My column this week shares my personal recollections of the gaming crash of 1983, and then uses that as a jumping-off point for talking about how modern games are sacrificing quality for monetisation, and how maybe that’s a really terrible long-term strategy.
In the column I mention this theory I’ve been nursing that sales of a given franchise suffer from a delay-by-one effect, where a terrible entry might not hurt sales until the next one comes out. The idea is that there are a lot of people who buy games without checking the critical reception, so if they’re in the habit of buying a Shoot Guy title every time one hits the shelves, they’ll still buy Shoot Guy V: Lootbox Boogaloo even though it’s getting panned by critics. They’ll have a lousy time and find something else to play. Then when Shoot Guy VI: Nostalgia Overload comes out, they’ll skip it despite good critical reception. From the publisher’s perspective, the lootbox-based game did well and the back-to-basics sequel did poorly. If this is the case, I am very worried the publisher might learn the wrong lesson.
I’m really curious if this happened to the Hitman games. Did the embarrassment that is Hitman: Absolution sell well despite the fact that it was barely a Hitman game? Did the sales of Hitman 2016 suffer despite the fact that it’s one of the best entries in the series? If sales did suffer, was the game being punished for the sins of Absolution, or for the obnoxious decisions to tie your single-player progress to an always-online server?
I have no idea how I could go about investigating this. The numbers are foggy for several reasons:
- Publishers don’t share their sales figures. Sure, we can use Steam Spy to look at ownership numbers and active players, but the PC is a small slice of the gaming audience. A title might have fantastic sales overall but have Steam sales suffer due to a bad PC port. Or maybe the “4K 60FPS or GTFO” enthusiast crowd will create a bump in PC sales that isn’t reflected on the other platforms.
- Publishers use sales projections to confuse investors, consumers, and sometimes even themselves. Tomb Raider 2013 was apparently the best-selling entry in the series and yet the publisher was disappointed. We can’t use publisher projections or reactions to gauge success because their public reactions often have nothing to do with sales numbers and everything to do with scapegoating and managing stockholder expectations.
- Not only don’t we have access to sales figures, we also don’t have access to marketing budget. Did Shoot Guy VI sell poorly because the previous game was bad, or because the publisher lost confidence in the franchise and shoved it out the door with no marketing support?
- Like I said at the end of my Wolfenstein II series, critical reception is often a little fuzzy. A poor entry might get past critics who have to binge-play the game before release, but then over the following months the buying public begins noticing flaws that suck the joy out of the game. This ties into another side-research project I’ve been thinking about involving looking for games with a large delta between critical reception and public reception on Metacritic.
The information channels are just too noisy to extract any real data. Heck, even if I had access to the publisher’s private data, I’m not sure I could work it out. On top of the factors I just listed, you’ve got things like the state of the economy, release dates, and genre burnout. Maybe Shoot Guy VI sold poorly because it was terrible, or maybe it was actually the best of the series but it released too close to the more-popular Gun Man 7. Maybe the public is just getting sick of crime drama revenge shooters.
This is bad because if you’re a non-gaming executive then the only tools you have for judging the quality of your own products are sales and Metacritic. Not only are these two information channels noisy to the point of being nearly inscrutable, they’re both post-hoc reactions. It sure would be nice if you had some way to judge the quality of a game before you decide to spend $100 million on marketing it. It would be nice to have some way to know if it was worth missing a ship date for more polish. But how can anyone expect you to know how good a game is? What are you supposed to do? Play it? How can a serious business guy like you be expected to judge these murder simulators made for teenage boys? That’s just crazy talk.
This industry desperately needs a Walt Disney. I understand that uncle Walt wasn’t necessarily the nicest guy in the world, but he really understood what the public wanted and how to give it to them.
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