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Is the industry's obsession with Day One coming to an end?

Data suggests consumers may be waiting on purchases

For a long time, those first 72 hours at games retail were by far the most important.

How many units publishers managed to shift within those opening few days would go on to decide whether they had a hit on their hands or not. By the third week, prices would begin to erode, copies would end up in the pre-owned bins and consumers will have moved onto the next big thing.

That's why publishers hold such extravagant midnight launch events in cities around the globe, and aggressively incentivise pre-ordering - to get that Day One figure as high as possible.

Although the triple-A industry has long since moved into the 'games as a service' model, with recurring digital revenue becoming increasingly important, Day One and Week One are still being used as a barometer for how successful a game will be. That's why there's so much shock around the early sales figures for Titanfall 2 and Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare. In the UK, Titanfall 2's Week One sales were down by more than 75 percent compared to the original, whereas Infinite Warfare's launch numbers were almost half of 2015's Black Ops III.

Furthermore, Ubisoft has warned investors that pre-orders for the upcoming launch of Watch Dogs 2 have not been as high as it had expected. Perhaps that game may be the next one to have a lower-than-hoped first week.

Yet there's increasing evidence that those opening day (or week) numbers are not quite as crucial as they once were.

For this analysis I've used available GfK figures on how games have performed during their second week on sale in the UK. Do note, however, that this data does not include digital download numbers. Although the physical boxed market remains the dominant force for triple-A console releases, it is believed that console download sales are on the rise, and that should be taken into account when considering these figures.

To begin with, let's take a look at the early sales of Battlefield 1 and Titanfall 2.

EA's Battlefield 1 enjoyed a strong first week of sales compared to its predecessors Battlefield: Hardline and Battlefield 4. However, those comparisons are a bit misleading because Hardline is a spin-off and BF4 had a staggered release due to the arrivals of PS4 and Xbox One. Perhaps a more accurate comparison would be with 2011's Battlefield 3, and, unfortunately, Battlefield 3 was far more successful, selling around 40 percent more copies in its first week than this year's game managed.

However, whereas Battlefield 3 suffered significant falls of 54 percent (Week Two) and 62 percent (Week Three) during its subsequent weeks on shelves, Battlefield 1 sales have proven more resilient, with sales drops of 39 percent (Week Two) and 45 percent (Week Three).

In other words, Battlefield 1 is starting to catch-up on Battlefield 3, and after three weeks the gap between the two is now just 28 percent.

EA's other big shooter this year is Titanfall 2, and that has suffered a disappointing launch - hurt, in part perhaps, by its poor release timing. The game sold significantly fewer units than its predecessor did in its first week. However, whereas the first Titanfall (released in March 2014) endured a sales drop of 73 percent in its second week, Titanfall 2's drop was just 41 percent. It has a long way to go, but there's hope that the game may yet reach a decent audience.

It's entirely possibly, with the recent spate of games that have launched with too many bugs or online services that fail to work, that consumers are choosing to wait before spending their money. And it's a trend that began to emerge towards the end of last year. Assassin's Creed Syndicate performed poorly in its first week on sale in the UK, selling over a third fewer units than its predecessor (the criticised Assassin's Creed Unity). Yet Syndicate fought back. The game's second week sales fell just 39 percent (versus 62 percent for Unity) and after six months Syndicate had reduced the gap on its predecessor (although it has yet to overtake it).

A similar thing happened with Call of Duty in the UK. 2014's Advanced Warfare sold 780,000 boxed games in its first week on sale, whereas 2015's Black Ops III managed only 670,000. Yet, whereas Advanced Warfare fell away quickly, Black Ops III did not, and after a year on shelves, Black Ops III is now trending ahead of Advanced Warfare.

There are other recent examples of games that have enjoyed a strong long tail, such as the recent Doom, however, there are exceptions. Take Fallout 4, for instance, which had a huge first week at retail, but sales fell by 80 percent in its second week.

Day One and Week One is therefore clearly still very important. Even if sales do pick up for Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare and Titanfall 2, both games will be hard-pressed to surpass their predecessors now.

"Even if sales do pick up for Infinite Warfare and Titanfall 2, both games will be hard-pressed to surpass their predecessors."

Yet what we've seen at retail over the last 12 months suggests that a bad Week One does not mean it's all over for these products.

I'll leave you with this final example. Rainbow Six Siege launched last December to little fanfare, with Ubisoft cutting back its PR and marketing activity in the wake of the November Paris attacks. Its UK launch sales were small, and actually only a little better than what Titanfall 2 has managed to do so far.

Yet over the course of the last 11 months, that game has emerged as a real success story in the UK and around the world - Ubisoft now says it has over 10m registered users globally, which was unthinkable a little under a year ago.

Ubisoft supported that title with regular DLC, and was rewarded with positive word-of-mouth, which in turn inspired both YouTubers and specialist media to cover the game for months and months after launch.

It is the shining example that even if Titanfall 2 and Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare struggle to live up to the commercial performance of their previous games, they may well still lead a long and profitable life.

Latest comments (11)

James Prendergast Research Chemist A year ago
I'd argue that we've been seeing the evidence of long tails far longer than over the last 12 month period. How many times did publishers come out and say a game had not met expectations but then queitly announce 6 months later the game had recouped investment (and presumably gone on to make a modest profit)?

I can think of at least 3 or 4 in the last few years alone.... and that's with terrible releases and punishing pre-order incentives.
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Hi James.

