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The Casual Players Aren't Coming to Your Party

Pacman-christmas-tree Since the Winter Festival is almost upon us, I thought it a prudent time to conduct a brief market analysis of the always fierce competition for domination during the biggest sales period of the retail year. The impression I am getting from the available data is sorry Microsoft, sorry Sony, sorry Lionhead – the casual players just aren't coming to your party.

All chart positions I'm using are based upon the UK charts for the week ending 6th December 2008: the situation in the US is slightly different (Gears of War is a major title in the States, for instance, but in Europe it's about as marginal as Resistance 2) but the same general trends remain in operation.

Let's start with Microsoft, who in the UK have spent an absolute fortune trying to pander to a casual audience which, as I've already suggested, they just can't hit right now. Microsoft have discounted their Xbox 360 now such that it's cheaper than the Wii, and have spent more money on advertising than any other platform license holder this year – I'm seeing twice as many 360 ads as I am Nintendo ads, while Sony has barely come out to bat at all this year, and is looking embarrassingly weak.

How do I know that Microsoft isn't hitting the mass market (the so-called casual players)? They launched three big-hope casual titles for the Winter sales season: Lips (karaoke), Scene It (movie quiz) and You're In The Movies (an EyeToy rip-off). Of these, only Lips makes the 360 top 10 – and that at number 9 – and although I don't know where this title is in the overall sales, it is not in the top 40 at all. I will bet many of the sales of Lips have been to gamer hobbyists who bought it in the hope that they might manage to tear themselves away from their achievement whoring long enough to invite some casual friends around.

Why can't Microsoft hit the casual market? Well there are two key reasons. The first is that the 360 has been designed to appeal to gamer hobbyists – and in doing so, it has allowed Microsoft to steal this audience from Sony in an impressive market coup. Its controller may seem adequate to players who spend a lot of their time playing videogames, but to the casual player it's a daunting device, something they don't generally want pick up, let alone buy. The second and more important reason is that vast droves of casual players have already bought Wii's and the mass market rarely spends money on two consoles in quick succession. Discounting the 360 may help Microsoft put the boot in with Sony, but the 360 just isn't a casual device, and probably never will be.

As for Sony, their casual title Singstar Abba manages to scrape the bottom of the chart at number 40, but this is on the back of PS2 sales – in fact, Sony are advertising it on television in the UK primarily as a PS2 title because they know at least that way they might see some half-decent sales figures. Conversely, their big-hope PS3 title LittleBigPlanet is at number 29 in the overall charts (number 3 in the PS3 charts), while Resistance 2 – the best selling PS3 exclusive this week - is at number 20 (number 2 in the PS3 charts) having fallen ten places. (The best selling 360 exclusive, incidentally, is Gears of War 2, five places higher at number 15).

This Winter Festival, the glory goes to Activision-Blizzard who, capitalising on their success with the previous title in the franchise, have hit the FPS jackpot again with Call of Duty: World of War. It's been in the number one slot for a whole month now. Why, you might ask, is this title selling so vigorously? Well, although it's not what you'd traditionally consider a casual game (FPS controls are far too complex for the true mass market players), the World War II implicit license is the biggest of its kind in terms of mass market appeal and if you have the most popular World War II shooter at any given time you're going to be making a lot of money with it. That many gamer hobbyists are bored of this setting just isn't anywhere near enough to hurt it. And let's not forget the new World of Warcraft expansion that was doing good business servicing the MMO addicts earlier this month. Sales of Wrath of the Lich King are now tailing off, of course – these expansions sell solely to hobbyists, so they rack up big sales only at launch.

Speaking of sales that are big at launch and then drop off, both Far Cry 2 and Fable II are doing better this week. Both hit high in the charts during their launch week, then dropped like a stone. This week, they are up a significant number of places (at 17 and 19th place this week, versus 28 and 35th place last week). What's the secret? Discounting. Both are being sold at half price already, barely a month after release. This is a sign that neither is doing as well as was hoped or expected. (Much, I imagine, as with Ubisoft's new Prince of Persia which comes in at a disappointing number 30 in its launch week. Expect cheap copies to be available soon).

Fable II, you might recall, was supposed to appeal to a casual audience – and I will say this about Lionhead's sequel, they've done a pretty good job of engineering the game with elements with hypothetical mass market appeal (the glowing trail and simple control scheme for instance). The trouble is, no-one seemed to realise that Fable II could never sell in significant numbers to a mass market audience because it's set in a fantasy world – and not even high fantasy or sword and sorcery (the popular kinds) but a kind of mock-Enlightenment setting. This never was nor never could be a casual title in the sense of hitting the sales figures Nintendo can currently command. And worse, in trying to appeal to an audience they couldn't hit, they actually alienated some of their core audience – the trail seems to have been used as an excuse for not providing adequate maps, for instance. It's perhaps the finest game to come out of Lionhead so far, but just like the corporation that owns it, namely Microsoft, it should never have been courting an audience it couldn't hit.

