Sales have never been a measure of quality, certainly not in the world of video games. While precious gems may sell far more than old grey rocks, there are often gems in the gaming world which are overlooked and unfortunately forgotten about. Those weathered grey rocks exist in the gaming world too, however, and sometimes those are the games which make more money than their well developed and often well received counterparts.
Shooting and driving make money. That shouldn’t be a revelation; there’s no disputing that the most popular games are generally the ones that sit your character behind the wheel or put a gun in his hand – or both, in some cases. Call of Duty covers the shooting that everyone laps up – it’s the current champion of game sales, breaking records with each subsequent release, while Gran Turismo, Need for Speed and even Mario Kart are extremely popular in the racing genre.
Grand Theft Auto combines both of these – there’s driving, shooting and a whole lot more. Perhaps, then, that’s why as a series it sits amongst the best-selling of all time, after countless Mario and Pokémon games alongside a plethora of pack-in titles such as Wii Fit, Wii Sports and even Tetris. It’s very hard to tell just exactly why games sell. Is it word of mouth? Reviews? Advertising? Brand recognition? Who knows, but could there be a direct link to quality?
Call of Duty has reached a point where it can sell by name only. The home console releases are definitely not bad games either – each title is critically acclaimed and the multiplayer is often praised as the best online gaming experience, for a good reason too – there are millions of people playing online in Call of Duty right this moment.
This goes further than sales – Call of Duty is a sustained game experience.
It’s certainly not innovation that keeps Call of Duty sitting on the throne however – recent entries into the series have seen fewer upgrades, with each entry being less of a revelation and more of a refinement. But to work out why Call of Duty is so popular, we have to look back at what kick started it all – what got the Call of Duty name into the mouth of gamers across the planet?
That revolution, that innovation lies with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare; releasing just a year or two after a new hardware generation had began, when the traction on these new consoles had really picked up, it revamped the tired World War shooter genre with a modern skin and a robust multiplayer mode, which got a lot of attention from gamers and press alike.
Out with the old and in with the new – that’s how you make money.
Well, it isn’t really.
It’s something but not quite the entire reasoning behind good sales. We can see from looking Call of Duty that what sells games is being able to produce something with mass market appeal that people want to play. And after that, it’s all about keeping the brand. Super Mario Bros. did it, with a very popular start and a revolution with Super Mario 64’s 3D world, which still managed to keep the immensely popular Mario character for a sense of familiarity unrivalled in any other game franchise.
Perhaps the best games don’t always make the most money, but Call of Duty 4 was certainly one of the most acclaimed at the time and while further instalments may not have quite lived up to Modern Warfare in some people’s eyes, the brand could – and still does – stand tall with its name in bright shining lights.
So, no, the best games don’t always sell – I think we’ve established that – but the best brands do. And that’s the reason games rake in money – it’s not dependant on the quality of the game. Right?
Rayman Origins didn't appear to make a lot of money for publisher Ubisoft.
PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale, too, should have sold well. It had the same appeal as the ever-popular Super Smash Brothers (which currently sits in the top 40 best-selling games ever), with a mash-up fighting game involving everyone’s favourite Sony characters. And it was a great game. We can attribute this one to brand confusion though, with mature characters such as Kratos steering children away and the colourful, childish visual style perhaps preventing adults from taking it seriously.
Both of these games were 9/10s in my books but didn’t sell well enough at all. Even the metacritic ratings, alongside my own reviews of Rayman Origins and PlayStation All-Stars were high, so that shows that reviews and scores don’t really sell games – people may glance at them after deciding whether they’re interested or not, but the branding has to be good enough to sell them the idea of the game in the first place.
There are also the bad games that do make a lot of money. Despite being poorly developed and badly received, the Call of Duty Vita game – Black Ops: Declassified – has still managed to sell over 630,000 units. That’s about two and a half times as much as Unit 13 – which was actually a decent shooter – has sold. And that released seven months earlier.
You can thank the branding for that. The good game didn’t sell very well, but the poor one did since no-one is talking about the Unit series but you can be sure that almost everyone who plays games has at one point uttered the words “Call of Duty”.
Unfortunately, sales do affect developers. Poor sales can mean closure, as was the case for the Unit 13 developer, Zipper Interactive. Good sales can, however, mean more money spent by the publishers, allowing developers to make more games. It’s a real shame to lose developers such as Zipper and potential good games in the process, but it’s happening everywhere. Sales might not be everything but they can certainly have drastic effects.
