Titanfall is a victim of chest-beating pride
EA's decision to launch Titanfall 2 between two bigger, more established FPS franchises defies commercial sense
When former Infinity Ward bosses and Call of Duty franchise creators Jason West and Vince Zampella parted ways - acrimoniously - with Activision back in 2010, taking dozens of Infinity Ward's staff with them to a new studio with funding from Electronic Arts, it felt like a hell of a coup for EA. Under the roof at the newly founded Respawn Entertainment was the team that had essentially invented the modern military shooter genre with 2002's Medal of Honor: Allied Assault before leaving to form Infinity Ward and deliver solid, reliable updates to the genre for several years, only to then reinvent it again - and drive its sales stratospheric - with 2007's Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Few creative teams in videogames could boast the track record - both commercial and critical - of West, Zampella and their fellow developers. Bringing them back into the EA fold felt like a gauntlet being thrown down to Activision (which would respond only days later by announcing the signing of a ten-year deal with Bungie), and anticipation for Respawn's next project couldn't have been higher.
Last week, Respawn's second game launched. By some estimates, Titanfall 2 sold only a quarter of what its predecessor managed, despite launching on more platforms in a market with vastly higher installed base than existed for the original Titanfall (which was itself somewhat overshadowed by Bungie's Destiny). It's a hugely disappointing performance for a game from such an accomplished studio. While sales of the original Titanfall didn't set the world alight, the performance of Titanfall 2 - barring miraculous recovery in the next few weeks - is quite likely the death knell for the budding franchise, and the first commercial failure that West and Zampella have presided over since the turn of the millennium.
"Sandwiched in between two of the largest franchises in the FPS space, it's hard to imagine how anyone ever really thought Titanfall 2 - the first multiplatform launch for an acclaimed but thus far unproven FPS franchise - ever stood any kind of a chance"
The thing is; it's almost certainly not their fault. Titanfall 2 has actually had a pretty great critical response. Eurogamer reckons it might be the best FPS game of the year, despite tough competition; GameSpot says it's "spectacular"; Destructoid says nothing on the market can compare with its "imagination, inventiveness and flat-out spectacle"; look, you get the picture. By just about any critical measure (including very positive user reviews), Respawn delivered a really good game, maybe even a really great one. People just aren't buying it.
Why aren't they buying the game? Well, there are a couple of things that might explain a little of the weakness in its sales. You could point out that PS4 owners, who make up a thumping majority of the console market, never got a chance to play the Xbox One exclusive Titanfall, and may be wary of jumping into a franchise on its second game. Equally, the Xbox One release of the game, now a multiplatform franchise, doesn't have the same lustre or first-party marketing support it did as a major platform-exclusive pillar title; there may even be some tribalistic fans who have deserted the franchise precisely because it's gone multiplatform. Either of those things could have dampened enthusiasm for Titanfall 2 a little bit.
Neither of those things, either in isolation or together, explains why Titanfall 2's landing has been as shockingly hard as the sales figures suggest. For that, you have to turn to a more familiar culprit - release scheduling. Specifically, the mind-boggling decision to schedule Titanfall 2's launch a week before the arrival of Activision's enormously hyped Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, and only a week after EA's own Battlefield 1, two of the biggest FPS game launches of recent years. Sandwiched in between two of the largest franchises in the FPS space, it's hard to imagine how anyone ever really thought Titanfall 2 - the first multiplatform launch for an acclaimed but thus far unproven FPS franchise - ever stood any kind of a chance.
EA, for its part, is remarkably stubborn about its decision-making process, with CEO Andrew Wilson insisting that Battlefield and Titanfall address different audiences - though perhaps wisely, he didn't comment on how much overlap he thinks there is between the audience for the military science-fiction Call of Duty FPS game out this week and the military science-fiction FPS game from the former makers of Call of Duty that came out last week. Even so, his comment on Battlefield and Titanfall seems a little naive at best; the big-ticket FPS market that kicks off its annual bunfight every autumn has, if anything, focused in on an increasingly narrow range of the audience over the past four or five years. Battlefield 1 and Titanfall 2 may be set centuries apart, but the core of what players actually do in these games, and thus what motivates them to play, is practically identical, and it's madness to suggest that both of these expensive, time-consuming games could launch so close to one another without some cannibalisation of sales.
