call of Duty, World of Warcraft, Overwatch, even Candy Crush. But looking beyond those giants, Activision’s IP library is shockingly bare for a company with nearly 40 years under its belt as a game publisher. And given its reluctance to take a chance on new IP, you have to wonder – if it isn't building up its IP base for the future, where is its next hit going to come from? Because it sure as hell won't be coming from their past.