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Battle of the launch line-ups: What games make for a successful console launch?

How important are first-party games? What will be the key titles for PS5 and Xbox Series X/S? We look at the data

The quality of the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series S and X launch line-ups really depend on how you look at them.

In Spider-Man: Miles Morales, Sony has probably the biggest first-party launch game in its history. Insomniac's Spider-Man game was a monster success and one of the most successful games on PlayStation 4. Coupled with the fan favourite Demon's Souls and the family-friendly Sackboy platform game, there's a number of promising first-party titles arriving at the birth of PS5.

Meanwhile, Xbox has a Game Pass collection of its best games all receiving the next-gen treatment, including Gears 5, Forza Horizon 4 and Sea of Thieves. It's one of the biggest and most varied launch line-ups we've seen so far.

Spider-Man is expected to be the big PS5 launch game

Of course, there's barely anything new in terms of first-party on Xbox, and there's not a huge breadth of third-party titles, either. And although Sony's first-party efforts are clearly more substantial, Spider-Man: Miles Morales is a smaller side-game rather than a fully fledged sequel, and the majority of these titles are coming to PS4, too.

But regardless of what Twitter thinks, what do launch customers really want from their new games consoles at launch? How important is it to have a strong first-party line-up from day one? And which third-party games should we be keeping an eye on come mid-November?

To help answer these questions we went back in time to look at the best-selling launch games over the past 20 years, with help from US data firm NPD and UK charts specialist GfK.

How important are first-party games?

For Nintendo, first-party or exclusive titles are unsurprisingly crucial to its platforms. In both the US and UK, the launch of practically all its home consoles have been driven by games built by Nintendo, with Zelda proving to be the big game at the launch of both Wii and Switch (note: Wii Sports is excluded as it was pack-in with the console).

One notable exception is the GameCube launch, which had a varied line-up and, in the UK, Star Wars: Rogue Squadron II was the biggest seller. Yet even this title was a Nintendo platform exclusive.

That doesn't mean third-parties can't find success on a Nintendo machine, although it does require more effort than a simple port. As you can see below, Ubisoft had the second best-selling game on Wii and Wii U in the US with Red Steel and ZombiU. However, once again, these were platform exclusives.

Best-selling Nintendo launch games in the US (units, month of launch) -- NPD Data

Wii Launch Wii U Launch Switch Launch
1. The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess New Super Mario Bros U The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
2. Red Steel ZombiU 1-2-Switch
3. Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz Scribblenauts Unlimited Super Bomberman R
4. Rayman Raving Rabbids Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 The Binding o Isaac: Afterbirth+
5. Call of Duty 3 Just Dance 4 Just Dance 2017
6. Madden NFL 07 NintendoLand I Am Setsuna
7. Trauma Center: Second Opinion Epic Mickey 2: The Power o Two Skylanders: Imaginators
8. Marvel: Ultimate Alliance Batman: Arkham City (Armoured Edition)
9. ExciteTruck Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed
10. Dragon Ball Z: Budokai Tenkaichi 2 Skylanders: Giants

On the other machines, the results are mixed. In the UK, exclusive games typically came out top in the charts -- FIFA 14 at the launch of Xbox One is the notable exception. Yet big third-party games featured highly, particularly titles such as Call of Duty, FIFA and Battlefield.

Best-selling Xbox launch games in the UK (units, week of launch) -- GfK Data

Xbox Launch Xbox 360 Launch Xbox One Launch
1. Halo Perfect Dark Zero FIFA 14
2. Project Gotham Racing Project Gotham Racing 3 Forza Motorsport 5
3. Dead or Alive 3 Call of Duty 2 Battlefield 4
4. Max Payne Condemned: Criminal Origins Call of Duty: Ghosts
5. Wreckless The Yakuza Missions Need for Speed: Most Wanted Dead Rising 3
6. Oddworld's Munch's Oddysee Kameo: Elements of Power Ryse: Son of Rome
7. Rallisport Challenge FIFA 06 Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag
8. Amped: Freestyle Snowboarding Quake 4 Need for Speed: Rivals
9. Mad Dash Racing King Kong Zoo Tycoon
10. Jet Set Radio Future Tiger Woods PGA Tour 06 NBA 2K14

In the US, third-party games are usually the biggest sellers at the launch of Xbox and PlayStation devices, with Halo on the first Xbox and Resistance: Fall of Man on PS3 the exceptions. Going back to PlayStation 2, the highest charting first-party game was Fantavision at No.15, with the majority of sales coming from third-parties (although most were exclusive to PlayStation at the time).

Best-selling PlayStation launch games in the US (units, month of launch) -- NPD Data

PS2 Launch PS3 Launch PS4 Launch
1. Madden NFL 01 Resistance: Fall of Man Call of Duty: Ghosts
2. Tekken Tag Tournament Madden NFL 07 Battlefield 4
3. SSX Call of Duty 3 Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag
4. Ridge Racer 5 Marvel: Ultimate Alliance Killzone: Shadow Fall
5. NHL 2001 Need for Speed: Carbon NBA 2K14
6. Smuggler's Run Tony Hawk's Project 8 Madden NFL 25
7. Midnight Club: Street Racing Ridge Racer 7 Need for Speed: Rivals
8. Summoner NBA 2K7 FIFA 14
9. TimeSplitters NBA 07 Knack
10. Armored Core 2 Tiger Woords PGA Tour 07 LEGO Marvel Super Heroes

Of course, PlayStation and Xbox's most loyal customers tend to be the first in line for a new machine, and thus first-party products aimed at these fans tend to perform well. But it's not true of all games developed by Microsoft and Sony. You'll note the best performing first-party releases all fall into the first-person shooter genre, with Resistance, Halo, Perfect Dark Zero and Killzone the standout exclusives. Whereas games like Ryse, Knack and Kameo fared less well.