Of course, moving Titanfall 2 away from these behemoths wouldn't be as simple as scheduling it a few weeks earlier or later. Too early, and you miss the holiday sales season - which, although less important than it used to be, is still an enormous quarter for the industry. Too late and you risk hitting the market too close to Christmas and Thanksgiving, when gift purchases have already been made and, indeed, when many players are already deeply engrossed in the FPS games they bought earlier. That's why game release scheduling is tougher than movie release scheduling; you can dodge being thumped by a huge rival release in cinemas by just moving a few weeks, since cinema tickets are (relatively) cheap and movies end after a couple of hours. Games are much more expensive and can, in many instances, engross players for weeks if not months on end, souring the market for any similar title that comes along in their wake.
It used to be that this reality turned October and November into an absolute bloodbath, with major publishers launching rival titles not just within weeks of one another, but on the exact same day; a procession of AAA releases that ran for weeks through autumn, claiming fresh victims each week as major games failed at retail in the face of an onslaught of competition. Then, ludicrously, we'd have multiple months through late winter, spring and summer when almost nothing worthwhile appeared on the market; when avid consumers found themselves shuffling through the fallen corpses of the pre-Christmas massacre in the bargain bins of game retailers for want of anything new and interesting worth playing.
"Respawn Entertainment, which will likely bear the brunt of any hardship resulting from the now-uncertain status of the Titanfall franchise... likely approved of the release date for reasons that are also more to do with dick-measuring than with commercial good sense"
The very fact that we're talking about Titanfall 2's failure at all indicates that we've moved past this stage in the industry. It's not so long ago that a half dozen or more major games would share Titanfall 2's fate every Christmas; in the intervening years, many publishers have learned that people also buy and play games in February, and in May, and in August, and in all sorts of other months that they never previously paid any attention to. The scattering of much of the game release schedule around the calendar has been a boon to the whole industry, giving titles a chance to breathe, opening doors for new franchises to take root and giving platforms a steady feed of quality software.
If the industry knows this, and if it was so obvious that Titanfall 2 wasn't coming to market with the kind of advantages that would let it seriously challenge the competition, then what happened? To a large extent, what happened is all about pride. Activision has ruled the holiday FPS market for years, and EA - whose Star Wars Battlefront made a serious dent last year - wanted to prove itself the big swinging dick of that market this year. That made EA take a risk it shouldn't have taken, committing to a gamble whose risk-reward profile was completely untenable. Respawn Entertainment, which will likely bear the brunt of any hardship resulting from the now-uncertain status of the Titanfall franchise (though it's working on a Star Wars game which will hopefully keep most if not all jobs at the firm secure), likely approved of the release date for reasons that are also more to do with dick-measuring than with commercial good sense; launching a week ahead of the new SF Call of Duty game from their old studio, Infinity Ward, would be a chance to prove that they'd surpassed their old franchise and a final two fingers to the publisher who humiliatingly kicked them out of their old studio six years ago.
This isn't how good commercial decision making works; risks should be calculated and balanced against rewards, which means not taking a franchise in its infancy and flinging it against the industry's 800-pound gorilla just because you've got some vainglorious dream of proving yourself the king of the castle. The risk that EA took with its launch scheduling, all in the name of unwarranted chest-beating pride, isn't just about the fate of a game franchise, it's about people's jobs and livelihoods. Most of the industry has learned that lesson - and learned to focus on what's best for their games, not on meaningless contests with their rivals. Learning fast is an important skill; EA and Respawn are now discovering how costly revision sessions can be.