How do you compare sales – and quality – across platforms, then? You wouldn’t put Angry Birds – which has over a billion total downloads – on par with big console releases, would you? No, budgets and prices have to be taken into account; often games can be successful even though it may seem they haven’t sold well, such as Rayman Origins, which was obviously low-cost and Ubisoft were therefore happy with the seemingly poor sales, commissioning a sequel for release this year.
Angry Birds doesn't just make money from the popular games - the brand itself sells and is extremely popular across the world.
Good games (and bad games) don’t always sell, then, but good brands with the right amount of innovation, character appeal and, of course, advertising usually thrive in a consumer environment. There’s something to be learned from that and game publishers should take note. There’s a reason that Nintendo, Sony and at times Microsoft stick with their core exclusive franchises: Zelda sells; LittleBigPlanet sells; Halo sells.
We’ve cracked it: familiarity has to be the thing that sells!
And then – bang – that theory is shot down too by the other oddities – the games that should have no chance but still managed to sell extremely well. There are the games with no brand recognition at first – how did Mario and Zelda originally sell? How were people convinced by Metal Gear Solid or Assassin’s Creed? Not to mention Rayman and PlayStation All-Stars – why didn’t those games sell, despite the brand familiarity?
There are times when sales do reflect the quality of the game rather than how recognisable the brand is, however, although more often than not it’s simple coincidence. Take E.T. and Pac Man on the Atari 2600, for example: despite both games being part of well-known franchises, the games sold extremely poorly due to their low quality.
This led to the video game crash of 1983 and the burial of millions of copies of these games and Atari consoles in a landfill in New Mexico. Even though the brands were well known, the games sold a lot less than Atari had predicted they would; this wasn’t just a simple case of the games being poorly developed, but an over-calculation of the brand on Atari’s part.
More recent games have also sold poorly due to their quality, including the Xbox 360 title Bomberman: Act Zero; the terrible reboot only sold 40,000 copies (those poor, poor people) due to its low quality.
And now we’re back where we started. We know it isn’t the quality that always sells, we know that it isn’t always the brand factor (though that often works) and we can be confident that reviews don’t change a high percentage of people’s minds.
So, could it really just be whatever is in right now that sells?
Could it just be whatever is cool – whatever has that mass market appeal, that celebrity endorsement or that mainstream media coverage – that makes the most money?
It certainly seems that way – though there’s really no way to gauge how much money a game will bring the publisher. In fact, it’s a combination of all of these things – innovation, quality, brand recognition, advertising and, of course, how appealing something seems are all a percentage of what makes a sale.
Take Sid for example. He lives with his parents and he’s in his late teenage years. He has a cat named Chris, which is a bit weird, but more importantly he loves all things to do with games, particularly the awesome ShootDrive series (his wall is lined with posters featuring the main character, Captain John McCraig) and he’s played every game in the series to death (even those awful mobile spin-offs) so he’s a bit bored.
Sid wants to buy a new game – ShootDrive 3 – since he loved the first two, but doesn’t know if it’ll live up to the high standards that ShootDrive 2: Wheelin’ and Gunnin’ set. So he visits his favourite website – www.gamereviewsforyou.com and reads the review. 7/10. That’s decent, but what’s this DriveShoot game they’re talking about? It looks completely different from anything else Sid has ever seen, so he reads the review. Shame he and his friends haven’t seen it advertised because it looks like a great game, he reckons.
Sid knows that ShootDrive 3 is going to be good, then; while it might not reach the high standards set by its predecessor, the advert he saw during Coronation Street was pretty cool. He hasn’t heard much else about that DriveShoot game, though, other than the review (9/10, may I add) he read. So, he goes to the shop and buys ShootDrive 3 since all his friends are getting it too. He comes home and plays the game, a bit disappointed but content with the familiarity.
That’s a highly hypothetical scenario of how games make a sale: people are going to buy the established brand, much like they do with Call of Duty, rather than a new (but perhaps better) IP, although other factors do play a part in the process.
Now, that’s how games sell.
Well actually there isn’t really a specific reason why games sell. I think we’ve established (okay, we’ve definitely established) that quality and money making aren’t quite on the same wavelength; they cross over at points but there’s no set in stone algorithm – we can’t use x=(y/10) where x is sales and y is an arbitrary number assigned by a host of reviewers to work out how many copies of a game will fly off the shelves; quality will never be a way of measuring sales.
Do the best games sell the most copies then? Sometimes.
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