Best-selling Xbox launch games in the US (units, month of launch) -- NPD Data

Xbox Launch Xbox 360 Launch Xbox One Launch
1. Halo Call of Duty 2 Call of Duty: Ghosts
2. Project Gotham Racing Madden NFL 06 Battlefield 4
3. Dead or Alive 3 Perfect Dark Zero Dead Rising 3
4. NFL Fever 2002 Need for Speed: Most Wanted Forza 5
5. Madden NFL 02 Project Gotham Racing 3 Ryse Son of Rome
6. Oddworld's Munch's Oddysee Kameo: Elements of Power Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag
7. Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2x Condemned Criminal Origins Madden NFL 25
8. NBA Life 2002 Quake 4 NBA 2K14
9. Shrek NBA Live 06 FIFA 14
10. Amped: Freestyle Snowboarding Gun Need for Speed: Rivals

Outside of Nintendo, first-party and exclusive games are key differentiators that generate interest at launch. These games tend to appeal to the early adopter, who are likely to be big fans of the brands. But as the charts show, they're not crucial, and high-end third-party products are often a bigger draw.

Does cross-gen matter?

Much has been made of the fact that PS5 and Xbox Series X/S' first games will be available across generations. Both Spider-Man: Miles Morales and the delayed Halo: Infinite will be accessible to those who own the existing PS4 and Xbox One devices. However, the data shows that this doesn't have an impact on interest in new consoles.

On Nintendo Wii and Switch, the best-selling launch games were also released on GameCube and Wii U -- The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princes and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. On PS4 and Xbox One, both Call of Duty: Ghosts and Battlefield 4 -- the two biggest US launch games -- were also released on PS3 and Xbox 360.

In fact, check out the PS4 launch chart for the UK. Only two games were not available to buy on the PS3 -- Killzone and Knack.

Best-selling PlayStation launch games in the UK (units, week of launch) -- GfK Data

PS2 Launch PS3 Launch PS4 Launch
1. Tekken Tag Tournament Resistance: Fall of Man Killzone: Shadow Fall
2. TimeSplitters Motorstorm FIFA 14
3. SSX Formula 1: Championship Edition Battlefield 4
4. FIFA 2001 Call of Duty 3 Call of Duty: Ghosts
5. Ridge Racer 5 Ridge Racer 7 Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag
6. Silent Scope Virtua Tennis 3 Need for Speed: Rivals
7. ISS Virtua Fighter 5 Knack
8. Smuggler's Run Genji: Days of the Blade LEGO Marvel Super Heroes
9. Ready 2 Rumble Boxing Round 2 Fight Night Round 3 NBA 2K14
10. Orphen: Scion of Sorcery Sonic The Hedgehog Injustice: Gods Among Us - Ultimate Edition

Launch customers want to play the latest games in the best possible way on the latest hardware. Making these games accessible to those on older devices, who perhaps can't afford or don't want to upgrade, appears to have little impact on their demand on the new consoles.

What are the key genres?

With the notable exception of the fighting genre -- Tekken Tag Tournament and Dead or Alive 3 were key launch titles for PS2 and Xbox -- two genres that dominate the launch of new consoles: shooters and racing games. For both PS3 and Xbox 360 in the UK, the entire top five for both platforms fell under those two genres.

Things are slightly more varied in the US, but not by much. In the US, the two biggest games on both PS4 and Xbox One were identical -- Call of Duty: Ghosts at No.1 and Battlefield 4 at No.2. Launch customers like to shoot things.

There are some subtle differences between the two machines in terms of popularity, however. Racing games do seem to be a little more popular among Xbox consumers, primarily thanks to exclusives such as Forza Motorsport and Project Gotham Racing. Meanwhile, single-player action games seem to do slightly better on Sony's devices. Look at the position of Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag on PS4 versus the Xbox One edition for both the UK and US.

Best line-up: Xbox Series X/S or PS5?

Unsurprisingly, PlayStation has the edge at the launch of the new consoles in terms of games. It has a number of first-party titles, whereas its competitor does not. And third-party games like Watch Dogs Legion and Assassin's Creed Valhalla seem to appeal slightly more to PlayStation's traditional fanbase.

Nevertheless, for the last two generations, Xbox's biggest launch game in the US has been a Call of Duty title. Xbox Series X/S arrives in the same week as this year's Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War, and that won't be by mistake. Racing games are also core to the Xbox audience, and the firm has signed a marketing partnership with Codemasters around Dirt 5, which has received positive media coverage so far.

However, it's worth noting that things have moved on even from the last console launch. First-party PlayStation games have become much more successful over the lifetime of the PS4, and Spider-Man was one of the standout hits. Therefore we should expect Sony-published games to perform very well at the launch of PS5.

Meanwhile, the new addition for Xbox is Game Pass. The subscription service has been seriously bolstered in recent weeks with the edition of EA's back catalogue, plus games from the recently acquired Bethesda. That's a lot of big games to play from day one, some of which make use of Xbox Series X and S' extra power and speed.

History suggests the big third-party games -- namely Call of Duty -- will be the top sellers at launch for both Microsoft and Sony. But as we've seen with the DVD player within the PlayStation 2, the online functionality of Xbox 360, and the motion controls of the Nintendo Wii, each generation tends to throw up their own unique reasons for customers to upgrade. Although it's not a single game, Game Pass may yet prove to be a major selling point for the new Xbox consoles.

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Christopher Dring avatar
Christopher Dring: Chris is a 17-year media veteran specialising in the business of video games. And, erm, Doctor Who