[In Divnich Divines, EEDAR Vice President and videogame analyst Jesse Divnich traverses the bogs of sales data, hype, and good old fashioned game geekery to give you his two cents on hot topics in the game industry]
It seems to be a dilemma as old as the modern entertainment industry itself. Sequels to successful titles sell, but people get tired of them. Everyone wants new IPs to succeed and provide diversity to the gaming landscape, but when someone actually tries to do so the reward can range from success to utter failure at retail.
Meanwhile developers, publishers, and gamers alike lament the state of an innately creative industry where creative innovation is more often than not punished by consumers. But what does it actually take for a new IP to succeed?
Setting aside our personal preferences for a moment, let's take a look at the business side of things for a change. Analyst Jesse Divnich pitched in on a seemingly eternally relevant question: What does it take for an original IP to succeed at retail?
Divnich: "There are literally thousands of factors that determine whether an original IP will fail or succeed at retail, but the majority of factors can be broken down into four categories.
"One large factor I've neglected to talk about is how original IPs (whether new or existing) become successful in the first place. It all has to do with being the first to excel at taking advantage of a new technology or software feature. Every new hardware launch (or major software update) opens up new features to developers and if we look back the last 15 years, we see a pattern where the top brands of today where the first to exploit those new features successfully.
"Why did the Call of Duty series catapult in sales between Call of Duty 3 and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare? Because it was one of the first titles to take advantage of the new Xbox Live and PSN multiplayer features. Halo, the first great shooter game to bring first-person shooters to the consoles; Wii Fit, the first fitness game to take advantage of a new technology (Wii Balance Board); Guitar Hero, plastic guitar peripherals; Grand Theft Auto 3, first great 3D sand-box game; Just Dance, the first to incorporate licensed music into a rhythm based Wii game. The list can go on and on."
"A Kingdom for Keflings is another great example. In November of 2008, Microsoft updated its Xbox Live platform to allow the use of avatars inside games. By no coincidence, at the same time A Kingdom for Keflings was released, which made use of the new in-game avatar feature and despite moderate review scores (76/100) it is one of the top 20 selling XBLA games of all time. I simply have to ask myself, would A Kingdom for Keflings have been as successful without the in-game avatar feature and the marketing power Microsoft supported it with as a result? The answer, of course, is no.
"This same rule applies across all entertainment as well. Take the movie Avatar for example. If Avatar was launched today, would it have achieved similar box office success? Keeping in mind that all the other 3D titles have already launched (e.g., Piranha 3D, StreetDance 3D, Disney movies, etc.)? Of course not. What about if Avatar launched in 2009, as it did, but did not make use of 3D technology? Again, no. Avatar was successful for one reason, it was a great movie that made use of a new technology that had a high market size potential.
"For a recent presentation in San Jose on Cloud Gaming, I went back and labeled each new IP as launching early, mid or late in a technology cycle, and to no surprise, 30% of new IPs that launched early in a technology cycle were successful, 9% if launched mid and only 4% if they launched late.
Divnich's insights provide a clear picture for those of us who complain loudly whenever a new IP tries and fails at retail. But whether we like it or not, games are still entertainment products bound largely to the same business rules and practices seen in other branches of entertainment. You have your audience, your budget, and your good old marketing mix to considera alongside a wealth of other factors.
That doesn't mean there is no room for a great and original IP, however. It just means there are key factors to consider if you actually want to sell enough units to start a new franchise. If we take a look at Minecraft using Divnich's four categories, it becomes a bit clearer how it was able to become a runaway success before the game is actually finished.
Minecraft had little to no practical competition, benefited from a savvy business model that in turn created a wealth of word-of-mouth buzz that spread like wildfire, has an audience that is willing to forgive its "shortcomings" in quality (selling in alpha and beta stages) due to the enjoyment of the product in their hands -- and a promise of more to come -- and can be played properly on most PCs. Perhaps Notch didn't think of this beforehand, but his game fits the requirements for competition, marketing, quality, and market potential which can help explain how he was able to sell millions of copies of an unfinished game.
Compare that to Enslaved, which was positioned in a genre where people are less willing to forgive the slightest shortcomings, launched at a terrible time with a lot of competition from established action/adventure franchises, suffered from a lackluster marketing strategy that didn't capitalize properly on the game's strengths that set it apart, and failed at retail despite critical praise.
With these tools in hand, we can still lament and complain about a lack of original IPs because this is the Internet. But the next time a publisher, developer or studio complains about the state of the industry with regard to new IPs, while in retrospect their decisions and strategy may have doomed their previous games' success at retail from the start, we can be armed with more than just a snappy comment and a funny picture.