Is it even necessary to mention that Nintendo continues to dominate the casual market? Mario Kart Wii is at number 2, both Wii Fit and Wii Play are still in the top 10, while Brain Training is at number 4 an astonishing two and a half years after release (helped by another aggressive advertising spend this season). The only bum notes are Wii Music, which has fallen to number 21, one place ahead of the PC version of Grand Theft Auto IV in its launch week, and the new Animal Crossing which debuts at number 26, although the real test of this title is its long-term sales, which have the potential to be substantial.

Here's the most important thing to understand about the mass market for videogames: these players – the ones who aren't even remotely interested in the kind of videogames the hobbyists want to play – have very specific tastes, and when something takes off with them it continues to sell, and sell, and sell. But these players don't buy many titles – when they find the game they want, they generally just keep playing that. Great news for Nintendo, who then see that game word-of-mouthed to new casual players month after month, but bad news for everyone else who can't even get a foot in the door for this market.

So I'm afraid Microsoft, Sony and Lionhead will have to stop waiting for the casual players to arrive at their party, because they're just not coming: they're at Nintendo's party. And for now, at least, that's where they'll stay.

The opening image is a Pac-man Christmas Tree that can be seen in Madrid, Spain this year.


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Sales of Wrath of the Lich King are now tailing off, of course – these expansions sell solely to hobbyists, so they rack up big sales only at launch.

... but, far more importantly for Activision-Blizzard, they stop those hobbyists getting bored and taking their tenners a month elsewhere. Expansion sales for subscription games are, in my opinion, a red herring - the interesting figure is the number of retained customer accounts.

Peter: you are absolutely right, of course. These expansions are not aimed at retail revenue at all, but at feeding a gigantic cashcow so it can be continually milked. :)

Best wishes!

Beyond the 360 console itself being the thing that keeps casual players away from games, I think it was a lot to do with marketing. Microsoft put incredibly little effort into marketing the three games you mentioned, and rushed all three out the door. They didn't *care* as much with those games as they did for GoW2 this year, which was a big mistake. They did have a chance to tap into the casual market if they put forth a bit more effort but they chose instead to funnel their funds toward games that were sure-fire destined to sell (GoW2, Fable II). Anything else released this year got the shaft, marketing and community website-wise.

Chris: I hope you don't mind, but I appended "(Weekly Geek)" to your name to distinguish you from me.

I'm thinking you must be in the US, because here in the UK there was far more marketing effort (in terms of TV advertising) for Lips, You're In The Movies and Scene It than there was for Gears of War 2.

The advertising doubtless changes according to what channels you watch - is it possible your tastes in TV have meant you have encountered more advertising for Gears 2, and missed out on the casual advertising because you don't watch the kind of TV shows that were targeted by Microsoft as having "casual appeal"?

I would say I saw 2-3 times as many You're In The Movies ads as Gears of War 2 ads over the festive period. This might reflect my wife's choice of TV stations in part. :)

As for Fable II being "sure fire destined to sell" - it sold 2.33 million thus far. The original Fable sold 2.6 million. The sales evidence suggests it sold only to the hardcore gamers (first three weeks sales: 1 mil, 300K, 150K - classic hardcore purchasing pattern; almost everyone buys at release). I would suggest the TV advertising for Fable II did not add any significant sales to this title. Do you have a counter argument?

Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

Lil' miss here Chris: Call of Duty: World of War is in fact world AT war :)

And I wouldn't be bothered because the overall article rings pretty true but when building a general theory on market trends one should look at a wider view like a year or a few month's chart wouldn't you think ? :)

Osk: Whoops - my mistake. And yes, if it were any other month but December, I'd agree with you - but the sales for the Winter Festival have a decidedly pointed nature... Shelf space becomes premium, and stock that isn't shifting gets axed.

(For the record, I monitor the sales charts every month. I have not seen any significant improvement in the performance of any of these titles as of yet. If I turn out to be in error, I will admit my mistake, but right now I think I'm in the clear).

Thanks for commenting!

Here in the US, Lips/Movies/Scene were definitely way under-marketed. But I also think MS is playing something of a long game. They know they aren't going to seize the casual market tomorrow, but figure if they just keep pushing, they can slooooowly build up some fortifications there. And thanks to Rock Band, they at least have a toehold, so hope is not entirely lost. In the casual market, as in the Japanese market, they'll never be Nintendo, but if they can pick up some extra cash, and keep Sony from ever getting ahead anywhere, they'll sleep good at night.

TFB: thanks for your comment! I agree that Microsoft are in it for the long game - I'm just not convinced that this scattershot approach is the way to play that game. :)

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