Fumbling The Handoff

By Mark Delaney,
To history-conscious American football fans, the phrase "fumbling the handoff" often brings to mind imagery of the famous (or infamous, depending on the color of your jersey) "Miracle at the Meadowlands". With less than 30 seconds remaining in a 1978 game where the New York Giants hosted their most hated rivals, the Philadelphia Eagles, all the Giants had to do was run out the last few ticks of the game clock. Up 17-12 in a game the Eagles had to win, the Giants were less than half a minute from sealing the victory and playing spoiler to Philly's playoff hopes.

Only, it didn't turn out that way.

The Giants, electing not to simply kneel down and expire the game clock, instead ran a running play, already a poor decision, made worse by the fact that quarterback Joe Pisarcik wasn't ready for the snap. Still, he tried to salvage things by gaining control of the ball and continuing with the progression of the called play. Turning to hand the ball off to Larry Csonka, he bounced it off of the fullback's hip, where the ball was then fumbled, recovered by blitzing defensiveback Herm Edwards and returned for an unbelievable game-winning touchdown.

The whole sequence took just a few seconds to play out, but remains timeless in the eyes of the NFL's cognoscenti. Now, if you're not a fan of football, you're probably wondering what any of this has to do with video games. As it turns out, fumbling handoffs is not limited to just error-prone New York-area football teams. It's something we see very often in the games industry, and depending on who you ask, the end results are often just as disheartening.

When I initially began writing this piece, I called the games version of fumbling the handoff "BioShock 2 Syndrome". It's meant to describe a game in an otherwise highly lauded series that fails to meet the expectations of fans and critics due to the series being handed off to another studio. BioShock (Xbox 360) and BioShock Infinite (Xbox 360) are contemporary milestones for their atmospheric world-building, twisting, heady narratives, and road-less-traveled takes on first-person shooters. With almost universal acclaim, the pair of titles are forever etched into the minds of gamers, topping many 'Best Of' lists here and elsewhere online where ever they apply.

BioShock 2: All the environments of the original, with half of the story.BioShock 2: All the environments of the original, with half of the story.

In between these two games, with much less praise, sits BioShock 2 (Xbox 360). By many accounts, it's a good game. Some may even say it's great, though others weren't as impassioned as "good" implies either. With different minds behind the sociopolitical themes and rehashes of the same environment and combat sequences of the original game, BioShock 2 didn't do enough to stand side by side with its predecessor, and was later overshadowed by what some consider to be the debut's true sequel, Infinite.

BioShock 2 isn't the first franchise to suffer from this problem, of course. Publishers, the usual owners of the IP, do it a lot. Why? Often for the same reason most things happen -- money. While the main studio is devoted to taking several years off before returning to the series, the publisher wants to capitalize on the popularity of the brand. Without BioShock 2, gamers would've went six years between games in the series. 2K Games was seemingly happy to give Ken Levine and Irrational Games the time they needed to make Infinite, but in the meantime, they weren't going to sit on their hands and wait.

More recently, we saw this with the Series. After City, Rocksteady went into their own batcave to work secretly on what we would eventually discover to be Arkham Knight. WB Games was, like 2K, happy to give them this time. After all, the finale to the series deserved a new gen release, which is exactly what it got when it finally came out over a year ago. Between City and Knight, though, came Origins. In this case, it was WB Montreal that was handed the ball, and just like BioShock 2, it was a good game, but not on the level of the rest of the series.

A Batman origin story. Now there's a fresh idea!A Batman origin story. Now there's a fresh idea!

That's my issue with these franchise handoffs. Never, in my opinion and to the best of my memory, have they resulted in a superior product, and yet we keep seeing it happen. Publishers are more detached from the creative aspect of the games industry, focused more on their bottom lines, so I guess ultimately I can't pretend to misunderstand why they make these decisions, but it's still disappointing as a fan of games. Is a mediocre sequel released sooner better than a great sequel released later?

While the Xbox world waits to see how The Coalition handles their takeover of the Series, many fans of Gears are rightfully wary after seeing what happened with Judgment. Of course, then there's the special case of Halo, too. Like Gears has now done, the Series was handed off on a permanent basis, not just for a one-off sequel to keep the brand relevant. I've never been a fan of the series, so I can't speak personally to how successful this handoff has been, but from what I've heard and read, fans are longing for the Bungie days. A studio's vision becomes the user experience. When a different studio comes into a series and tries to take it in a new direction, there's going to be blowback from that decision. Similarly, a studio that tries to mimic the original studio's vision is often just as doomed. If it seems like a situation of "damned if they do, damned if they don't", maybe that just means publishers should leave a series alone aside from when the primary developers are ready for it again.

It seems the only time these handoffs work well are when they aren't blatant time-fillers between two main entries from the original studio. Max Payne 3 is a phenomenal game from Rockstar, but they were already the publisher of the first two games in the series, and the third entry came nine years later, clearly enough time for a top tier studio like Rockstar to make something more than a money-grabbing filler title. Both Dead Rising (Xbox 360) sequels furthered their series in meaningful ways too, and each of them were created by new studios. Again, though, they never carried the same image of things like Judgment or BioShock 2. They felt like true, well-intentioned sequels. You could also compare the differences between Fallout 3, which Bethesda as a studio used to reinvigorate the once PC-exclusive series, with its follow-up, Fallout: New Vegas in which Obsidian gave us a lot more of the same from just two years prior.

It'll be years before a true sequel? No worries, we'll just pump out another side story in the meantime.It'll be years before a true sequel? No worries, we'll just pump out another side story in the meantime.

The overarching theme here is one with which we as gamers are all too familiar. Cash grabs are thinly veiled and arguably never amount to anything more than what the shallow phrase implies. Publishers can hand off their franchises to other studios, and if done for the right reasons, it might work out wonderfully. It's the occasions when these handoffs are so obviously being done to bide the time for the main studio while keeping a brand "hot" that the results we end up with are so lackluster. It's especially disheartening because these series are already huge in so many examples. We don't need to be reminded that Gears of War will return, that Batman will fight again someday. Tens of millions of people are very much aware of this. I suppose that's also why these in-between titles get made, though -- those same tens of millions. Back in 1978 at the Meadowlands, the bumbling Giants never saw their letdown coming, but publishers aren't so ignorant. They know their franchise handoffs, so often lacking the charm or originality of past entries, will be fumbled, and they decide to call the play regardless of that disappointing outcome.
Mark Delaney
Written by Mark Delaney
Mark is a Boston native now living in Portland, Oregon. He has written for GameSkinny, Gamesradar and the Official Xbox Magazine. He runs the family-oriented gaming site Game Together.