The Conventional Wisdom


Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before.

  • Nobody buys games on the PSP (except for the 2.3 million copies of Daxter, to name just one).
  • The PS3 is a sales flop (except that it has sold more units at this stage of its life than the Xbox 360 had).
  • The Xbox 360 offers nothing unless you’re an FPS fan (I don’t even know where to start on this one).

Constant conversation and fanboyism in the games industry has a habit of turning statistical blips into cold, hard facts, the kind that can be brought up in a flame war to prove your point. There seems to be some inherent need of gamers to turn the industry into a great soap opera of good guys and bad guys, to pick sides and defend them. Oftentimes it seems that in many sections of the gaming media, news is not intended to inform but cherry-picked to defend a viewpoint.

It’s a pattern that has been repeating itself for as long as I’ve been a gamer, a pattern born in the schoolyard and fed by insecurities. What’s strange is that there are still so many places and people who should have outgrown these schoolyard fights long ago.

The latest piece of popular wisdom is this: So-called “mature” games don’t sell on Nintendo consoles. This wisdom stems from the disappointing early sales of two games: Sega’s MadWorld, which sold 66,000 copies in its first month of release in the US, and GTA: Chinatown Wars, which sold 89,000.

Both games were popular with critics and garnered a lot of attention from the gaming press prior to release, making their lack of success something of a puzzle to those who watch the market pressed right up against its shop window. The answer they have come up with is that these two games demonstrate that “mature” titles don’t sell on Nintendo consoles.

By this logic, the sales failure of MadWorld proves something about the Wii that the success of a game like Resident Evil 4: Wii Edition does not. We are told that the market doesn’t exist for mature games on the DS, without any regard to the potential for a game like GTA to create one, the way games like Liberty City Stories did for the PSP.

The sales of a game like MadWorld say precisely nothing about the state of “mature” games on the Wii. After all, no one said that the poor commercial showing of God Hand on the PS2, a violent action game from the same producer and many of the same staff, said anything about the state of the market for “mature” games on PS2. In fact, with the small sampling of mature titles that actually exist on Nintendo consoles, it seems rather futile to judge anything about the fate of mature titles on the Wii or DS. For every MadWorld there is a Resident Evil 4: Wii Edition; for every Chinatown Wars, a Call of Duty 4 that sold poorly in its first weeks but just kept on selling. Are these exceptions to the rule? How would we know? There aren’t enough games out there to make a rule yet. The lesson from MadWorld might just as well be that black-and-white games don’t sell in March.

There are, however, two lessons from the reaction to MadWorldand Chinatown Wars that we could learn, but that seem to have been overlooked.

The first is one we presumably should have learned a long time ago from games like Ico, Zack & Wiki and Psychonauts: internet hype does not equal sales. MadWorld is another example of the divergence between games journalism and the games people actually buy. To read about MadWorld in the specialist press, one would have thought it to be the biggest title of the year – but did anybody seriously expect MadWorld, an esoteric game from some of the most esoteric of esoteric developers, to be a smash hit? It has all the trappings of a game that wants to be a cult classic.

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One might as well wonder why the Evil Dead series never topped the box office. In an industry where new IPs struggle to attract attention, where games with unique art styles have a history of failing in the charts, and where beat-em-up style games have not been popular for years, to derive readings of market trends from a game like MadWorld seems like a form of insanity.

Perhaps one reason that sales of Chinatown Wars are getting attention because it’s a rare example of a DS game that the gaming press actually gave a damn about. Although I’ve spoken about it before, such is the lack of attention given to the DS in the specialist press that I was barely even aware that the Nintendo-created Rhythm Heaven was already out in the West. The lack of coverage given to it seems nothing short of shameful, given that it’s exactly the type of game people say Nintendo never makes anymore (another meme to add to the list at the start of this article). It’s a testament to how easily gamers and journalists are wooed by shiny graphics and guns that there is so little attention paid to the biggest-selling system out there.

The second lesson we should learn here is to stop jumping to conclusions. Didn’t we learn anything from the case of Wii Music? Launched at an exceedingly busy time of the gaming calendar, it was written off as a “bust” in the weeks following launch. Half a year later, it has sold 2.5 million copies worldwide. Many in the industry, myself included, would give willingly give up vital organs to have that kind of a bust.

Nintendo have shown how constantly supporting a title through advertising can break the cycle of first-month sales equating to success. Brain Age sold only 45,000 copies on its first week on sale in Japan. How many people wrote that off as a flop then? And with the way this industry works, that strategy makes perfect sense. Thanks to the perverse way the games industry is structured, the number of potential purchasers for a triple-A title on the Xbox 360 is currently around 30 million. Three years ago it was closer to 5 million. In three years time it will probably be zero, and there will be a new Xbox console struggling to sell games to 5 million people again.

You and I might be able to tell the difference between a first generation Xbox 360 game and one from 2009, but the average customer can’t, and/or doesn’t care about the difference in the first place. So instead of just dumping a title a month after launch, continued support can sell it to those people who have picked up a console in the months and years since your game initially launched.

We need to stop making the first weekend sales the be-all and end-all. This isn’t the movie industry. We aren’t competing for a limited number of theatres (yes, shelf space is limited but not so limited to make the opening weekend the only thing that matters). The DS itself is the perfect example of this, written off as a failure before its launch, almost pushed out of shop shelves due to a weak launch lineup, but recovering to become the biggest selling machine of our era.

Continued support is the strategy that has made Brain Age, Nintendogs and New Super Mario Bros the biggest selling games of our time. And it’s something that other publishers are starting to catch on to, like Activision with their excellent extended support for their overlapping Call of Duty games (and to a less encouraging extent, their constant pushing of the Guitar Hero brand). And as more and more major games stop being merely “games” and become “platforms” of their own, slow burning titles with long tails will become more and more important. After all, World of Warcraft didn’t get 10 million subscribers in its first week of operation.

GTA on DS faces a lot of problems – piracy, a throwback 2D look unfamiliar to most people who made GTA a success, and perhaps a growing ennui with the GTA series itself. But supported well, the game can easily become a slow burner that sticks in the charts, week after week.

But sadly, I fear that the lessons learned by major publishers will not be these ones. People will merely nod their heads and say, why of course, everybody knows mature titles don’t sell on Nintendo. And eventually popular wisdom will become its own self-fulfilling prophecy.

Christian Ward works for a major publisher, and encourages everyone to make Rhythm Heaven the game they buy this month.

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