Whatever Bungie chose to do after winning back its freedom from Microsoft and downing tools on the Halo franchise, it was always going to be a big deal. Halo was more than just a successful game franchise; it was a game franchise that established an entirely new platform, turning Microsoft's Xbox into a real contender in the market. It was a franchise that made online gaming on consoles really work for the first time, driving the Xbox Live service which would serve as Microsoft's primary competitive advantage for a generation. To call the Master Chief "Microsoft's Mario" is a bit of a stretch; but he's about as close as any other present-day platform holder's characters have ever come to matching the iconic nature of Nintendo's headliner.
Halo isn't gone, of course, with 343 Studios hard at work on the next instalment in the franchise, but it was inevitable that all eyes would be upon the team that created Halo in the first place as their next title was readied for launch. Destiny is, indeed, a big deal. Just how big in financial terms is a tricky question; the supposed $500 million Activision has invested in the new IP is a piece of industry legend that's actually remarkably hard to unpick. It includes a marketing budget that's easily as big as the development budget, as you'd expect, and includes a significant amount of money for running server operations, but it's not clear how much of that money will have been spent by this week, launch week, and how much simply remains earmarked for future development, future expansions, future operations. It's a big figure that's handy for impressing upon would-be competitors the sheer clout of Activision's finances, but not so useful for those curious about the company's true investment in the project.
"Platform battles are neither won nor lost off the back of an Xbox-exclusive costume or some ads with PlayStation's logo in the corner."
The downside to Activision's decision to try to impress the world with the size of its investment is that many people questioned whether its performance could possibly live up to the expectations being set. $500 million is a lot of money to earn back; if you're relying solely on boxed sales of a single game, you'll need to sell around 20 million copies, possibly more, to make back that investment. It's a much more reasonable amount of money if it actually covers several years of life for the franchise, with expansions, sequels, DLC and whatever else providing additional revenue; still, it's a big number, and had Destiny stumbled out the gate, Activision's investors would have felt their blood run cold.
It didn't stumble. It's the most pre-ordered new IP in history and, assuming no dodginess in the figures announced thus far, sold somewhere between 5 and 8 million copies at launch (the rather broad swathe of possible figures reflecting the fact that we don't know how many of the more expensive versions of the game, with extra content, were sold). Those copies added up to a conveniently familiar figure; Destiny turned over $500 million in retail sales on day one. No need to mention the psychological importance of that figure to Activision, who had announced it in no time flat. The game is still a long way from making a return on its investment (many other companies will take a cut of that $500 million before any of it sees the inside of Activision's pockets) but for investors, a solid launch was the first vital test of the game.
Activision will be relieved, and happy, no doubt. But you know who'll be absolutely ecstatic? Sony. Destiny is a multiplatform game, with the Xbox One version reportedly stacking up very impressively alongside the PS4 version in spite of the power differential between the consoles. Nonetheless, it's Sony who will reap the benefits of Destiny; in part due to a clever alliance with Activision for the launch of the game and in part due to prevailing conditions in the industry. That Destiny, a game available for several consoles, should be the primary driver of PS4 sales through to Christmas, seems flatly strange; certainly not an outcome you'd expect from a simple marketing partnership and some relatively ordinary timed DLC on the platform. Yet that's exactly what's happening, and it's worth examining why.
Sony has said publicly that it's treating the launch of Destiny as though it were a first-party game, and has sealed up an advertising deal which means that the Xbox One version is significantly under-marketed compared to the PS4 version. Destiny features heavily in Sony's own platform marketing, and players on PlayStation are rewarded with a handful of extra items that won't unlock on Xbox until next year. Although the internal approach at Sony - treating a third-party multi-platform game as though it were a first-party launch - is an interesting and innovative way of dealing with the situation, the nuts and bolts of this deal aren't unusual. Lots of games last generation had exclusive DLC for one platform or the other; many of them were wrapped up in exclusive marketing deals with one platform or the other; some were even timed exclusives overall, as is the case with Microsoft's (slightly ill-judged, I feel) deal for the next Tomb Raider. In reality, none of those things made an enormous difference to the "console war." Somewhere in the bowels of Sony and Microsoft's marketing offices, no doubt, there is a big spreadsheet that guesstimates how many new consoles were sold off the back of deals like these, but it's not a big percentage. Platform battles are neither won nor lost off the back of an Xbox-exclusive costume or some ads with PlayStation's logo in the corner.
What's happening with Destiny right now is something quite different; Sony's marketing tie-up and DLC bonuses are giving it an extra nudge, but the real reason why Destiny is pushing PS4 is simply down to market momentum; deals struck by marketing teams, I fear, have little to do with the ultimate outcome. Destiny is exactly the kind of game, at exactly the kind of time in terms of establishing new console platforms, which builds on a winner's momentum and turns it into a landslide. That's precisely what's happening now, and I expect that console sales figures over the coming weeks will confirm that hypothesis.
"Destiny is exactly the kind of game, at exactly the kind of time in terms of establishing new console platforms, which builds on a winner's momentum and turns it into a landslide."
Quite simply, PS4 has outsold Xbox One significantly thus far - and continues to enjoy stronger purchase intentions in retail surveys than its rival, so there's still more pent-up demand for Sony's new console than Microsoft's. Along comes Destiny; a game which is absolutely best played with your friends. Indeed, there's little point to playing Destiny unless you're going to have a few friends to play it with; personally, I enjoyed the beta but haven't bought the full game, since I live 8 time zones away from most friends who are likely to play and therefore don't think I'll get much value from it. Thus, if you're thinking about getting a new console in order to hop on board with what seems to be the online gaming juggernaut of the year, your choice will naturally tend to whatever your friends have already bought. More people have bought PS4s than Xbox Ones at this point; thus, with those existing owners as a nucleus, more people will be driven to buy PS4s, in order to play friends who are existing owners.
Destiny isn't unique in this proposition; it happened quite clearly in the last console generation, too. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was the online game which most significantly pushed people to buy the console that friends already owned; it came a little later in the console generation than Destiny, but still marked a tipping point at which Microsoft's early advantage over the PS3 became self-sustaining and would not be overturned for several years. People who would otherwise have been more inclined towards the well-known PlayStation brand purchased Xbox 360s in order to play Modern Warfare with their friends online; having set up friends lists and earned achievements on Xbox Live, they then had a sense of inertia which kept them attached to Microsoft's console until the end of the generation. Many commentators said this happened because Xbox Live was simply a better online experience than PSN during that era; this was absolutely true, of course, but it wasn't the real deciding factor. A big online game favours the dominant party in the console battle and extends their lead; had PS3 been in the lead back then, players would have bought PS3s so they could play Modern Warfare with their friends, regardless of how good or bad PSN was.
That's why, while it's sensible for Sony to throw its weight behind Destiny - after all, when you have an advantage, you press it to the fullest - this is a strategy which simply wouldn't matter if PS4 wasn't already in the lead. Had Microsoft secured tons of advertising and extra DLC with Destiny, it would barely have made a dent in sales; people would still buy the PS4 version because they're vastly more likely to have PS4-owning friends to play with. Sony will be able to claim a win for their Destiny strategy when the sales figures come marching in over the coming weeks and months, but in truth, the win was already in the bag the second it became clear that Destiny would going to be a huge multiplayer game. For Microsoft, meanwhile, the bitter irony is that one of the biggest games yet for its new console is actually going to make it even harder to claw back any market share from PS4 by the end of the year.