There has been a lot of commotion about retail game sales being down in 2016. Excuses, valid reasons and far-fetched musings have run rampant, but there could be a few simple explanations to explain the current downturn. With the rise of digital sales, a crowded calendar amongst shooters and restrictive access to suspect titles, most of the lower than expected sales make plenty of sense.
There are four games that demand an individual spotlight on their mediocre performances, and it’s mostly a tale of the twos: Titanfall 2, Dishonored 2, Watch Dogs 2 and Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare. But before that, there’s a much obvious cause for K-Mart abandoning game sales and the remaining retailers reporting lower sales.
The rise of digital sales
PC gamers ditched the disc long ago, and now PS4 and Xbox One players are finally starting to follow suit. Aside from pesky download times, which still normally complete overnight on a horrible Australian ADSL connection, it’s considerably more user friendly. When games are installed and played from the HDD regardless, it eliminates the hassle of having to insert a disc just to verify ownership of an installed game; yes, I’m too lazy to change discs when I don’t have to, and it also solves the even bigger kerfuffle for players switching between two or more consoles.
GameStop (EB Games’ US-based parent company) announced a disappointing year at its recent financial results. Almost everything was down, predicated by lower than expected sales in October, except its digital division, which saw an increase; and this only represents existing customers that chose to buy digital codes from a retailer, when buying directly through the Xbox or PlayStation Store is more convenient.
The only negative to buying digital is the steep price. It’s hard to justify $100 for a disc-less Battlefield 1, when JB Hi-Fi only asks for $69, without the download waiting time. The odd, yet fantastic, exception is first party games from the PlayStation Store, which are always cheaper than the physical RRP. The Last Guardian will sell for $100 at EB Games, but is only $80 digitally – and this is true for all first party games on PS4. I have absolutely no idea why, and it’s barely advertised by Sony, but I wish Microsoft would do the same. Of course, the global Black Friday sales put an end to the conundrum that digital is always more expensive. Less than a month after release, Battlefield 1, Titanfall 2, Infinite Warfare, Dishonored 2 and Watch Dogs 2 are all considerably cheaper to download.
Day one sales are down because of publishers and retailers
This brings us to GameStop’s second revelation: day one and first week sales are down in 2016, and it’s not hard to see why. You could have bought Watch Dogs 2 for $100 on the PS Store last week, but today it’s just $63, or $52 from Big W (where it was $74 as a launch special price). It sure would suck if you purchased it, or any of the October or November releases you didn’t desperately need to play, before the inevitable sale period. Black Friday and Cyber Monday becoming global initiatives that we all know about should, and seemingly have harmed early sales of holiday period games. Add a decrease in early reviews into the mix and a rise in games requiring patches to fix launch issues, and retailers and publishers are doing their best to reduce launch day sales.
Less than a month after launch, the Titanfall 2 community has come and gone faster than an ill-advised tweet from EA’s marketing department. There are less than 250 players on Xbox One on the Australian servers today, and those are split between Attrition and Bounty Hunt (but I can only get into the former). There are zero players in all other modes.
It’s sad to see a great game flounder – and it’s worth playing for the campaign alone, since you certainly can’t buy it for the multiplayer now – but not unexpected. Though, nobody foresaw such a dire crash and burn. The overt explanation spouted long before launch was the glaringly obvious mistake of sandwiching it a week either side of Battlefield 1 and CoD: Infinite Warfare, the established titans of the genre. But as every episode of Air Crash Investigation has told me, there is always a combination of missteps that results in disaster.
On Xbox One, it’s one of very few games not included in EA Access. There was no early access and no 10 per cent discount, an advertised perk of the $40 per year subscription. Battlefield 1 had both just a week earlier, and benefited immensely from the pre-release exposure. Titanfall 2, by comparison, was almost silent in the media and social channels leading up to its launch. The original Titanfall was crippled by overpriced DLC, causing a sudden death for online multiplayer. EA eventually tried to revive it by offering the extra content for free, but it was too late. Respawn learnt is lesson and will make all Titanfall 2 DLC free, but it’s understandable players were apprehensive after how suddenly the original game became unplayable. Unfortunately, now it’s too late, as free DLC can’t motivate a player base that has already long departed.
On PlayStation 4, it is essentially a new franchise, and that’s a hard sell for a relative unknown with a massive “2” anchored onto its logo. The campaign is a first for both consoles, and Respawn said it was in part to introduce Titanfall to PS4 players, but it still carried connotations of being an Xbox exclusive; and perhaps that’s where it went wrong. With Call of Duty marketed as a PS4 game, Titanfall 2 having the prestige of being an Xbox/Windows exclusive could have really helped it, as it did the original release — but not in October. Titanfall 2 always had February 2017 written all over it, plain to see by everyone except EA.