Not meeting expectations and going on to make a profit are not mutually exclusive, but I'd love to hear which games you are thinking of, and I'll have a closer look at those sales patterns, too.
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Nick Parker Consultant A year ago
Consumers behaviour has changed. Prices erode quicker and consumers know it, so postpone purchase. With so many competing titles within similar genres, consumers prioritise the title they must have on day of release and wait until prices drop on the rest. GTAV is another example of a title that has remained in the top ten.
Digital PC and console titles enjoy much longer tails as they are never taken down from download platforms (space is not a premium) and their prices erode over time or are discounted in hyped sales periods. Digital consumers know how to play the sales game.
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Bob Johnson Studying graphics design, Northern Arizona UniversityA year ago
For me the problem with going to a new game is you have to start over back at square one. You get to experience all the early bugs again. All the missing features. The obvious imbalances. etc etc. It is difficult to go from an optimized, fairly well balanced , feature complete game that has had the benefit of 1+ years worth of patches to that day 1 game state.

It seems like this discrepancy between new game and old game is greater than ever

It is made worse because the leaps that games are making these days aren't as great as the leaps they were making back in the day.

Also there's a big learning curve that comes with a new game ..... in terms of the UI, honing your "skillz" and just knowing all the rules/nuances of the game. IT's a big time investment that seems greater than ever.

Hence why a mp game might have a longer tail these days.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Bob Johnson on 8th November 2016 3:30pm

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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing A year ago
Five years of highly predictable deep discounts during Steam sales must leave a mark at some point. Looking at Steam more specifically, one can see which dent those "major AAA releases", such as Call of Duty, have on the playerbase of Steam's two most popular games: none whatsoever.
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@Nick Parker: Although you're right, that's not a new phenomenon. Prices have always eroded quickly, ever since the explosion of pre-owned. BF3, the example I used from 2011, dropped in price by 30% six weeks after it came out during a temporary promotion.

Take Skyrim and Fallout 3. Both of those games were reduced to 25 at UK retail less than 4 weeks after it came out due to a pre-arranged sale agreement between Bethesda and GAME. But that didn't stop Fallout 4 doing the majority of its sales in one day.

Although I agree consumers are becoming increasingly wise to it, this discounting doesn't take place in week 2. Yet it's week 2 data that I've been looking at mostly.

I'd be interested to see where everything falls once a full year's sales are counted, to see if this trend is something that will develop or not,
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Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic A year ago
Take Skyrim and Fallout 3. Both of those games were reduced to 25 at UK retail less than 4 weeks after it came out due to a pre-arranged sale agreement between Bethesda and GAME. But that didn't stop Fallout 4 doing the majority of its sales in one day.
Well, one answer (out of many possible/probable) is that the market for Fallout knew what it wanted, and was intent on getting it. Bad reviews or broken code be damned, FO fans pre-ordered or picked the game up off the shelf Day 1. Once that market had been sated, Bethesda saw sales plummet... Given the FO franchise's story/mechanics/marketing, once fans had bought the game, you could argue there wasn't a large market left.

Doom, by contrast, is a standard action-horror FPS - no RPG elements, not a fanbase that loves to mod particularly, and it's easy to get into/put-down (not a time-sink). For those following the Doom franchise, it was an unknown entity right until release, and word-of-mouth since then has been nothing but good (well, except for multiplayer). And for those who didn't follow the franchise, it's a shooter - a bit of a laugh, but nothing serious.

In short, two different markets - one who wanted more of the same and knew it already, the other unsure what was coming.

Skyrim can easily be seen as something that transcended its target market/fanbase, and thus the drop from Week 1 to Week 2 was not so deep.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Morville O'Driscoll on 8th November 2016 5:55pm

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I don't disagree with that analysis at all. Bethesda games, a bit like Rockstar titles, have a strong following that inevitably leads to a strong Day One.

However, my point still stands that discounting at retail is not a new phenomenon, so I don't quite buy the idea that discounting alone is responsible for the longer tail on the High Street. As with a lot of things, it'll be a combination of factors - price, quality of experience, length of time consumers are spending in previous titles, waiting for reviews (Doom, remember, in its first week on shelves didn't have any reviews out. That happened Week 2), wanting to check the reliability of the online servers...

That, over time, seems (based on the data we have seen thus far) to have resulted in sales taking place over a long period than has previously been the case.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Christopher Dring on 8th November 2016 8:40pm

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James Prendergast Research Chemist A year ago
@Christopher. I'm trying to find quotes and news stories to back up the games I'm thinking of and it's not as easy as it would seem! Somehow these stories just get lost in google's search algorithms and I keep getting punted onto Forex sites.

Anyway, first one is Tomb Raider 2013
http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2014-01-17-tomb-raider-finally-achieved-profitability-by-the-end-of-last-year

I don't have more time before heading off this morning so will come back later tonight. :)
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A bit like Resident Evil 6, Tomb Raider is a good example of a game that actually sold very well to begin with, but just didn't meet internal projections. It was the most successful game in the franchise's history even at launch, but Square Enix had set very high targets.

Square projected the game would generate 6m unit sales in its financial year, and it didn't managed to do that until after the Definitive Editions arrived on PS4/Xbox One.

According to GfK's report at the time, Tomb Raider suffered a Week Two drop off of 72%.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Christopher Dring on 9th November 2016 8:31am

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James Prendergast Research Chemist A year ago
Fair enough, Christopher. My other examples might be like that too (assuming I ever find them!). To be fair, my original point wasn't as short a term as first or second week. We're talking about long tail here - IMO, even first to second week transition is too short a term when talking about that.
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