Putting aside Nintendo for once, what's doing good unit sales on the power consoles? Using the Gold, Platinum, Diamond sales model: Modern Warfare 2 is at 16.5 million (Platinum), way ahead of Halo 3 at 10.83 million (also Platinum) benefiting greatly from being on both consoles. Grand Theft Auto IV is at 14 million (Platinum), its knock-off Saints Row 2 on about 2.7 million. Assassin's Creed is at 8.5 million (Gold), it's sequel has already sold 6.5 million (Gold). Gears of War 2 is at 5.6 million (Gold), while Fallout 3 scrapes 5 million (Gold), while its rip-off Borderlands still manages 2 million. (What have I missed at Gold sales and above?)
Except for the FPS slice of the market, which currently supports two major titles, specific styles of play currently support just one major franchise, with a secondary franchise able to do decent business but always significantly fewer unit sales than the leading title. This begs the question as to whether the publishing community has overlooked some possible market segment possibilities for the gamer hobbyists on the power consoles.
Looking at what's currently being offered to hobbyist players:
- 2 Platinum games (Modern Warfare 2, Halo 3) offering set-pieces with multiplayer, firearm play and – in the case of the leading game – a solid reward structure (no cities).
- 1 Platinum game (GTAIV) offering cities with vehicular and firearm play, including multiplayer (no detailed reward structure).
- 2 Gold games (Assassin's Creed 1 and 2) offering cities with environmental, stealth and melee play (no firearms, no vehicles, no detailed reward structure).
- 1 Gold game (Gears of War 2) offering set-pieces with multiplayer and firearm play (no cities, no detailed reward structure).
- 1 Gold game (Fallout 3) offering a city with firearm play and detailed reward structure (no vehicles, no multiplayer).
Note that MMOs seem fairly weak as a commercial force on the power consoles – the PC owns this space, or rather, Activision-Blizzard owns the space because they own World of Warcraft, which is offering cities/wildernesses with melee and magic play, plus highly detailed reward structures, and operating in the Platinum range – the only fantasy game doing good numbers right now.
It seems that the minimum to compete at the top of this part of the market for videogames is to offer two out of three of the following:
- Cities (or cities/wildernesses – it amounts to the same thing), an expansive open world for the player to explore.
- Multiplayer (specifically online multiplayer), the opportunity to play with other players.
- Reward Structures (i.e. RPG-like mechanics), detailed progress mechanics offering continued benefits for continued play.
Halo 3 is managing to get by with just one of these key features (multiplayer), but has yielded control of this slice of the market to Modern Warfare which does offer detailed reward structures – and shrewdly, it does so in its multiplayer, recognising that this is the core of its appeal. The Assassin's Creed franchise is doing rather well for games with neither multiplayer nor detailed reward structures – it benefits from being king of the castle in environmental play, since everyone else has focussed on guns instead of swords. It's only serious competitor is Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, which offers environmental play with multiplayer, but suffers from a certain schizophrenia: the choice of firearm play puts its multiplayer mode in competition with the biggest hitters, and the absence of a city (it has set-piece play instead) weakens the appeal of its single player game. Honestly, it will be lucky if it can make it to Gold – despite the quality of the product, it's not a great fit to the current marketplace, and seriously hobbled in commercial terms by being a PS3 exclusive.
The following opportunities could be taken advantage of by the (very few) companies with the assets to compete at the top of the hobbyist marketplace. I'm not including MMO concepts – I'm not convinced it's sensible to compete with World of Warcraft on the power consoles with their comparatively small installed base versus PC. In no particular order, here are some possible market opportunities:
- Cities and reward structures with environmental and melee, magic and stealth play: basically a fantasy RPG with environmental play (clambering, platform).This is easy to attain – the templates for the play already exist – but would be competing directly against Assassin's Creed. A good license – Dungeons & Dragons or Middle Earth, for instance – could help bridge the gap. However, these licenses are being directed at the MMO space, and thus opportunities are being missed. What a shame Thieves' World has been left fallow... this would be perfect if it still had any pull. Honestly, a major publisher like EA could pick an old chestnut like this and elevate it to contender status with a decent marketing spend.
- Cities, multiplayer and reward structures with environmental and melee, magic and stealth play: this is similar to the above, but geared towards a fantasy battle game with short battles i.e. multiplayer combat modelled on the successful FPS forms, but glossed as fantasy. This one is a challenge because the template for play doesn't yet exist (the closest form is the battlegrounds in World of Warcraft), and once again a good license is probably essential. Lord of the Rings Conquest gave this a go but failed to be authentic to the license, basically adapting Pandemic's Battleground concept to fantasy as a port. Developers have to be a lot smarter if they want to crack this space
- Cities, multiplayer and reward structures with environmental and firearm play: this is what Brink is trying to offer, but it faces major challenges: environmental play essentially requires a third person view for wide appeal (look at what happened to Mirror's Edge), and firearm games are competing with the majority of big hitting franchises. It has a chance, but it could struggle to get a decent share of the market.
- Cities, multiplayer and reward structures with environmental play (and possibly stealth play) only: glossed as modern day e.g. either a free running race game, a heist game or something similar. Not convinced the marketing department of any company has the balls to make a game downplaying firearms, which is a shame because there's a genuine opportunity for a game distinguishing itself from the norm. Competing against the already successful firearm games is a losing proposition; establishing a new slice of the market should be far more appealing.
- Multiplayer and reward structures with environmental (and possibly stealth play) only: same as the above, but with set-pieces instead of expansive environments. Far cheaper to develop, this might be the sensible way to approach this opportunity – at least initially. What was learned in an initial development of this kind would make it clear whether or not an expansive city environment was needed.
- Multiplayer and reward structures with vehicular play only: technical restraints make city-based racing games largely unsuitable for multiplayer online, but there has to be an opening in the marketplace for a racing game that can push the gamers' buttons. There are plenty of existing franchises that could have a crack at this space, although anyone moving this way is going up against Gran Turismo 5,and may face an uphill struggle. Design of the multiplayer modes is probably the key factor here.
Every one of these suggestions implies game concepts without firearms – it's my claim that the firearm space is currently overcompeted, while fantasy settings, environmental play etc. are currently undercompeted – there's a rare opportunity here for a developer with the resources to aim for the top, and a publisher who can see the market for videogames as more than a race for the next me-too game.
Any of these market opportunities sound like a game you might want to play? Any of them sound like a game in production? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.