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Are Triple A Titles Unsustainable?

Posted April 13, 2013 by Esteban Cuevas in Editorials

At the end of last month, Square Enix released some sales numbers for some of their big name titles over the past several months as part of its latest financial report. According to the report, Tomb Raider managed to sell 3.4 million copies in just under a month, Hitman: Absolution sold 3.6 million copies since its release in November of last year, and Sleeping Dogs sold 1.75 million copies since its launch in August 2012. It should also be mentioned that this does not count digital sales such as copies bought on Steam so these numbers could be considerably higher.

Nonetheless, the publisher is saying that all these games failed to hit their sales expectations. Tomb Raider was expected to sell 5 to 6 million copies, and Hitman: Absolution 4.5 to 5 million copies. In total, all three games were projected to move 14.9 million copies insted of the 8.75 million copies that were actually moved. As a result, Square Enix president Yoichi Wada is stepping down and executive Yosuke Matsuda is taking his place.

Games this generation have gotten bigger as their popularity rises beyond anything it has been before in the past and as such, the studios and budgets have grown as well. However, the success of other games like Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto makes every publisher think their game can reproduce those same number, leading to rampant money mismanagement. Overblown budgets and unrealistic expectations have now led to this situation with Square Enix. When a game sells 3.4 million copies in less than a month at $60 a pop which equals 204 million dollars gross and that is considered a failure, there is something seriously wrong.

This is a growing problem with every game having to be blockbusters or an indie game on a shoestring budget. There’s no room for a middle tier title that doesn’t have a huge budget but makes due with the limited resources it has. Titles like Prototype, Mercenaries 2 and Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning would have probably fit perfectly as middle tier titles. However, these were expected to sell millions of copies and as such, developers Radical Entertainment, Pandemic Studios, 38 Studios and Big Huge Games have either been severely neutered or shut down completely.

Studios shutting down is actually a more and more common happenstance, with the closure of LucasArts, Zipper Interactive, and publisher THQ, a company that used to function almost exclusively on middle tier games. It’s becoming more and more difficult to stay afloat in the game industry as the market grows and the demands of progress are actually shrinking the chances of profitability. You may have a good idea for a game but if it isn’t going to sell four million copies or you can’t make it for 100,000 dollars, then there’s no place for you.

Jade Raymond, head of Ubisoft’s Toronto studio, recently said in an interview that the video game market can only support about 10 triple A titles as a result of the popularity of the free-to-play model. While that number may be a bit too rigid, the idea is sound. Each major publisher should only have one or two major titles that they know will sell several million copies and the rest of their games have to be smaller titles or middle tier titles.

Electronic Arts alone released six triple A titles last year alone and that’s not counting the sports titles, some of which can be considered triple A titles considering their sales numbers. That is beyond excessive. One of those triple-A titles, Syndicate, sold 200,000 copies. 200,000 copies at $60 each is 12 million dollars. That is a solid chunk of change if the game wasn’t given the budget of a Battlefield 3-like title and had its projections in check.

In comparison, Antichamber, a recently released indie title, has sold over 100,000 copies. At $20, it has made two million dollars and the game cost $60,000 to make. Stories like this are what keep the industry from crashing like in the early 80s and also show a means of balancing budgets. Sure it was one dude making a game but if he can be widely successful like that, then why can’t a multi-million dollar company can’t?

With the onset of indie game development and the free-to-play model, we can only hope that the onslaught of triple A titles will subside in the next console generation. There’s nothing wrong with a game selling half a million. That’s still 30 million dollars. It’s okay for only one game in your catalog to sell four million copies. Gamers love video games but games are expensive. We can’t drop $60 every time there’s a game we want to play. We just can’t afford it unless we’re rich. Even then, there isn’t enough hours in the day to play all these games when they are released. The attention video games are receiving now is wonderful but publishers, stop being greedy about it and prioritize.

Sources: IGN (1, 2, 3, 4), Blistered Thumbs, Kotaku, GameSpot, Game Informer, G4TV, WiredMCV, Wikipedia, VG Charts, Joystiq

About the Author

Esteban Cuevas

  • The Laymen’s Gamer

    I think it’s the expectations that need to be stunted a little: people expect every game to meet every single one of their personal standards and studios are exhausting themselves trying to make a game that satisfies every single one of them. The problem AAA franchise face is trying too hard to hit the general and mainstream audience: if they make more games that aim for their intended audience – for example, something like Persona 4 where the intended audience is clearly anime and role-playing game fans, and it clearly sold in those audiences pretty well – and focus more on satisfying the audience that they know they’ll sell with instead of trying to sell hundreds of millions every single time, we’d see a lot more variety, a lot more competition, and a lot more progress. That starts with the gamers, though, we gotta speak with our wallets and start inputting with surveys – know what you like and go for it but don’t just buy EVERYTHING YOU SEE just because you know it comes from a reputable studio with a large budget. I’ve played the Uncharted games, I enjoyed them, and I respect the story and intent of them: however, I don’t plan on ever buying them. To me, they just don’t have the staying power in my mind to keep me playing them past the hardest difficulty and understanding of the plot.
    Eh, that’s just what I think, though. There needs to be more focus, less unrealistic demand, and more of Bioware’s style of “artistic integrity” where a studio will stand by its product and its message no matter what, in spite of the constant complaints. Most of those complaints are made by people who, likely, weren’t in the realistic target audience. Trying to expand that target audience is what brought a lot of the gameplay changes to Mass Effect in the first place.

    • Esteban Cuevas

      That’s a good point. Aiming for a positive general consensus usually ends up in pleasing no one. A lot of people liked the original Splinter Cell trilogy but I never did because I don’t like stealth games. Now that’s not a measure of quality but preference. Now while I do like the newest game, Conviction, I also recognize that there’s not much that separates it from most third person action titles. I know enough about the Splinter Cell series to know that Conviction doesn’t really feel like a Splinter Cell game. Now if it were a spin off title, that’s a whole other matter and I wouldn’t be opposed to that.

      If you have a solid idea that incorporates all these different ideas that just happen to appeal to a mass market, then fine. But if you’re making sure all the boxes on the general populous list are checked off, your title will be less substantial as a result. Solid point, Laymen.

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