Before a franchise becomes a running success, it goes through golden days of sheer creativity. This lasts until certain unwritten rules become commonplace, which are largely determined by both success of entries in the franchise itself. Take Mobile Suit Gundam for example, where this period of exploring what Gundam as a franchise could be and how it was to be depicted lasted about a decade and arguably ended with Gaia Gear, a series of novels and audiodramas set into the far future of the original’s timeline. While the story and setting is very much what we could expect from a Gundam entry, it separated itself from the series by not having the title Gundam anywhere and its titular mech Gaia Gear had only a passing resemblance to mainline designs in the series.
On the left you can visually identify the mech as a Gundam-type. It has the distinct white-blue-yellow colours, the right type of structure with the cockpit in the chest/stomach region, vents on either side of the chest, a pronounced cockpiece and now-iconic Gundam head. Gaia Gear breaks basically every rule outside the vents on the chest. It could be argued that because it’s not a Gundam in name it doesn’t need to follow the conventions. However, most Mobile Suits in Gundam follow similar structure in body designs with only special cases deviating heavily from them. That is not to say that Gaia Gear didn’t get a repaint later on that matches with Gundam colours, but that’s really neither here or there. As a whole Gaia Gear was one of the last entries that broke with decade long exploration what Gundam was and what it could be, until Mobile Fighter G Gundam would present with the first alternative timeline on television, but the designs would still stick to the already established mould.
Sometimes this period lasts only one entry. Take the Halloween film franchise as an example, where the third movie veered off from the first two movies’ setting and characters in attempt to make the series different with each entry. With the backlash the movie got, the period of experimentation ended and all future films would stick to the first movie’ shtick, exploring only its characters and set-ups while not entertaining the idea of an anthology series. It could be argued that the two first movies already set the what the franchise as a whole would be in stone, and isn’t exactly comparable to changing designs in Gundam, but the gist is the same; Something is made in multiple entries and tries to find its sweet spot, and once it does, it sticks to it like glue.
When the honeymoon period with the franchise’s golden days ends, it leads to formulaic entries one after another. This doesn’t mean the quality drops automatically. Rather it means the consumers have certain expectations of the brand and creators behind the brand are expected to deliver. They can improve the formula bit by bit and explore it to some extent without majorly changing elements. Usually turning things completely on their sides of changing the core concepts massively is reserved for spin-offs, and ultimately for reboots when a franchise is considered to be too heavy on history and pre-established lore.
Star Trek is probably a common example here, where majorly affected spin-offs were relegated to comics and games, while small but major tweaks to the formula were represented in Voyager and Deep Space Nine. With the J.J. Abram’s rebooting the franchise, and requesting only his take on Trek to maintain any presence, we’ve gone through the whole period of exploring the franchise again in the comics, while the movies stuck to the formula right after. We can see the reaction the studio and creators had to the receptions of the Abram’s Trek take in Discovery and Picard, where this new take on the series followed the modern action line it was restructured to be in place of exploring the human condition though guise of science fiction. Sometimes reboots are used as a way to gain a recognizable property to make business with while ignoring the existing wants and needs.
A franchise that has established itself builds up expectations with each successive entry, especially if there’s a series of entries that improve the core concepts one after another. This is best seen in video games, where styles of play and elements that exist in a franchise often are built up, and about just as often began to fall apart at some point for multitude of reasons. Take the Splinter Cell franchise as an example.
The Splinter Cell franchise was Ubisoft’s golden cow at one point with receptions like no other. Sure it came in the wake of Thief and Metal Gear Solid, but the franchise is most well known for its three first games, nowadays titled as the Splinter Cell Trilogy, while the rets of the games are more or less pushed aside. This mostly is because the first three games emphasised stealth as a play mechanics, especially using the shadows as the main point of play much like Thief did before it. The first three games expanded on the whole (relatively) open stages and ways the player could tackle mission specific targets in a stealthy manner. The first three games in the series build up the mechanics and laid down the core structure what could be expected of the franchise, but after that the most common criticism has been the franchise moving away from stealth and becoming a more generic action play with less freedom players has per stage, relying on a linear design. With lacklustre entries that fall between the cracks and not meeting with the expectations the franchise had already built up, UIbisoft hasn’t put out a new entry in a while.
Not that many teams would like to tackle Splinter Cell all that eagerly, as each new title is expected to return to the glory days of the franchise that would stand to the original tagline of the Splinter Cell, Stealth Action Redefined. It wouldn’t be surprising if Ubisoft would simply reboot the whole franchise, effectively nullifying expectations the franchise has, cleaning the slate for developers and riding a recognisable name all the while.