Avatar might be the greatest thing to hit movie screens in years, but Avatar: The Game is sucking canal water and it's dragging Ubisoft down with it.
With well over a billion dollars in box office receipts and more to come, James Cameron's magnum opus Avatar is this year's unstoppable cinematic juggernaut and so it's not unreasonable to think that the videogame tie-in might do reasonably well itself, basking in reflected glory. Not unreasonable, perhaps, but also not correct.
In its third quarter fiscal update, Ubisoft announced that it has revised its quarterly and full-year sales targets down substantially and laid the blame for the move largely at the feet of the Avatar game. A "significant correction" in the DS market, an under-performing back catalog and delays of both R.U.S.E. and Splinter Cell Conviction all took their toll, but Avatar is the only game Ubisoft deemed important enough to mention specifically as a failure.
The market is concentrating toward "AAA high-quality games," according to the report, which has been a boon for games like the multi-million-selling Assassin's Creed 2. "However, not all of the Company's games have reaped the full benefits of the measures implemented, with James Cameron's Avatar: The Game and several non-casual Wii titles reporting lower-than-expected sales," the company noted.
Ubisoft didn't speculate on how such a hugely popular movie could spawn a videogame that tanked so badly, so I guess it's up to us. Setting aside for a moment the general perception that all movie games suck, let's look at what Ubisoft decided to do with the lush, game-like world it had to work with.
Wikipedia describes the game as either a third-person adventure or a third-person shooter, depending on the side the player chooses; Ubisoft's Avatar game page opens with an intro video showing fast-paced combat between the humans and the Na'vi, with lots of explosions, fast cuts and bombastic music, and announces in the news section that a free weapon DLC pack for the game has been released.
In other words, Ubi has taken what many people believe is the most fantastical movie world ever created and turned it into yet another half-baked action game. And then they wonder why it doesn't sell.
We all have our ideas of what a truly good Avatar game would be like; I'd love an immersive, Uru-like experience set in the world and culture of Pandora, perhaps touching on the aftermath of the human incursion without indulging in the pyrotechnic noisiness of it. But regardless of the specifics, the basic principle remains simple enough that I can't figure out why we have to keep repeating it: A movie license is not enough to guarantee big-time sales. If you want people to buy your game, try making it not suck.