This article first appeared at Den of Geek UK.
As the days grow short and the leaves begin to drop, the autumn typically sees the games industry bring out its big guns: Activision with another Call of Duty sequel, Ubisoft with another of its Assassin’s Creed murder simulators. While 2016 saw the latter franchise take a break (Ubisoft’s concentrating on putting out its Assassin’s Creed movie instead), this autumn was business as usual: Activision launchedInfinite Warfare, EA had Titanfall 2, while Watch Dogs 2 and Dishonored 2 provided plenty of slick, big-budget action.
All of these games were, for the most part, greeted with positive reviews, and they’re all established names. Titanfall, Dishonored, and Watch Dogs may be relatively new properties, but their predecessors’ brisk sales provided a solid bedrock on which their publishers could, at least in theory, build profitable new franchises. But this autumn has seen something rather unusual happen: all these big games, each in their own way, have underperformed.
Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare was still a hit by most standards – it reportedly sold 1.8m copies in the UK in its first week alone – yet it’s sold about 50 percent fewer discs than Black Ops III did last year. Now, there are ready explanations for this: Infinite Warfare‘s sci-fi approach resulted in a backlash on YouTube, with its trailer being one of the most downvoted in the platform’s history, and Black Ops III has the advantage of its fan-favorite, recognizable title.
It’s when we look at Infinite Warfare‘s competitors that things get a bit weird. Titanfall 2, released on Oct. 28, was predicted to be a major success for EA, yet the mech shooter only managed to get to the number four spot on the UK sales charts. More worryingly, its sales were down 75 percent on its 2014 predecessor, despite the general consensus being that its action and newly-added single-player campaign resulted in a far better game overall than the first Titanfall.
Again, there are possible explanations for this: Titanfall 2 was released just one week after EA’s own Battlefield 1, and while the publisher was publically confident that the games were different enough to avoid drawing attention away from each other, having two major shooters released in quick succession may have been a bit of an own goal.
Watch Dogs 2, meanwhile, was Ubisoft’s big autumn game: another open-world hacking sim which, thanks to a high-profile marketing campaign, was difficult to avoid if you turned on the television in November. Once again, though, Watch Dogs 2‘s sales were down. Not only did it fail to dislodge Infinite Warfare from the top spot in the UK charts, but it sold a startling 80 percent fewer copies than the first Watch Dogs. It was a similar story for Dishonored 2, Bethesda’s baroque murder sim which, on paper, should have benefited from the Assassin’s Creed 2016 hiatus. Instead, it too struggled. Its sales were down 38 percent when compared to the original 2012 game.
Now, it’s worth mentioning here that none of the figures quoted here take into account digital sales – only physical, boxed copies of games. And while it’s true that downloading games from online stores has had an impact on physical sales, it still can’t entirely account for this apparent decline. Rather, what we appear to be looking at is a market where players are being offered far more than they have the time or money to consume. When you have five or six major games, all costing somewhere in the region of $40-60, it’s inevitable that some of these titles will fail to make themselves heard. With the likes of FIFA 2017 and Battlefield 1 selling well, some gamers may have simply decided to skip Dishonored 2 or Titanfall 2.
There may also be an increased caution setting in among consumers, particularly when it comes to pre-ordering games. No Man’s Sky is an example of a much-hyped game that proved to be something of a disappointment at launch. Similarly, Watch Dogs, although well reviewed, was also controversial for what appeared to be a major graphics downgrade from its E3 showing in 2014. This would certainly explain why Ubisoft was forced to announce in an earnings call that pre-orders for Watch Dogs 2 were lower than expected (“The preorders are not as high as we thought they could be,” Ubisoft boss Yves Guillemot said in early November).
Gamers also have good reason to hold off from pre-ordering new titles or queuing to buy them on the day of release: with Black Friday sales becoming an increasingly big deal in terms of gaming, there’s a growing incentive to wait and potentially save some money. This certainly proved to be the case this year, with such games as Titanfall 2 and Gears of War 4 being sold at outlets like Amazon for around 50 percent or more off their launch price. If the price of a game can tumble by nearly a half within a month of its launch, then players can benefit greatly from being patient.
Beyond those practicalities, there’s another, equally fundamental factor to consider: time. We’re moving ever further from a period where a game would keep us amused for a few days or weeks. Today, with developers regularly offering new maps, modes, and other content, we can easily spend months or years absorbed in one title. Throughout the autumn, one game in particular has made a regular appearance in the UK sales charts: the multiplayer shooter Overwatch. Blizzard’s hit was released way back in May, which might have led rival publishers to assume that it would be ancient history by the autumn months. Instead, its colorful, addictive action has left players hooked throughout the year, with its user base doubling from 10 million in June to 20 million in October.
November also saw Grand Theft Auto V make a surprising chart re-entry – pretty good going for a three-year-old game. With these games offering a steady stream of updates and months of potential entertainment (Grand Theft Auto Online continues to be a major draw), it becomes clear that publishers no longer have to consider what their competitors are putting out each autumn. They also have to start thinking about what consumers might already be absorbed in as the nights draw in, too.
All of these factors point to a changing market that the big-hitters of the industry – Activision, EA, Ubisoft – are only just beginning to understand. A few years ago, it might have made sense to punt out a big release a few weeks before Christmas and watch the profits roll in. In 2016, we’re as likely to be obsessed with a game which came out months or even years ago – Minecraft, Destiny, Overwatch, Grand Theft Auto V – as we are the next Call of Duty game coming down the line.
For publishers, releasing their biggest games in a small autumn window is beginning to look like an increasingly risky gamble – it’s worth bearing in mind that the games discussed so far often have budgets reaching into the tens of millions, with artists and designers pouring years of time and dedication into a product that lives or dies on its first month’s sales. To have a game reviewed glowingly by critics but fail to perform must be little short of soul-destroying.
For us, meanwhile, there’s an obvious silver lining: with all these games competing for our time and money, and so many of them heavily discounted in the run up to Christmas, we really are spoiled for choice.