What's the cure for gaming's High Street blues?
Flagging sales and fewer blockbusters have made it a tough year - but the outlook doesn't have to be bleak, writes Johnny Minkley
The weakness of the official UK games chart was exposed again this week, as Max Payne 3 snatched the top spot ahead of Diablo III by little more than 8,000 sales. A chart, of course, that excludes digital sales - meaning Blizzard's title was almost certainly last week's biggest seller, even though it was denied the headlines.
Not that the High Street will care either way, with retailers more likely to be sighing with relief at the success of two major new releases in a year that has so far been blighted by a sharp decline in boxed game sales.
"From January 1st to this date in 2011, 21 games enjoyed opening week boxed sales of over 50,000 units in the UK. In 2012 the total is just four"
While the industry can admire and learn from the indefatigable long-tail potential of products such as Zumba, Just Dance and Skylanders, the truth is, the launch window remains the major money-making, attention-grabbing opportunity for the vast majority of console game releases.
To put this year's problems into some perspective, consider this: from January 1st to this date in 2011, 21 games enjoyed opening week boxed sales of over 50,000 units in the UK. In 2012 - including Max Payne and Diablo - the total is just four.
Max Payne 3 enjoyed the second-best opening figures of the year, only beaten by Mass Effect 3. But while it mirrored the release date and chart position of 2011's L.A. Noire, its sales were just 37 percent of what Rockstar's previous release opened with.
I've picked 50,000 units as an arbitrary measure of success, but even if we discount that there's not a great deal to cheer on the other side of the line this year beyond solid if unspectacular launches for Prototype 2, Final Fantasy VIII-2 and Sniper Elite V2. (FIFA Street was the other 50,000-plus launch, if you were wondering).
Just as notable, if not more so, are the failures: Ninja Gaiden 3, Ridge Racer Unbounded, Kid Icarus: Uprising, Mario Party 9 and Syndicate all failed to break five figures in week one.
The arrival of new hardware, meanwhile, can usually be relied upon to give everyone a boost. And while there was great excitement surrounding the launch of PlayStation Vita, it came in well short of Sony's record-breaking expectations, and has fallen flat since.
Coupled with the painful drama of GAME Group's near-collapse, it's little wonder many in the trade are on edge. And the relatively weak performance of software in the first five months of 2012 piles even more pressure on Q4 in an already dangerously lopsided calendar. But is it all bad news?
Away from the Chart-Track rankings, Microsoft and Sony have celebrated the record-breaking digital download success of Minecraft on Xbox Live and Journey on PlayStation Network - encouraging evidence that there is big demand for brilliant, unique content on console, in whatever form it is sold.
"More than half of last year's biggest launches happened during the first five months of 2011"
But that's of little cheer to bricks-and-mortar retailers. Elsewhere, Activision's Skylanders is on track to become a $500m business by the end of the year, in no small part thanks to toy sales. So while High Street sales figures look bleak, they don't always tell the whole story. For one thing, there have been substantially fewer big-impact releases than last year, because there have been fewer big releases.
In the first five months of 2011 we had LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean, DiRT 3, LittleBigPlanet 2, Killzone 3, Pokémon Black and White, Portal 2, Crysis 2 and Dragon Age II - all hugely anticipated new entries in established franchises that reviewed and performed well.
What have we had along similar lines this year? Max Payne 3, Diablo III, Mass Effect 3 and Final Fantasy XIII-2. Beyond that, the trend for the franchise reboot has produced mixed results at best, with FIFA Street the standout success (indicative no doubt of the enormous strength of the brand), while SSX performed reasonably well. Otherwise, as noted, Kid Icarus, Syndicate and Ninja Gaiden all flopped.
So while a fear-stricken glance at this year's numbers might tempt a publisher to continue slavishly to pile all of its eggs into the already dangerously overloaded Q4 basket and hope for the best, the bigger picture suggests that the games consumers really want to play they are prepared to buy at different times of the year.
In 2011, by my reckoning based on Chart-Track data, 38 games moved in excess of 50,000 units at launch (counting Pokémon Black and White as separate titles). 21 of those released between January and May. Let me put that another way: more than half of last year's biggest launches happened during its first five months.
Granted, with the exception of L.A. Noire, none came near to the skyscraping numbers enjoyed by the year's titans, such as Call of Duty, FIFA and Battlefield. Equally, though, I'd suggest many will have performed far better than they would have if squeezed thoughtlessly into the Q4 crush.
To choose but one striking casualty of senseless Q4 positioning, take Ubisoft's Rayman Origins, a stunningly beautiful, critically-acclaimed platformer that won a BAFTA for Artistic Achievement - and which sank without a trace at launch, failing even to break the top 40. It doesn't take Mystic Meg to predict it might have had a better chance to reach the audience it deserved with an early 2012 launch and some breathing space for the marketing.
We have the same old debate every year. Too many games at Christmas. Not enough games outside of the fourth quarter. For heaven's sake, we screech, will the industry never learn? Well, for once, there are early signs that it just might.
Q4 will be as frenzied as ever, with the added attraction of the launch of Wii U - which everyone in the trade will be hoping Nintendo does a considerably more convincing job of pitching at E3 next month.
"Spreading out the current generation's remaining blockbusters should breathe new life into these ageing platforms while the likes of Vita and Wii U try to find their feet"
But look at the caliber of games scheduled for early 2013: Tomb Raider; God of War: Ascension; The Last of Us; BioShock Infinite; Crysis 3. Possibly even Grand Theft Auto V. And these are just the ones we know about. Each should be a launch to savour, to build a striking campaign around, to make a serious fuss over - and to get gamers hyped about going into a store and spending money on day one.
With successors to PS3 and Xbox 360 not expected before the end of 2013, spreading out the current generation's remaining big ticket blockbusters should also breathe new life into these ageing platforms while the likes of Vita and Wii U try to find their feet.
None of this can distract from the onerous challenges of transition all sectors of the industry are struggling with. But for retailers and publishers alike, with common sense planning, faith in product and a fair wind, there's always room for optimism.