The lights are on
Over the last few years we've heard a repeated cry from
free-to-play and mobile gaming evangelists - console platforms are dying, and
future growth will come from emerging platforms and new economic models. While
both of these have experienced undeniable growth, the impressive opening sales
numbers for both the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One prove that no matter what
kind of prosperity is happening on PCs, tablets, and phones, some people simply enjoy playing
games from their couches looking at high definition displays and soaking in
surround sound. Reports of their deaths have been greatly exaggerated.
But while console sales are surging, sales numbers paint a
much different picture for the major franchises that have dominated the last
generation. Industry sources tell us that Call of Duty: Ghosts sales were down
19 percent compared to last year's sales of Black Ops 2 in the same month. The
same goes for Need For Speed (down 55 percent year over year), Assassin's Creed
IV: Black Flag (down 39 percent year over year), Madden NFL 25 (down 24 percent
year over year), FIFA 14 (down 12 percent year over year), and Battlefield 4 (down
21 percent compared to Battlefield 3). These aren't exactly rosy numbers for
franchises that publishers rely on for consistent profitability.
Pinpointing a clear reason for these slumps isn't easy, but theories abound. Some
consumers may be holding off purchasing games until they buy a next-gen system.
If that's the case, sales could pick up in December as more consoles become
available. Consumers may also be purchasing fewer games this holiday season
since so much money is going into the purchase of a new system. Given that this
is a year of transition, publishers can likely sell this story to investors
with little to no pushback.
But simply dismissing the sales drops as a result of a
shifting playing field could be a mistake. Console generations are typically dominated
by a core group of franchises, but crossing over that dominance to a new
generation has often proven difficult. For every Final Fantasy and Gran Turismo,
there are huge brands that have fallen off the map like Crash Bandicoot, Tekken,
Spyro, and Kingdom Hearts. Some of these drops were self-inflicted due to a
lack of consistent releases, and others lost their standing to changing public
tastes or genre competition.
Two exceptions to these rules seem to be sports games and
Grand Theft Auto. Sports games continue to sell because the fans demand new
versions that reflect the free agency moves and draft signings their favorite
teams make each offseason. For GTA, Rockstar Games has an uncompromising and
unwavering custodianship over its flagship franchise. It doesn't inundate the
market with yearly iterations; rather allowing anticipation to build while it
makes sure the next game meets the development team's lofty expectations. By
the time the game is ready to launch, fan demand is at a fever pitch.
The same can't always be said for franchises like Call of
Duty and Assassin's Creed. While these games sometimes receive unwarranted
criticism due to their persistent presence in the marketplace rather than for
the actual quality of the games, the fact remains that consumer tastes are
fickle, and once something new comes along, which it inevitably will, those
fans could leave in droves. Given the sizeable investment publishers make for
annualized franchises - some of which have multiple games being developed
concurrently - this danger is amplified. No one wants to be the next Tony Hawk
or Guitar Hero, and losing a yearly breadwinner can put a publisher in a
Given this stark reality, the publishers of these types of titles
would be wise to peer inward at the creative process rather than flippantly
dismiss the dwindling (but still formidable) sales as a transitional hiccup.
Don't be afraid of empowering the creators that made these franchises a success
in the first place. Allow them to take risks without suits and marketing
departments armed with focus group data constantly second guessing their every
move, because appealing to the lower common denominator or making slight
changes to the core formula is not what is going to help these franchises
maintain their great standing over the long haul.
To follow this approach, publishers need to re-energize the
teams working on the titles by giving them some creative breathing room. This
type of environment can inspire new innovation, which can in turn reinvigorate
their fan bases and even draw in new customers. One shining example of this approach is Spyro, which all but disappeared from the gaming conscience until
Toys For Bob boldly reimagined it as Skylanders.
Sure, it's risky. The potential of alienating your core fan
base is great. But doubling down on the creative minds that helped turn these
concepts into annual cash cows is a more viable position than standing pat
during a period where new game franchises like Destiny and Titanfall are being
born. As history proves, players won't hesitate to migrate to an alluring new experience.
Email the author Matt Bertz, or follow on Twitter, Google+, Facebook, and Game Informer.