Having already lived under the screaming, fluorescent auspices of Black Friday deals for what feels like forever, it makes sense that the week of the main event itself would be dominated by stories about retail. Debate over digital vs. physical and the merits of heavy discounting is nothing new, but several angles have conspired to make this year's festival of consumerism a particularly notable one for the games industry, albeit not one for which there are many thanks to be given.
Continuing a trend from the last few weeks, the release of Watch Dogs 2 saw the franchise suffering a brutal drop in first week sales in comparison to its debut - a fate shared by the sequels to both Dishonored and Titanfall, and the latest Call of Duty. Despite generally excellent reviews, all of these titles have under-performed, with Ubisoft seeing an incredible 80% drop in week-one numbers for Watch Dogs.
A knock on of these plunging sales has been a relatively sudden adoption of Black Friday deals for brand-new AAA titles. Previously used largely as a way of giving catalogue games a boost, this week has seen aggressive discounting on all of the big games mentioned above, with some dipping as low as £20 within a month of release. A boon to the patient consumer, perhaps, but unlikely to please many at the teams behind the games.
Of course, this is a complex machine of many moving parts, and Ubi can't escape all of the blame - many customers are still smarting after the over-hyped original after all - but there are deeper market forces at work as well. Busy release schedules, uncertain economies and sequelitis no doubt play their part, but some of the most interesting analysis this week has been around something previously considered to be a boon for developers: games as a service.
In the UK particularly, brick and mortar retailers continue to feel the pinch of dropping sales, with boxed game sales dropping by around 16%. Nonetheless, most estimates believe the market to be holding value overall, leading to the accepted conclusion of a continuing shift to digital, even in full-price day one releases. Chris' excellent analysis of what might be happening here is understandably territory specific, but one of the key conclusions - that consumers are also spending more time and money on fewer games - seems to apply to a wider market too, something which Rob has expanded upon this morning.
Put in somewhat reductive terms, which nonetheless serves as a useful real-world example: why would you spend another £45 on Titanfall when you're still having a great time playing 4 hours of Overwatch every evening?
Long hailed as the key shift in mobile gaming, and becoming increasingly prevalent across PC and eventually console, long-tail games as a service has become the de-facto method of development and post-release support for almost anyone with a game to fit it. Whilst it's helped to build sustainable revenues for many smaller companies, from the likes of Supercell to more modest but highly successful studios like Psyonix, the approach is undeniably having an impact on the bottom lines of small teams and major franchises alike. Fighting for the same people's leisure time is a zero sum game, after all.
Even though they're apparently suffering from the effects of the model, big publishers aren't about to give it up. Infinite Warfare may be shouldering some of the burden of Overwatch's success, but at least that money is going to the same coffers at the end of the day. Although that doesn't help the CoD series directly, it's hardly in crisis, and Activision knows that it's hurting direct rival EA a lot more.
Likewise, Ubisoft is, if anything, doubling down on the pattern of long-term support, committing this week to providing even more of the content which keeps players coming back to the same titles, but including that content in the cover cost, rather than charging for it as DLC further down the line.
Elsewhere, AA games like Warframe are seeing tremendous returns from post-release engagement, seeing record concurrent user figures nearly four years after release thanks to a well-managed schedule of updates and tweaking. App Annie CMO Al Campa is predicting a similar behavoural move in mobile too, saying this week that he sees subscription gaming as a major focus for the sector.
So what are the alternatives? Reaching for new markets is a possibility, and the evidence of the effect four glossy AAA FPS games releasing within the space of a few weeks is hard to ignore, but finding and developing blue oceans is no mean feat, and a risk which most are unwilling to run in the world of triple-million dollar digit budgets. Things look no simpler from the indie end of the spectrum, either, with Spry Fox's Dan Cook running an excellent analysis on his blog last week. Looking at the pressures being felt in smaller scale development thanks to overcrowding, Cook sees a pattern at work, with a cold winter to endure before hope springs forth once more.
Time, perhaps, to start laying in some supplies.
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